Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Geeks United

My occasional book group members and I were exchanging emails yesterday about our book in progress, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The novel is about many things among them cryptology, science and technology. The three of us in the email exchange all happen to be tech people who fell into it more by accident than by design. We were bemoaning just how geeky we'd become and trying to ferret out who was the biggest geek. While it was a close call, I think the geek trophy has to go to tin lizzy who was able to recognize one of the characters as Alan Turing before his name was even given. The whole geek thing is weird for me and I find myself wondering if there is any hope for "recovery" or is it a case of "once a geek, always a geek?" But, I suppose there are geeks of many stripes and not just of the computer sort. For instance, if you are a book geek, and if you are reading this blog you very likely are, you may dream of owning your own bookstore someday. If you are, here is an article that will provide you with some tips and inspiration. One of the keys to succsess is, don't quite your day job. (link via The Page)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Pick Me Up

There is nothing like a little book about books for a pick me up when one is needed. The little book in question is Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris. I thought I had not read it before, but once I was halfway through the first essay I realized that I had. I couldn't find the book listed on my books read list so I don't know when I read it the first time. If you actually have managed not to read this gem, find yourself a copy or add it to your holiday wishlist. The essays will resonate with any book lover. I think one of my favorites is "Marrying Libraries" in which after five years of marriage and keeping their books apart, she and her husband finally decide to join their libraries together. Of course complications arise--what to do with duplicate copies? Who has to give up their cherished edition? How is the combined library to be organized? Fadiman seems the kind of bookish person you'd want to have for a best friend. She has an intimate and conversational style that feels more like she's chatting with you over coffee and a scone. She is passionate about books and words and has a great sense of humor. Even if you think breaking the spine of a book is an unforgivable crime, you will laugh at her essay "Never Do That to a Book." At the end of the book Fadiman has a couple pages of recommended reading in case you want more books about books. She even recommends one of her very favorite essays, "On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse" by none other than my pal Michel de Montaigne. She's truly a kindred spirit.

You're Invited...

To join the gathering of the Slaves of Golconda in a discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Discussion begins December 18th on a blog near you.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Space and Scribbling, But Not Scribbling in Space

I got in some good hours of reading this weekend. I spent some time puzzling over the intricacies of space with Brian Greene. I have never thought much about space before but have discovered that it is pretty important if you are a physicist. In one chapter I learned the history of space theory. In a nutshell, Newton came up with a theory of absolute space. To him space was an actual thing and absolute space, even if it was completely empty, is the only way to measure and explain the fact of relative acceleration. Then Leibniz and some others came along and said that space does not exist at all except in relation to objects, i.e. the space between you and your computer, or your house and the neighbor's house. If there are not objects present, there is no space either. This is called the relationist theory of space. But when a guy named Mach got to thinking about it, he agreed with Leibniz but put a spin on it. He said that absolute space cannot exist because relative acceleration (i.e. the speed of water swirling in a bucket vs the speed of the spinning bucket) can only exist in relation to objects. Therefore, the more objects that are present, the faster the acceleration; the fewer objects present, the slower the acceleration. If you should ever find yourself spinning in completely empty space, you would not actually be spinning because there is no point of reference by which to judge your speed--acceleration does not exist in empty space. Pretty heady stuff, and that's only chapter 2! The next chapter is on Einstein. I do believe that his conception of space is about to throw a wrench into the works. I had to balance the cerebral workout with a bit of Clarissa. She's still confined at home and is about to be forcibly removed to her Uncle Antony's house which has a drawbridge, a moat and a chapel where Clarissa is sure she will be made to marry Mr. Solmes. She overheard her brother and sister talking with the very man in the garden. What she heard made it very clear that he wished to marry her only for her property which is conveniently located right next to his. Clarissa has also been deemed by her family as a too ready scribbler, something meant as an insult. She is indeed quite the scribbler. I don't know how she manages to avoid writer's cramp. Not only does she write long letters, but she writes them first as a draft, then makes a clean copy before sending them. Plus, she also frequently copies her copies to send to her friend Anna Howe. Currently she is writing a letter every one to two hours! It's a good thing she is wealthy or I don't know how she'd afford the paper, the quills and the ink. Speaking of scribbling, I have my essay class tonight. I had three essays of my classmates' to read and comment on. I have to finish my essay up this week and make copies for everyone for class next week. Then they get a week to read it before they tell me what they thought. I don't expect anyone to declare it brilliant, but I do hope it doesn't leave anyone grasping for something nice to say about it. Be sure to check out the cartoon slide show of Dale Peck titles we won't get to see since he wrote a children's book instead (scroll down, it's in the Multimedia section). My favorites are a toss up between "America: It'd Be Better Without the People" and "Einstein: The Ridiculous Ditherings of a Man Who Had the Worst Hair of His Generation." And if you need more holiday inspiration, The Guardian offers its list of best books of 2005

