How We Read Our Books

how-to-open-a-new-bookI recently came across this image online (facebook no doubt), and it got me thinking about how we interact with our books. As is obvious by posts like this and this, I am a tactile reader. I write on pages, break spines, dog-ear pages, and by the time I’m through reading a book, it looks, well, thoroughly read. In fact, it’s a pretty safe assumption to make that the more worn (or can we say loved, instead?) a book looks, the more I enjoyed reading it, or at least, the more I got from its pages. It’s quite easy to pick out my favorite volumes from my library by the amount of tape on the spine holding it together, and it’s not uncommon for me to have to repurchase new, readable versions of these titles. As I’ve written in previous posts, my copy of Huxley’s Island is a perfect example of this, as is my old ratty copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters… and it’s that very book that brings me to this post.

A couple of weeks back, before starting this glorious winter holiday, I stood in front of my high school AP European History class with the intent of discussing Montesquieu’s contributions to the Enlightenment via his Persian Letters. I was standing in front of the class, casually prefacing the work in question, when I pulled out my old, tattered copy. I hadn’t thought anything about the state of my book as I started leafing through it, but almost instantly my brilliant lecture was interrupted by gasps and other sounds of shock and horror. Apparently, the state of my book was enough to completely derail the day’s discussion. Montesquieu forgotten, the students instead interrogated me regarding the sad state of my old paperback - “Is that tape holding it together?” “How old is that book… like 100 years???” “How many ink colors are on that page?!?!”

I have to admit that as far as I was concerned, that particular book wasn’t even close to the need-a-new-readable-copy state yet. It was worn, sure, and some of the text was obscured by a 13 years worth of annotations (hey, each reading yields different insights!), but that’s what made that particular copy mine. The seemingly unending layers of side notes were evidence of my ever evolving dialogue with the text and with the author; the myriad folds and dog-ears were landmarks of the many pages that were lingered on, discussed, and thought about; and the nearly disintegrated spine held together by tape was tangible proof of just how many times I’d opened up that volume to join Usbek on his travels through Europe. My book, because and not in spite of all of this, was familiar, comfortable, and uniquely mine.

I collect old books, and the same holds true in regards to what I find most desirable in them. I tend not to look for pristine, mint condition books, but rather ones with evidence of being well read and loved. I admit to feeling a bit like Indiana Jones as I look for evidence of previous readers… in the notes they’ve scribbled in the margins, the slips of paper they’ve left tucked between the pages, and in the folds in the pages where they left off reading. I try to imagine what pulled them away from the book when they dog-eared the page, or what thought process led them to jot down the nearly indecipherable note between the lines of the text. The book, because of these “imperfections” becomes much more alive for me, and as I read it I feel like I am connecting not only with the text, but with the others who touched and turned those pages before me.

Clearly many disagree with me on this. When I borrow my boyfriend’s books I read them with utmost care, as he and I are poles apart on this issue. I take care not to crack the spine, nor leave a mark in the pristine pages. And I can, to some degree, understand the thoughts that give rise to the need to take such care of books… it’s a feeling born out of the same bibliophilia that lead me to annotate away. But can I admit to the little thrill that I feel as I read his otherwise perfect books and find lightly underlined passages? I linger on those lines as he must have, trying to unlock their magic and importance, the underlining and lightly scribbled notes lending a certain excitement of discovery. Those marks, no matter how few in number or how lightly and unobtrusively drawn in they are, create a roadmap that, if followed, allow me to read the book with a new and different understanding.

So although I know that many of you out there are screaming in protest of this “defiling” of books, I will go ahead and continue annotating and folding away, and let the hundreds of cracked spines on my shelves tell of all of the remarkable places that I’ve been in the pages of those volumes. And just maybe somewhere down the road, someone will pick up one of my bent and scribbled-in books, and instead of tossing it aside, read it and find little bits of magic and insight through my many marks.

Day 1: My Favorite Book

It’s day one of the Thirty Day Book Challenge, and I honestly thought that deciding on a favorite book would be a much more difficult process. I was convinced that I would spend hours going through a seemingly inexhaustible list of books, only to be able to, maybe, narrow it down to a list of five or so “favorites.” I thought that “favorite” was way too strong a word to use, and far too absolute. Moreover, as I’ve written before, I find that books change with each reading; our relationships with them changing as we grow and change ourselves. As Eco argued in his many works regarding literary interpretation, we bring so much of ourselves into our understanding of a text, that it is impossible for an interpretation to remain static, and if that’s the case, then how can a book that was my favorite at twenty, still be my favorite at nearly forty?

