Bookish Items…

Once a month I write a short column for the newsletter of my favorite local bookstore. It’s stuff off the top of my head, for fun. Herewith a few tidbits…

Suppose You Wrote A Book And Nobody Showed Up….

    Imagine a world without books. No, wait. Imagine a world without writing. No writing, therefore no books. So, what have we got then?
    More trees. More forests. A greener world. And a world filled with more species of animals and plants and fungi. A world without paper mills. Without industry. No cars. No airplanes. No cities.
    A world where Shakespeare lives in every village, telling the old stories and elaborating and decorating them and passing them on, memory to memory to memory through untold generations.
    Right. A world stuck in the Stone Age.
    No rockets to the moon. No submarines to the sea floor. No highways wrinkling the landscapes of maps. No chemicals percolating through the bodies of people and animals and plants. Sparkling clean air. Fresh clean water.
    A world in balance. Not one overpopulated and straining at the seams. Not one on the verge of catastrophic meltdown. Not one in which oceans will rise and make useless a half-billion dollar shiny new sewer system in Falmouth.
    Books codify the workings of human minds. Too few books and the world is darkened by the limits put on uses of the mind by those who can write and produce books. Too many books and there can be so much doubt and confusion that paralysis results, and progress is held back, or twisted into dark directions or dead ends by writers most capable of writing falsehoods for the popular mind.
    In either case, too few or too many, useful truth suffers, though less in the latter. In the former case, we are told the Earth is flat, and have little recourse until enough people climb the high hill and see the curve of the horizon and watch a ship’s mast disappearing. In the latter case we are told in one book it is flat, in another it is round, in yet another it is pear-shaped, and in another that we live inside it rather than on the surface.
    We need more books on how to discern what is true and what is false. We need more books on critical thinking, and more social and political will to put them in the schools, starting in the first grade, in the hands of teachers schooled in critical thinking skills.
    Books are valuable, without question. They have carried human culture and advanced it through the last 3,000 years. We would not be where we are today without them.
    The central question, though, asks “Where are we?”   

A Paean (not exactly) to Misanthropy

    I am an elitist. Or possibly just a simple misanthrope. Those are the only two conclusions I can draw when I consider my choices of reading material.
    For example, I struggle to learn Classical Greek, a language nobody speaks, and few people read or care about. I toy with ancient Latin. I study classical rhetoric and dabble in philosophy. I’m an absolute atheist.
    Nobody I know shares these obscure interests. In fact, they probably scare people. I once approached Michelle about starting an atheist discussion group at the Inkwell. She immediately developed visions of a peasant rabble, replete with pitchforks and torches, marching on the store with malicious intent. She’ll deny it, but it’s true. Little torches blazed in her eyes. I saw them.
    I started a philosophy discussion group in the store’s basement. A very pretty woman came once, and two of the bookstore people came a couple of times. Then I was alone.
    If our choices define us, then I am a self-defined elitist. Nobody else wants to delve into the things I choose. Or I am a self-defined misanthrope, choosing things nobody else cares about, thus ensuring I won’t have to deal with people, but able to claim I tried.
    Or possibly I could dwell in the best of both worlds and define myself as an elitist misanthrope.
    Misanthropy is not a glamourous undertaking. One cannot get grants. One cannot get government funding. No one recognizes misanthropy as a noble profession, worthy of support. The newspapers and online job sites do not carry ads for misanthropes. Philosophers, yes. Misanthropes, no. It’s hardly fair. What is misanthropy if not a philosophy of human interaction?
    Even so, misanthropes have carried their banner high through all of human history. We were there when the first man stepped onto the African savannah. That small figure still in the treeline grumbling ‘Lotsa luck’ created our noble endeavor. When half a million men died on Napoleon’s Moscow misadventure, we were there. We were that rumpled soldier muttering, ‘Typical, typical.’ We have always been with you.
    And yet there are no monuments, there are no museums, there are no parades honoring our ancient and steadfast contempt for the human race. We have given our all, and in turn, we are ignored, written off as eccentrics, or grumpy old men, or cheap cynics.
    It’s not fair. Typically human, of course, but not fair.