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Holiday Help

My Bookman and I have decided to make charitable donations to Heifer International as holiday gifts this year. We'd like to also send a book to the people we are donating on behalf of that somehow relates to the donation. For instance, to those for whom we are donating a hive of honeybees we'll send a copy of Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee. But we are stumped as to what to send to those for whom we are donating a flock of chicks. The chicks will be egg layers, though I have no illusions about the fact that they will also get eaten someday. I don't want to send a cookbook, nor anything to do with Chicken Soup. The only book I can come up with is Chicken Little. Since it is for adults, I'd rather send something a little more grown up. Anybody out there know of a book in which chickens are prominent? These are not poetry reading people so any fiction or nonfiction suggestion will be most appreciated.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Montaigne's essay "On Coaches" pretends to be about animal-drawn transport that runs the gamut from war chariots to posh carriages, but is really a criticism of ostentation and cruelty. I love how Montaigne rarely approaches a subject head-on. He begins by talking about something seemingly unrelated and circles round and round until you are caught and don't even know it. In this essay he begins by discussing causes, as in cause and effect. He makes fun of "great authors" (including himself, perhaps?) who, when they write about causes, "not only marshal those which they reckon to be true but also those which they do not believe, provided that they have some originality and beauty." The reason "we" do this, Montaigne believes, is because "we cannot be sure of the master-cause, so we pile cause upon cause, hoping that it may happen to be among them." Then he gives us some examples. The first is why we say "bless you" when someone sneezes. Montaigne suggests it is because we break three kinds of wind: "the one which issues lower down is very dirty; the one which issues from the mouth comports an element of reproach and gluttony; and the third is sneezing, which, since it issues from the head and is blameless, we give that an honourable greeting." Who knew? I always thought it had something to do with the soul temporarily leaving the body and "bless you" some magic words to keep the devil from popping in before your soul can return. Or something like that. His second example is much more reasoned. Montaigne suffered from motion sickness, particularly sea sickness. Since he didn't have Dramamine or a patch, he toughed it out. There was a prevailing theory that sea sickness was caused by fear, but through personal experience and anecdotal research among people he knew, Montaigne proves that fear has nothing to do with it and might even help alleviate it. What does any of this have to do with coaches? Turns out Montaigne is just softening us up because he is about to throw some causes together in hopes of proving something. There is a right usage of a coach and a wrong usage of a coach. Montaigne begins by explaining that it is useful to use a coach--a chariot--in war. A coach also comes in handy as a means of conveyance if you are an invalid and can't sit a horse. He draws a sharp line between this kind of usage and the uses to which kings and princes and the well off put them. Those who use coaches as a means to show off are bad news. Mark Antony had a coach drawn by lions, Heliogablus sometimes used tigers, sometimes stags at other times dogs. And once he had his coach drawn by naked women. The Emperor Firmus used ostriches. What novelty! What spectacle! But Montaigne sees it as a sign of a "sort of lack of confidence in monarchs, a sign of not being sure of their position, to strive to make themselves respected and glorious through excessive expenditure." Similarly, he thinks it quite silly when gentlemen take too much care over their dress when they are at home. A gentleman's house, servants and food should be enough to vouch for him. Here Montaigne admits that when he was a young man he fell short on this. Since he had no other glories, he gloried in fine clothes. But we are to forgive him for this because in his case "they were quite becoming; but there are folk on whom fine clothes sit down and cry." It is interesting that he wrote this because even in Clarissa, Anna Howe and Clarissa Harlowe spend quite a bit of time discussing in detail the clothing of Lovelace and other gentleman callers. Lovelace tends to show elegance and taste while the same outfit on someone else might show a lack of discretion and a certain vanity and dandification. Montaigne views excessive expenditures on something as insubstantial as clothing a waste of money. It should instead be used for something more lasting and sensible like roads or bridges, churches of hospitals. And public figures who waste money on festivals and rich gifts, are even worse. The money they are spending is not their own, it came from the pockets of the citizens and should not be used frivolously. Next we move to considering the conquering of the New World. Montaigne read Lopez de Gomara for his information and was horrified by what Europeans did in South America and Mexico. Montaigne has a rather Romantic view of the natives as Noble Savages. They were peace-loving, kind and generous people. They were smart, they had a civilization and art. They were like children and the Europeans took advantage of their ignorance when they should have taught them how to be good Christian Europeans. But in spite of Montaigne's being mired in a European superiority complex, he did take an uncommon stance against the atrocities perpetuated against the people of the New World. But what do coaches have to do with it? The "Indians" didn't have horses nor, to Montaigne's knowledge, did they have anything with wheels. They got around on foot and their kings were conveyed on litters, not by slaves, but by men who considered it an honor. These people were not corrupted by pomp and circumstance, did not lust for gold--they used it only for art--and clothed themselves in simple garments. The Europeans, on the other hand, ruined themselves with greed and cruelty. It began with coaches which led to ostentatious displays which led to greed which led to cruelty. Got it? 400 years later, I can't say that things have changed much. Our horses have turned into oil and our coaches to cars. Compare the world view of someone who drives a Hummer to work in the city to someone who drives a hybrid, or better yet, takes public transport or rides a bicycle. Compare the greed and cruelty of a country who needs oil so its people can keep driving their Hummers to work to a country that is less concerned about its coaches and more concerned about the welfare of its people (Sweden perhaps?). Montaigne may not have found the master-cause, and I doubt that anything can be said to have one cause only, but he certainly found a contributing factor. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On High Rank as a Disadvantage"

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Sound of Groaning Bookshelves

Wednesday night some pre-Thanksgiving used book shopping was in order. Off we went to Half Price Books. We were excited. We had coupons. The stack I brought home:

  • A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. It's a bit dated, but he did win the Pulitzer for it and it will come in handy should I ever get around to my philosophy study project.
  • Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. My husband says I'm crazy. Maybe I am. But it was only $3 and it is over 1,000 pages long. How could I turn down such a bargain?
  • In Light of India by Octavio Paz. I picked this up on the recommendation of James Tata. Don't expect to see me reading it in the very near future though. My TBR shelf is already packed double deep and is spilling onto a second shelf and the corner of my desk. I need serious help. Anyone want to pay me to just sit around and read all day?
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, and The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. All three for a buck a piece and brand new to boot. I've never read Tess or Hardy for that matter, and feel it is something I need to correct. I love Conrad and have not read Nostromo--yet. And I was inspired by Danielle to to take The Forsyte Saga home with me. How can one say no to a dollar book?
  • Lots of goodies to add to my groaning shelves. And if you are wondering what to read of gift someone this holiday season, The NY Times 100 Notable Books of the Year might be of assistance to you.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2005

    Where Are My Elastic Pants?

    Do you know where yours are? Are you ready to feast tomorrow? We do not celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving in the So Many Books household. Tofurkey just seems so wrong. I mean, I am vegan because I don't want to eat animals, why would I want to eat tofu roughly moulded into the shape of a turkey? So for the past eleven or twelve years my dearest and I have our own "traditional" meal of vegetarian enchiladas with rice and beans. After the dinner settles a bit, we enjoy a slice of fresh pumpkin pie made from real pumpkins. Personally, the enchiladas are great and all, but it's all about the pumpkin pie. As you take a break from your holiday prepartions, or in case you live in a part of the world that does not celebrate Thanksgiving, here are a couple of links:

  • Memoirs of a Geisha, the movie, reviewed. It sounds like it will be a beautiful movie to watch, but if you loved the book, be prepared for disappointment.
  • Since I started reading the completely geek novel Cryptonomicon, I found a list of top 20 Geek Novels. I've bolded the ones I have read:
    1. The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- Douglas Adams (I've read the entire series)
    2. Nineteen Eighty-Four -- George Orwell (read this twice, the first time was in 1984)
    3. Brave New World -- Aldous Huxley
    4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- Philip Dick (I plan on reading this "someday")
    5. Neuromancer -- William Gibson (planning on reading this too)
    6. Dune -- Frank Herbert (I read the entire series in college. I have not read the ones his son is writing)
    7. I, Robot -- Isaac Asimov
    8. Foundation -- Isaac Asimov
    9. The Colour of Magic -- Terry Pratchett (haven't read this one, but have read several other of his books)
    10. Microserfs -- Douglas Coupland
    11. Snow Crash -- Neal Stephenson
    12. Watchmen -- Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
    13. Cryptonomicon -- Neal Stephenson (I just started it and have a long way to the last page)
    14. Consider Phlebas -- Iain M Banks
    15. Stranger in a Strange Land -- Robert Heinlein (I've been thinking lately that I should read this again sometime)
    16. The Man in the High Castle -- Philip K Dick 34%
    17. American Gods -- Neil Gaiman (excellent book)
    18. The Diamond Age -- Neal Stephenson
    19. The Illuminatus! Trilogy -- Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
    20. Trouble with Lichen - John Wyndham
    While not a card carrying geek, I clearly have geek tendencies.
  • Tuesday, November 22, 2005

    Slow Down, You Move Too Fast...