As it turns out, however, I do have a favorite book, and it was a surprisingly easy decision to make. My favorite book is Aldous Huxley’s Island. It became my favorite book the first time I read it, and although it has been challenged from time to time by other wonderful works, a simple revisit to the island of Pala and I am reminded why this book continues to move me in ways that I find it difficult to describe. And although my understanding of it has changed over the years, each time I read it I fall in love with it again… and again.

For those that haven’t read it, Island is Huxley’s counter-point to his earlier Brave New World. It’s a novel about Pala, a fictional, island utopia, where our protagonist Will Farnaby (“suffering from the disease called civilization”) finds himself shipwrecked. The very first line of the novel is a wake up call, not only to Farnaby, but to the reader as well, with the mynahs calling us to pay “attention” to the “here and now,” and it gives us the first glimpse of the perfect world that Huxley has created for his Pala denizens; a world unmarred by rampant consumerism, a society of choice and freedom, a culture rooted in both intellect and introspection where kindness and empathy are lauded, and one in which every moment is lived and experienced.  It was his last major work, and very much a culmination of his philosophical and sociological intellectual peregrinations.

I’ve owned countless paperback copies of the novel, each read and reread to the point of destruction; their spines held together by tape, pages wavy and curled from contact with water after being read by the pool, on the beach, in the bath, and ink from my annotations running into the text rendering the pages nearly illegible. I also have a hardcover first edition (one among a small collection of Huxley first editions that I am a proud owner of), that was given to me by a good friend as a birthday present many years ago, and is still one of my most prized possessions. My current reading copy was stolen out of my classroom back in November when I last reread the book, and that particular copy had a veritable archaeological treasure trove of layers of annotations dating back about twelve years. Needless to say, I am sad to have lost it.

Back in November, I wrote a post titled “The Pull of Huxley” and soon after I reread Island. As I mentioned earlier, each successive reading of a book yields varying interpretations and experiences, and this latest reading of Island was no exception.  Like with every other time I’ve read it, the book did, as any good book should, take me out of myself and force me to look at things differently, but unlike other times when the book seemed intensely personal and introspective, this last time the book seemed to speak to the larger global, political, economic issues at hand.

Turn on the news at any given time of the day or night and what we see and hear is more reminiscent of Huxley’s dsytopian Brave New World, than his peaceful Island. In a world as full of division, dogmatism, and belligerence as the one we live in today, reading Island reminded me that, at the very least, I can make the world a better place for myself, my family, and those around me. It is easy to forget that we have the ability to create our own little Palas, even if only on a small scale. This was also the first time I’d read the book as a parent (the last time I read it was a year or so before I had my daughter), and this time around Huxley seemed to be speaking to that part of my life, reminding me to raise my daughter to be someone who lives openly, compassionately, and thoughtfully. One thing does remain the same with each subsequent reading of Island, however, and that is that it never ceases to challenge me, and anyone who reads it, to be better, to live in the present, to be more mindful our ourselves, our world, and each other, and to regard kindness as a true virtue.

It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’

This book is my favorite because it opened my eyes at nineteen, and because it continues to open my eyes, even at thirty-nine. I suspect the same will be true in five, fifteen, and twenty-five years from now. It is my favorite because it reminds me that humanity can, despite all of the terrible things that we do, be a force of good in this world. And quite simply, it is my favorite because it is a book that reminds me why I love to read.

Now, close your laptops and go get a copy of Island, and remember…

“Attention,” the articulate oboe was calling.

“Attention. Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.

“To attention,” said Dr. MacPhail.

“Attention to attention?”

“Of course.”

While looking up an image of the Island first edition, I came across this image of the first page of the novel, with notes in Huxley’s hand, and it was too good not to share. I found the image here.

Thirty Day Book Challenge

Thanks to “To a Dusty Shelf We Aspire” for the idea!

I’ve never participated in any of these blog challenges in the past, not because I haven’t thought them interesting, but simply because I’ve questioned my ability to follow through. Beverly over at To a Dusty Shelf We Aspire, however, has given me the sufficient motivation to take this one on. Moreover, this challenge seems like a way to take a literary walk down memory lane, and remember why some books were so important, loved, or otherwise impactful enough to make it on this list.

