Monday, July 31, 2006

One Book

Sylvia has tagged me with the one book meme.

  1. One book that changed your life. The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich. I read this book of poetry in college and it was a mind expanding experience. The book snapped me out of my naive idea that language was neutral and it was only the people using language that had issues. Ha! since we create language, that language is filled with all kinds of cultural baggage. After reading this book I felt like I had awoken from a long sleep.
  2. One book that you've read more than once. Pride and Prejudice. Does this need to be explained?
  3. One book you'd want on a desert island. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. They contain the world.
  4. One book that made you laugh. Great Expectations. I love Mr. Wemmick and his eccentric, simple ways.
  5. One book that made you cry. The Time Traveler's Wife. As soon as I realized what was going to happen I was a goner. On a scale of one to ten hankies, it rates a ten for me.
  6. One book that you wish had been written. Whatever book was knocking around in Virginia Woolf's imagination before she killed herself.
  7. One book that you wish had never been written. The Exorcist because then it wouldn't have been made into a movie that scares the s--- out of me just thinking about it.
  8. One book you're currently reading. Swann's Way
  9. One book you've been meaning to read. Looking around at my piles of books-in-waiting my gaze lands first on Kafka on the Shore
  10. Now tag five people. Dorothy, Ella, Iliana, AC, Heather

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Of Tigers and the Soul

Reading Emerson's essay The Over-Soul in light of Margaret Atwood's interview on Faith and Reason last night allowed me a whole new approach. Atwood calls herself a strict agnostic. To her that means the only thing that can be called knowledge is something that can be proven, everything else is belief. Because God cannot be proved or disproved, God is belief. Moyers asked her if she could get rid of that thing in humans that desires a god, would she? She, in an apparent avoidance of the question, started talking about Yann Martel's novel The Life of Pi (wonderful book if you haven't read it). She said at the end the insurance investigators tell Pi that his story could not have happened. Pi says to them that it didn't matter if they believed him or not, what he wants to know is do they like his story better with or without the tiger. The investigators decide they like the tiger story better. Moyers asked Atwood if she believed in the soul. Her answer was that she likes the story with the tiger in it better. What does any of this have to do with Emerson? Instead of feeling like I am battling with The Mind of Emerson, I read the essay as a story Emerson is telling about the soul. Turns out, it's a pretty good story; a radical story that even today people who call themselves Christians would have problems with. In case you don't know it, let me see if I can sum it up. There's this over-soul which is pretty much God's soul, and everything is part of the over-soul. Everyone and everything has the over-soul within it. As humans, all we see are pieces of the world. Because we cannot see the whole, we make the mistake of believing the pieces are It. But they are not. Everything funnels back to the over-soul which unites all the pieces:

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.
And here Emerson becomes very similar to eastern religions. Because the soul is timeless, there is no past or future, only now. Instead of waiting for our reward in heaven when we die, we can have it now. To get it, all we have to do is submit our will to the soul, our individual soul, which is also the over-soul. When we do that we reach a sort of nirvana where we can see the whole instead of the pieces:
Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul. The simplest person who in his integrity worships God, becomes God.
That is a pretty darn good story. What makes it even better is that it appeals to both the individual sense and the communal sense. The individual is to follow no authority, but find his way to God on his own; a very Protestant, personal relationship with God. But in uniting with God in the over-soul we lose ourselves as individuals:
The heart in thee is the heart in all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one.
Because of this unity, everyone, no matter race, class, or gender, is part of the whole. Hurt yourself, you hurt everyone; hurt someone else, you hurt yourself too. A good version of the story that we as humans have been telling and retelling probably since we learned how to tell stories. Emerson's story isn't perfect. There are things in it that I don't like such as the exclusion of women. But since it is a story, I, we, have the power to revise it. And while I would put myself in the agnostic camp with Margaret Atwood, I too, like the story with the tiger in it better. Next week's Emerson: Circles

Friday, July 28, 2006

Melty Brain

We are heading to 100 degrees here today. Already it is over 80 and miserably humid. I can feel my brain turning to mush as I type. I hope to post something substantial later today. I have been thinking about writers and illness and how it affects what they write, in particular in relation to Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust (sorry I seem to be so stuck on them lately but I can't help it). Litlove had an interesting post yesterday on the role of the human muse in an artist's work and I wonder if illness can also be viewed as a sort of muse? To help my pondering, I read Woolf's essay On Being Ill in which Woolf leaves me with the impression that illness can be a source of inspiration. And while I know her illnesses were anything but romantic, she manages in the essay to impart a romantic air to it, her way, perhaps, of coping. These are kernels of thoughts and half-thoughts and if the heat doesn't completely melt my brain I will attempt later to put them into more complete thoughts. If you are looking for something to do tonight, on Bill Moyer's PBS show Faith and Reason, he is interviewing Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis. That is sure to be a worthwhile hour.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

In Search of a Few Good Books

In conjunction with reading In Search of Lost Time I am also reading books about Proust or other people's experiences with Proust. I recently read Edmund White's little Penguin Lives biography of Proust. I've posted a few interesting tidbits over at Involuntary Memory like Proust's literary influences. But I also wanted to mention the book here. If you have read Proust or are just interested in him as a person, White's book is a great place to start. It is short and covers the highlights and is very accessible even for a person who has not read Proust. Plus, in the back , White has a few pages of annotated bibliography to point readers in the direction of books that offer further depth; like the end-all be-all biography by Tadie which is almost 1,000 pages long. I'll be getting my hands on that one eventually. The only problem I had with White is that he put a lot of emphasis on Proust's homosexuality. He even admits a few times that this or that expert would not agree with his emphasis but I am not satisfied that White proved it was as important as all his talk about it seems to imply. Nonetheless, White is a good writer and I am interested in reading other books by him. Has anyone read White before and can make a recommendation? On a related note, I've noticed that I have been reading quite a few modernist writers lately--Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Bryher--and I find them all engaging. I know after much discussion over at Of Books and Bicycles that some people like to classify literary periods and others don't. I don't like rigid classifications, but I think a descriptive classing of periods can be useful in studying dominant ideas. Which leads me to my next question. Do any of you brilliant minds out there have any suggestions on some good books to read about modernism as it plays out in literature?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Stepping Toward Truth

After my post of yesterday I settled in for some Proust reading and came upon a passage that could not have been more timely:

If my parents had allowed me, when I was reading a book, to go visit the region described, I would have believed I was taking an invaluable step forward in the conquest of truth.
This passage comes toward the end of a long meditation on reading of which I am still teasing out the ideas Proust sets forth and which I hope to be able to put together some coherent thoughts on soon. But back to the passage. The narrator thinks that he would be taking a step toward truth because he would be taking a step from an inner world to an outer one. When we step into the outer world, we create experiences, the book is no longer in our intellect only. And of course, from experience we make associations and connections and memories which deepen the experience both of living and of reading and reveals to us truths about ourselves and the world. I can't say that my forays into Turkish delight and madeleines would qualify as steps forward in the conquest of truth, but they are memories that I will always associate with the reading of the books they belong to. And you bet your biffy I am going to make it a point when I get an opportunity to travel to read books that describe the region I'm visiting. One thing I do know for sure, Proust is permeating my life right now. It is kind of creepy but in a fun way. I can't wait to see where he turns up next.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bringing a Piece of Literature to Life