    I've heard about Carl Honore's book In Praise of Slowness and had it on my to read list for some time. But when I heard him on the raidio a few months ago I decided it was time to get around to reading the book. I had high expectations. I was expecting numbers, facts, case studies, research. There was some of that but not enough for me. Most of the book consists of traveling to different places and talking to different people in the Slow Movement. There is nothing wrong with this, I had just wanted something different. Honore begins by talking about "time-sickness" a term coined in 1982 by Dr. Larry Dossey. Dossey uses the term to describe the "obsessive belief that 'time is getting away, that there is never enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up.' " Honore thinks the whole world is time-sick and wonders what it is at the heart of it and can it be cured? One of the things at the center of our drive to go ever faster is out view of time. Most of us view it as linear, an arrow going from A to B. It is finite and, therefore, a precious resource. It is keyed to our mortality. Some, however, find speed to be not a race against death, but an escape from life. These people speed up to avoid confronting how unhappy they are. Another issue Honore sees is consumerism, the need to buy and have more and more. To fuel this need we work more to make more money in order to buy more and more. In Japan there are so many people who die from overwork they have a name for it: karoshi. It is possible to slow down. There is the Slow Food Movement, The Slow Cities Movement, the Slow Sex Movement, the Slow Exercise Movement. You name it, there is probably a slow movement for it. Much of the Slow Movement seems to come from those who are affluent. Honore admits this to an extent, but he also makes a weak effort to say that the less well off can join the movement too, especially Slow Food--it's not about how much your food costs but that you make it from scratch, that your family sits down together to eat it. Does Honore think that a single mother of four who works two or three jobs to make ends meet has time for this? It's very likely the eldest sibling is doing the cooking and what is that child going to make? Real macaroni and cheese or the kind from the blue box? Back when the Industrial Revolution was getting underway there were all kinds of grand theories that soon machines would be doing so much of the work that people would would only have to work a few hours a day. We'd have so much leisure time we'd be able to enrich our lives through literature and museums and study. The idea is beginning to emerge again with robots that cut your lawn and vacuum you house. I don't see these as leisure creating devices, however. I see them as one more item to work more hours to be able to afford. One of the things in the book that was good for a laugh was the idea of "slow reading." Honore writes about Dale Burnett, a professor of education at the University of Lethbridge, who, when he reads a book "of substance," keeps a web-based diary about it. Honore's book was published in 2004 and he writes about lit blogging like it is a rare thing. Unfortunately, I was unable to find his site. If you are a person who is in the fast lane, this book will certainly provide you with some eye opening ideas. But if you, like me, don't wear a watch and don't even have one with a battery that isn't dead, then the book won't be as horizon-expanding. In case you are interested, here are some slow links for you: Society for the Deceleration of Time The Sloth Club The Long Now Foundation Slow Food Slow Cities Slow Exercise Slow Sex Work to Live Tempo Giusto


    What a relief to be home after spending the morning at the hospital waiting. My Bookman is experiencing double vision and no one can figure out why. So we were at the hospital at 7 am for more tests. I didn't know how long we'd be there so I went prepared. I took paper to work on my essay, I took essays from my classmates to read, and I took a book. A very big book. My occasional book group is reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. The mass market paperback clocks in at 1,168 pages. So even if I found myself waiting all day I'd be fine. Hospitals are not comfortable or easy places in which to read. Too much noise and distraction. Plus, just when I'd get settled in, I'd have to go wait somewhere else. I went from MRI to outpatient to radiology and back to outpatient. Then Lance the therapy dog came through and I had to say hi to the friendly yellow lab. It's amazing how his just walking into the room turned all of the worried, glowering faces bright with smiles. There were quite a few people reading books and I tried to see what they were but people were not holding them up in an obliging manner. The woman at the check in desk though was reading A Million Little Pieces and raving about it to a nurse who had stopped to chat. I know quite a few people who have read this book but have thus far managed to resist it myself. I am mostly resisting reading it because everyone else is and then telling me I should read it too. I see the lemmings running towards the precipice and childhood memories of my mother telling me over and over like a mantra or something, "if everyone jumped off a cliff would you do it too?"

    Monday, November 21, 2005

    Back to Class

    It's back to my Personal Essay class tonight. We got a break last week because the teacher had a conference in Chicago. Tonight is the first round of complete full-length student essays. There were only two brave souls who signed up to go first. Actually, I think they were just unlucky because they were sitting at the end of the line when the sign up sheet got passed around. We got their essays ahead of time and I dutifully spent time with them, reading each one twice before making any comments. It took me back to my grad school days of reading freshman composition--writing 101--student essays. These were much better and I didn't have to grade them. I read more Clarissa this weekend. I must say I am a fan of Miss Howe, Clarissa's friend. While Clarissa still finds herself between a rock and a hard place and is all seriousness (though she did lose her temper and say some pert things to her sister!), Anna Howe is the comic relief. In a letter to Clarissa she proposes to help her get out of her situation by offering her Mr. Hickman, the man who is currently courting Miss Howe. Anna finds Mr. Hickman far too serious but suggests that Clarissa would find him affable compared to Mr. Solmes or Mr. Lovelace. And, Anna is certain, that it would not be difficult for Mr. Hickman to switch his affections to Clarissa if he had but a little encouragement. This is good, but here is what gave me the the biggest laugh:

    Only that all men are monkeys more or less, or else that you and I should have such baboons as these to choose out of is a mortifying thing, my dear.
    What tickles me even more is the fact that a man wrote the book! Rambling on to a different topic...I was sitting with my laptop while my husband was watching The Simpsons last night. I get a weekly update from the New York Times for the Sunday book review. I opened the email to see a photo of Virginia Woolf. My husband looked over and in a panic, quit my email program and closed my computer. "You can't look at that," he said. But you can. I hope it is good. I now have to force myself to forget about it because obviously my Bookman has plans. I was also going to read the Jonathan Lethem essay on Italo Calvino, but had to postpone it since my laptop got whisked away. No time to read it this morning or tonight, so I will save it for tomorrow. Something to look forward to!

    Sunday, November 20, 2005

    Montaigne Explains the Birds and the Bees

    Montaigne's essay "On Some Lines of Virgil" isn't about Virgil at all. Sure, he threads Virgil quotes throughout this lengthy essay, but it's not about the quotes. It's about sex. Montaigne was a randy guy and even owns up to accusations that he is--or was--a womanizer. That was in his bachelor days. As an old and ailing married man, things have changed. Montaigne sets up the reader for the controversial topic he is about to embark on. He pulls us in, taking sympathy on an old man who declares, "there is great silliness in extending by anticipation our human ills; I do not want to be old before my time; I prefer to be old for a shorter one. I grab hold of even the slightest occasions of pleasure that I come across." We feel sorry for him--or at least I did--and gladly went along with him, allowing the old man some fun. But while his body might not be able, his mind is as sharp as ever and I fell for his "golly gee" trap. Montaigne undertook the project of his essays using himself as a subject in order to try and understand humans in a more universal sense, so he admits that it is not right for him to hide anything. Therefore, "as a courtesy to the Huguenots who damn our private auricular confession I make my confession here in public, sincerely and scrupulously." Maybe it's because I've been with Montaigne for so long, and I realize that, you, reading this, may not find this line all that funny, but I had a good laugh when I read it. And I laughed even more when he finally turns his essay in the direction he intended all along:

    It pains me that my Essays merely serve ladies as a routine piece of furniture--something to put into their salon. This chapter will get me into their private drawing-rooms; and I prefer my dealings with women to be somewhat private: the public ones lack intimacy and savour.
    Two more sentences follow and then we are plunged into the discussion of "the genital activities of mankind." Montaigne wonders why, though it is the most natural thing in the world and everyone is doing it, everyone is embarrassed to talk about it. And isn't it interesting that those naughty words that are least spoken and made such a fuss over are known by all--"No one of any age or morals fails to know them as well as he knows the word for bread." With that in mind, let's talk about marriage, shall we? Montaigne thinks basing a marriage upon good sex is a bad idea. "Marriage requires foundations which are solid and durable; and we must keep on the alert. That boiling rapture is no good at all," writes Montaigne. A good marriage must strive for loving-friendship. It is a union that should be a "pleasant fellowship for life," and be filled with constancy, trust, and a myriad of other "useful services and mutual duties." You can't build this kind of relationship on sex. Hot sex is for love affairs which are based only on pleasure. Montaigne would be shocked at all the books available these days to help couples improve their sex lives. He would be equally surprised that we consider good sex to be part of a good marriage. Montaigne is not against passionate married sex, but if you have a good marriage, good sex is merely a bonus. Now Montaigne makes a move to dicey territory. He acknowledges that women have a greater capacity for sex then men do and desire it just as much, perhaps more. There is a bit of the "women as sex fiends" element here and throughout the essay that patriarchal society so loves using to turn women into animals or slaves of satan. Montaigne may believe it but he decides that it is not a bad thing. He suggests that "women are not entirely wrong when they reject the moral rules proclaimed by society, since it is we men alone who have made them." Men believe sex is their right and that they should be able to have as much or as little of it as they want and when they want. If a woman's desire doesn't match then she is a bad wife or if unmarried a whore or a tease. Montaigne asserts that this is the fault of men:
    And then we go and assign sexual restraint to women as something peculiarly theirs, under pain of punishments of the utmost severity. No passion is more urgent than this one, yet our will is that they alone should resist it--not simply as a vice with its true dimensions but as an abomination and a curse, worse than impiety and parricide. Meanwhile we men can give way to it without blame or reproach.
    Montaigne chides men for wanting their wives to be both lusty and chaste at the same time, it's like wanting women to be "both hot and cold at once." Men bring on the scorn and laughter of women by their own stupidity. They brag of their endowments. Boys graffiti walls with enormous genitals. Statues are made to wear clothes. Women are not allowed to see a man naked and so their imaginations are left to run wild. Is it any surprise then when a woman finally has sex and is disappointed by the size of a man's penis? Men should either wear clothes that reveal to everyone their true size, or women should be allowed to see men naked. It is not right to "bait and lure women by every means," not right to stimulate and overheat their imaginations and then gripe about how unimpressed they are with the real thing. Montaigne continues the essay, spending much time and effort discussing how silly jealousy is in both sexes, how silly chastity is and all the rules and restrictions we place around the very natural act of sex. "Perhaps we are right to condemn ourselves for giving birth to such an absurd thing as a man; right to call it an act of shame and the organs which serve to do it shameful," suggests Montaigne. Man is a wretched creature but he doesn't have to be in the case of sex. He then goes on to suggest the proper way of making love and all of the delights that could be had by both men and women. Montaigne rebukes men and women for dressing themselves up in clothes and laws. Such things are "but shadowy pretences with which we bedaub each other and repay our mutual debts; but we cannot repay them, but increase rather, the debt owed to that Great Judge who rips our tattered rags from our pudenda and really sees us through and through, right down to our innermost and most secret filth." Montaigne has much to say in this essay and I highly recommend it. For all it's seriousness, it is also quite humorous. It is clear from his thoughts and insights that even over 400 years later, we have not learned a thing in regards to sex. Sure, the prohibitions are not as strict, but women are still burdened by a degree of chastity. If this is not so, then why are women still labeled loose, slut or whore with no equivalent terms for men? I could go on, but won't. I am sure there are plenty of examples you can supply on your own. Montaigne concludes his essay, and concludes it rightly:
    I say that male and female are cast in the same mould: save for education and custom the difference between them is not great. In The Republic Plato summons both men and women indifferently to a community of all studies, administrations, offices and vocations both in peace and war; and Antisthenes the philosopher removed any distinction between their virtue and our own. It is far more easy to charge one sex than to discharge the other. As the saying goes: it is the pot calling the kettle smutty.
    In next week's Montaigne essay, it appears he has much to say "On Coaches"

    Saturday, November 19, 2005

    Designing Woman

    I'm still digesting the very long Montaigne essay I read for today and will post about it tomorrow. In the meantime, let's talk about the dangers of decorating books. My Bookman brought home a copy of Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details that Bring a Home to Life by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo. Susanka made it big a number of years ago with The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live. She's a local architect so made a big splash here in the Twin Cities. I read The Not so Big House before my Bookman and I stared house hunting and it changed the way we approached choosing our home. The book is about the way people actually live and how there is so much wasted space in the huge suburban homes. It's about designing a smaller space that suits your needs and effectively using the space you have. Instead of buying a sprawling house in the burbs, we went for a smaller house in the city. Our 1952 house has some odd things--like a bathroom the size of a sardine can--but we like its quirks and are very glad not to have a bigger house with cathedral ceilings to heat in the winter. Susanka's new book is about the details of a house, how shelves and windows and flooring and a myriad of other things can change the way a house looks and feels. The houses in this book are not huge and most of the projects were re-models. They are all beautiful. They are houses that make me want to live in them, unlike the ones in magazines like House Beautiful that look like museums. To have a Susanka-style house though, it helps to have a lot of money. Her houses are about craftsmanship not about pre-fab plywood. Her furniture is custom made, not screwed together from an Ikea box. That doesn't keep this from being a dangerous book for people on a budget. In fact, I spent the afternoon doing some imaginative remodeling. I think I made my beloved tired with all of my ideas--if we knock this wall down here, if we turn these stairs into floating stairs, if we put up wainscoting there, new kitchen cabinets and countertop, a different window there, and on and on. When I started imagining rebuilding the deck on the back of the house as a solarium with greenhouse style glass and windows, I knew it was time to stop. I'm going to win the lottery when, exactly? I doubt that my house will ever have a solarium, but there are still plenty of ideas in the book that are doable for very little--it's amazing what the right paint and trim can do. While her houses are not affordable by the likes of me, Susanka's philosophy, rooted in detail and quality, is something to aspire to.

    Thursday, November 17, 2005

    Nothing to Talk About?

    I had a moment of panic when I sat down to my computer, I couldn't think of anything to blog about. *Gasp* But then I spied on the corner of my desk, the postcard for the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival. It's the 20th year of the festival and the postcard says they are expecting 20,000 people and more than 60 poets. This is a drool worthy event. I heard about it a number of years ago when Bill Moyers was into poetry. I've wanted to go ever since. And now another year will pass without my attendance. The festival will be during my husband's store manager conference. He has to go to the conference, there is no getting out of it. And going without him would constitute cruel and unusual punishment for a crime he didn't commit. So I will just leave the card on my desk and gaze longingly at the picture on it of several hundred people crowded into a tent listening to poetry being read to them. If anyone reading this has ever been to the festival, do please comment about if it really is as wonderful as it sounds. Now I think I will go finish reading In Praise of Slowness. I have one chapter left until the end. It is--dare I say it--a fast read.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2005

    Ranting Ahead...

    Dot Mobile, a company that offers mobile phones to students has hired Professor John Sutherland, professor emeritus of English Literature at University College London and this year's chair of judges for the Booker, to provide text message summaries and quotes from literature to subscribers. Condensing literature down to a text message they hope "will help make great literature more accessible." In Dot Mobile's press release they explain, "We are confident that our version of 'text' books will genuinely help thousands of students remember key plots and quotes, and raise up educational standards rather than decrease levels of literacy." There is so much wrong with this I don't even know where to start. I think one of the things that bothers me most is the idea that the study of literature is all about remembering "key plots and quotes." Has education sunk so low that this is what gets taught these days? Are there no discussions of theme, metaphor, symbolism? Are kids not encouraged to think about meaning? Or encouraged to just think? Then there is the whole making "great literature more accessible" thing. Summing up Pride and Prejudice as "Evry1GtsMaryd" is accessible and meaningful in some way? What do students gain by this? What does anyone gain by this? (Aside from Dot Mobile and Sutherland making money?) It doesn't increase levels of literacy or education, it makes a mockery of it. To narrow literature down to a text message encourages kids to make their own thoughts small. I am a believer in a liberal arts education. I think you cannot have scientists who know nothing about literature. Nor can you have artists who know nothing of science. If you want children who will become leaders who solve problems and thinkers who imagine better ways of doing things, then you can't get there with "2B? NT2B?=???" Shame on Dot Mobile. Shame on Professor Sutherland.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2005

    Links Galore!

