Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Living to Read

It is disappointing that Nicholas Basbanes' column in Fine Books & Collections Magazine is not available online. If you can, take a peek at it while visiting your favorite bookstore. It is the May/June issue so don't dally. Why do I encourage you to read it? Because readers, it will make you happy. And if you are in a sappy mood you might even get moist eyes. The article is about a bookish teenager named Kirby Veitch who admits to Basbanes that he sometimes sleeps with his books. A few years ago when he was 15 he was suffering from a form of pleurisy and had to have a couple operations to drain his lungs in order to save his life. It was still touch and go and Veitch had been in so much pain from the previous surgery that he was hesitant to do it again. But then he started reciting "Jabberwocky" and could not remember all of the words. He then told the doctor, "I haven't read all the books I want to read." He agreed to the surgery. While everything was being readied, Veitch's doctor found a computer, looked up "Jabberwocky" and printed off the poem, giving it to Veitch. The boy read it before being prepped for surgery. He said it helped him not think about the possibility of dying. Just so you aren't left wondering, Veitch is 17 now and doing fine. He is a top student and waiting to hear from several colleges. He wants to be an artist and a writer. How much more touching can you get than that? In his latest book, Every Book It's Reader, Basbanes apparently writes about people for whom books have had an impact on their lives (Veitch is not included, Basbanes found out about him while doing a radio call-in show interview promoting his book). Now I'm thinking I have to read this book. Only problem is, where do I fit it in? Just when I thought my books in progress were becoming reasonable, they have burgeoned out of control again. Must learn to read in my sleep.

You've Got To See This!

Check out Tyger, a short film based on Blake's poem "The Tyger." It's a few minutes long and has a couple different download rates you can choose from depending on your connection. Go look. You won't be disappointed. (link via Wired)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Is anyone tired of hearing their co-workers talk about the Da Vinci Code movie yet? A large number of the people where I work saw it over the weekend and they were all raving about how good it was. And then of course the conversation swings round to who has read the book. When someone said she thought the character development in the novel was amazing I almost choked. I must admit I have not read the book, nor do I plan to, and I don't want anyone who has read it to think I am making fun of them or the book, but good character development is not something that usually ends up in the same sentence with Dan Brown or Da Vinci Code. I kept my mouth shut for fear of making a smart-alecky remark that would get me into trouble. This brings me (oh so cleverly) to Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller. I have not read this book either, but I recently read a review of it in the New York Review of Books from May 11th (I am very behind in my non-book reading) and it is unfortunately not online. The book sounds interesting, not because I necessarily agree with the author, but because I think it is an interesting topic of conversation. I've always been fascinated by people who are good conversationalists. I am one of those people who think of all kinds of witty and intelligent things to say after I have left the party. I am also shy in groups larger than four or five and with people I don't know very well. This does not, however, keep me from having romantic dinner party fantasies with twelve people dressed up and sitting down to an exquisitely prepared (by the cook, there has to be a cook!) five course (vegan) meal served by one or two maids who also do the dishes afterwards. This would be one of those meals that goes on for a couple of hours and everyone is talking and saying such smart things. Is it evident I have read too many 18th and 19th century novels? Part of what I love about Pride and Prejudice is the conversation. From the first time I read the book as a teenager I longed to be Elizabeth Bennett, not because she gets to marry Mr. Darcy, which admittedly is pretty cool, but because she is so good at talking. Russell Baker is the reviewer of Conversation and he writes:

Many factors unrelated to political fury are working to stop conversation, and some of them go very deep. One is the decline of the love for language and phrasemaking, which used to be as common among the plain people of America as among English majors. People incapable of taking pleasure in expressing themselves are not likely to be much good at conversation.
I'd also like to suggest that people have not been taught the art of conversation. Sitting around at a family gathering and gossiping about this aunt or that cousin or meeting a few friends for coffee and catching up with each other's lives is very different from the concept of conversation that Miller and Russell are talking about. If you haven't grown up listening to conversations, where do you learn it? I am curious to peruse the book and find out if Miller is doom and gloom or if he offers any kind of insight or suggestions on why it would be worthwhile and how one can go about improving one's skills in the art of conversation. It will be a bit of time before I get my hands on the book though. My library has only one copy, it's checked out until June 10th and there are already two holds on it. Maybe Minneapolis is about to have a conversation renaissance!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Hot Holiday Laziness

No, not that kind of hot. It's a hot (80F and only 9 a.m.) and humid (65%) Memorial Day in my neck of the woods. I am unmotivated to do anything but fight the dog and cat for access to an air conditioning vent (hooray for central air!). They like to lay right in front of them, hogging all the cool air for their furry tummies and blocking it from reaching the rest of the room. And of course they follow me around so no matter what room I go to, eventually one of them blocks the vent. I've been reading Bookforum's April/May issue and today I ask, have you read Samuel Beckett or A.M. Homes? I know it is a special Beckett year and there have been articles about him everywhere but I have not been interested until I read Salman Rushdie's essay on him (sorry, not available online) in which he encourages readers to surrender. Okay. I've seen Waiting for Godot acted on stage long ago and enjoyed it but it did not inspire me to pursue Beckett as playwright or novelist. If you have read Beckett, what book would you recommend as a good place to start? Same for A.M. Homes. For some reason I have not been interested in her work until I read the review of her new book This Book Will Save Your Life. Supposedly this book is a little different from her others according to the reviewer. If you have read Homes, should I start with her new book or try one of her others first? Your feedback and suggestions are very much appreciated.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Hate and mistrust are the children of blindness (Sir William Watson)

It's been several days since I finished reading Seeing by José Saramago. I had to put some distance between being in the book and writing about it because I found that I got emotionally involved in the story. That this involvement happened surprised me. It snuck up on me. I didn't realize it until near the end when a particular passage almost brought me to tears, not only for what it said but also because it was so beautifully written. I read the passage on my lunch break at work, fought back the tears, and somehow managed to continue my day, thinking only that I had to finish the book when I got home. And I did. And I sobbed. The writing in this book is gorgeous. It takes some work to read it since there are long sentences that contain entire conversations without paragraphs or the sorts of punctuation we've come to expect. The effect of such a style is that the story and the tension builds and builds continuously. But if you're like me, concentrating on the reading, you don't notice how involved you've become until the last 50 pages or so when the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan. But even at the end of the book when the tension is at its peak, and something happens, and you think that maybe, maybe everything will be okay but how is it going to end because you can't imagine what the ending might be, even then, with the small release, within a few pages it is ratcheted up even higher and it goes someplace totally surprising but not contrived, not inappropriate. Within the pages long paragraphs and the sentences that go on forever, are sparkling gems of insight and observation and humor that are easy to miss if one is not paying attention. Here are a few I found that I feel the need to share:

The prime minister's final flourish, Honor your country,...was ruined by a Good night that rang entirely false, but then that is the great thing about ordinary words, they are incapable of deceit. ... The most common occurrence in this world of ours, in these days of stumbling blindly forward, is to come across men and women mature in years and ripe in prosperity, who, at eighteen, were not just beaming beacons of style, but also, and perhaps above all, bold revolutionaries determined to bring down the system supported by their parents and to replace it, at last, with a fraternal paradise, but who are now equally firmly attached to convictions and practices which, having warmed up and flexed their muscles on any of the many available versions of moderate conservatism, become, in time, pure egotism of the most obscene and reactionary kind. Put less respectfully, these men and these women, standing before the mirror of their life, spit every day in the face of what they were with the sputum of what they are. ... Nowadays, having abandoned their blind obedience to the lord's orders, lightning bolts fall only where they want to, and, as has become manifest, one can clearly not count on them to lead this sinful city and caster of blank votes back to the path of righteousness. ... But that's absurd, utterly absurd, As I've learned in this job, not only are the people in government never put off by what we judge absurd, they make use of absurdities to dull consciences and to destroy reason...
Sorry for including so many, but I couldn't help it, they are all so good. Even though the book is called Seeing there is much in it about blindness. Blind is applied by different people to describe other people or groups that don't agree with the one or ones doing the describing. Blind is also deployed by the narrator who intrudes upon the story from time to time. But who is blind and who sees? No one is ever described as having sight but it is clear who those in possession of it are. It is also clear that Saramago sees pretty well himself. The book feels dangerous. Some of the characters in the book can be linked to real life people in terms of attitude and conduct. Some of the situations can be linked to real life as well. And then there are things you hope came from Saramago's imagination because they are just too horrible to make real, but because of what you know is real, you are left to wonder. I find the wondering to be unsettling. The desire to see clearly meets an equally strong desire not to see. I don't often tell people they have to read about, but I want to tell everyone to read this book. I recommend reading Blindness first, though it isn't entirely necessary, it will make what happens in Seeing all the more powerful.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