Mortality And The Madeleine

    Recently, after crashing stunningly close to mortality and thus being reassured that I was not, indeed, immortal, I had the fortune to taste a little madeleine cake.
    The taste was somewhat bland, slightly lemony, and the texture was mildly chewy. It was definitely not in the same class as good chocolate chip cookies, especially the kind from Amber Waves, nor was it as much fun as a pecan sandie. It was… satisfactory. And it had no side effects, neither digestive nor mental nor emotional.
    Which is to say the little madeleine cake did not inspire six volumes of tumbling prose, not in French, not in English. In fact, it brought nothing to mind.
    Perhaps that was my parents’ fault. After all, they never fed me a madeleine when I was a child, at least not as I remember my childhood gastronomy. So it does seem quite fair to blame them for my lack of inspiration. Who knows? Had they been more thoughtful and provided fewer dishes of broccoli and lima beans, and more spiritual food such as madeleines, I might have transcended the middle class muddle and effortlessly risen into the ranks of the talented literati.
    For want of cake, was a talent chilled and lost? O cursed parents!
    On the other hand, the madeleine being a decidedly and historically French concoction, perhaps it would be better to look to American confections for a transcendent experience.
    The Twinkie, perhaps.
    One cannot be encouraged by the fact that a knowledgeable food fellow has kept a Twinkie on his desk for three years. It has inspired him to write on junk food, but not to traipse into transcendent memories. It has also not decomposed in the slightest. The Twinkie obviously exists outside the normal cycles of life and death, while contributing nothing to either. Hardly inspiring. It passes through life and our bodies, full of unnameable this and that, signifying nothing.
    Perhaps it is best to simply give up seeking to transcend reality, and to simply sit beneath a tree and eat an apple while contemplating mortality and the gravity thereof.
    But wait… perhaps a fig newton would open new worlds…
    No. That’s merely hope springing, like a rat trap. Give me the apple.

Navigating the Trivium of Life

    Looking back on a misspent life – wait a minute, I’ve spent a lot and have the books and cats and gadgets to prove it. However, the past never went the way I thought it would, or should. My latest purchase, a textbook titled Classical Rhetoric and the Modern Student, reminded me that my ideas of the world seldom correlated with reality. (Still don’t, whisper the cats among themselves.)
    Back when I was a confused young man verging on becoming a confused young adult, I had to go to college. It was what one did, especially if one lacked any pretense to practicality and pragmatism. Not being completely vapid and stupid, knowing I wasn’t ready, I tried to delay. But the powers that were, my father and my guidance counselor, talked me out of growing up before I went.
    Having gotten cheerily accepted by several top schools, I went to Brown. The old man went there, but didn’t finish. Someone had to uphold the family honor. That would be me.They threw me out at the end of the first semester.
    However, the point I’m belaboring is that I had no idea what college was about. Something about classes, professors, about students talking late at night about philosophy and other heights of the intellect. I was, as was that other Ric(k) in Casablanca, misinformed.
    We intellectual giants got drunk, played cards, went to mixers, ogled girls and made sniggering remarks, tried to date them, studied things we could see no use for, tried to make sense of life, of anything, and sweated the Cuban missile crisis. The experience of college made a mess of my image of college.
    My image was apparently drawn from Medieval times, when the Trivium and the Quadrivium ruled, and the life of the mind was quite serious, or so I took it to be. College, as an intellectual exercise, was wasted on me, though I did finally graduate Brown seven years later.
    But, now, with thinner hair and more weight and an experienced brain, I find myself drawn to matters of the Trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. I dabble in Ancient Greek and in Latin. I play a bit with Aristotle. I study Classical Rhetoric. I stumble along a path that may lead through the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, to Beowulf and Dante. Logic texts and critical thinking books dot my shelves. Philosophy texts abound. My brain lives and leaps. That there really isn’t enough time left crosses my mind, but like they say, it’s the journey that matters. And the books along the way.

Television, The New Book…

    Back when television was a shiny, new, and awesome gray eminence in American households, rebels spoke of the new medium becoming the new book, replacing the old paper and ink standby. Critics noted the impracticality of carrying the telly in a purse, and perusing it on the subway was simply out of the question.
    Well, that’s changed!
    We have had for a while tiny televisions that fit in the pocket and present a clear picture. Wherever you can get a signal, you can watch TV literature. Masterpiece Theatre. One Life To Live. ER. CSI. NFL. NBA. But that’s still not a book. In fact it’s an addiction.
    Scientific studies show that the brain’s visual center likes movement, especially if things move at least every two seconds. A quickly changing image is in itself attractive to the brain, and in the television milieu, addictive. TV junkies is not an idle phrase. Ever find yourself staring at the screen and not knowing what’s going on? Or flipping channels in an endless quest for…something? That’s your brain on drugs, a drug composed of photons injected directly into the brain’s circuits.
    Naturally those hours of addiction are hours that you don’t spend reading. Or getting addicted to reading books. And books can be addictive. It’s just that you have to work at book drugging, whereas with TV it’s all done to you – you just sit there, remote in hand, eyes glazed.
    Take a book. Put it on the table. Stare at it. Well, geez, it doesn’t DO anything!
    You have to pick it up and hold it. You have to open it. You have to decide if you want to read the cover blurbs or go right to the text. Or maybe read the copyright page, a table of contents. Perhaps a Preface, or an Introduction? Do you want to skim some of it? Read the ending first? Dive right in to the first chapter and take your chances?
    By now all these decisions have exhausted you and you have to put the book down while you rest. It will still be there, complete, intact, when you come back. Unless the dog gets hold of it.
    Now you open it up and read. You collaborate with the author. He writes images and you respond by creating them in your mind. He writes ideas and you turn them over and engage other parts of your brain in the examination. He writes dialog and your aural senses recreate the sound. He shows you a character and you create him, right down to his socks and tone of voice.
    If the writer is really any good, you are addicted to creating his work with him.
    And you don’t need to buy batteries.