Over the weekend my Bookman, who also happens to be the household cook and a darn good one at that, created a vegan madeleine recipe and whipped up a batch in spite of it being the kind of weather you don't want to turn your oven on in. He did it for me so I could fulfill my desire to taste something similar to Proust's madeleine and have a real life connection to a fictional story. I say "similar" because I know that when you remove animal products from a recipe it doesn't taste the same. This doesn't mean it tastes bad, far from it, just not the same. If there are any other Proust reading vegans out there who want to try a madeleine, here is the recipe:

2 “eggs” (I use about 1/2 c potato starch and 1T baking powder and 2 T coconut oil) ¼ c water ½ t vanilla extract ½ t lemon zest 1 c powdered sugar 1 1/3 c pastry flour ½ c vegan margarine, melted and cooled Mix "eggs", water, vanilla and lemon zest with a whisk. Gradually beat in powdered sugar until thick and creamy. Fold flour into "egg" mixture by fourths, then fold in the margarine. Drop teaspoon sized dollops onto greased and floured cookie sheets. Do not make these too large, they will fall apart when cooled. Bake at 375° for 8-10 minutes until edges are golden and top springs back. Cool on cookie sheet for about a minute. Transfer to rack. Dip tips in melted vegan chocolate if desired, or dust with powdered sugar.
We are not a gourmet household and do not have any shell-shaped molds for a traditional looking madeleine. We just plopped dollops of dough on a cookie sheet. We made them too big, however, so if you are making this recipe and also do not have a mold, use small dollops. We also found them to be crumbly so next time we plan on trying silken tofu instead of "eggs." But they were tasty, the lemon zest imparts a nice tang.   The madeleines remind me how much fun it is to experience something from a book. Last year my Bookman and I were listening to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on audio and happened to be eating Turkish delight at the same time Edmund was chowing down on his from the White Queen. That was fun.   I have never done it, but I have always imagined reading a book or poem in the place it is associated with would be a special experience. Like someday I'd like to read Thoreau's Walden Pond while sitting and looking at Walden Pond. It would be great to read Emily Dickinson while standing in her room. Or Proust while standing in his cork-lined bedroom (ideally I'd get to lay on his bed but I'd probably find myself out on the street before I opened the cover of the book).   I'm not the only one to have thought about this. When we were planning our trip to Wales that didn't work out, we considered visiting Tintern Abbey and reading Wordsworth's poem there but the guidebook warned it was overrun with tourists. I am tempted to go there someday anyway just to see if the tourists are standing around rapturously reading "Tintern Abbey" or if they are there just because it's famous. Then there is The Women's Press in St Paul that has been offering book group trips to places like New Mexico, Alaska and even New Zealand for several years now. I've heard they are quite popular.   Even though I felt sort of weird and geeky wanting to try a madeline so badly and pestering my Bookman to make them for me, I am also giddy that I had one while reading Proust. Have you, reader, ever done something like this to bring a piece of literature to life? And if you haven't, do you dream of one day doing it?  

Monday, July 24, 2006

My Short Story Journey Begins

In an effort to widen my horizons and understand better what short stories are all about, in addition to Kate's monthly story discussion, the first being Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog, I have undertaken additional story reading on my own. Every Sunday I plan on reading at least one short story. Yesterday I managed two. Virginia Woolf's story "Phyllis and Rosamond", is the story of two sisters of marriageable age. Phyllis is the eldest and has already received several proposals which she has turned down. Her parents have given her six months to find a husband. The sisters are artists of the drawing room and Woolf makes it clear this is not by choice. They have been raised to it, it is their job the end result of which is a husband. But the sisters manage to end up at a bohemian type party where the girl who invited them an artist in the traditional sense. The sisters feel entirely out of their element, they sit silent and make everyone else uncomfortable. But the experience awakens in them thoughts and ideas and allows them to peer into a different kind of life. Ultimately, they reject that life and the reader is left with the sisters leaving the party and Phyllis looking forward to the full day their mother has planned for them tomorrow, glad she will not have to think. Woolf was not a short story writer even though she wrote some brilliant ones. She was a novelist who wrote short stories in order to experiment and work out narrative techniques for her novels. In this story she begins with a narrator speaking in abstract terms about people and biography and then she begins to narrow her focus to how women's lives are overlooked and why. From there she focuses on women in houses and women in drawing rooms to a specific drawing room to two specific women, Phyllis and Rosamond. Then the narrator disappears and we watch Phyllis and Rosamond on a typical day. From there we move from generalities in the sister's lives to specifics and then from the two sisters to Phyllis, then from outside Phyllis to inside at which point we end the story with Phyllis thinking. The progression of focus from large to small is done so smoothly I didn't even notice it until afterwards. The second story I read was Octavia E. Butler's "Bloodchild". The story takes place on another planet that humans landed on when colonizing space. The natives, 10 feet long worm snake things that have lots of legs, are intelligent and can talk. The humans were almost exterminated when the Tlic discovered that they made good hosts for their eggs. A human Preserve was created and a breeding program for humans and Tlic was worked out. The humans are not slaves but have agreed to the state of things in order to survive. The story is told in the first person by Gan, a boy on the cusp of adulthood. We know only what he knows and in the beginning we only have a vague idea of the relationship between humans and Tlic. Gan has been chosen by T'Gatoi who has known him since he was born. The story starts with a cozy family scene. Soon we learn that Gan's mother and brother do not like the Tlic but since Gan doesn't know why, we don't either. But eventually all becomes clear in a viscerally disturbing scene that made my stomach lurch. Gan then has to make a choice, kill himself and/or T'Gatoi, give up his place as the chosen to his sister whom he loves, or accept his place as T'Gatoi's chosen. I won't tell you what he chooses, for some reason I feel like I would be giving things away whereas with Woolf I didn't feel that way. The two stories seem so different, yet are so much alike. In each one we have a coming of age and a choice that must be made--Phyllis and Gan have to accept what they were born and raised for or to turn away from it. Both make their choices with eyes open, fully understanding the consequences. I did not know anything about either of these stories before I read them. I don't think I could have chosen a more interesting pairing if I had tried.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Hero Is Not a Sandwich