My Respect for Emerson Grows

With Emerson's sermon The Lord's Supper, my respect for him grows even more. Emerson delivered the sermon in 1832 before the Second Church in Boston of which he was pastor at the time. A few months earlier he had asked the Church for permission to discontinue administering communion because he did not believe it was Jesus' intention that "the last supper" be observed as a church ritual. This sermon lays out Emerson's arguments against the sacrament. He begins by acknowledging Christian controversy surrounding the rite, not all churches past and current, believed in practicing it in the same way and the Quakers had even given it up entirely. His point being that if it were something Christ wanted everyone to practice, he would have explicitly said so. Emerson finds no Biblical evidence for it, Luke being the only one of the "four Evangelists" to mention the words "Do this in remembrance of me." Luke wasn't even present. Emerson suggests that if it was something Jesus wanted to continue Matthew and John, who were present at the last supper, would have mentioned it. Emerson further builds on his argument by examining particular Biblical passages and explicating their meaning, all to support his argument that the church has no authority to enforce observance of the rite. Besides, Emerson wants to know, why should we perpetuate one symbolical act and neglect all others particularly the washing of feet? To Emerson this act has more textual argument for observance than the sacrament since Jesus specifically told his disciples that they ought to wash one another's feet. Emerson moves on to counter the argument that since the church administering the sacrament does no harm and sometimes even does good, why should they keep doing it? He objects to this line of reasoning on several counts. First that every time the church celebrates the rite it mistakenly gives the impression that Jesus said it should be done. Second, it produces "confusion in our views of the relation of the soul to God." In other words, the worship of God is confused with the commemoration of Christ and it is only made worse because the ritual is imposed by the church. Third, communion, however suitable it may have been back when Christianity was new, is no longer useful. As Emerson says, "to eat bread is one thing; to love the precepts of Christ and resolve to obey them is quite another." Fourth, and finally, Emerson argues, the importance ascribed to the sacrament "is not consistent with the spirit of Christianity." The importance given and the adherence to such a form even after it has been "outgrown" is "unreasonable, and it is alien to the spirit of Christ." Emerson is not against rituals in general, but the ones the church performs should be useful, should provoke pure thoughts, inspire people to performs works like Jesus, create love and virtue. The object of church rites should be "simply to make men good and wise." Therefore, institutions "should be as flexible as the wants of men." Emerson insists that it is not the form of worship that matters. What matters is the actual worshipping. Emerson's sermon made me wonder what he would think of women becoming pastors and ministers and priests? What would he think about some of those people, both men and women, being gay? And what would he think about the raging controversy of same-sex marriage? I'd like to think he'd have no problem with it, would even support it since the old forms are no longer useful as a means of worship (because it is obvious they are still useful for other reasons). "Freedom is the essence of this faith," he writes. He insists that Jesus' intention was to "redeem us from a formal religion [the Judaism of Jesus' time], and teach us to seek our well-being in the formation of the soul." At the end of this sermon Emerson declares, "it is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart." He goes on to say that since the religious community of the church has decided they wish to keep the administration of the sacrament during church service (as opposed to a meeting conducted by lay persons as Emerson alternately proposed), he resigns his office "consoled by the hope that no time and no change can deprive me of the satisfaction of pursuing and exercising its highest functions." Wow. This man had integrity. Next week's Emerson: History

Friday, May 26, 2006

Of Interest

A couple links I thought some of you might be interested in:

  • An article on the hate mail women writers receive versus what men receive. Is there a difference? It appears there is.
  • An interview with Arundhati Roy. She talks about President Bush and US politics, India and Indian politics, and what she thinks is the role of an artist during a time of war.
  • Wikibooks, open content textbooks in a variety of languages.
Have a good Friday!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Childhood Reading

Dorothy's recent post about Colette's childhood reading got me to thinking about my childhood reading. I always get envious when I read passages of authors who talk about the magic of their parents' bookshelves or about how the family sat around the dinner table talking about literature.   My family's bookshelf contained a set of Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedias, a set of children's books anthologies, The Wizard of Oz and two Dr. Seuss books, Ella's favorite, Green Eggs and Ham which belonged to my sister, and The Cat in the Hat which belonged to me.   The encyclopedias only got used for school reports. I rarely opened the anthologies because they were illustrated and some of the pictures scared me like the one of a stately Victorian family in a rowboat. There is a little girl my age dreamily dragging her hand through the water, and not far away is a very hungry alligator. The illustration terrified me because I knew what was going to happen to the little girl and I couldn't bear it. I don't even know what story it was attached to, I didn't want to know. Likewise I did not read The Wizard of Oz because it had scary pictures in it too. And I rarely read The Cat in the Hat because I was afraid of The Cat and the chaos he caused. And I thought Green Eggs and Ham was stupid. Not only did it belong to my little sister, I didn't like ham and who in their right mind would eat green eggs? They had to be rotten and rotten eggs make you sick. I did not like being sick.   My Dad was, and remains, a non-reader. The only thing I ever saw him read was the newspaper. My Mom read, but she read Harlequin Romances (now she is an avid mystery reader) and kept them hidden away in a box underneath the bed in her and my Dad's bedroom. When I was about 10 or so and home alone, I'd sneak in and look for the "dirty parts" which were quite tame by today's standards.   I was, however, always encouraged by both my parents to read. And so it came to pass that both my sister and I each had a small bookcase in our respective bedrooms that we filled with books received as gifts or paid for with allowance money.   Most of the books I read in my childhood were books like Charlotte's Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Black Stallion series, The Great Brain, Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, and every single Little House on the Prairie book. When I went ga-ga over unicorns I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet which gradually lead me into science fiction and fantasy and the Lord of the Rings. My parents didn't pay attention to what I read and so I was able to venture into teenage sex books like Judy Blume's Forever without either of them raising an eyebrow. I was also able to read "grown-up" books like Watership Down and Andromeda Strain and Brave New World. I didn't always understand what was going on and sometimes they freaked me out a little, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.   Not until high school did I read any traditional literary classics. And I loved them.   Talk of books in my house was only ever one of three kinds. My sister and I would talk about books and allow the other to borrow under threat of death if the book was hurt in any way or unreturned. Or my Mom would see me reading a book and tell me how bad it was. Like the time I was in high school and reading Wuthering Heights and enjoying it very much. She recalled that she had read it in high school and complained it was boring and she felt sorry I had to read it. The third kind of book talk usually centered around my parents, generally my Mom, complaining that I spent all of my money on books and that I read too much. That didn't stop me though and eventually I'd shoot back in that snotty way of teenagers that it was her and Dad's fault since they encouraged me to read so much when I was a kid.   And so my childhood reading was very much a hodge-podge, taking me in the direction of whatever sounded most interesting at the time. In some ways that was good, my reading was my own and it was nothing but pleasurable without any kind of pressure. No one ever told me I couldn't read a book because of its content, because I wasn't old enough, because it was too hard for me. And so my childhood laid the groundwork for being a reader who likes to read widely and who is not afraid of giving any book a try.   Still, when I read passages like the one by Colette that Dorothy posted, I can't help but wish I had had the gentle guidance of an adult over my childhood reading; an adult who would have placed Little Women in my hands one lazy summer day and then sat with me when I was finished and asked me what I thought of it, concluding "If you liked that, you'll really like this one!" and then sending me off to sit in the shade of a tree with Jane Eyre.    

