Saturday, August 30

How to talk about books you haven't read

Note: This is an unedited draft. It's pretty long! But I was getting a message that my attempt to save as a draft might fail. So I posted it. And that worked. Go figure.

Pierre Bayard's "How to talk about books you haven't read" is a delight. At first I thought the book was a hilarious spoof, but I became persuaded that though hilarious it's not a spoof: his words ring true. Bayard, a lecturer at the University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst, is very clever and very funny.

Reading the "classics" would already take more years than we have, and more books are pumped out every month, as every book lover knows to her joy and despair. Bayard describes three cultural canons about reading: the obligation to read (one must!), the obligation to read thoroughly, and the agreement that one must read a book thoroughly to discuss it well.

He finds, rather, that a close reading of a book can hinder, not help, one's understanding of it; that skimming the book for highlights, listening to other people talk about the book, and reading reviews and discussions often serve admirably.

"The result of this repressive system of obligations and prohibitions has been to generate a widespread hypocrisy on the subject of books that we actually have read. . . Among specialists, mendacity is the rule, and we tend to lie in proportion to the significance of the book under consideration."

Bayard uses a shorthand code when he refers to books.

UB book unknown to me
SB book I have skimmed
HB book I have heard about
FB book I have forgotten
++ extremely positive opinion
+ positive opinion
- negative opinion
-- extremely negative opinion

Is a book which you have read and forgotten still a book you have read? Bayard writes,
"Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read, and this process is unavoidable."
This is where the book really pulled me in. I'm an avid reader, but the more books I read the more easily I forget. Why do we book lovers then strive to read more, to spend our reading time on "good books?" Why to we read lists of the classics, the 1000 Books to Read Before You Die? What are we so afraid we'll miss? What loss or lack is we don't read, read, read? So many books, so little time, indeed.

When I was in library school, I started to read outside my habitual genres and topics. I wanted to be ready for any reader's question about books. I soon saw that was impossible, but I found new topics of interest, new books to add to my "someday" list. That was when I started to read the New York Times best-seller books. Just so I'd know if someone asked. Has anyone asked? Only a few times. But that didn't stop me. I wanted more, more, more. I browsed the internet for book review and book recommendation sites. I subscribed to Powell's newsletter. More books! More books! I quickly found I couldn't read them all, but I still requested more books than any human could read. Now I planned to "examine" them. Read the first chapter, a random section from the center, and the last chapter. It's become like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, a flood of books.

Ask people about their all-time favorite book. If they can pick one, it is usually one from childhood, or early reading years. When we hadn't read so many books, each one had a more profound impact. If we took a breath between books, and lived with it for a while, it stayed with us. Now we swim in information and entertainment. It's a commodity. Something else to acquire and consume, almost indiscriminately. If we forget what we read, why read?

Most of the book choices I make now are based on reviews. I read so many new books now, or old ones that have been called to mind by something else I've read, or a list of don't miss classics. I used to browse. Remember browsing? Not many people browse anymore. I used to pick out a lot of books that turned out to be just average. The great ones stood out more.

Now I read more really good books in a month than I used to in a year, more well-written and cogent non-fiction, more award-winning fiction. I feel lucky that this is so; that reviews can at least point me in an interesting direction. I close the cover of another great book, relishing what I've just read. What a standout! This will stay with me. But I forget. I've always said that if books were men, I'd have a hundred children. I just can't say no. But there's a downside to this voracity. There's always another encounter and another.

I realize that people still read books now and some people actually love them, but in 1946 in the village our feelings about books . . . went beyond love. It was as if we didn't know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn't simply read books; we became them.
Anatole Broyard, When Kafka Was the Rage. Vintage Press, 1977.

I love this quotation from Broyard, though I can't help but notice that he is speaking of a time in his youth, 30 years past. We open our hearts more to books when we are young. Now we have lived into the answers of so many questions we used to have.

It might be true, then, that the more we read, the more we forget. Montaigne was a forgetful reader, and Bayard (yes, I'm back at "How to talk about books . . . ") quotes from Montaigne's Essays, "And if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retentiveness." Further, Montaigne writes,

"I leaf through books. I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else's. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued: the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget."

In fact recent research on memory has shown just that: we do not accurately recall the source of our ideas and opinions. The opinion formed may remain, but the memory of the source drops away. So dreams, articles from the New York Times, someone's blog, talk radio, textbooks, movies, and more, all contribute to our opinions and ideas, and over time, all come to be weighed equally as sources of truth.

I read that somewhere. I can't just now remember where, but I think it was a good source. [Found it: Robert Burton, On being certain: believing you are right even when you’re not.)

The House of Paper (Carlos Maria Dominguez) is a parable (103 small pages) about the same remembering and forgetting, Brauer, a book-lover and book-collector, acquires so many books that his skimpy cataloging is overwhelmed with the sheer volume of his volumes. He can no longer find anything; can no longer trace sources of ideas and opinions. In despair and madness, he builds a house of his books; hires someone to lay them in cement like bricks and lives in this bleak house until one day his fury mounts and he hammers gaping holes into the house. He regrets this and hires the mason again to repair the house, but it can't be fixed, and eventually all that is left are a few scattered remains of books on a cold windy beach.