Bending my mind around Emerson's ideas of the heroic in his essay Heroism was a bit of a challenge since I have been reading Proust and Joyce whose characters seem antithetical to Emerson's way of thinking. On the surface Emerson is very old-school in his ideas of the heroic but there is that Emersonian twist that makes them quite a bit different and not so antithetical after all. For Emerson the heroic is all about action and courage. A heroic action has no thought and is intuitive, comes from feeling, not reason and because of this "is always right." The essence of heroism is self-trust, "it is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents." Heroism is also about persistence, choosing your part in the world and sticking to it, refusing to compromise yourself. Emerson admires Plutarch and the heroes he wrote about in his Lives. While he is gung-ho about heroic battle, Emerson's twist on heroism privileges a sort of intellectual hero over that of the warrior hero. Nonetheless, Emerson's hero should be prepared to stand before a mob who believes other than he and take the bullet if need be. And because, in Emerson's view, there are so few people willing to do this, so few heroes, humankind has brought the punishments of diseases and deformities upon itself. Our inability to stand up against the mob of society and declaim that we are breaking natural, intellectual, and moral laws and our unwillingness to follow those laws in spite of society is what has brought the sufferings of lockjaw, rabies, insanity, war, plague, cholera, and famine into existence. His ideas are such a bizarre mix he sounds like Pat Robertson, an ACLU attorney, and a Spartan combined into one person. If he stopped there I would be completely disgusted, but he redeems himself. "The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic," writes Emerson. What he means by this baffled me for a little while. I thought at first he was saying that everyday heroism, standing up to a bully, saying no to drugs, or confronting a friend you think is about to do wrong, cannot be heroic. But I realize what he means is that heroism lifts an act above the common to something more, something greater. The common that cannot be heroic is false heroism, heroism for appearances, heroism that means nothing because it costs nothing. Offering shelter and a lavish meal to a poor stranger means nothing if you have two houses and millions in the bank. Offering shelter and a meal of what you have when tomorrow you may have nothing is heroic. In spite of some of Emerson's weirdness, I think he rightly insists that we can all be heroic. Heroism is not relegated to long ago and far away. The "great and transcendent properties" which we ascribe to heroism belong to all of us if we so choose:

The pictures which fill the imagination in reading the actions of Pericles, Xenophon, Columbus, Bayard, Sidney, Hampden, teach us how needlessly mean our life is; that we by the depth of our living, should deck it with more than regal or national splendor, and act on principles that should interest man and nature in the length of our days.
Next week's Emerson: The Over-Soul

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Little Friday Fun

Something fun to play with this Friday evening a literature map. Enter the name of a favorite author and you get a sort of floating mobile of other authors you might like. It seems I've seen this before, but lost it and now have found it again and I am glad. And here I must apologize because I bookmarked the map site page a few days ago and now I cannot remember whose blog I found it on. I entered Virginia Woolf as my author and got back a bunch of authors I read and love like Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich, A.S. Byatt, Italo Calvino, and Jane Austen. Funny enough, James Joyce comes up too as does Doris Lessing. There are several authors I haven't read that I need to get to--dare I reveal who they are for fear of virtual finger shaking and accusations of "How can you consider yourself a reader when you've never read Nabokov?" There, I've gone and done it anyway. He's the biggie, the others, Joseph Heller, Don Delillo, EL Doctorow, don't feel so bad to admit to. Nabokov hurt though. When I put in Proust it is even worse because most of the authors that come up I have never heard of. Who is Ingeborg Bachmann? Andrzej Stasiuk? Joana Chmielewska? Maybe the best thing about this literature map is finding no end of new authors that might be worth a try. Have fun playing!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A New--To Me--Poet

Last night was a wonderful reading smorgasbord--a little poetry, a little Proust, and a little diary of Virginia Woolf. Delicious! The book of poetry I am reading is The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger by Rosmarie Waldrop. John discovered her recently and insisted that she was amazing and that I would really like her. Aggressive Ways is the only book of hers my library had so that's the one I am reading. John made a good recommendation. Waldrop doesn't use punctuation which makes me want to read the poems fast and imparts a sort of breathlessness. Her line breaks, however, fall in unusual places (at least to me who has never gotten the whole meter thing in poetry), thoughts stop and start in the middle of lines so I can't read quickly. Without punctuation or other obvious visual clues, I am forced to slow down and pay attention. When reading these poems I feel as though I am in a hurry but being held back. It is a strange but not unpleasant feeling. Waldrop's imagery is beautiful. This also slows me down because I stop and re-read the phrases over a few times before moving on to the rest of the poem. Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:

We try to make ourselves at home in our lives horses in their stable rubbing cheeks against security ("Deflecting Forces") --- Already at four the moon city grey seeps through windows the sky so low I can't stir my soup ("Winter") --- gestures hang in the air exhausted prematurely my fear of being a kite among winds your fear I've eaten tigers in my dreams but we don't tell about these things ("Morning Has No House")
I am disappointed my library has only the one book, not all of them are in print anymore even though it looks like she is still writing. Used bookstores are a blessing for situations like this one. Waldrop will be added to my hunt list.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

In the Mood

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1925:

There are moments when all the masterpieces do no more than strum upon broken strings. It is very rare--the right mood for reading--in its way as intense a delight as any; but for the most part pain.
While I don't find the right mood for reading to be rare, I must agree that there are moments when even a masterpiece seems like poorly written trash if I am in the wrong mood. That is the reason I read so many books at once, there is always something to read no matter what my mood is. In this way I usually avoid the painful times when good books turn bad. The painful times are not always avoidable though. Who hasn't been excited about reading a book only to get halfway in and realize you aren't enjoying it? This happened to me a number of years ago with Middlemarch and The Golden Notebook. I began each of them with high interest and expectations. I ended up forcing myself to finish Middlemarch and completely abandoning The Golden Notebook. I have not given up on them though. As much as I wanted to read them, my mood was not right. But I have been feeling lately like the right mood might be quietly growing in a corner somewhere and when it's ready it will find a way to let me know. As for the mood to read, the rarity is not feeling like reading. The not reading mood struck me last night. I am a homebody and a creature of habit so generally sit down to read about the same time every evening. When I sat down last night I just stared at my books waiting for my mood to tell me which one to pick up. Nothing stirred. I picked up Proust and put him right back down. I picked up Joyce, read a few words, and put him down. I could see where this was going--nowhere. I resigned myself to not reading and stared off into space for a little while before pulling myself together. What's a person to do when not in the mood to read? Usually I play a mindless computer game or try to find something on television. But I was tired of looking at screens all day and couldn't bear the thought of either choice. Knitting would be another alternative but it's too hot to think about working on my half-done sweater. At moments like these I turn to magazines but the only magazines I had were book review papers. Strangely enough, when I am not in a reading mood, reading about books is an acceptable alternative. Being behind on my New York Review of Books turned out to be a good thing. I am glad the mood not to read doesn't strike often. When it does I get a bit cranky. The silver lining is that tonight I am ravenous for reading. Now comes the pleasure of figuring out what book will fit my mood.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What Do James Joyce and Marcel Proust Have to do with Each Other?

