Saturday, October 27, 2012

The books that saved our lives

I shared this snippet of a WSJ article with my students last week and asked them to name the three books that saved their lives. I'm not averse to Kindles, and someday I'll probably cave and buy one, but I have to agree with Joe Queenan here that it is hard to perfect the book. For the entire article titled "My 6,128 Favorite Books," click here
"I wish I still had the actual copies of the books that saved my life—"Kidnapped," "The Three Musketeers," "The Iliad for Precocious Tykes"—but they vanished over the years. Because so many of these treasures from my childhood have disappeared, I have made a point of hanging on to every book I have bought and loved since the age of 21.
Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A M├ętro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in "Homage to Catalonia" in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.
None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.
The world is changing, but I am not changing with it. There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.
Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don't want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after."
—Adapted from "One for the Books" by Joe Queenan, to be published Thursday. With permission from Viking, a member of the Penguin Group (USA).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Edith Wharton

How is it that reading her novel The Age of Innocence never gets old for me? I joked with my students recently about the fact that I am spending a little bit of every summer with Wharton, but I don't mind it. Especially on a day like today when, while grading a student essay, I came across this quote from her autobiography:
"One can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways."
If there is a better motto to live by, I haven't found it. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

All the King's Men

I need to capture a few things while reading this enormous tome for next fall. Such as the following:
"She trusted me,  but perhaps for that moment of hesitation I did not trust myself, and looking back upon the past as something precious about to be snatched away from us and was afraid of the future. I had not understood then what I think I have now come to understand: that we can keep the past only by having the future, for they are forever tied together. Therefore, I lacked some essential confidence in the world and in myself. She came, as time passed, to suspect this fact about me" (467). 

"So I fled west from the fact, and in the West, at the end of History, the Last Man on that Last Coast, on my hotel bed, I had discovered the dream. The dream was the dream that all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve. When you flee as far as you can flee, you will always find that dream, which is the dream of our age...

At first it was, as I have said, rather bracing and tonic. For after the dream there is no reason why you should not go back and face the fact which you have fled from, for any place to which you may flee will now be like the place from which you have fled, and you might as well go back, after all, to the place where you belong, for nothing was your fault or anybody's fault, for things are always as they are. And you can go back in good spirits, for you will have learned to very great truths. First, that you cannot lose what you have never had. Second, that you are never guilty of a crime which you did not commit. So there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all.

If you believe the dream you dream when you go there" (468). 

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Confessions of a Nature Lover"

Back then I was going steady
with fog, who could dance
like no one's business, I threw her over
for a leaf that one day fluttered
first her shadow then her whole life
into my hand, that's a lot
of responsibility and a lot
of relatives, this leaf
and that leaf and all the other leaves
hung around, I told her
I needed space, which was true,
without it I'd only be a soul,
and no one's sure that wisp
is real, that's why we say
of real estate, location, location,
location, and of speech,
locution, locution, locution,
and of love, yes, yes, yes,
I am on my knees, will you have me,
~ Bob Hicok from The New Yorker, May 14, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Check it: new literary blog @ The New Yorker

This is a quote from Roger Angell that I want to remember about what makes good writing (akin to taking the top of my head off):

In the mid-nineties, Roger Angell wrote an essay called “Storyville” about how the fiction department selects stories for inclusion in The New Yorker. The only formula he settles on is the experience of radiant surprise that occurs when a story works. “Reading short-fiction manuscripts can be wearing and wearisome,” he wrote, “Every human situation, every sort of meeting or conversation, is something you have read before or know by heart. But then here comes a story—maybe only a couple of paragraphs in that story—and you are knocked over. Your morning has been changed: you are changed.”

Read more

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Weird Sisters

I just finished Eleanor Brown's new novel The Weird Sisters,and now I'm alternating between trying to decide how many copies to mail out to friends and stewing over what to read next. Whatever follows, it had better be this good. I actually savored The Weird Sisters, lingering over it before leaving for work in the mornings. I even waited a few days before finishing the last chapter because I didn't want to get to the end. This is a habit of my mother's which I have never understood until now. But these sisters struck a chord with me. The title of course alludes to the three elusive witches from Macbeth, which is I why I picked up the book in the first place. If there is anything remotely witchy about them, it is that people love these girls (and you will, too) despite their flaws. Each sister feels she has failed her life in some way and has returned home to her family's university town, where their mother has been diagnosed with cancer and their quirky father reigns as an eminent Shakespeare professor. Cleverly, the narrator is the voice of all three sisters, collectively looking down at their lives with omniscience and empathy.

What enchants me about their story is the family's devotion to literature. Their father hides behind his Riverside Shakespeare, but he lovingly and somewhat cryptically quotes the Bard to his children at every possible opportunity. "You speak like a green girl, Unsifted in such perilous circumstance...Tender yourself more dearly," he writes to his most free-spirited daughter, who has just revealed - well, you'll have to read the novel. He references Shakespeare at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; he has named his daughters Cordelia, Rose (Rosalind), and Bean(Bianca). I am sure there are many things this father would sorely wish for his daughters, each of whom is in the throes of an identity crisis, but he can't possibly be disappointed by the way they have inherited his love of reading and language. As different as the sisters are, they toss Shakespeare's lines to each other like sophisticated slang; they leave half-read novels all over the house; they never leave home without a book in tow. This collective love for literature is one of the ties that binds them, even in the worst of times.

As I read this novel, I couldn't help thinking back to my own childhood and the boxes upon boxes of musty hardback books that my sister and I would bring home from Given's Books, a local used bookstore. Our father would drive us over to this dimly lit store on the far end of town to load up a box of whatever suited our fancy. He never censored a thing (Gone with the Wind in elementary school? Why not?), but he definitely steered us toward his own favorites at times. I don't think it was a coincidence that by high school I had read all The Hardy Boys and the Thomas Hardy novels. My sister and I would plow through our box, and then we'd return those books for credit and fill up again. As different as my sister and I are, magically we both loved to read, and we shared the same bad manners of trying to sneak books at the dinner table.

In The Weird Sisters, the three return home because they need to simplify and order their lives again. They return to the start, which is, among several things, a return to books and Shakespeare. Maybe this is what resonated most with me: turning to books as much for solace and escape as for structure. A return to order. A way to simplify.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

And the winner isn't...

Ann Patchett's NYTimes response to the lack of a Pulitzer Prize winner for literature this year. And yes, it should have been Jeffrey Eugenides for The Marriage Plot:

Let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.

Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.

Ann Patchett is the author, most recently, of the novel “State of Wonder” and a founder of Parnassus Books.