And the Winner is...

Heather! Email me your address Heather and I'll put the book in the mail to you (email address to the right) Here is the list of books everyone recommended:

Thank you all for playing. I hope to have another book give away in a month or two.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Book Give Away!

As promised, it is book give away day today! I have an advanced reading copy of Monica Ali's new book Alentejo Blue. The book is due out in June and you could be the first one on your block to read it! From the back of the book:

In Alentejo blue, Ali tells the story of a village community in Portugal as it adapts to a new world. She writes from the viewpoint of expatriates, tourists, and men and women whose families have lived there for generations. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. They gather in Vasco's cafe or the new Internet place where the computers don't work. Teresa, not yet twenty, is meant to marry a suitable man from the village but wants to see the world. She worries about her younger brother, who's fallen in with Ruby Potts, the promiscuous daughter of an unseemly couple. Stanton, the English writer trying to finish his book, can't stay away from the Potts girl or her mother. With extraordinary insight and compassion, Ali introduces the struggles and longings of these characters, and their colliding, entangled lives
Since this is an advanced reading copy, it is paperback and does not have the to-be-published cover art on it. Instead, the cover has a picture of Ali and short blurbs about the book. If you would like to be entered into a drawing to win (everyone is eligible, you don't have to live in the United States), leave a comment that includes the title of your favorite book by a woman author under the age of 45. Tomorrow morning I will put everyone's name in a hat and draw the winner. Good luck!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Vote With Your Fork

I would have posted sooner but I was so close to the end of Seeing that I had to finish and then I had to have a bit of a sob over the ending and then my dog got upset and licked my tears which set me off again because of Constant, the dog of tears who was in Blindness and in this book too. I can't say more about the book right now or I will start crying again. I'll post about it in a day or two when I'm more stable. So, on the Michael Pollan. I thought the event started at 7 so rushed out the door at 6:30, arriving at 6:40 to find out it started at 7:30! I was kicking myself for being so early and went and took a seat on a folding chair with a cushion. There were four other people there ahead of me so I didn't feel lonely. I settled in to wait while reading Pollan's book. Certainly not a bad way to pass the time! When I looked up about 15 minutes later, every one of the 70 chairs was filled! I was suddenly quite glad I had gotten the time wrong and was so early. By 7:15 there were people crammed in everywhere, sitting on the floor, standing wherever they could find a place, and fanning out into the bookstore aisles between bookshelves. There must have been about 150 people, all of us surprised at the turn out. The reading actually began a few minutes early, another surprise since in my experience, these things usually start late. Pollan is a tall, lean man, tan and fit. He looks like he probably runs. He started right off by telling us we were all crazy for being there because it was so beautiful outside. Then he got to it. He describes himself as a nature writer who doesn't like to go camping so he writes about stuff close to home like gardening and food. He decided to become a food detective for Ominivore's Dilemma when he realized a few years ago just how bad America's eating disorder is. The Atkin's diet had just taken off and nearly overnight it seemed everyone believed carbs were bad. We lack a national food culture like France or Italy and what food culture we did have has been systematically dismantled. Over the last 50 years, Americans have changed the way they eat more than any group of people in the last 1,000 years. Given the Atkin's craze, Pollan decided to find out just what we should eat. And to do that, he had to look at how we eat and where our food comes from. What he thought was a simple question took him over four hundred pages to answer. The fact that it took him so many pages is also part of the point. He then read a bit from the first section of his book about industrial agriculture which is based on corn. Corn it turns out is everywhere from food additives to the wax that adds shine to the produce to the cardboard boxes the produce was shipped in to the very wallboard of the supermarket and the car you drive in to get there. After reading the passage--which he did very well and got some good laughs from the manner in which he read it--he closed the book and just started talking. Over 125,000 square miles of land in the U.S. is planted with corn. This is dangerous for everyone because if something ever happens to corn like what happened to potatoes during the Irish potato famine, we are all in big trouble. It is also bad from a nutritional standpoint. Humans are omnivores and meant to eat a large variety of food. We cannot get all of our nutrition from one source like a koala that only eats eucalyptus leaves does. Yet a large part of our diet is based on corn, even when you aren't eating corn you are eating corn. The hamburger that used to be a cow was raised on corn. Even something like a McDonald's milkshake is 70% corn. Pollan next spoke about industrial organic agriculture. He is--was--a frequent Whole Foods shopper so he went there to begin his investigation. What he found out in the end is that places like Whole Foods, while they sell organic food, are really selling a good story. He visited an organic "free range" chicken farm that sells to Whole Foods. They made him put on a haz mat suit so he wouldn't make the chickens sick. The free range farm consisted of barn after barn holding about 20,000 chickens each. Granted, they were not crammed into tiny cages, they seemed well cared for, but he wanted to know where the free range part came in. Turns out there is a door at each end of the barn that the chickens can exit into a green grassy area about the size of a front lawn. But the chickens never go outside. They are raised indoors from the very beginning and even if they wanted to go outside, they couldn't until they were five months old for fear that they would get sick. At five months they can out but having never been outside they don't want to. Then at 7 months old they are sent to slaughter. Compare that to Polyface Farm, a 100 acre farm that raises a variety of meat animals. Pollan worked on the farm for a week so he could see how it operated. He said that except for when he was trying to decipher US Farm policy, it was the hardest part of his research. Hard because of the physical labor involved. Polyface Farm grows nothing but grass. With the use of collapsable electric fencing, cattle are brought to a section of pasture to feed on the grass for a specific number of days. They are then moved and chickens are put in the section of pasture the cows were just in. The chickens eat the maggots in the cow patties and spread the manure around. After so many days the chickens are moved on, the fence is taken down and within a few weeks the grass has grown back and can be grazed again. It is highly intensive, precision farming and it works. Pollan insists industrial agriculture--even organic--is not sustainable. Both depend on huge amounts of fossil fuels and our ignorance of how food is made. But we have a choice. Pollan says we have to get out of the supermarkets and start going to farmers markets or joining CSAs. And he suggests we will have to change ourselves as eaters before the food system will change. The least healthy calories in the supermarket are the cheapest because the system subsidizes processed food. And because it is the cookies and the spaghetti-os that are cheapest, it is the poor who suffer the most, even to the point of mal-nutrition. He urged everyone who can to "vote with your fork." If you want to see what is going on with farm policy, Pollan suggested getting your information from American Farmland Trust. I've read just past the introduction in Omnivore's Dilemma and from what I've read and after hearing Pollan talk, it's going to be good.

Food For Thought

I have to go off to work today because no one has seen fit to bestow riches upon me--yet. So I'll post about Michael Pollan this evening (the event was great--a lot of food for thought). I felt very much like a dork because I took notes so I'd remember what he said. The woman sitting next to me kept looking over at what I was writing. She probably thought I was an over achieving student or something. But her attention made me self-conscious and so I started scrawling illegibly so she couldn't read it. Problem is, I'm going to have trouble reading it now. It will probably take me most of the day to decipher everything. Did I mention how much of a dork I am?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Links and a Look Ahead

I am going to hear Michael Pollan read and talk about his new book The Omnivore's Dilemma tonight. I'll report back on both the author and what he says tomorrow. In the mean time, here are a few places to direct your attention:

  • The George Plimpton Haiku Competition sponsored by The Plimpton Project and to be judged by Billy Collins, David Lehman, and Denise Duhamel. You could win $200! The haiku should in some way be inspired by George Plimpton and must follow the 5/7/5 syllable rule. Submission deadline is September 15, 2006. Multiple submissions are accepted but each is judged on its own. Email your submissions to toby at plimptonproject dot org. Good luck!
  • Looking for a neglected book or something good to read that no one else, or hardly anyone else, is reading? Then Neglected Books is the place for you. Check it out. You can even suggest a neglected book from your own list.
  • Beth Quittman of the Book of the Day blog is gathering nominations from bloggers to create an alternate list to the one recently released by the New York Times (I know I should link to it but so many others have, I can't bring myself to do it too). Nominations can be made until the end of May.
  • For your book shopping needs there is Fetch Books. Type in a title and it will search out the best price for you for new or used books.
And something else to look forward to this week--a book giveaway! That will probably be on Wednesday. I have to think of what you'll need to do to enter. I'm not even going to tell you what book it is until then. I will tell you though that it won't be published until June. How's that for a teaser?