    The links have been piling up. Here's a few you might find interesting.

  • Read an excerpt from Slam Dunks and No-Brainers by Leslie Savan. While it seems like a fun read it also appears that it asks some important questions:
    Pop speech is a form of entertainment that almost anyone can perform. It connects people instantly. It can keep conversations bobbing with humor and work against our taking ourselves too seriously. It's nothing if not accessible. But while pop language is fun, useful, and free, it is so in the same way that advertising-supported media is fun, useful, and "free": It requires subtle social and political trade-offs. And so I come not to praise pop, but to ask, What do we lose and gain in the deal?
    I'm not quite clear on how pop speech is different than slang. I do know though that when my mom used "bling" in conversation with me a few weeks ago, it felt so wrong.
  • Google is at it again. Would you be willing to rent a book online? Will people really go for this? If I don't want to buy the book I borrow it from my library. Somehow curling up with my laptop to read a book doesn't sound that appealing.
  • An interview with Simon Winchester about his new book, A Crack in the Edge of the World and why what happened in San Francisco in 1906 is still relevant for today.
  • A story looking for a publisher and an interesting attempt to find one. Meanwhile, Paul Rowland is publishing his as a blog and Rebecca East took the iUniverse and a website route.
  • That aluminum foil hat you've been wearing to keep the aliens from getting into your head? It doesn't work. What about mylar? Does mylar work?
  • Darn Those Weather Forecasters!

    After all the anticipation yesterday about the first snowfall of the year, it didn't snow! It rained most of the night but stayed just above freezing. Now the weather people are making up excuses and supposedly it's going to snow tonight but instead of the respectable 6-8 inches of yesterday we'll be lucky to get three. And it will be falling on top of ice too since the rainwater will be freezing. I hope the salt trucks are loaded up and ready to go. My Bookman and I finished listening to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe last night, read by Michael York. It was fun to listen to. York's girls' voices were unintentionally funny. It was an enjoyable "read" but having never read it as a kid, it just didn't have a magical feeling for me. I can see, however, how children of a certain age would find the book wonderful. Unfortunately, I am well beyond that certain age. I think I need to take a listening break from Narnia for a bit though--we have the whole set on CD--and go for something a little less sweet. The jigsaw puzzle and the knitting will just have to wait until we agree on something we both want to hear.

    Monday, November 14, 2005

    Bookish Facts

    Here are a couple of bookish facts from Bibliotopia for your amusement.

  • The oldest bookstore in the United States is The Moravian Books Shop in Bethlehem, PA. It was established in 1775 and is believed to be the longest operating bookstore in America.
  • Barnes and Noble is the largest bookstore chain and is the largest online only bookstore. The largest single bookstore is Powell's Books in Portland, OR--43,000 square feet of pure bliss. (I've never been there, but I am imagining how wonderful it must be!)
  • The first bookstore to sell only paperbacks was City Lights Book Shop. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened the store in San Francisco in 1953.
  • A Week Off From Essay Writing

    Woo hoo! No class tonight. The teacher is in Chicago for a conference. It's nice to take a break anyway. We've essentially completed the course. The remaining few weeks will be student sharing of work. At last we are expected to write a full length essay, none of these "nuggets" like we've been doing. Because I was sitting in a good spot when the sign up sheet went around the table, my essay isn't due until the last week of class. I have no idea what I'm going to write about yet, I'll work that out in the next few days. It will be nice to stay in tonight because the S-word is in the forecast. In case you live somewhere it rarely drops below freezing, the S-word is snow. It will be the first snow of the season here in the Twin Cities and we are expecting 4-8 inches by the time it's done tomorrow night. Now snow is no big deal here; it's the first snow when everyone is remembering how to drive in it that I don't like to be out in. In Minnesota if you make a big deal about snow you don't belong and need to move south where people with less character and fortitude live. If you reside in Minnesota you have agreed that it is your moral duty to continue about your business even if there is a blizzard outside and you have to tie a rope around you so you can find your way back to the house after turning on your car to warm it up. As a Minnesotan you are also not allowed to complain about the cold, you must laugh in the face of the icy winds from Canada. On the rare occasion when it reaches 25 below, there will be no huddling indoors. No! You boil a pot of water on your stove, put on three layers of clothes, two hats, a couple pairs of mittens, several pairs of socks, insulated snow boots, and wrap a scarf around your neck and face, then you call someone, anyone--the radio station, your friends in Florida--and through muffled layers of wool and thinsulate, describe to them in minute detail how the boiling water freezes BEFORE it hits the snow. If you're really good, you put food coloring in the water. For some reason this is hilarious. Since I am not originally from Minnesota, I do not feel compelled to participate in such snow and cold craziness to the extent the natives do. I will go out in the snowstorm to my work day tomorrow in order to show that I will not let the weather win. But that's it. I will be snuggled up tonight with a cup of hot chocolate and a book when the flakes begin to fall. And tomorrow night, as the plow rumbles down my street, I won't even bother to look up from the pages I'm reading. While my neighbors feel the need to prove themselves, I am content to hibernate with a good book. Or two. Or three. Or--

    Sunday, November 13, 2005

    Clarissa Report

    I haven't done a Clarissa report in a few weeks now. I have been reading, though ever so slowly it seems. I am up through letter 40 which means page 187 out of 1499, not even a quarter of the way through this thing! Clarissa is still confined to her room. She is allowed to go out in the garden and to tend her chickens once a day when none of the family is around. She has attempted by turns to persuade her mother, father, brother, sister, and both uncles to allow her to live independently on her estate rather marry the hated Mr. Solmes. She insists that her heart is free and that she has not encouraged Mr. Lovelace, not does she wish to. But then she told them all that their insisting she mary Mr. Solmes will force her to consider Mr. Lovelace as a viable alternative. Of course, the family willingly took this declaration to mean that Clarissa would prefer Mr. Lovelace. They have, therefore, redoubled their efforts and their cruelty. They brought in Mrs. Norton, Clarissa's governess and companion, and insisted she force Clarissa to come round to their side. Mrs. Norton is on Clarissa's side though, so even though she dutifully repeated what the family wanted her to, she felt nothing but sympathy for her sweet girl. She even tried to persuade the family to Clarissa's point of view. They would have none of it, and banished her from the household. For Lovelace's part, there have been a couple of his letters making an appearance at last. He is a dastardly gentleman. He is in love with Clarissa but only because she will not have him. This makes him want her more. He does not like women much because the only time he was really, truly in love the lady jilted him. He's been devastated ever since. In order to get back at the fairer sex, he has become a rake, making women fall in love with him and then leaving them. And of course he is such a dashing gent women can't help themselves--except Clarissa. Everything he does is designed to persuade or push Clarissa towards him. I have reached a point in the book where I would like something to happen. All these letters between Clarissa and Miss Howe hashing and rehashing Clarissa's family's obstinacy is getting old. When Lovelace made a surprise appearance while Clarissa was tending her chickens I thought, at last, something will happen. But no. They were not caught. I guess when something finally does happen, it will be that much more exciting.

    Saturday, November 12, 2005

    Afghan Poet Nadia Anjuman Murdered by Her Husband

    This both breaks my heart and pisses me off.

    Look, Over There!