The story is narrated by man trying to put the story together some years later, and he talks to one of Brauer's neighbors, Delgado, who also collects books. Delgado says, "To build up a library is to create a life. It's never just a random collection of books. . . they seem to constitute a collection, but I would say that's an illusion. We pursue some topics, and at the end of a certain length of time we find ourselves defining worlds, or if you prefer, we are tracing the steps of a journey, the advantage being that we can conserve its traces. . .we start with a reference to a book we don't have, then when we have acquired that one, it leads us on to another.

The most famous example of this pursuit is in 84 Charing Cross Road. Helene Hanff begins a project of self-education with a book by Arthur Quiller-Couch. When she comes to a reference to a book (idea, opinion, author) she doesn't know, she writes to the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road in London to order the sometimes-obscure texts. At the time she wrote the book the transatlantic correspondence, and the self-education project, had lasted 25 years.

Elisabeth Ellington (A year of reading : a month-by-month guide to classics and crowd-pleasers for you and your book group ) calls this "serial obsession." You are intrigued by a subject and pursue it avidly -- "and then the fancy passes by, and nothing shall remain (A. E. Housman)." Some of the things I have been serially addicted to reading about are Byzantine mosaics, Belle Epoque New York, graphic design, survival stories, seasons, Brenda Ueland, the Sages of Chelm, fools, tricksters, Art Nouveau, mixed-media artists, Prague, the Vatican Archives, and folk art.

Then there are the perennial obsessions that start as hot infatuations but continue over time. For me, and many of my ilk, this includes books about books, reading, writing, authors, libraries and librarians, manuscripts, publishing, paper, book plates, book collectors: everything book and print related (hence the title of this blog, Paper Baubles). (
A year of reading was thus a double hit: a book about seasonal reading. ) Asperger's and autism, gardening, color, and phenology -- there's more to the list but you get the point. I find a happy glow spreading through me just contemplating this list. These are lists of some of my great pleasures.

And that brings us back around to answer the question, why do we read? And read so much? And feel the pressure of so many books, so little time? It's not difficult really. We did I even ask? We read to make new friends, enter new worlds, and experience both new and familiar pleasures.

Sunday, August 24

Stone Arch Bridge, the Guthrie, and Gold Medal Park

I took these photos last year about a week after the 35W bridge went down. I went to the Stone Arch Bridge early on Sunday morning. There were already people there and more were coming, because at that time the 10th Street bridge was still closed and this was the only place you could see the bridge ruins.

There was a solemn air of worship. People conducted themselves with decorum and respect. We were participating in a funeral, and the twisted wreckage of the bridge was the graveyard. It was difficult to see the ruins even from the Stone Arch Bridge, and people did crane to see, but not "rubbernecking." They were bearing witness to a tragedy.

You will see in some of the photos how low the river is. The water level was lowered to aid recovery efforts.

It was a beautiful sunny day, as are many funerals and cemetery visits. The sun relaxed and warmed us. A lot of people started on the bridge and then walked around to Gold Medal Park, Mill City Ruins, and the Guthrie, enjoying the river and the beautiful day. Death, especially random and senseless death, reminds us to be grateful to be living. At the top of the gentle green hill in Gold Medal Park, reached by a path spiraling to the top, was the the spontaneous memorial to those who died when the bridge collapsed, filled with flowers, pictures, signs, and notes.

Wednesday, August 20

Beloit Mindset List

It's almost fall, and that means it's time for the Beloit College Mindset List!

The Beloit Mindset List is composed annually to help college faculty and staff understand the mindset of college frosh. This year's list includes:

WWW has never meant World Wide Wrestling.

Girls wearing head scarves have always been part of the high school fashion scene.

Gas stations have never fixed flats, but most serve cappuccino.

Friday, August 8

What I Haven't Been Reading

I thought it might be worthwhile to note what I'm not reading -- the books that come home from the library and are returned unread.

The Order of Things; an archaeology of the human sciences

I wrote earlier about David Weinberger's "Everything Is Miscellaneous." He praised Michel Foucault's The Order of Things; an archaeology of the human sciences," so I decided to read it.

Here's a random sample from the book:

IV. Duplicated Representation

However, the property of signs most fundamental to the Classical episteme has not yet been mentioned. Indeed, the very fact that the sign can be more or less probable, more or less distant from what it signifies, that it can be either natural or arbitrary, without its nature or its value as a sign being affected--all this shows clearly enough that the relation of the sign to its content is not guaranteed by the order of things in themselves. The relation of the sign to the signified now resides in a space in which there is no longer any intermediary figure to connect them . . .

You get the idea. It's more or less understandable, kind of, but now realize this is one of the more lucid passages and multiply it to get 387 pages.

As the punchline of the old joke goes, "Up in the hills where my people come from we speak of little else!"

The Siege

The Siege, by Clara Claiborne Park, is one of a series of books I've been reading for a book list on autism and Asperger's syndrome. The Morton Grove Public Library hosts the Fiction-L book lists (fiction Reader's Advisory) and they have a great list on Autism and Asperger's in Fiction, compiled by the subscribers of the Fiction_L mailing list.