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Emerson's The Transcendentalist is the fourth in a series of eight lectures that he delivered at the Masonic Temple in Boston over the winter of 1841-42. In it Emerson explains what a transcendentalist is and is not. I love all the nature stuff, but when I get right down to it, I find the transcendental philosophy troublesome. Emerson begins by saying that there are two classes of people, materialists and idealists. As he has mentioned before, materialists are sensualists, experience and what can be perceived by the senses is the basis of their philosophy. This, for the transcendentalists, distastefully ties the materialists to Locke and the Unitarian church. The transcendentalists are idealists and do not believe in the senses but in a consciousness that transcends the merely physical to a spiritual state. This transcendence is achieved through an individual's intuition, not through established religious doctrines. The transcendental philosophy is based a good deal on Kant with a hefty dose of English Romanticism tossed in for flavor. I understand the aversion to materialism. An absolute reliance on the senses can get you into trouble. Seeing may be believing but the senses can be fooled. But I am even more bothered for some reason by the transcendentalist's absolute reliance on the individual whose

experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, an necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.
So much relative subjectivity verges on solipsism. Also an issue for me is the transcendentalist's view of society. They reject society and its injustices which is fine. But instead of working toward fixing them, they prefer to set themselves apart in solitude, to retreat to the woods or the farm and rely upon themselves for their needs. Therefore,
what you call your fundamental institutions, your great and holy causes, seem to them great abuses, and, when nearly seen, paltry matters. Each 'cause' as it is called--day Abolition, Temperance, say Calvinism, or Unitarianism--becomes speedily a little shop, where the article, let it have been at first never so subtle and ethereal, is now made up into portable and convenient cakes, and retailed in small quantities to suit purchasers.
I have no problem with the critique, it is often valid. What troubles me is the complete withdrawal of any effort to change things for the better. Emerson also criticizes the "general course of living, and the daily employments of men" as having not much virtue. I agree that there is much individual compromise in daily living within society. But instead of turning their great minds to improving conditions for all, to turning work into something meaningful where the individual is not continually forced to compromise integrity, the transcendentalist either does not work, or removes himself from society entirely. Obviously, my philosophy does not match up with transcendentalism. I believe in charity and working to change the injustices of society for everyone's benefit. As much as I would sometimes love to withdraw to a farm to create my own little world, I tend to believe it a rather irresponsible thing to do. When Emerson declares that society "has its duties in reference to this class" of idealistic transcendentalists, I almost choked. They have no duty to society, Emerson even acknowledges they are bad citizens, but society has a duty to them? Such howlers are the things people come up with when they spend too much time in their heads with their intuition and not enough time in the empirical world. Is there no balance possible? Must it always be one or the other? Next week's Emerson is a sermon: "The Lord's Supper"

Saturday, May 20, 2006

There's No Place Like a Library

The Minneapolis Central LIbrary Grand Opening was a big success. People, people everywhere and quite a lot of them actually checking out armloads of materials. They must have had a long list they've been keeping for the last three years too. I just went to look today, it didn't make sense to try to wrangle my way through the throngs. It's a beautiful place. It has a Dunn BookwormBrothers Coffee shop for the java fix and a "gift" shop of which my Bookman and I availed ourselves. He found a Mary Oliver poetry book and we each got a t-shirt. Mine has Borges' library loving quote on it: "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." My Bookman's shirt says: "If a public library is doing its job, it has something in it that offends every single person." And I couldn't resist the bookworm earrings. Cesar Pelli's design is gorgeous both outside and inside. There is an atrium that runs down the middle of the place. Atrium Windows are everywhere and it feels so light and airy. The atrium is open all the way up Looking Up with balconies and chairs and tables. Looking down from the top is dizzying. There are 38 miles of books and from the looks of it, there is open shelf space for more. One of the niftiest things was in the areas where the general stacks are housed. The shelves are on tracks and all push together to allow for more shelves. When you find the row you want, you push a button and the shelves move apart, making an aisle. The volunteer assured us that the shelves will not go back together if a person is standing in the aisle so of course we had to test it. While the volunteer was showing us how the buttons worked and the shelves started moving back together, my Bookman bravely jumped between them. The shelves almost immediately stopped moving. I'm sure my Bookman will be hard pressed to forgive me for saying that I was hoping they would keep moving until they had almost squished him because I was envisioning all kinds of library action-adventure scenarios with the moving bookshelves. I would have taken a picture, but my camera batteries died. I did get a picture of the entrance to the special collections room. Special CollectionsThat's my Bookman holding the door. The room itself wasn't all that interesting. But in the corner was an old card catalog. Card CatalogWhile kids in the room went to the computers, nearly every adult exclaimed, "A card catalog!" and stood grinning at it from a distance, or like me, went up and touched it and opened the drawers. I don't know what it is about a card catalog, but seeing it made me happy. All the city's politicians were there yucking it up of course. As much as I wanted to give the mayor and a few other of the city's officials a kick in the pants (I was close enough several times, I could have done it), it was a special day and I didn't want to ruin it with me getting sent off to jail on misdemeanor assault charges. We could have stayed all day, but it was getting more and more crowded so we departed for the metro rail station a block away and got to ride free because we have city library cards. It's easier to request books over the internet and pick them up at my branch library, but I'd really love to go back downtown some Saturday and spend a few quiet hours browsing around and reading in a chair by a sunny window, enjoying the third largest per capita collection of books in the country. If you are interested in seeing more pictures of the library, old and new, folks are tagging them at Flickr

Grand Opening

I'm so excited! Today is the grand opening of the new Central Library. Emerson will happen tomorrow. But come back later anyway. There will be pictures!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Good for a Chuckle

I was reading Kelly Link's story "The Hortlak" last night and had my funnybone tickled by this:

The zombies were like Canadians, in that they looked enough like real people at first, to fool you. But when you looked closer, you saw they were from some other place, where things were different: where even the same things, the things that went on everywhere, were just a little bit different.
Hee hee. If you are Canadian, you are welcome to make a gentle joke about Americans or even Minnesotans in return.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

On Shaky Ground

Reading Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World was a scary learning experience. The book itself was not scary. What was scary was constantly remembering the 6.7 Northridge earthquake. Every now and then Winchester or one of his sources would say something that would bring the memories back in a flood. What I remember most is the noise so whenever Winchester would mention the sound of the earth moving, I'd get chills. One particular passage sums it all up nicely:

The terrible roar filled the ears and seemed to fill the mind and heart, dazing perception, arresting thought and, for a few panting breaths, or while you held your breath in dreadful anticipation of immediate and cruel death, you felt that life had already past and waited for the end, as a victim with his head on the block awaits the fall of the uplifted ax.
Now, granted, a 6.7 is not the estimated 8.2 of the 1906 San Francisco quake, but I did expect at any moment for my apartment roof to fall in on me. It didn't. But I can never forget the noise or the terror of it. Putting that aside, the book isn't just about the San Francisco earthquake. It is also about geology and why there are things like earthquakes in the first place. Winchester takes the reader through the very formation of the continents. I was surprised to learn that the knowledge of plate tectonics has only been around since the 1960s. From the world picture he narrows his focus bit by bit to the United State and then to California. It was in his discussion of California geology that I learned the most. I grew up in CA so you'd think I'd know most of this stuff but I was pleasantly surprised. Finally Winchester focuses on San Francisco, the earthquake and its aftermath (you can see video footage of it here). The city, and many others in CA are built right on top of the San Andreas fault. He drives home again and again that the fault will slip like it did in 1906. It will be big. It will be devastating. We humans are very silly creatures to believe otherwise. But having grown up in CA, hearing year after year the Big One will come, and when year after year nothing happens, I understand how easy it is to believe the geologists don't know what they are talking about. But the stress is building up and there is a 62 percent probability that an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or larger will occur in San Francisco before 2032. By the end of the book I was smugly telling myself how smart I am to have moved to Minnesota where there are no earthquakes. I am safe. But it turns out no one is safe from the movement of the earth's plates. The plates float on a sea of magma and there are places on the crust that are thinner than others. There are volcanoes. There is Yellowstone. I recall a childhood family camping trip to Yellowstone. Along with the mountains, moose, and waterfalls we saw Old Faithful and, it seemed, just about every mudpot in the park. The park people tell you how hot the bubbling stink is, warn you to be careful and not fall in. So of course, my Dad had to hold me over the edge, laughing while I screamed. Ha. Ha. Anyway, Winchester says that on purely statistical grounds, Yellowstone, which is already one of the biggest explosive "volcanic complexes" on dry land, is ready to erupt at any time. If, or perhaps when, the eruption happens huge areas of the western states will be covered in volcano guts. The wind blows my direction from Yellowstone so no doubt, we'll be sucking up ash and who knows what else here. I've got most of Wyoming and all of South Dakota to protect my lovely state from the worst of it, but no matter how you look at it, a supervolcanic eruption is not going to be pretty for anyone. After reading this book I can no longer fool myself into thinking there is anywhere on earth that is absolutely safe to live. To consider the continents as we know them to be stable places, to expect them to always be shaped the way they are and for them to always be at the same longitude and latitude is delusional. Rocks are not solid. If you are prone to fits of paranoia, do not read this book. However, if you love disater movies, this is a read for you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Universal Library

Thanks to my sister for sending me the link to Scan This Book!, a New York Times Magazine article by Kevin Kelly. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend it. The article both excited and scared me. First the exciting part. Imagine having access to a Universal Library that contains every book, every song, every work of art ever created. Now imagine the Universal Library not as static PDF files, but as dynamic pages:

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic amateurs have written and cross-referenced an entire online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. Buoyed by this success, many nerds believe that a billion readers can reliably weave together the pages of old books, one hyperlink at a time. Those with a passion for a special subject, obscure author or favorite book will, over time, link up its important parts. Multiply that simple generous act by millions of readers, and the universal library can be integrated in full, by fans for fans.
And it doesn't stop there:
Once a book has been integrated into the new expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books. For instance, today a serious nonfiction book will usually have a bibliography and some kind of footnotes. When books are deeply linked, you'll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book's bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.
That is pretty cool in and of itself. Think of how delightfully lost you could get reading Shakespeare. That is reading on a personal level. Now imagine what can be done with all the tags and bookmarks:
When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book.
Granted, there will be lots of worthless junk, marginalia like "dumb" or "funny" are useless. But what about good marginalia? The kind that argues with the text or offers deeper insight? I can imagine marginalia on marginalia, an entire virtual conversation bigger than a blog but also complimentary. The idea of the Universal Library reminds me a bit about a device in Cloud Atlas, the sony. In case you haven't read the book, a sony is a handheld device on which you can access everything--books, news, music--you name it. But at the same time I think of this, I also worry about censorship and access, a problem even in the analog world. Digitize everything and access is granted to those who can afford it. And blanket censorship becomes easier. Your device is registered in China? You are not allowed to see anything that questions the official government line. Your device is registered in the United States? You are not allowed to access anything that is published by a country or group the government decides has ties to terrorism. It can be done. It is being done already. And of course there are also copyright issues that need to be solved. Kelly sees the argument as a war between business models--the old copyright method where it is the copy that is valuable vs. the new where it is the text that has value. I can see his point. I think part of what is making the old vs the new more challenging is that no one has really figured out how the new way is going to make money. How are publishers going to be paid for the work they do? Will they disappear? How are artists going to earn a living for their work when it is scanned and free for everyone? Various methods are being attempted, but nothing is settled. So the publishers dig in their heels and authors cry foul. And I don't think the solutions are as simple as Kelly makes them seem:
Search opens up creations. It promotes the civic nature of publishing. Having searchable works is good for culture. It is so good, in fact, that we can now state a new covenant: Copyrights must be counterbalanced by copyduties. In exchange for public protection of a work's copies (what we call copyright), a creator has an obligation to allow that work to be searched. No search, no copyright. As a song, movie, novel or poem is searched, the potential connections it radiates seep into society in a much deeper way than the simple publication of a duplicated copy ever could.
Making copyright hinge on allowing a work's digitization is rather drastic and verges on draconian in my opinion. I'm sure there is a solution somewhere, it's finding it that will be painful. Kelly's optimism about digitization is infectious. But when he declares the paper book will eventually go away, that's going too far. Maybe it will go away someday as each successive generation becomes more and more comfortable reading on screen. But I hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime. I am analog enough (or maybe just paranoid) that I worry about what would happen if the the internet was destroyed whether by people or sun spots or simply our own hubris. What if I have no electricity to run my reading device? It all becomes useless and my digital library is unreadable. What then? I cannot conceive of a time when paper libraries do not exist and I don't want to.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In Which I Somehow Manage to Contain Myself While Writing About My Favorite Poet

Today is the 77th birthday of my favorite poet, Adrienne Rich. Why is she my favorite? Because she is complicated. Because she never takes the easy way out. Because she believes in the power of words and poetry. Because she searches for what is true within and without. Because she believes in people and the commonalities that bind us together no matter where we are from. She tends to write complex poems that have multiple parts, each successive part building on the one that came before. This makes her difficult to quote. However, I have found a short poem she wrote in 2002 that, while it isn't her best or even most representative, it gives you a flavor. From her book The School Among the Ruins, I give you:

Variations on Lines from a Canadian Poet I needed a genre for the times I go phantom. I needed a genre to rampage Liberty, haunt the foul freedom of silence. I needed a genre to pry loose Liberty from an impacted marriage with the soil. I needed a genre to gloss me ancestress' complicity...
--Lisa Robertson, XEclogue (1993)
I need a gloss for the silence implicit in my legacy for phantom Liberty standing bridal at my harbor I need a gauze to slow the hemorrhaging of my history I need an ancestor complicit in my undercover prying I need soil that whirls and spirals upward somewhere else I need dustbowl, sand dune, dustdevils for roots I need the border-crossing eye of a tornado I need an ancestor fleeing into Canada to rampage freedom there or keep fleeing to keep on fleeing or invent a genre to distemper ideology
I love all of Rich's books, but I am most attached to one of her older ones, The Dream of a Common Language. She also writes fantastic prose which I highly recommend particularly Blood, Bread, and Poetry as well as What is Found There and Arts of the Possible. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Books Are Important

I received Heifer International's news magazine in the mail yesterday. I don't usually think of Heifer International and books as having any kind of relationship, but there is a connection. Read to Feed is a program run by Heifer International to promote literacy worldwide. It encourages kids to read more while at the same time, through sponsored reading and education, raises money and awareness about issues of poverty and hunger. With the money the kids raise, they then get to choose their donation--a cow, some chickens, milk goats, etc. Not long ago, Read to Feed had an essay contest. The topic: "If I Had Million Dollars." The winning essay by Monicah, an eight-year-old third grader from Maine, is called "Books Are Important." I tried to find Monicah's essay online but couldn't, so here is the first paragraph:

If I had a million dollars I would buy books and open a bookshop called "Books Build Dreams." Reading is important because it builds dreams, imagination, and helps kids set more goals. It also helps kids become leaders. Every child would get one free book a month. On their birthday they could get two books and a bookmark. This free book a month would let them learn something new and have fun at the same time.
Monicah, if you ever get your million dollars, give me a call. I'd love to come help out at your bookshop.