The only problem that I can foresee lies in the fact that I find it nearly impossible to think in terms of absolutes, so before I even begin I know that I will not follow the rules to the letter. I don’t think I have a “favorite” book, author, scene, etc. That being said, I will try my best.

So, is anyone else up for the challenge?

The Rules
Day 1: Favorite book
Day 2: Least favorite book
Day 3: Book that makes you laugh out loud
Day 4: Book that makes you cry
Day 5: Book you wish you could live in
Day 6: Favorite young adult book
Day 7: Book that you can quote/recite
Day 8: Book that scares you
Day 9: Book that makes you sick
Day 10: Book that changed your life
Day 11: Book from your favorite author
Day 12: Book that is most like your life
Day 13: Book whose main character is most like you
Day 14: Book whose main character you want to marry
Day 15: First “chapter book” you can remember reading as a child
Day 16: Longest book you’ve read
Day 17: Shortest book you’ve read
Day 18: Book you’re most embarrassed to say you like
Day 19: Book that turned you on
Day 20: Book you’ve read the most number of times
Day 21: Favorite picture book from childhood
Day 22: Book you plan to read next
Day 23: Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished)
Day 24: Book that contains your favorite scene
Day 25: Favorite book you read in school
Day 26: Favorite nonfiction book
Day 27: Favorite fiction book
Day 28: Last book you read
Day 29: Book you’re currently reading
Day 30: Favorite coffee table book

World Book Night: Become a Giver

A couple of months ago I wrote a post titled “A Million Reasons to Read a Book” about World Book Night, the “annual celebration designed to spread the love of reading.” Held on April 23 of this year, World Book Night will supply thousands of individuals with 20 books a piece, with the sole purpose of seeing those books given away to others. The goal, to give away one million books in one night.

I signed up in December and just yesterday received the email that I had been selected to be a “giver,” and although I don’t think that they’re turning many people away, it still felt good to know that in April I will be among the thousands here and in the UK putting books in the hands of those that may not yet love reading. Who knows how many people will be turned on to the joy of literature that night.

They are still looking for volunteers to distribute the books, and I can’t help but think that this can be a really great thing if enough of us get involved. For more information on World Book Night, click here, and if you’re in the US, here is the link to register to be a “giver.”

Go on, click it!

Dating Advice from John Waters

A fair warning to my readers, this post may be a little R-rated.

I’m slowly coming to the realization that I am single. Yes, it’s been a couple of months, but sometimes these things can take a while to sink in, and besides, denial is a pretty effective coping strategy. At any rate, in a further attempt to put off grading that stack of papers staring at me menacingly from the kitchen counter, I started organizing my computer files and I came across this image that I had saved ages ago. Sage words from a wise man, and certainly something to bear in mind when I re-enter the world of dating.

Aside from a good laugh, this also got me thinking about what exactly it is that attracts us to someone, what it is that we look for. I spoke to someone the other day that said that it we are attracted to people who reflect us back to ourselves, but is it as simple as that? Would I really want to date a male version of myself?

I remember when as a teenager, I used to sit with my journal, creating list after list of the qualities that my “perfect mate” would possess. Although I’m happy to say that it was never as superficial to include things like “tall” or “dark hair,” it was incredibly specific. Over the decades, it certainly has evolved, and in fact, what I want really has become much more difficult to pin down. We all want someone who shares our basic values, but unless we are aware of what those are, truly, we may find ourselves consistently down the wrong paths. We all want someone who loves us, but is that enough? And then there’s what no one ever wants to admit is important but we all know that it really is… the sex.

I suppose that the things that matter, the “deal-breakers,” are as individual as each one of us, and even then, they’re immensely flexible, aren’t they? I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, more so now that I have friends trying to set me up on dates to get me back “out there.” What do I want? What should I want? Maybe its time to revisit and revise my old lists.

And if nothing else, at least John Waters has given me a good place to start ;)

A Million Reasons to Read a Book

The subject of reading comes up quite often on this blog, and yesterday was no exception. Whether or not you sided with Fanjoo in the amazon vs. independent bookseller debate, one common ground that I think we all shared was that getting people to read is a good thing. If nothing else, that Slate article set off an interesting thought process, which last night may have found its logical, and positive, conclusion. If the goal is, as I said in the first post about reading, getting books into people’s hands, then the folks at World Book Night definitely have the right idea.