However, when I was looking for anything I could read about autism/Asperger's Syndrome, it was memoir that really helped me cope and understand. (My oldest son has Asperger's Syndrome, and though he's come a long way, it was a hard slog for a long time.) I found a treasure trove of such memoirs in the downtown Minneapolis Library and am working my way through them. Or maybe I'm not.

"The Siege," written in 1967, is one of the earliest popular works on autism told from the family's point of view. (As opposed to works by professionals about children in institutions.)

I read the first 70 pages and found it entirely too evocative of those painful early years. I wasn't as ready to revisit it as I thought I was. I'd like to return to it, but for now I've put it aside.

Thursday, August 7

Soul Thief

Soul Thief, by Charles Baxter

I tremendously enjoyed the beautifully written "Soul Thief," almost to the end. And though I'm unhappy with the ending, Baxter's writing is so enjoyable I recommend "Soul Thief" anyway.

Here is a book with a blank and tender hero, a book of mirrors, doubles, identity theft, of voiceless people finding voice and others silencing themselves. We are introduced to Nathaniel Mason, drifting through grad school in the early 1970s. (Baxter nails his descriptions of the 70's.) Nathaniel meets Theresa on the way to a party, and she introduces him to Jerome Coolberg. Soon he hears his distinctive life history parroted back to him as Jerome's. Then books and clothing begin to disappear from his apartment and migrate to Jerome. The identity violations climax in a final brutal incident.

The second half of the book opens years later. Nathaniel is a contentedly married man with two teenage sons. From out of the blue, he gets a phone call from Coolberg, asking for a meeting.

The ending has a twist I can't reveal, but I was disappointed. I read book reviews, as I did after "Divisadero," to see what others thought. The New York Times reviewer didn't mind, but the Powell's Books reviewer says, "it saddens me to report that the climax is a hackneyed bit of metafictional whimsy, which more or less sinks the novel."

In reading "Divisadero" and again with "Soul Thief," I assumed the fault was mine, that I wasn't a sophisticated enough reader to "get it." I have enough confidence to say "I didn't like this book/ending," but not enough confidence to think that fault is not solely mine. I wonder when that confidence occurs.

Here are the two reviews I read:

New York Times Review

Powell's Books Review-a-Day

Wednesday, August 6

Divisadero: and the critics are divided

I've been gulping down books like water. When I stop reading I start worrying, so I just keep reading long into the night. With budget cuts looming in the county library, it's not a good time to be a substitute librarian. I'm sad, too, that my kiddo is taking off in two weeks (!) for Loyola University in Chicago. I'll miss him.

So, back to reading!

I've been reading "better" books, and fewer mysteries and thrillers, and enjoying them greatly. Mostly. I just finished Michael Ondaatje's "Divisadero," and found it a slog. The characters in the contemporary part of the book seemed wooden and two-dimensional. I got to page 153 before I felt a jolt of interest in the book. The last third of the book is devoted to the story of Segunda, a French writer whose history Anna is studying, and that was the section that felt most solid and real.

I read several reviews of Divisadero, trying to find out what others saw that I did not. This one was helpful:

From Bookmarks Magazine (cited on
How do we account for the critics' varied reactions to Michael Ondaatje's latest novel? Is it "a beautifully crafted tale" (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) or a "strangely broken-back beast of a novel" (Seattle Times)? Critics uniformly praised Ondaatje's graceful language and poetic imagery, but agreed on little else. Some applauded the nonlinear plot structure, while others found the constantly shifting times, places, and narrators confusing. Characters were pronounced both well-drawn individuals and flat, indistinguishable stereotypes. Several critics lamented the sudden, unexpected shift to Segura's life story, which left the previous plot unresolved. Readers should note that the critics who enjoyed Divisadero the most were those who approached it as a work of art rather than a conventional novel.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Here's my final answer: the time and place shifts were handled well, and I noted several lyrical passages, but it was the flatness of the characters and the storytelling, except for the historical look at the writer Segura, that made reading a chore.

Here's a plot summary from "What Do I Read Next?"

At age 16, Anna lives on a farm in Petaluma, California, with her father, an orphan named Claire, also 16, and a hired hand named Coop. The three young people are as close as siblings; however, their bond is broken when violence erupts on the farm. Anna runs away, and Coop uses his card playing skills to make a living playing poker. The novel traces the adult lives of the trio as they cope with the abrupt and violent end to their "family." Claire becomes an investigator for a public defender, Coop continues to play poker, and Anna becomes intrigued by the life and work of French author Lucien Segura, in whose house she resides. As the novel shifts focus to the life of Segura at the turn of the century, Anna finds remarkable similarities between his life and her own.

Monday, August 4

Middle-Class Lifeboat, Part Two

I got an e-mail from Paul and Sarah Edwards, authors of
Middle-Class Lifeboat!

They write:

"You may be interested to know that we will be breaking it into three eBooks (with some updating for the dramatic changes we foresaw in our economy but that are taking place at a more rapid rate) and the eBooks will be published our forthcoming Middle Class library site. Our policy proposals will be ready soon, too."

The Website: Middle-Class