As I was getting ready for work this morning I had a great idea for a post this evening about James Joyce and Proust. Now, as I sit down to actually write the post, the great idea I had has gone missing. I am staring at my blinking cursor, trying to remember and failing. If I follow Proust's way of memory, all I have to do is touch the right object and it will all come back to me. I imagine myself rubbing my shoes like Aladdin's lamp. Imagining it makes me feel silly so I am certainly not going to do it for real. Therefore I am out of luck. Or out of memory.   Another memory does come to the surface, however, without any shoe rubbing. When I was in college I dreamt an entire term paper. The paper, of course, was brilliant. The thing about this dream is that I was aware enough to know I was dreaming, aware enough to be able to read the paper and make a few revisions, aware enough to know that when I woke up I was going to be busy scribbling it all down. But I couldn't get myself to wake up. My dream ended, I returned to normal sleep. The alarm eventually woke me. I remembered I had a dream about my term paper and that I was going to remember it so I could write it when I woke up. I could recall what the paper was about but other than that it was entirely lost. Sigh.   Proust and Joyce, what did I have to say? I know I can't read them both close together. A few nights ago I read a couple pages of Proust and then picked up Portrait if the Artist as Young Man. I read a page and none of it made sense. I read the page again and still couldn't make anything of it. I realized that since Joyce has a similar feel--long (though not as long as Proust) sentences that tend to repetition and a sort of melodious flow--that I was trying to read Joyce like he was Proust. That's not going to work. I put down Joyce and picked up Bryher instead. Much better!   Last night I intentionally did not read Proust in order to read Joyce. The page that previously made no sense was perfectly comprehensible and I had a pleasant Joycean evening. Even though I read multiple books at a time, I have not had trouble like this before. At least not that I can remember which isn't saying much since I have already proven my memory is flighty. And while I am pretty sure I was going to say something about reading Proust and Joyce at the same time, this is not what the post was going to be about.   I am now going to file The Lost Post Idea along with The Lost Term Paper. I am absolutely certain, just as The Lost Term Paper was the best I'd ever written, The Lost Post Idea was the best one I've ever had. Since they are lost no one can prove it otherwise.  

Monday, July 17, 2006

What's Up with Memoirs?

Did anyone catch the Benjamin Kunkel essay Misery Loves a Memoir in yesterday's New York Times? There's filler in there, but he manages to make an interesting point:

Somehow it still seems brave to admit between the covers of a book to all that has gone wrong with us, when in fact nothing is more customary. No taboo appears to constrain the memoirist — except the taboo on aspiration, for oneself or one's society. Self-improvement of the kind Thoreau undertook has become the province of self-help manuals, while impassioned complaints against our civilization (as much a part of Rousseau and Thoreau or, for that matter, Henry Miller, as introspection is) are rarely placed in the context of a lived daily life. So it is that we live in a rich and free country, full of striving individuals chasing comfort and distinction, whose autobiographical literature tells us that helpless addiction and passive suffering are the most meaningful experiences you can have.
I'm glad someone had the nerve to say this. I enjoy a well written memoir as much as the next person, but it does seem there are an over abundance of books about personal suffering. I have nothing against books about personal suffering, but to me there has to be a bigger picture. If the book is written just because someone needs to confess and it does something for them to make it public, or the author hopes to become famous for the confession, then I have no interest. If I read a memoir I want there to be some kind of purpose whether it be Thoreau-like or something that will raise my awareness and understanding of an idea or issue. The blatantly confessional memoir is too voyeuristic for me. I suspect they are popular because they feed a public's personality cult desires and need for sensational stories, gossip, and scandal. What has happened to serious thought? Why do so many of the stories we tell about ourselves focus on the misery and not much else? Even Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain which discusses his slow decline from syphilis, moves beyond the purely personal. Other than a pat on the back and a paycheck, what are people who write memoirs hoping for when they write intimate books about how they survived a car wreck, an addiction, a disease? And what does it say about us as a society as Kunkel suggests, when the most meaningful experiences we can have are about "helpless addiction and passive suffering?"

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Wouldn't Be Prudent

One of the things I like about Emerson is that he thinks about so many things. Even if I don't agree with him, I appreciate his thoughtfulness. These days it seems most intellectuals are stuck within a given framework--I am a scientist so I will only comment on science, etc. So few appear to have the ability to discuss a range of subject matter. This is a shame because I believe innovation and insight and creativity need a broader vista in order to connect the dots. Emerson has a vision and all subjects are available for examination to determine how they fit into and feed the vision. Over and over, Emerson digs down through the surface of an idea to locate a foundation, a root, a riverbed. It's like all these things are tributaries to a giant river that leads to a vast sea. Whether or not I agree, whether or not I find the tributary to by dried up or filled with rapids, watching a mind at work is exciting and oils the cogs of my sluggish thoughts. Emerson's essay on Prudence is filled with all kinds of interesting snippets which I find more thought-provoking than the whole. Snippets like "We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as experience." And "Time, which shows so vacant, indivisible and divine in its coming, is slit and peddled into trifles and tatters." And "The hard soil and four months of snow make the inhabitant of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics." (I want to know if I can get extra credit wisdom points since there can be snow here from November through April?) And "He that despiseth small things will perish by little and little." And "Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society." And "These old shoes are easy to the feet." There are a few others but I will stop there, you get the point. As for the prudence part, "Prudence is the virtue of the senses," or rather the appearance of prudence. Because for Emerson prudence is an outward expression of an inward life. To limit prudence as a surface expression is a mistake from all angles, for both the one who is prudent and the one observing the prudence. Prudence is more than materialistic and should be regarded as an outward expression of the individual's adherence to the spiritual laws of nature. Prudence is "the art of securing a present well-being." To ignore the connection between the inward soul and outward well-being just wouldn't be prudent. Next week's Emerson: Heroism

Friday, July 14, 2006

What's a Literary Education For?

Ever since I finished reading Firmin, I've been thinking about this particular passage in it:

If there is one thing a literary education is good for it is to fill you with a sense of doom. There is nothing quite like a vivid imagination for sapping a person's courage. I read the diary of Anne Frank, I become Anne Frank. As for others, they could feel plenty of terror, cringe in corners, sweat with fear, but as soon as the danger had passed it was as if it had never happened, and they trotted cheerfully on.
What is a literary education (formal or informal) good for? Is it, as in the passage from Firmin, good for filling a person with a sense of doom? My imagination can certainly run wild to the worst in any given situation and sap my courage. Sure, books add fuel to the proverbial fire so my imagination has more horror to choose from than it might on come up with on its own. But I think even without a life of reading my imagination would be prone to such wild doom. Reading actually gives it a safe place to be wild in. But where there is doom, there is also hope. My imagination being an active beast, roams in the forest of doom and flies in the skies of hope as well. When I imagine the worst thing that can happen I immediately try and counter it with the best thing that can happen. Literature may be filled with tragedy but that is not the only thing to be found there. Yes, Anne Frank died, but she still had hope. She also revealed that even in the worst situation beauty is possible. Where else besides books does a person find so many different ideas from so many different people and so many different time periods? A literary education affects a person's life as the Firmin passage implies. Books have the habit of being more than words on a page. They allow readers to imagine different ways of being, different lives, new possibilities. Dorothy has written several times about 18th century readers and their worries about the effects of literature. Perhaps because reading has become a fringe activity in the 21st century we don't worry about it any longer (most of us anyway, those who want to ban books are a different story). And Litlove has written about ethical reading and whether we should read or teach books that have questionable ethics. There is no denying that when we read Anne Frank we become Anne Frank (or Humbert Humbert, or Jane Eyre or name your character/author). Books are dangerous, so is being alive. A reader can choose to focus on the doom or a reader can choose to see the bigger picture, to piece together from a myriad of imaginings a vision of what is possible. Call me a romantic, but that's what I think a literary education is good for.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