I am the Splash du Jour at Bookpuddle today. Cipriano makes me sound so smart and witty. Go check it out!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Book Hunting on a Rainy Day

My Bookman and I are in the midst of an at home vacation. Since we couldn't go book shopping in Hay, we went book shopping at Half Price Books. Not quite the same thing but we aren't going to quibble. We each managed to walk out with a stack of books. Here are mine:

  • Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England's Oldest Continuously Lived-In House by Sarah Messer. Because I find things like this fascinating and because John told me to.
  • Emerson Among the Eccentrics by Carlos Baker. This has been on the shelf at the bookstore since October 2005. I have quibbled about it since then because it is a little worn around the edges. But about a month ago when I was going to purchase a new copy with some birthday funds, I found out it is out of print. I have fretted since then that next time I go to Half Price Books, it would not be there. But it was. And now I am happy. As I read Emerson I can read about his life and all of his weirdo eccentric friends.
  • The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. Because I've read and thoroughly enjoyed How Proust Can Change Your Life and Art of Travel, and because Jeff was swooning over him not long ago, making me want to read more, and because the copy I got is a mint condition hardcover.
  • Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse by Sven Birkerts. I have not read The Gutenberg Elegies and I have heard of this book so I thought I'd give it a go and see if it is more than gloomy end of books as we know it reading.
  • The Pope's Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk. I got this because I heard it was good, and from the description, it sounds as though it might be true. I already own Lempiere's Dictionary, a long ago purchase from the Book-of-the-Month Club which I have, nonetheless not read. But I want to. Maybe at last I will get to it.
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. I was not looking for this book. It jumped off the shelf at me though and I brought it home because Susan liked it so much and posted so many beautiful quotes from it.
Hours and hours of reading ahead of me. Right now I am zipping my way through to the end of Crack in the Edge of the World so I can then concentrate all my attention on Seeing and then on Magic for Beginners. That's the trouble with having too many good books going at the same time.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Emerson among the Pharisees

Today Emerson made me cheer while I read An Address. "An Address" was delivered to the senior class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838. Emerson was invited to speak by the senior class. What he said was so objectionable to the school officials that Emerson was not invited back to Harvard again for almost 30 years. Emerson's address is a harsh critique of Christianity and the church as we know it. What made me cheer was not his critique, though I found myself nodding my head in agreement, but the fact that he had the chutzpah to do it at Harvard Divinity School. Emerson accuses the historical practice of Christianity of falling into two errors. The first is that it "corrupts all attempts to communicate religion." Instead of being about the soul, it dwells "with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus." Emerson believes that "the soul knows no persons." To turn the divinity of the soul into a ritual surrounding one man with the aim to "convert a man by miracles" is a profanation of the soul. Jesus' "holy thoughts" serve us and it is the thoughts and what they teach we should focus on, not the man himself. He believes that God cannot be "received at second hand," but only through intuition. One soul cannot instruct another, only provoke it. Everyone must find what is true within themselves and not take someone else's word for it. This is possible because everyone has a divine nature, not just one or two people. Jesus tried to tell us this, that "God incarnates himself in man." According to Emerson, what Jesus was really saying was:

I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.
But this doctrine and Jesus' memory has been distorted nearly from the beginning. The second error into which the church has fallen is that "the Moral Nature, that Law of laws whose revelations introduce greatness--yea, God himself--into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead." Emerson declares the soul is not preached and that the job of a preacher is to express the moral sentiment in application to life. He complains "the prayers and even dogmas of our church are like the zodiac of Denderah and the astronomical monuments of the Hindoos, wholly insulated from anything now extant in the life and business of the people." Because of these errors, Christianity is waning, faith is in danger. Emerson admonishes the senior class to "go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of me, and dare to love God without mediator or veil." He urges them not to be imitators, because imitators are doomed to "hopeless mediocrity." He exhorts them to cast off conformity, to aim higher than "common degrees of merit," to remember that "all men have sublime thoughts." I find Emerson's beliefs to be hopeful and full of life. He believes in an innate goodness in people that cannot help but expand if it is only fostered and encouraged. While he acknowledges "the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions," he sees that they have no "epical integrity" and are fragmentary. For Emerson, "faith should blend with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of nature." And looking out at all of the perennials I bought yesterday that are sitting on my deck waiting to be planted when the rain stops, and imaging how beautiful the garden will be, I am inclined to agree. I don't think I have done justice to Emerson's "Address." I have no words that I can use to convey to you just how beautiful his writing is or how brave he was to say the things he did. I realize that even today what Emerson said over 100 years ago would be challenged by any number of church leaders and Christians. But I can't help thinking maybe Emerson was onto something, especially when he writes that in the two errors he had spoken of he finds
the causes of a decaying church and a wasting unbelief. And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple to haunt the senate or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when men die we do not mention them.
Next week's Emerson: "The Transcendentalist"

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The President Addresses the Citizens

In Seeing, the government has placed the capital city under siege and then left. The president addresses the capital and the nation from its new location in a nearby city:

You are to blame, yes, you are the ones who have ignominiously rejected national concord in favor of the tortuous road of subversion and indiscipline and in favor of the most perverse and diabolical challenge to the legitimate power of the state even known in the history of nations. Do not find fault with us, find fault rather with yourselves, not with those who spoke in my name, I am referring, of course, to the government, who again and again asked you, nay begged and implored you to abandon your wicked obstinacy, whose ultimate meaning, despite the enormous investigatory efforts set in train by the state authorities, remains to this day impenetrable.
He goes on to threaten the city, to tell them they will be consumed by violence and chaos until
the day when the armed forces who, along with myself and the national government, today decided to abandon you to your chosen fate, are obliged to return to liberate you from the monsters you yourselves engendered. All your suffering will have been futile, all your stubbornness in vain, and then you will understand, too late, that rights only exist fully in the words in which they are expressed and on the piece of paper in which they are recorded, whether in the form of a constitution, a law or a regulation, you will understand and one hopes, be convinced, that their wrong or unthinking application will convulse the most firmly established society, you will understand, at last, that simple common sense tells us to take them as a mere symbol of what could be, but never as possible, concrete reality.
This gave me chills.


Blogs are great, blah blah blah. Why, when there is an article about blogs is it always about political blogs? Why is it that when the democratizing nature of blogs is mentioned it is always political blogs? Why does the press make it seem like there are political blogs and then everything else? And why is the everything else often implied to be drivel? Why is news about blogs that are not political confined to the book pages, the tech pages, etc? Why am I surprised?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

This Waffle Needs Syrup

I am such a dork. I mentioned my book periodical dilemma recently. When I wrote it I was fully planning on sending in the subscription card to the TLS. But then I got to thinking, a very dangerous thing, and decided I was being utterly ridiculous. I was determined to free myself from the tyranny of the periodicals. I would not buy anymore and I would let my NY Review of Books subscription lapse in the fall. I would only keep Bookforum and Rain Taxi. Between those and reading blogs, I would be in no need of anything else. I even tossed my TLS subscription card into the recycle bin. I felt good. Then on Sunday I got a brilliant idea. Instead of packing a heavy book in my bike bag for work, I'd start taking the much lighter book reviews. That's how I will have enough time to read them all. I'm a genius! I even dug through the recycling before it got put out and removed the TLS card. But I felt naughty for doing it and couldn't bring myself to actually write a check. I've been taking Bookforum to work with me. I read a great article about Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman. For various reasons it took me three days of lunch breaks to read the whole article. Clearly the lunch time plan is not going to work. The TLS card has once again returned to the recycle bin. If I'm not careful I'm going to have to change the books in my little logo to waffles.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