Cursed by Books!

    When Howard Carter opened Tutankhamen’s tomb he released a curse that killed him.     While I’ve never been cursed by Pharaonic demons, books have rained curses of heaven and hell on me since I began work in bookstores in 1995, where I discovered the fateful employee discount. I have the first book that leapt into my hands, Bierlien’s Parallel Myths.
    I still haven’t read it. I fondle it now and then. That was the first clue I was a safe haven for books rather than a user. Books know they can come to me for security, for protective Demco dustcovers, for a quiet home and respectful treatment.
    When young I devoured everything printed. Newspapers. Cereal boxes. Five or six novels a week. Then life happened and I foundered on the shores of middle-age. Oh, there was college, a couple of short marriages, a lot of jobs, couple of illnesses, lots of cats, backgammon, computers, radios, etcetera.
    Having finally washed into an age I was never destined to reach from my teens, I rediscovered books. There were always books, but now they got serious about finding me. And not for reading, mind you.
    Books as objects of beauty, even lust. As desirables and as connections. Owning a volume on ancient Greece gives me ancient Greece. I can take the book down, run my fingers over its pages, feel the inked letters and paper ground, smell the ink and the paper, read a few words, close my eyes and for a moment walk in the Parthenon, or the streets of Athens, or on the battlefield when the land greens and the Spartans spatter the landscape with their red capes and their blood.
    Then back on the shelf, with two thousand others and new ones for which I have no room but must stack and double shelve.
    Over the years I’ve tried to maintain some sense of reason and category. Several cataloging  attempts failed, despite the computer. Then, oh mercy me, LibraryThing was revealed and I began cataloging online, using a cute barcode scanner. I’ve only one thousand four hundred to go. More or less.
    I like to believe I’m satisfied, yet a new acquisition always excites me. Recently I purchased the third volume of the Hollander translation of Dante’s Commedia, to complete my set of three. And I eagerly await the publication soon of the Durling translation’s third volume, the Paradiso.
    Though they remain unread, I can open any one of my Dante books and smell the stench and fire of Hell, and be transported instantly, by the curse of books, to my own little heaven.


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9 Responses

  1. @ Ric

    I learned the classical Trivium at Convent school, I’m not sure grammar matters so much, but rhetoric and logic are disciplines that I use every day of my life. They should be taught at school along with literacy and arithmetic but sadly they’re not anymore. Along with Latin, they have become unfashionable.

    I started reading law when I was 19 but I learned my craft, when I won my first award for rhetoric at 7. But logic is just as important; you can really see when you debate an opponent, who is incapable of forming a logical argument or structuring an argument.


  2. At age 7 in the States kids are learning ‘See Spot run. See Jane run. See Dick run.’ Or learning about ‘My Pet Goat’. No wonder this country is so frakked up.


  3. I was reading things like “The tales of Narnia” by 7.

    I can’t remember making my speech but I know the topic was religion and the State and I argued that violence against the State was justified if the State was unjust – it was the year of the miners strike.


  4. Ah, the youngest revolutionary in the history of Great Britain. 🙂


  5. I didn’t get around to reading the Narnia books until I was in my forties. But in my defense I read The Lord of the Rings in my twenties. And Dr. Zhivago when I was fifteen. Not sure if I’ve been moving up or moving down…


  6. ” We need more books on how to discern what is true and what is false. We need more books on critical thinking, and more social and political will to put them in the schools, starting in the first grade, in the hands of teachers schooled in critical thinking skills.”

    Very true. LIteracy, numeracy and critical thinking are the three tools that are absolutely required. Others are helpful and/or valuable (languages, history, music, art) but those three provide the base potential for being able to achieve almost anything.


  7. Ric

    I still haven’t read either of those books.


  8. Steph –

    No surprise there. Doing prize winning rhetoric at age 7, reading law at 19, you’d not have had time for Russian poet/doctors and hobbits, orcs, and wizards. 🙂

    I, on the other hand, am doing it backwards, contemplating, at my age, Raymond Wacks’ Understanding Jurisprudence and various rhetoric books.

    Perhaps we might meet in the middle. 🙂


  9. BT –

    Yes, and I’d add memory training, to be started first thing on the first day of school. Harry Lorayne’s The Memory Book should be required reading, required teaching, for every student.


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