No More Lull

I am so excited about the book I started reading last night. I love it when a book I have been looking forward to turns out to be good right from the start. So often there is a sense of trepidation for the first chapter or two especially if things get off to a rocky beginning. But no rocky start here. I had no idea what The Player's Boy by Bryher was about, all I knew is that I wanted to read Bryher and I wanted to read Bryher because of H.D. H.D.'s book length poem, Helen in Egypt is amazing. It tells the story of Helen who some say never went to Troy but was taken by Zeus to Egypt. H.D. and Bryher were lovers and even had this weird three-way relationship going on that included Bryher's husband with all three of them living together for quite some time. But Bryher is also a writer in her own right, a novelist mostly. She was rich as well and helped finance authors and artists and the famous Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company. The Player's Boy, the book I began last night starts off in 1605, two years after Queen Elizabeth's death. The player's boy is an actor's apprentice. The story starts with the master player on his deathbed. While he is ill, he isn't breathing his last yet, even Shakespeare manages to give a dying actor lengthy soliloquies. Master Awsten is feeling chatty and tells his apprentice, Sands, about some of his own adventures when he was an apprentice. The conversation is sprinkled with phrases from plays and ballads. The language is straightforward and modern yet with just enough flare to impart an Elizabethan feel. According to the introduction, Bryher was fluent in Elizabethan English and worked hard to get the language and style for the book right without making it seem overdone. And thus far, I can say it is a success. There are wonderful sentences that pop out at me, things like:

"Rubies dissolve but not my smarting thoughts," he murmured, as if he recognised what he did. "But memories, child, these burn."
I like that, memories burn. Maybe it pops out at me more since I am reading Proust which is all about memory. I love it when books whisper to each other.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Hot and Whiney

In a bit of a lull today, reading and otherwise. The otherwise is, I believe the heat and humidity getting to me--already. I say already because today is only 90 but it's forecasted to be 100 on Saturday. Plus it hasn't rained in weeks so the garden is a sad, wilty place. Even the birds are feeling it. When I got home from work there was a robin in the yard looking droopy and panting. The reading lull has arrived because I've finished three books over the last week. While I am still in the middle of several good books--Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Swann's Way--and I have a tidy stack of books I've been wanting to read, there is that unavoidable lull for the short span in between endings and beginnings where I feel uprooted and lost. If it weren't so hot it probably wouldn't bother me, but when I'm hot, everything bothers me. I will be perking up shortly as I settle in to read for the evening. Also links like this one from reader Jenn are good too. She collects figures of people and animals reading and the link will let you see some photos of her collection. Her library even borrows them for display once a year and she says the photos only show a portion of what she has. Pretty spiffy! And my sister sent me a link to a news article about a complete first folio of Shakespeare's up for auction tomorrow at Sotheby's. It's expected to go for 3.5 million pounds, or $6.10 million U.S. I think we should take up a collection and purchase it. Then we could each take turns having it for a week or so before packing it up and sending it on to the next person. Whaddya think? I'm starting to feel perkier already! One more thing, Kate is starting up a short story reading group. All you out there, and you know who you are, who keep meaning to read more short stories, here's your chance. And Kate's making it really easy too. One story a month. I am feeling much better now than when I began this post. Thanks for putting up with my whine, assuming of course you did. I am off to start reading The Player's Boy by Bryher.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Good to Eat is Good to Read

Looking for something entertaining and a little out of the ordinary? Have I got a book for you! Firmin by Sam Savage is a novel about books, survival, poverty and urban living in early 1960s Boston. Oh, and did I mention the main character is a rat? Firmin is born in the basement of Pembroke Books in Scollay Square, the runt of the litter of thirteen. Mom--Flo--made the nest out of shredded pages from Finnegans Wake. Since Flo only had twelve places from which to nurse, Firmin often got left out. In a moment of hungry desperation he ate some of Finnegans Wake. Tasty. Pretty soon he'd eaten a good portion of the nest so Flo shredded more of the book. Firmin ate that too. When he got big enough he crept out from behind the safety of the heater to a basement full of books. He began to nibble other books:

Do I hear snickering? I suppose you see this as merely a rather vulgar case of addiction or perhaps as the pitiable symptoms of a classic obsessive-compulsive disorder, and no doubt you are correct. yet the concept of addiction is not rich enough, deep enough, to describe this hunger. I would rather call it love. Inchoate perhaps, perverted even, unrequited surely, but love all the same. Here was the crude glutinous beginning of the passion that has dominated my life, some would say ruined it, and I would not necessarily disagree. Had I been more astute I might have been able to see the dreadful abdominal pain that followed the exercise of this passion in its infantile form as a warning, an augury of the interminable sufferings that seem always to accompany love.
Sound like anyone you know? Apart from the actual eating of the books I mean? Maybe it reminds you of yourself? Eventually Firmin realizes that he can read the words in the pages of the books he has been eating. So he starts reading the books and nibbling around the margins. Soon he discovers that there is a relation "between the taste and the literary quality of a book." When deciding which book to read next, he would nibble a page. His motto became "Good to eat is good to read." All of Firmin's reading makes him long to be able to communicate with others who read. But he is a rat, he can't talk. He tries to learn sign language but discovers he needs fingers and the only thing he can say is "goodbye zipper." Still, determined to make contact with humanity he goes off to a park and waits for someone to walk by who is talking with their hands. Seizing his opportunity, Firmin leaps out from the bushes onto the path in front of the people and begins to frantically sign "goodbye zipper" over and over. Needless to say, the results are not what Firmin hoped for. Eventually he ends up as the pet of a poor science fiction writer who lives above Pembroke Books. Firmin gets to read all he wants, regular meals, and a friend. And though Firmin can't communicate with Jerry the writer, they are quite companionable. But in spite of his happiness, Firmin still dreams of being Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers whose movies he loves to watch at the Rialto down the street. My only quibble with the book is that it is written in first person by Firmin. But Firmin can't write, type or talk and there were no computers in the early 60s, so how the heck could he have written his memoirs? This is a very small point, however. Overall the book is highly entertaining in spite of it also being sad. Everyone in it is lonely. Everyone in it is trying to make contact, yearning to connect with someone who will understand. Books play a role in fostering that connection but also make the yearning for it even worse. Firmin does not have a happy ending, but it does have a right ending that rings true to all that came before and still manages to come back around to Finnegans Wake. A very tasty meal.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Still Thinking About Short Stories