    Montaigne begins his essay "On Diversion" by insulting women everywhere. He writes about having recently been trapped into consoling a lady who was in genuine distress, an uncommon occurrence since women have a reserve of tears ready to flow on command. He admits that he is no good at persuasion and so, until help arrived, he managed to calm the lady down by by diverting her attention from her distress. It didn't solve the problem, but it did get her to stop crying. What is it with men and a crying woman? Why do we scare them so much? They obviously don't realize that a good cry is a great stress reliever. Better to get all that pent up emotion out than to keep it locked inside where it can do irreparable harm. But I digress. Diversions are also good for things other than crying ladies in distress, they can get haughty women like Atalanta to marry you. Or at least, that's what Montaigne's recounting of the race with Hippomenes and the golden apples he used as a diversion so he could win seems to be saying. The greatest, and perhaps most common, use of diversion is to avoid thinking about death. We can't all be Socrates, so folks during Ptolemy's time followed Hegesias who didn't think about the dying but focused their attention on the new existence they would have after the fact. Or there are the zealots on the scaffold who make a big show of their faith, but really all they are doing is trying no to think about the fact that they are about to be hung. A big battle is also a diversion--in the heat of it soldiers don't think about death for themselves, they are too busy killing the enemy. We can, unfortunately, divert ourselves from life too:

    Our thoughts are always elsewhere. The hope of a better life arrests us and comforts us; or else it is the valour of our sons or the future glory of our family-name, or escape from the evils of this life or from the vengeance menacing those who are causing our death.
    We don't pay attention to the here and now because we are too busy thinking about the past or the future. We excite our souls with disembodied fancies based on nothing. Montaigne recounts the story of Cambyses who dreamt his brother would become king of Persia so he killed him. And then there is Aristodemus, King of the Messenians, who got the idea in his head that his howling dogs were an ill omen and so killed himself. Even King Midas killed himself because of a bad dream. "Abandoning your life for a dream is to value it for exactly what it is worth," concludes Montaigne. But not all diversions are bad. If you are feeling melancholy, diverting your thoughts can lighten you mood. Likewise if you are in pain. Montaigne, who suffered from gallstones, found diversions useful. He gives us way too much information about them:
    The stubborn nature of my stones, especially when in my prick, has sometimes forced me into prolonged suppressions of urine during three or four days; they bring me so far into death that, given the cruelty of the strain which that condition entails, it would have been madness to hope to avoid dying or even to want to do so.
    During such times, he found some relief in thinking about things like "a hound, a horse, a book, a wine-glass and what-not." If Montaigne found so many diversions in the 1580s, how many more diversions do we have these days? We can live our entire lives as one big diversion; we don't even need a dream in order to abandon life anymore. What do all of our diversions tell us about the value we place on our lives? What would our lives be like if we refused to be distracted? Next week, Montaigne writes over 50 pages "On Some Lines of Vrigil"

    Thursday, November 10, 2005


    I always have a nonfiction book going along with several novels. Nonfiction makes a nice counterpoint to fiction, a sort of palate cleanser. But while I can have more than one novel going at a time, I can't do that with nonfiction, I start to confuse the facts if I do. I put in a request at the library about three months ago for In Praise of Slowness. There were several other people ahead of me. Still, I dallied when I finished the last nonfiction book and didn't start a new one until last night. Now I received notice that In Praise of Slowness is at the library. Figures. The book I started last night is Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos. It's physics without the math which suits me just fine. I have always found physics fascinating but when you add in the numbers to go along with the theory I panic--m-m-math! I'm really going to enjoy this book too. How could I not be sucked in when chapter one opens with Greene talking about his father's books in a dusty old bookcase? How can I resist when, a few sentences later, he talks about feeling like Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians? And how can I resist when, as he goes along writing about the nature of reality, he keeps bringing up Camus? Plus, he's kind of cute in a geeky scientist kind of way. But physics will have to wait while I read about slowness. The ironic thing is, both books are about different aspects of time. Perhaps there will be some interesting cross-pollinization. Stay tuned...

    Wednesday, November 09, 2005

    Final Memos

    Bwwwaaahhhhaaaaa! Did you think you would escape from the remaining Calvino lectures? Think again! In case you were lucky enough to escape the first two posts about Italo Calvino's lectures Six Memos for the Next Millennium, you can read about lightness and quickness here and exactitude here. Now for visibility and multiplicity. Visibility. By visibility Calvino means visual imagination for both the author and the reader. The author must first be able to create visual images with words. From those words the reader must be able to translate them into an image. Seems pretty straightforward. But Calvino worries about prefabricated images supplied by the culture or any other kind of tradition. He asks, "What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the 'civilization of the image'? Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?" Clavino is afraid that we may reach a point where we are unable to create images of places we have never seen whether those places be future worlds or past civilizations. Will what we create and can imagine be circumscribed by the images our world is awash in? Calvino sees two paths that we can take. The first is to "recycle used images in a new context that changes their meaning." The second is to "wipe the slate clean and start from scratch." Personally, I don't think that we will lose the ability to create fresh images. I can see that it will become more difficult. I find his first path more interesting than starting from scratch. At least with the first option there is (possibly) a frame of reference for the image(s) that can be used when recycling even if the original meaning or context of the image is overturned. In the second path there is no common reference point and it seems it would be very difficult to establish any sort of significant meaning. Still, it is a thought provoking idea. Multiplicity. Calvino has an idea of the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, "as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world." Calvino suggests that if literature is going to remain alive, we must set ourselves immeasurable goals. He believes, "Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various "codes," into manifold and multifaceted vision of the world." Multiplicity is about exploring possibility, a vision of plurality instead of something singular. To those who object to this idea, Calvino asks, "Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every conceivable way." I think that kind of says it all. There you have it. I will no longer pester you with Calvino lectures. I must now go search for something else filled with juicy ideas. But as your reward for reading this far, "love" poems by Marlene Dietrich have been found.

    Tuesday, November 08, 2005

    One of Those Days

    We had a power outage at work today and when it was over the phone system didn't come back up. Guess whose job it is to either fix it or figure out who needs to call in order to fix it? Yup. I reached a point pretty fast where I wanted to whack the next person who came to tell me the phones weren't working. It was nothing I could fix and after a special delivery part replacement, the repair guy finally had it all back up a little after 5. At least I don't have to worry about dealing with it tomorrow too. If you had one of those days too or if you just want some silly entertainment, play with the singing horses (click on them to make them start and stop). And for something book-related, Random House has been busy. They've got some kind of devilish deal with Focus Films to collaborate on "all aspects of the books-to-film process, including rights, script development, production, marketing, publicity and movie tie-ins," and they announced a pay-per-page e-book project. It's sort of a strange idea and I'm not sure what to make of it. In case you missed it, Anne Rice's new book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, reveals that Jesus was a vampire. Okay, that's not only lame but pretty old by now. The NY Times review.


    Monday, November 07, 2005

    Another Week of Class

    Another Personal Essay class tonight. This week we went for short-short essays. We were assigned to read "The Hurricane Ride" by Bernard Cooper which was really wonderful. We also read "My Face" by Robert Benchley, "Essays in Idleness" by Kenko, and "Asthma" by Seneca. I didn't much like the Kenko piece which was more personal journal than essay, but Benchley writing about growing old and not recognizing his face in the mirror was humorously done and Seneca was very readable. Montaigne read Seneca and I can see the appeal. I might have to read more of him. The writing assignment was to write a one page essay--double spaced--and make it complete and polished. I was worried at first, how can I write a complete essay in around 250 words? Yikes! But recently I picked up Rumi again. He had been sitting beside my bed with a bookmark in the same place for almost a year. He writes fairly short poems in sort of couplets (they aren't really couplets, but that's the best I can describe them) and packs them with meaning. Here's an example from the beginning of a poem called "The Core":

    Whoever planted this apple orchard hid it in a mist of language, though some fragrance comes through. Keep your nose subtle and clear for that. Coarse companions can clog you with mucus, so that you forget what's concealed in word-fog
    And then I saw this one page essay I had to write is more like a poem, an essay haiku. So I will be taking my essay haiku to class tonight and see how it goes. Meanwhile, I will leave you with a complete Rumi poem to contemplate:
    The Ground's Generosity Remember: prayer gets accepted no matter how impure: like that of a woman in excessive menstruation, her asking dense with blood, so your praise is full of blood ties, full of how attached you are. That tangle of limited surrender is the human mire. We're sodden in bodiness, where the clearest sign of grace is that from dung come flowers, from the bulbous sludge, buds and then sweet pears. The ground's generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty! Try to be more like the ground. Give back better, as a rough clod returns an ear of corn, a tassel, a barely awn, this sleek handful of oats.