The great thing about books is that you don't have to be monogamous. You can have flings and serious affairs and deep and lasting relationships with as many books as you want to. You can love indiscriminately and not be charged with adultery or polygamy (though some might accuse you of bad taste). You can even be an adult who enjoys children's books and not have to worry about them being "jail bait." Nor do you have to explain why polyamory isn't due to an inability to commit. On Saturday I declared I am falling in love with Emerson. Today I have completely fallen for José Saramago. I am only on page 67 of Seeing, but I am head over heels. The only other book of Saramago's I have read is Blindness. I read it five years ago, enjoyed it immensely and still think about it sometimes. The scene at the apartment when they are out on the balcony, bathing in the rain haunts me. That and how hard it must have been for the woman who could see. She alone had to bear witness to it all. Apparently she is in Seeing as well, though she has not yet made an appearance. What is so affecting about Seeing is how real it is. The citizens cast their blank votes and the politicians refuse to understand what it means. They send out spies to find out who is behind all of it. They bring people in for questioning and they are "detained" in order to "help" with the "investigation." And the news media, not wishing to offend anyone, manages to report on the situation without reporting anything and then can't figure out why no one reads the newspaper anymore. The realism of the novel is making me "see" real life event even more clearly. What sent me over the edge in love, is the recent Guardian interview with Saramago. I want to quote it all, from the description of his library to his thoughts on politics and art. But I can't do that, so be sure to read it. I will, however, quote what he says about novels:

I think the novel is not so much a literary genre, but a literary space, like a sea that is filled by many rivers. The novel receives streams of science, philosophy, poetry and contains all of these; it's not simply telling a story.
I like that. I like the idea of a novel being "like a sea that is filled by many rivers." Before I go off to read, here are a couple more Saramago links:
  • His autobiography for the Nobel Prize folks
  • Wikipedia article that includes a full bibliography
  • If you have any other interesting Saramago links or tidbits, I'd be glad to hear about them.

    Monday, May 08, 2006

    I Love a Parade

    The May Day Parade yesterday was wonderful. The pre-parade people watching was half the fun. I had an artist sitting in my section of the parade route and after the street had been closed off he chalked "Welcome May Day" in big graffiti-fat letters in the middle of the street. Then he ran around giving everyone pieces of chalk to color in the words. The kids who got chalk started their own drawings, but the adults went to work. There was even a man wearing what looked like his church clothes--nice button down long-sleeve oxford and dress pants--squatting in the street joyfully  coloring  in the "Y" of "May."   Directly across from where I sat was a man in his mid  to late twenties blissfully tapping out a rhythm on his bongo drum. Arrayed in front of him on a blanket were several pieces of mystical artwork for sale. From time to time he would stop playing his drum and sit chanting or meditating. The only people who stopped to chat were young women. When one would approach his "I'm far away in Nirvana" look would instantly turn into a "I'm a gentle, wise soul interested in your enlightenment" look. And it worked. He only sold one or two pictures but I wonder how many phone numbers he got?   The parade was filled with puppets and creatively costumed people and music. It is amazing how good a troop of people with 5-gallon buckets turned into drums sounds. And the trombone players (no there weren't 76 of them and a few trumpets were sprinkled in) were great as was the New Orleans style jazz band that got everyone singing "You Are My Sunshine." Most of the musical groups were mixed adults and children and the kids kept up remarkably well.     But one of the best parts of the parade was the book people. Cardboard, paint and string have to be three of the world's greatest inventions. The book people made giant books. Some wore their book sandwich board style over their shoulders, others had them on wagons or carts. People without books were dressed as fictional characters. One person carried a sign with a list of banned and challenged books on it. And other people passed out bookmarks with Ben Franklin on them to the kids in the crowd. The book people chanted "read more books!" and tried to get the crowd to chant along. But the crowd didn't go for it. Maybe they were, like me, too busy trying to read all the signs and book covers walking by.   The book armada concluded with the indomitable knight, Don Quixote, ensconced on a cart between the Picasso painted covers of his giant book, dressed in a mish-mash of armor, and pushed by his faithful servant Sancho Panza. Since I sat at the end of the parade route, it was obvious Sancho was getting tired. But the knight goaded Sancho on by yelling appropriately G-rated encouragement. I hope that the compassionate Don Quixote bought the worn out Sancho a beer afterwards.

    Sunday, May 07, 2006

    Playing Hooky

    I'm off the breakfast at Seward Cafe with my Bookman and friends. And then on to the May Day Parade. Unlike the parade in Russia which involves the military, our shindig is decidedly anti-military. Our parade is unashamedly liberal with a pagan raucousness. The whole thing culminates in a ceremony in which the Sun Flotilla paddles the Sun across the lake to reawakened the sleeping Tree of Life. Have good day everyone!

    Saturday, May 06, 2006

    To Be a Scholar

    I am falling in love with Emerson. Maybe it veers more towards glowing admiration than actual love, but "The American Scholar" made me weak in the knees. I do not wonder why it was received with such enthusiasm when he delivered it as the Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1837. There is so much quotable material here that you might just want to go read the whole thing yourself. Emerson believes in the idea of one soul animating all men; the multitude striving to the One; e pluribus unum. But in the address he mourns that "the state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters--a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things." Emerson sees the function of the scholar as one of reunification. The scholar is to strive to become a Man Thinking rather than a "mere thinker," or worse, a parrot of other's thoughts. The three main sources of education for the scholar are nature, books, and action. Nature:

    What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find--so entire, so boundless.
    The scholar is to classify nature, to see the connections between and among objects and in so doing, learn the laws of nature which are also the laws of the human mind. Books
    I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human minds can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet
    Emerson believes the right use of books is to inspire. All too often the scholar reveres the book itself instead of the truth it contains. Turning a book into a sacred object keeps anyone from questioning the veracity of its contents. We must take from books only what we find to be true, everything else is worthless even if it was written by Plato or Shakespeare. I am so guilty. I tend to believe books are sacred. But Emerson is right. It is not the object of the book, but what it contains, the ideas and thoughts, that truly matter. But it is also impossible to separate the ideas in the book from the book when censorship rears its ugly head. When Hitler burned books, he wasn't doing it to destroy the books; it was a symbolic act of the destruction of the actual ideas. Now I'm thinking my sensibility of the book as sacred is different than Emerson's. I believe a book's sanctity is based on its representation as a symbol of ideas. The book can exist in any form (think the "living books" at the end of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) as long as it exists. I'm just working this out as I type so there is probably a huge hole in my argument somewhere, but it feels right somehow. Action
    The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.
    Thinking is only half the equation. To be a Man Thinking requires action. Action and thought feed each other. Thought is nothing unless there is action; action is nothing unless there is thought. Life is raw material; life is a resource; "life is our dictionary." Once the scholar has attained an education, he has a duty to fulfill: "to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances." The scholar is the "world's eye" and the "world's heart." But times are hard. The scholar is scoffed at. The world and people are divided. It is so easy to tread "the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religions of society" instead of creating something new. It is easy to be a "bug," or "spawn," easy to be part of "the mass" and "the herd." Or almost as worse, to be a hero or poet, half self-actualized, content to be worshiped by the bugs, spawns, masses, and herds. Greatness and power for its own sake are pointless and destructive for everyone. Times have not changed much, and I wonder if Emerson's remedy for the ills he saw then is still valid:
    If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. Patience--patience; with the shades of all the good and great for company; and for solace the perspective of your own infinite life; and for work the study and the communication of principles, the making those instincts prevalent, the conversion of the world.
    Is it patience that is lacking these days, or a critical mass of People Thinking? I worry that it is the latter. Next week's Emerson: "An Address"

    To miracles, the possible, and what is true

    I had to share today's Writer's Almanac poem in case you didn't hear it on the radio or don't get the daily email:

    Small Fundamental Essay by Hayden Carruth What many people fail to understand about the art and science of mechanics is that you may know perfectly what happens under the hood of your car when you turn on the ignition, and you may comprehend to a nicety how the combination of pump and pressure tank and heating coils produces hot water when you turn the tap, and yet the wonder never ceases. That this can be —and is—is what bestirs the mind and heart. Ours is a faith that never starts a war nor rips a living child from its warm womb, a faith that needs no ghastly hierophant hung dead upon a cross to speak for us. It is faith in the miracle of the possible, faith in the peaceful knowledge of what is true.

    Friday, May 05, 2006

    Happy Cinco de Mayo!

    And Happy Sweet 16 Kamir! Kamir in the sun I couldn't resist posting a shameless pet picture in honor of my cat's birthday today. This is my diabetic kitty who needs insulin injections twice a day and who, because of his special needs, kept me from going on vacation to Wales this spring. He's a curmudgeonly old cuss but I love him anyway. Have a good Friday everyone!