After reading the first few chapters of Frank O'Connor's book of lectures The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, I posted some food for thought about what O'Connor saw as basis of the short story form. Well, I finished the book and I am no closer to understanding what a short story is than I was when I began. John tells me I shouldn't worry about genre distinctions, and I don't normally worry about them. But in this case, I can't help it. It's like Kate's wondering what the difference is between a novella and a novel. I wonder the same thing about short stories. Are they on a continuum with short story being on one end, novella in the middle and novel on the other end? And if a short story is nothing but a really short novel, then why is it called a short story not a short novel? Or a short novella? What is a short story other than short? Is there a difference between it and longer forms? O'Connor thought so:

The novel and the short story are two different forms [...] the novel can take handicaps which the short story cannot take. The novel is the more primitive of the two forms; it is closer to the children's tale in which one can prepare for a fantastic event by a single sentence [...] the short story does not permit of such preparation. In fact the reader of the reader of the short story cannot be induced to expect anything. The short story represents a struggle with Time--the novelist's Time; it is an attempt to reach some point of vantage from which past and future are equally visible. The crisis of the short story is the short story and not as in a novel the mere logical inescapable result of what has preceded it. One might go further and say that in the story what precedes the crisis becomes a consequence of the crisis--this being what actually happened, that must necessarily be what preceded it.
I can see what he means here. There is not time in a short story for a slow accumulation of information or facts, no time to see what brought the characters to the current situation. Time must be handled differently, more efficiently. The story must do more with less. But I don't think that means a short story cannot have any preparation, cannot have a sentence that "prepares for a fantastic event." I am tempted to say that a story has to be about the particular while a novel is about the general even though it may be built of particulars. But I am not sure if that is true. I do not feel well versed in short stories to be comfortable arguing that position. But it seems true. I guess I will have some things to think about while I work at reading more short stories. I do know, however, that I found The Lonely Voice unsatisfying. The book is not meant for people like me who are trying to learn about short stories. The book is meant for people who have already read a large number of short stories, who are familiar with the likes of Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence, and A.E. Coppard. Perhaps in a few years I will be able to read the book again and be able to confidently argue with O'Connor over what a short story really is. Until then, I will enjoy the "research."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

That's What Friends Are For

Emerson takes friendship far too seriously. I don't want you to think that I don't take friendship seriously, I do. To me there are different kinds and levels of friendship--there are friends and there are Friends. For Emerson, there are only Friends, all others are pretty much a waste of time. And to be a Friend of Emerson is pretty near impossible. In his essay Friendship, Emerson writes there are two necessary elements, truth and tenderness. Truth fosters sincerity, a rare luxury between people according to Emerson. All too often in our relations we must make accommodations, be tactful, compromise, humor the other person, but none of this is required when meeting a true friend. The role of a true friend is not to warn you when you are about to go out in an outfit that makes you look fat or take your side when the person you've been dating dumps you for someone younger or better looking. Friends should certainly provide aid and comfort, after all, tenderness is a required element, but the point of friendship is conversation "which is the practice and consummation of friendship." Friendship is a meeting of the minds in which "our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection," and lifts us to a higher self. Like love, friendship is more than two people, so much more in fact, that Emerson insists "there can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect, until in their dialogue each stand for the whole world." I don't know about you, but I have never considered my closet friends as representing the whole world. Certainly friendships can represent something more than two people, but the whole world? And of course, Emerson, being the transcendentalist that he is, loves his solitude too. While he wants friends he doesn't want them around too much. He likes to know they are there when he needs them but they should stay away until he is ready to be with them. Emerson cannot afford to talk to his friends too much because their visions might interfere with his visions and that will mess everything up. And if you are a true friend of Emerson's, you too will respect truth. Therefore when Emerson tells you to bug off you will be okay with it even if you were coming to him for comfort. Emerson admits that the higher the requirements we place on friendship, the less likely we are to actually have friends, but that's okay. He says it is better to have no friends and keep the faith and hope in the right kind of friend coming along than to make "rash and foolish alliances." All this leaves me wondering how many friends Emerson had. Was he so strict about his friendship that he kept people away or is what he writes about in his essay merely an expression of an ideal world? All I know is, I prefer my mix of friends, ones to save me from making a fool of myself, ones with which I can make a fool of myself, and ones I can share the deepest part of myself. To expect one person to be all things is a burden I would not put on anyone. Next week's Emerson: Prudence

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Book Fair Shopping

Judging from the seven books sitting on my desk, the book hunting last night was a success. We were over halfway through the booths and I was beginning to despair that I wouldn't find anything I wanted--wait, let me rephrase that. I was beginning to despair that I wouldn't find anything I could afford when we came upon Peter L. Stern & Co of Boston offering books for a buck. There is nothing like a good selection of cheap books to send me and my Bookman into a bit of a frenzy. Okay, I was the one who went into a frenzy since the only book my Bookman got was a small volume called Shakespeare Soliloquies published in 1960 by the Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, New York. My wild selections are as follows:

  • The Writer's Dilemma published in 1960 by Oxford University Press. This slim volume is a book of essays first published in The Times Literary Supplement under the heading "Limits of Control." The essays all appear to address the question of the place and function of the artist in a technological age. The essayists include Lawrence Durrell, Arnold Toynbee, William Golding, and Saul Bellow, among others.
  • The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. I know nothing about this book, only that it is a hardcover without a dust jacket but in good condition and it only cost a dollar.
  • Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym. Same as the above, except this one has a dust jacket.
  • Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West. The pages are a little worn and the cover is faded like it sat in the sun, but the book is in otherwise good condition. It is a first American edition even! Vita is not the best of writers especially when her friend and lover Virginia Woolf is put up for comparison, but she has a fond place in my heart. She is also a good person to collect because even though her books are hard to find, they can be had for cheap since everybody is collecting Virginia Woolf and the other Bloomsbury people instead. If you were on a budget, which would you be more excited about? The Vita you bought for a dollar or the first edition of Woolf's Common Reader you held briefly in your hand that was marked at $675?
  • Volume two of Harold Nicholson's Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945. Nicholson was Vita's husband as well as a British ambassador. This is the first of his books I have seen anywhere which is surprising since he has a large number. The book was published in 1967 by Harold and Vita's son, Nigel who is an author and editor. My volume appears to be a second US printing. The pages are slightly worn but it is overall in great shape.
Still bubbling, we stepped to the next booth where I quickly snatched up a copy of The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx for fifty cents. It's paperback, the cover is a bit worn and the previous owner, who I suspect was a student, seems to have enjoyed underlining key words and phrases. But I couldn't pass it up for the price and I am trying to learn how to embrace marginalia. Since the book is already marked up, when I get to it I won't worry if I want to mark in it too. I'll just have to be sure to use a colored pencil so I can tell my marks from the previous ones. In spite of the fun we had, we were also disappointed. We've been going to the book fair for about ten years. This year it became painfully apparent that it is shrinking. There were empty tables and the aisles were significantly wider than previous years. There are also fewer people shopping. The first year I went the place was crammed wall-to-wall with booksellers whose tables would have collapsed from the weight of the books on top of them if it weren't for the piles of books beneath holding them up. And the people packed themselves in elbow-to-elbow to browse. The building was not air conditioned and we were a hot and sweaty, but very happy, throng. The variety of books on offer was astonishing--poetry and literature in abundance both old and new, history, children's, cookbooks, ephemera--you name you could find it. And the prices, there was something for everybody. The book fair has devolved with the only constant being the hot and sweaty part. The books on offer have narrowed and become more specialized--military history, children's, modern firsts nearly all of them signed. Poetry is practically nonexistent as are out of the ordinary books that aren't particularly collectible but nonetheless interesting and desirable. It's become a fair for collectors and the books and prices reflect that. The three volume folio-sized red leather bound 265 limited edition print run of Montaigne's essays was gorgeous and drool worthy, but the $4,500 price tag is in a galaxy far, far away from my budget. The most astounding thing of all that we saw was the nearly pristine first edition of The Great Gatsby with an asking price of--are you ready for it?--$200,000! I am concerned and confused by the book fair's devolution. Are the used book dealers going out of business? Have they all gone online? Do people not want used books anymore? Do people prefer collectibles? Have most of the browsers from ten years ago died or given up reading? Which came first, the change in the books on offer at the fair or the change in the people shopping? The one thing I do know for sure is that if it hadn't been for the two booths where we found our goodies, we would have walked out with nothing.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Gone Hunting

For books that is! I'll be at the 16th Annual Twin Cities Book Fair tonight hunting for treasure. And if you haven't had a chance to catch Bill Moyers' new show Faith and Reason on PBS yet, I highly recommend it. Tonight he'll be talking with Jeanette Winterson. I am hoping she will top Mary Gordon from last week when Gordon said she'd really like to kill all the people who drive Hummers but the only thing that keeps her from it is her Catholic faith.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Life on the Farm

Very likely I would never have picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Blithedale Romance if it hadn't been for Emerson. No, Emerson did not appear to me in a dream and tell me to read the book (that would have been cool though, if a little scary). I found out about the book while reading about Brook Farm at Wikipedia. Brook Farm was an utopian transcendentalist community founded by Hawthorne and others. Emerson also had a hand in it and lived there for a short time. Blithedale is a gentle satirical spoof of Brook Farm. On its own, Blithedale is quite the soap opera. There are four main characters, the narrator, Miles Coverdale, Zenobia, Priscilla, and Hollingsworth. Coverdale is one of the biggest voyeurs I have ever come across. He is always watching the other three, eternally interested in what they are up to. He is also supremely jealous because both of the women's hearts flutter for Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth is at the farm under false pretenses. He wants their endeavors to fail because he wants to buy up the farmland and turn it into a school for the rehabilitation of the down and out. Hollingsworth is a philanthropist which is a dirty word in this book. It means you are single-minded and driven with a vision only for the small niche of a project you have set you time and money to. Philanthropy is a road to Hell paved with good intentions as Coverdale says at one point, though not in those exact words. But Hollingsworth is a big bear of a man, sure of himself and his path. Zenobia, a wealthy feminist who has never had eyes for a man until now, falls for Hollingsworth. But she has no idea that his only interest in her is for her money. He wants her to invest her fortune in his philanthropic schemes. Because she loves him, she is willing to give him everything expecting him to love her back. Priscilla has to go and throw a wrench in the works. She has a mysterious background that is revealed bit by bit but never by her, always by people who know her. She is ethereal and beautiful, born in poverty and raised in poverty, at the farm she comes into her own. She falls in love with Hollingsworth too. Hollingsworth, being the wanker that he is, leads both women on, never declaring his intentions until then end when he is forced by Zenobia to make a choice. The reader knows all along who he is going to choose. In good soap opera fashion, the woman who is jilted makes an untimely end of herself in the river. And Coverdale, who at one point compares his role in all this to that of a Greek chorus, finally at the last, confesses his own love for one of the women. This confession is written in all seriousness and in such a way as to heighten the tension before the secret is revealed. But when he admits in the very last words of the book who he loved, I couldn't help but laugh. Yes, I laughed out loud even because it is obvious from nearly the beginning so that Coverdale's confession is no real confession at all. I don't think Hawthorne meant it to be funny, but then maybe he did and made the confession outrageously over the top on purpose. As for the satire, it's good. Blithedale was conceived as a place for all the city intellectuals who wanted to get back to nature to go and work and find their souls and thereby make the world a better place. They are so inept in the beginning that they couldn't do this alone so they have a sort of overseer in the person of Silas Foster, a lifelong farmer who wakes them up in the morning and shows them how to milk cows, drive oxen, plow, plant and all the other stuff you need to know to run a farm. The first night at Blithedale Foster asks, " 'Which man among you is the best judge of swine? Some of us must go to the next Brighton fair, and buy half-a-dozen pigs!' " Coverdale is silently outraged and thinks, "Pigs! Good heavens, had we come out from among the swinish multitude, for this?" Obviously he thought farm life would be some idyllic pastoral where all the work got done by the fairies while the people slept. He, and the others involved, thought they would labor without strain all day and gather in the evenings for lively intellectual discussions around the fire. But that's not quite how things worked out:

The clods of earth, which we so constantly belabored and turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish. Our labor symbolized nothing, and left us mentally sluggish in the dusk of the evening. Intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.
And so it is they all learn their romantic visions of bucolic life on the farm are but the misguided and ignorant ideas of people who have only ever lived in a city. No doubt this was something the inhabitants of the real Brook Farm learned very quickly too.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