    Sunday, November 06, 2005

    Two Things

    Quillhill is giving away another book. You just have to guess the author of the quote. There's a new book I've got my mitts on called Bibliotopia compiled by Steven Gilbar. It's filled with literacry facts and curiosities like the origin of the word "book." Apparently it comes from "beech" as in beech tree because the Saxons and Germans usually wrote runes on pieces of beechen board. There are lists of prizes and books and pronunciation guides to author's names. A wonderful book to dip into.

    Links and Stuff

  • Ever wonder what happens to your garbage? Wonder no more! Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers sounds like it is fascinating and stomach turning all at the same time. Read an excerpt and an interview.
  • The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks is going to be made into a movie starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin. I read the book when it first came out and I thought it pretty good. But it is short stories. Granted, they are linked stories, but there isn't a single plot. I am not excited about the movie, but I am curious as to how they could make the book into one. There is room for brilliance and disaster. Something tells me the odds are in favor of disaster.
  • The storySouth blog is keeping tabs on an interesting story. Author Brad Vice's first story collection, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, won the Flannery O'Connor Award last year and was just published by the University of Georgia Press. One of the stories in the book is based on another book, Stars Fell on Alabama by Carl Carmer. When the U of Georgia Press found out about it, not only did they destroy the book, they also revoked Vice's prize. Now this seems a bit unfair to me. After all, Vice did not plagiarize. It is my understanding that what Vice did is perfectly legal. But intellectual property and copyright are huge issues right now. There's even two new books out on the subject.
  • Saturday, November 05, 2005

    Friends, Sex and Books, What More Could Anyone Want?

    Montaigne's essay "On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse" is both entertaining and infuriating. The three kinds of private intercourse Montaigne finds most worthy are:

    1. Loving friendship (as opposed to ordinary friendship)
    2. Loving relationships with "ladies" (it helps if they are beautiful and intelligent)
    3. Reading books
    The essay begins with loving friendship. Montaigne had one of those soul-mate kinds of friendships with Etienne de la Boëtie who died in 1563. To this friendship Montaigne compares all others. He readily admits that he has been ruined by it, unable to accept anything less. He has difficulty mixing with people and needs to handpick his companions. The conversation of low caliber company leaves him dozing or silent. By nature Montaigne finds it "hard to impart [him]self by halves, with limitations and with that suspicious vassal-like prudence prescribed to us for our commerce with those multiple and imperfect friendships--prescribed in our time above all, when you cannot talk to the world in general except dangerously or falsely." He would much rather be alone than among people he does not respect. Here! Here! Next, Montaigne moves on to loving relationships. Have you already guessed that this is the infuriating part of the essay? Montaigne believes that sexual intercourse has a higher purpose than procreation and sexual fulfillment. He believes that Venus is a goddess that represents both beauty and spirit. A man should not have sex just to fill a physical appetite, he should be in love too. Montaigne tried the former with prostitutes a few times and while it felt good, his mind was not stimulated and he caught syphilis. When it comes to having a loving relationship with a woman, "Pearls and brocade certainly add to the pleasure; so do titles and retainers." Montaigne declares that he likes wit in a woman, but if he had to choose between a woman with wit and a woman with a body that is not wanting, then he'd go for the latter. He declares, "where love is concerned--a subject which is mainly connected with sight and touch--you can achieve something without the witty graces but nothing without the bodily ones." Beauty is the privilege of women and Montaigne wonders what more they could want than to "live loved and honoured?" Reason, wisdom, and loving-friendship are to be found in men and that is why "they are in charge of world affairs." Now I know it is only the late 1580's when Montaigne wrote this and feminism was a long way from becoming a movement, but come on! He had friendships he valued with intelligent and talented noblewomen, he even dedicated a few of his essays to one of them. How could a man so smart be so stupid? Just when I'm about to explode with righteous indignation, Montaigne changes the subject to books. Books are good for the soul, and Montaigne even admits that it's okay for women to read certain things but only in French, not in Latin. Books according to Montaigne, console in old age and in retreat, relieve the weight and distress of idleness, blunt the stab of pain, distract from morose thoughts, and best of all, rid the reader of boring company. With obvious pleasure and pride, Montaigne describes the location of his library--third story of a tower-- and details of the room--round, table and chair, five shelves of books, a circle of free space 16 yards in diameter, and an unhampered view in three directions. But books aren't all good:
    Books have plenty of pleasant qualities for those who know how to select them. But there is no good without ill. The pleasure we take in them is no purer or untarnished than any other. Reading has its disadvantages--they are weighty ones: it exercises the soul, but during that time the body remains inactive and grows earth-bound and sad.
    So in other words, no matter how much we want to sit around reading all day, we need to get up off our backsides and get a little exercise. I had a professor in college who noticed that I biked to class. She told me that exercising the body is good for the mind too. At that time I just nodded and smiled because if I had a car I would have been in it. Now I have a car and I bike to work because I want to. I also enjoy long walks, especially to clear my head after reading or writing. Nonetheless, I still begrudge my body the time it takes away from my books. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Diversion"

    Thursday, November 03, 2005

    Calvino's Tude

    To continue with Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium, we come to Exactitude. If length is any indicator, exactitude is more important than lightness and quickness. Or maybe it is longer because he is striving for exactitude in the lecture. Whatever the case, I wholeheartedly agree with Calvino on this value. Early in the lecture he defines exactitude as three things:

    1. A well-defined and calculated plan for the work.
    2. Clear, incisive, memorable visual images.
    3. Language as precise as possible in terms of both "choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination."
    Calvino then spends a bit of time bemoaning the apparent plague afflicting language. The symptoms of this plague are "a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas." The disease dilutes meaning, blunts expressiveness, and extinguishes "the spark that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances." It is a lack of substance Calvino finds not only in language but also in the world (this might explain the proliferation of Chicken Soup books and all those books for Dummies). The plague makes "all histories formless, random, confused, with neither beginning nor end." But worst of all is the resulting loss of form in life. Calvino tries to oppose this "with the only weapon [he] can think of--an idea of literature." It is all very rousing. I can imagine a soundtrack with the music swelling to a triumphant crescendo. I can see the lecture hall crowd leaping to its feet, cheering wildly--Calvino! Calvino! Calvino! Our hero! Calvino knows the argument for the other side of exactitude and sets out to examine it by using Giacomo Leopardi who claimed that the more vague and imprecise language is the more poetic it becomes. Calvino uses examples of Leopardi's writing and concludes that in order for Leopardi to be vague and imprecise he has to be extremely exact and meticulous in his attention to composition, image, detail, atmosphere, etc to achieve it. Leopardi, therefore, proves Calvino right. A very clever argument. At the end of the lecture, Calvino uses Leonardo da Vinci as an example of someone striving for exactitude. In one of da Vinci's notebooks there are notes that show him recording evidence to prove a theory on the growth of the earth. He has examples of buried cities and marine fossils found in mountains. One of the fossils caught his imagination and da Vinci concludes that it must be an antediluvian sea monster. He then writes three sentences trying to describe what this creature must have looked like. It is fascinating to follow his progression:
    O how many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, with your black and bristly back, looming like a mountain, and with grave and stately bearing! And many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, and with stately and grave bearing go swirling in the sea waters. And with your black and bristly back, looming like a mountain, defeating and overwhelming them! Oh how many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, looming like a mountain, defeating and overwhelming them, and with your black bristly back furrowing the sea waters, and with stately and grave bearing!
    Exactitude is obviously hard work. I wonder if Calvino's plague doesn't stem from a certain laziness and sloppiness on our part? Not that I imagine there was ever a golden age, that would be a pseudo-nostalgia for something I never experienced and that never existed (I was about to take a swipe at the Republican party, but I won't and allow you to make all the inferences you want.) But I do think there is a sort of slippage of standards. I could complain about the educational system, but I don't think that is a useful thing to do. Schools reflect a culture and a society. If the schools aren't working it is because they are only a more noticeable symptom of the plague. Stay tuned for Visibility and Multiplicity!

    Wednesday, November 02, 2005


    At only 124 pages Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium isn't exactly a big book. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in thought provoking ideas. The six memos are lectures that were written for the 1985-86 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. Calvino died before he could deliver the lectures and before he wrote the final sixth one. Therefore even though the book is called Six Memos it is really only five. Each lecture examines a quality of literature that Calvino thought important and worthy of developing and carrying into the 21st century. The five lectures in the book are: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. The sixth one was to be called Consistency. Lightness. Calvino writes:

    Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one [an image in Boccaccio of Cavalcanti leaping]: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times--noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring--belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.
    Calvino goes on to clarify by using more images from literature. What he means by lightness is multi-faceted. He wants a lightening of language "whereby meaning is conveyed through verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency." He means light like a bird, not like a feather. He wants precision and determination. He suggests we can find plenty of what he means in Emily Dickinson. Lightness also means a certain "narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work." This could also be a highly abstract description. Calvino suggests that Henry James has elements that illustrate this idea. And finally, lightness is reflected in visual images that acquire "emblematic value." Here it is the image that impresses rather than the words. for example, Don Quixote driving his lance through the sail of the windmill. Quickness. This is about time and playing with time. The narrative time of the story cannot be measured against real time. Time in a story can be drawn out and ever expanding or contracted. It is about manipulating the continuity and discontinuity of time in a Scheherazade fashion. Quickness is also about style and thought, agility, mobility and ease, "all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns." It feels to me to be rather cinematic in the way where scenes tend to be short and change quickly. There doesn't seem to be one long continuity: this happened then this happened then this. It seems to be jumpy for lack of better descriptor. Calvino thinks "a swift piece of reasoning is not necessarily better than a long-pondered one. Far from it. But it communicates something special that is derived simply from its very swiftness." With the speed of the world these days I amm reluctant to embrace this idea. When I sit down to read I want to escape speed, I want to slow down. But maybe I am getting the experience of reading confused with the actual quality Calvino is talking about. I will leave you to ponder these two qualities for a while. I will return tomorrow with another one or two.

    Tuesday, November 01, 2005

    A Few Links

    Here are a few links for your internet browsing pleasure:

  • Google is back to scanning books. To help allay publisher's fears, they will start with older book. Will it work? Stay tuned. It's better than Days of Our Lives
  • Prepare for the Robot Rebellion, read this book.
  • Bookshelves for the industrial-look do-it-yourselfer
  • Is your To Read list not long enough? Visit Reader2 (that's Reader Squared. I'm too lazy to look up the html code to get the 2 to go in the right place)
  • Meandering Book "Essay"

    I have a picture on my desk that my grandma sent me. It’s an old Polaroid, the kind on thick, hard paper that took fifteen minutes to develop. It’s just me in the photo, sitting on Grandma’s scratchy greenish-tan sofa. I am about two, maybe three. I am so small my feet are very far from the edge of the seat. My white soled shoes are clean, not a sign of daintiness, but evidence that I did not wear shoes often. With the doctor’s approval I was allowed to run around barefoot, something I still prefer. Shoe shopping was, and is, a traumatic experience for me. My wide feet want freedom and comfort, not the pinched prison of shoes that never fit quite right. In the photo I am wearing shoes because I am at Grandma’s house. I am also wearing a brown jumper with a light brown shirt underneath. On my lap, filling it entirely, is a book. It appears that I either just finished looking at it or am about to read it backwards. I don’t remember learning how to read. In my mind it’s like a light switch, one moment I can’t read and the next moment I can. I know from having been told, that I could read in preschool. In kindergarten I remember reading the instructions on the worksheets without the teacher’s help. My sister could read before kindergarten as well. She and my mother and I went to a spring open house at my school when I was in first grade. At the end of the evening we visited by former kindergarten teacher. My sister would be starting with her in the fall. While my sister demonstrated her reading ability with Dick and Jane, I pouted in a corner. I read so much better but no one asked me for a demonstration. In my third grade class we were visited once a week by a sixth grade class. They were supposed to tutor us in reading. To the delight of my tutor, I read as well as he did. He must have bragged to his classmates because we were frequently engaged in reading competitions. The other tutors would bring over their challenges, “bet she can’t read this,” they’d say, handing over the book. “Bet she can,” my tutor would say with the utmost confidence. I never let him down. I had a library card as soon as I could write my name. My mother would take me every two weeks and I would check out as many books as I could carry. I loved the library. I loved being surrounded by all those books and their secrets. I loved the dry, musty smell. A library was a sacred place, more sacred than church. In the library you have to be quiet so your words do not interfere with the words of the books. In church you have to be quiet so God can talk to you. But I never heard God say anything while books never ceased their whispering. Relatives eventually caught on that I didn’t want dolls for my birthday, though a fancy Barbie ensemble was acceptable. Santa figured it out too. When I was a teenager and gifts became cash, I’d spend it all at the bookstore. This distressed my mother who thought there must be something wrong with me. She encouraged me to try and be more like other teenagers and spend my money on new clothes of which I had plenty. She even went so far as to suggest I buy shoes. These days when she sends me a check for my birthday, she writes in the card, “Don’t spend it all on books!” To make her happy I will buy something cheap from Target before I head to the bookstore. There was a time when I could count on one hand the number of books on my shelves that I had not read. But since I met my husband who is also a reader--I like to joke I married him for his books--the number of unread books has grown. There is not a room in the house that doesn’t have books. We even have our own library. By choice we have no children and what might have been a family room is wall-to-wall books. One would think that at some point I would reach some sort of book satiety. But with my husband managing one of those big chain bookstores everyone loves to hate and a planned trip to Hay-on-Wye Wales, also known as Book Town, in spring, I have not yet had my fill. The more books I have, the more books I want. They are my drug of choice, I am powerless in their presence. I can’t say no. I buy books with the intention of reading them, I do not collect them as objects. I know I will never read them all, but I don’t like to think about it. On the rare occasions when I do, I am filled with overwhelming despair. A black pit opens before me and I hear Death’s boney hands rubbing together in anticipation. Better not to think of that. Better to think instead about where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza will find themselves next. Or worry over the trials and travails of Clarissa Harlowe. Better to tune my ears to the whispering of my books.