    Thursday, May 04, 2006

    Reading Report

    Oy, what a day! The best thing that happened was the wind into which I had to ride my bike on the way to work, was behind me on my way home. Zoom! Though I almost crashed into a tree when I whipped my head around because I thought someone was walking their cat in the park. But it was only a long haired dachshund. Must remember to be more careful at higher windblown speeds. I have nothing insightful to offer today, yet I still feel compelled to post something. So I am going to inflict upon you the list of books I am now reading. Yes, that's books. Plural. Because my plan to focus on reading only two books at a time a couple weeks ago was ruined by my voices, my current reads have blossomed out of control. And when the new Central Library opens in three weeks and releases its holdings for check out, things will get even worse. I have a list. A long list. And I must get them delivered to my branch library before the system runs out of money and I have to drive who knows where to check out books. I'm thinking of the future here. But that is not yet. At this moment I have bookmarks in:

    • Clarissa. Still. This has stalled but I am not going to give up.
    • The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. This too has stalled. But I also refuse to give up on it because I enjoy it when I actually bother to pick it up. So why haven't I finished it? It's so much work and requires concentration, and lately I've not been in the mood for either.
    • Beyond the Promised Land by David Noble. It's a small book and I can only read it in little bits because it gets my thoughts supercharged. But I am about two-thirds through it so maybe I will make a push this weekend and see how close I can come to finishing it.
    • A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester. I am enjoying this book very much. It isn't just about the San Francisco earthquake. It's about the formation of the earth and geology and why there are earthquakes in the first place. Fascinating stuff. Really.
    • Seeing by Jose Saramago. I haven't gotten far, but oh, this man can write!
    • The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 3. I read Volume 2 last year and Volume 1 a year or two before that and I meant to get to Volume 3 sometime this year. But, inspired by Dorothy, I'm getting to it now. This book is a few minutes before bed book so will take many delightful months to get through.
    • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. The library got it to me faster than I expected. I took it to work with me today but only got to read one page because my lunch was interrupted by someone's computer crisis and someone from the phone company making an unexpected appearance. But even though I only got to read one page, I am hooked and very much looking forward to reading another page.
    That makes seven--seven!--books I consider myself reading at the moment. I had better go read one now since they aren't going to read themselves (that's something my Dad used to say to me when I was a kid, only it usually went like this instead: you had better go clean your room because it's not going to clean itself. I like my version better)

    The Slaves Pick a New Book

    The Slaves of Golconda have finished Owen Wister's The Virginian. Sylvia has a round up of links in case you missed something. She has also been handed the reins (sorry, I just can't escape the metaphors of the range) for the next Slave mining expedition. We will be reading Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. As a bonus, at the suggestion of Susan, we're also each reading another Spark book for comparison. Spark has a large oeuvre so we are all trying to choose a different book. Sylvia is keeping track of them in her sidebar if you want to peek at who is reading what. Yours truly will be taking on A Far Cry from Kensington. Everyone is welcome to read along and join the discussion which is scheduled for June 30th.

    Wednesday, May 03, 2006

    Looking for Balance

    I'm having a little dilemma. I just got a subscription card from the TLS for a fantastic rate. I love the TLS, had a subscription to it last year but let it lapse in December because the renewal rate was significantly higher than the initial subscription rate. Seeing as how I like the TLS so much, what's the problem you ask? Well, since December I have subscribed to the New York Review of Books, Rain Taxi, and Bookforum. Even though I like the TLS much more than the NYRB, do I add it into the already full mix? My Bookman and sister say go for it. And for a little while I was giddy at the prospect. But then practical me started asking giddy me if I had finally gone insane. I get the NYRB every other week, Rain Taxi four times a year, and Bookforum 5 times a year. The TLS is weekly. Giddy me said I could handle it. Practical me forced giddy me to look in the basket by the bed where I keep my current book reviews and magazines. Giddy me cringed. What's there? Two NYRBs, a Rain Taxi, a Bookforum, two Paris Reviews, a Granta and a Yale Review. Practical me said, you're going to read the TLS when exactly? Giddy me wasn't so giddy anymore. What's more important, reading about new books or actually reading books? That's a no brainer. But I know my will is weak. Which means against my better judgment (assuming I had any to begin with), I am going to eventually give in and end up subscribing to the TLS again. And when it begins arriving in my mailbox I am going to freak out and worry about having the time to read them. Now I know I am not the only one in Bibliophileland who reads the book periodicals. So the question is, how do you balance your reading? Or are you caught in the same dilemma I am? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Among the Clouds

    I've been talking about reading it long enough, and I have finally finished David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The book has received glowing reviews and now I know why. The novel is composed of six separate narratives with different characters in different times. But we only get to read one of the stories, the sixth, in an uninterrupted entirety. All of the others are broken in two, sometimes abruptly, and are picked up again in reverse order on the other side of the sixth story. The book is as one of the characters, Robert Frobisher, describes the musical sextet he is composing, his "sextet for overlapping voices:"

    piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late.
    The effects are cumulative (cumulus?). In the first half it isn't clear how the voices are connected. There are glimpses to be sure, but nothing to hold onto with any confidence. It was a risky thing for Mitchell to do. If the reader does not trust the author or is not engaged by the various narratives and the various mysteries they present, it would be easy to give up on the book. But Mitchell amply rewards the reader who does not give up. In the second half of the book, all becomes gradually clear. This gradual revelation produces an exhilarating and frightening vision, intensified by the way it creeps into the reader's consciousness. I like the way I am not hit over the head with the point of the book. I like the low key and at times subtle way in which it is handled. Mitchell makes some humorous comments on literature and fiction, some of them, like what I quoted above, veiled, some not, and some self-referential. The best place for these is the narrative of Timothy Cavendish, an editor and publisher of dubious morals. Here are two of my favorites:
    As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory. I make no apology, however, for (re)starting my own narrative with my version of that shocking affair.
    Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don't, will is pitted against will. "Admire me, for I am a metaphor."
    I like that last bit, makes me laugh every time. The writing in the book is sumptuous, but its richness does not weigh it down, it also floats, like a cloud. The only thing I regret about this book is that I read it in such a slow and choppy manner. As a result, when I got to the second half I had to work harder to remember the first half of the book. This is a book that needs the reader's attention, and deserves it.

    Monday, May 01, 2006

    Monday Musing

    Today at lunch I read more of Crack in the Edge of the World. I learned that 1906 was a very bad seismic year. On January 31st of that year there was a huge earthquake off the coast of Ecuador that created a giant tsunami whose waves traveled as far as Honolulu and San Diego. The earthquake's magnitude is estimated at between 8.4 and 8.8. Sixteen days after that, there was a large earthquake near the Caribbean island on St. Lucia followed by two to three weeks of aftershocks. Five days after that, there was a sizable earthquake struck Shemakha in the Caucasus mountains. Four weeks later on March 17th, there was a devastating earthquake in Taiwan that killed over 1,200 people, injured 2,000 and destroyed at least 9,000 homes. And if that wasn't enough, on April 6th, Mount Vesuvius erupted and kept going for ten days. Then, on April 18th, came the San Francisco quake. And in August the city of Valparaiso, Chile was struck by an estimated 8.3 quake that killed approximately 20,000. Yikes! 1906 was definitely a bad year for quite a few people. Making a big change of subject...Depending on your view of the English language, you may or may not get a chuckle from the Guardian article about how "Ancient English cliches and expressions are being mangled by the culture of cut and paste and the spread of unchecked writing on the internet." I got a chuckle. I love it when the purists fret over how English is degrading. You'd think by the way they talk the civilized world is about to end--again. In non-bookish news, in case you haven't heard, the free flow of information that makes the internet the internet is being threatened by the U.S. government and telecommunications companies who want to turn the internet into a series of toll-roads. Be sure to follow the link at the end of the article to sign a petition for "net neutrality."