I'll Mark Your Place

Bookmark Collection 2We spend so much time thinking about our books, what books to buy, what to borrow, what to read next. But how much time do you spend thinking about book accessories? Accessories are not strictly necessary, but they do add to the reading experience. Consider, if you will, the bookmark.   Some readers may scoff and wonder what is so important about a bookmark, after all, anything can mark a page, even a--gasp!--folded corner. I admit this is true. I have bought books with the bookmarks of previous owners in them. An airplane boarding pass. A movie ticket. The original receipt for the book. One of those promotional markers bookstores give away. And if I am reading a library book, I have found the check-out receipt with the due date from several of the previous readers. These are all serviceable. In fact, I usually use my library receipt as a marker and leave it in the book for the next reader to find.   But just because a bookmarker is utilitarian doesn't mean it has to be a scrap of whatever is at hand. I believe the choice of marker is of some importance. Not only does it usually come with a tassel to amuse the cat, it can also provide a little extra enjoyment to my reading experience.   Bookmark Collection 1Those bejeweled metal bookmarks or the paperclip markers never make it close to my books. My markers must be flat and thin so as not to hurt binding or page. I have accumulated a nice little collection over the years. Some of my bookmarks are from when I was in elementary school and have (not so) glittery unicorns and fairies on them. Some are from vacations, others were gifts, and the rest I bought on a whim at one time or other. All of them are meant to be used.   The bookmark should compliment the book. For instance, my Virginia Woolf marker is always used when I am reading Woolf. I have a small laminated bookmark from a South Korean pen friend when I was 9 with a funky looking girl and Korean writing which I cannot read on it. That bookmarker is perfect for the James Joyce I am reading, reflecting my pre-reading feelings about Joyce, a little out of the ordinary and possibly like reading a foreign language. See how this works? I have picked out my bookmark for my Proust journey. An embroidered fabric one that looks a little like an oriental carpet or the edging of a tapestry, sort of exotic but reminds me of an elegant yet cozy room too. I can't say that a book has ever been ruined because the bookmark clashed, but then I haven't paid attention to negative impact before. I'll have to stay alert to see if it makes a difference. I do know, however, that the right bookmark with the right book is like icing on a cake.

Pushing Proust

Another shameless plug for Involuntary Memory, the Proust group blog. We've been posting about choosing a translation, madeleine recipes, previous Proust experiences, and other odds and ends. If you have ever considered reading Proust but were afraid to try, now's your chance! Discussion of Swann's Way starts on July 15th when we will have read the first section of "Combray" (about 50-60 pages). Thereafter we will attempt 50-60 pages each week. Anyone who wants to read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time is welcome to join the group, just send me an email. Or if you aren't a joiner, feel free to stop by and contribute to the conversation through comments. Come on, you know you want to!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


It being Independence Day I'm taking the day off from posting about books. I offer you instead something fun to play with--Microsoft adCenter Labs (link via Return of the Reluctant). Enter a key word or a url and you will get demographic information about the kind of people who use those key word searches or visit the url. For instance, here's what Microsoft has to say about the blog you are currently reading:

Gender Unknown with following probability: Male: 0.50 Female: 0.50 Age: <18 Oriented with following predicted distribution: <18: 25.55% 18-24: 23.34% 25-34: 17.23% 35-49: 17.10% 50+: 16.79%
What is it about the site that earns it an age prediction in which most of the readers are under 18? Maybe you are mostly under 18. In which case you are very bookish. Or have no friends. Or trolling for tidbits to put in your school homework. For your sake, I hope it's because you are bookish.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Halfway Day

Yesterday was Halfway Day, the 182nd day of the year. I know a number of people have reading goals--read certain books or a particular number of books or both for the year. I'm one of the both kind of people. I always aim to read at least 52 books a year. Thus far I have completed 26. Right on target. I always want to read more than that and try to read more than that--last year the final number was 55--but I have only once managed to make it to 60. Those of you who achieve 60-100+ a year on a regular basis astound me. How do you do it? Where do you carve out the extra time? Do you sleep? Maybe you read really really fast? Or I read slow. I know I read slow. I do not, I cannot skim. Or skip the slow parts. I have to read every "the" and "and." I do know how to skim and will skim news or magazine articles, but I can't skim books. I am afraid I will miss something. There is no reason for me to worry about missing anything, no one is going to give me a bad grade or send me to stand in the corner. But since I am not afraid of snakes or spiders I have to have an irrational fear about something and there it is (oh and my fear of elevators but I won't go into that) (oh and my fear of bridges which has nothing to do with the Three Billy Goats Gruff). In addition to my standing goal of 52 books a year I try to read a few particular books. This year I decided to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I am. And I am enjoying it. A pleasant surprise since I expected it to be all work. I also put in my plan to read The Iliad and Madame Bovary neither of which has happened but I still have 182 days left. Make that 181 days. Plenty of time! A related reading goal was to shrink my TBR shelf. I have failed at this utterly and completely. My 5-foot long TBR shelf is so crammed and overloaded I have begun to pile books on the floor. I don't think 181 days is enough time to make much of a dent in this. My TBR shelf is like one of the many myths in which the jug of wine or the purse of gold coins continually refills itself; a sisyphean task I should just give up on and cease fretting over. Embrace double shelving and tumbling piles! Stop worrying about all the books I haven't read and take pleasure in the thought that I will never be at a loss for something to read. Nothing like a little justification to sooth the guilty soul.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Emerson wrote his essay Love because he was accused of being a cold fish:

I have been told that in some public discourses of mine my reverence for the intellect has made me unjustly cold to the personal relations. But now I almost shrink at the remembrance of such disparaging words. For persons are love's world, and the coldest philosopher cannot recount the debt of the young soul wandering here in nature to the power of love, without being tempted to unsay, as treasonable to nature, aught derogatory to the social instincts.
Notice he "almost" shrinks? He goes so far out of his way to prove the critics wrong he ends up writing a rather bland, trite essay in the process. Love is "the enchantment of human life." Love makes the moonlight a "pleasing fever," and turns stars into "letters" and to flowers to "ciphers." Love makes the very air sing. Love is for youth, "one must not be too old." In order to fall in love, one must forget the facts and details of things. Love is about hope and thinking of the ideal future. The world is changed when one falls in love. Likewise the world changes when it sees someone who is in love: "All mankind love a lover." Are you dazzled by the cliches yet? This being Emerson, love has to have a higher purpose. When a man falls in love (yes man, Emerson doesn't seem to care if women fall in love), he does not fall in love with the "maiden" herself, no, he falls in love with her beauty. The maiden is nothing but a "representative of all select things and virtues." When a man tells a woman that he loves her, it is not her person or her will or her personal beauty that he loves. Love of another person is only the starting point for love of a higher kind. Being satisfied with loving a person is misplaced and will bring you "nothing but sorrow." The beauty of one's person is supposed to inspire the soul to pass "through the body" where it then:
falls to admire strokes of character, and the lovers contemplate one another in their discourses and their actions, then they pass to the true palace of beauty, more and more inflame their love of it, and by this love extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out fire by shining on the hearth, they become pure and hallowed.
Thus it is that "the one beautiful soul" (that of the woman) is a "door through which he enters to the society of all true and pure souls." The true purpose of love and marriage is "the purification of the intellect and the heart." Emerson manages to prove his critics right. He sets out to show he's a touchy-feely kind of guy but ends up turning love into yet another intellectual abstraction. He calls relations between lovers beautiful but at the same time considers it base. The sensual is unsatisfactory and must be intellectualized to be considered truly beautiful. Only someone who lives in his head as much as Emerson does would consider the sensual base. I think there is a lot to be learned from the sensual without reason stomping its big feet all over it. The body has an intelligence that is too often neglected. The body knows and understands things the mind never will. Unfortunately, Emerson seems to not pay attention to anything that happens below his neck. I feel sorry for his wife. Next week's Emerson: Friendship