World Book Night is an annual celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books.

Begun last year in the UK to much success, it’s being launched this year in the US. On April 23, 2012 tens of thousands of people in both countries, armed with 20 paperbacks a piece (given to them by local, participating bookstores and libraries), will take to the streets with a single goal… to get the books, one million in each country, into the hands of people who are not normally readers. The day was selected to coincide with World Book Day, created by UNESCO in 1995 to celebrate and promote reading, writing, and publishing. The date also coincides with the anniversary of the deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare.

The idea behind WBN is a good one.

Reading changes lives and at the heart of World Book Night lies the simplest of ideas and acts – that of putting a book into another person’s hand and saying ‘this one’s amazing, you have to read it’.

They are looking for volunteers to distribute the books in April. If you’re in the US, here is the link to register to be a “giver.” I signed up last night.

Related articles:

Proust and the Squid

I read a book this morning titled Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brainwritten by Maryanne Wolf, a psychology professor at Tufts.  And although not my usual read – an impulse purchase on amazon, it was “recommended” and I could hardly resist the tittle – it proved an interesting enough book, and it certainly got me thinking more about why reading itself is such an important activity.

The basic premise of the book is best summarized by the first paragraph of the first chapter…

We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.

She maintains that reading, in and of itself, because of the neurological re-wiring that it necessitates, enables the brain of the reader to think in ways that are fundamentally different from those of the non-reader.  Very interesting.

Just a couple of days ago I wrote, in a relatively light-hearted manner, about how open texts and reading encourage higher levels of thinking, whereas Jersey Shore decidedly does not.  Little did I know that there is actual science to support this thesis! According to Wolf, this is possible because reading affects the brain’s development on two separate but equally significant levels – the “personal-intellectual and the biological.”

Regarding the biological, she argues that physiological and neurological processes that are involved in both learning to read and reading itself re-wire the brain in such a way that allow us to think in far more complex ways.  SInce reading is not an activity that our brains are naturally inclined to do (it’s a remarkably new cultural development, as even the most primitive writing systems only emerged on the scene within the last 10,000 years), the actual processes involved in learning to read, and in transitioning from novice to expert reader, change our brains in fundamental, permanent, and important ways.

In reference to the intellectual, she argues that reading forces us to think in ways that we normally would not.  For example, in reading we are able to encounter countless different universes and realities, we “try on” and identify with perspectives that are entirely different to our own, we enter characters thought processes and are witnesses to ideas that can be wildly divergent from ours (as in Eco’s latest book).  Moreover, every time we so much as look at a word, our brains tap into a near infinite list of knowledge, meanings, and associations that our highly personal and individualized, allowing us to read and comprehend on many levels.  We bring all of our selves into whatever it is we read, and of course, the more we read, the more we grow this “veritable treasure trove” of meanings, knowledge, and associations. And all that occurs before we even step back from the text and process it, going well beyond the words, processing, pondering, and reflecting on what we’ve read.

Biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go “beyond the information given” to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful.

For bibliophiles and readers like myself, this is good news.  We’re on the right track.  Our intellectually active lives will help us continue to live intellectually active lives.  For those non-readers out there… open a book, it will help you think! Besides, as Proust so eloquently expresses in his book On Reading, “there are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book.” Reading  is and will always be a “divine pleasure.”

“Where are you coming from? Where I’ve been. Where else.”

I’ve recently put down a remarkable book, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon.

For those who haven’t read it, it is a book about traveling, about taking the back roads, about journeys of self-discovery, and a book that just begs to be read (I read its 400 pages in 2 sittings and was left wanting more). But this book is much more than a travel journal, it is one of those books that remind you (and most of us need constant reminders) that life is just as much about the journey as the destination, and often much more so.  As Heat-Moon states early in the book, “any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get – that a man becomes his attentions.  His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.”

Blue Highways is a book about a physical journey, but I was thinking about how we take journeys through our books.  It has been through the “blue highways” of literature, history, philosophy, and science, that I have come to know myself, through my many observations and curiosity of what lies between the covers of the many books that line my walls.  My shelves are full of a wide variety of genres, each purchased and read to satisfy a particular curiosity.  I often get obsessed with ideas and discourses, and will read until I have fully sated that particular thirst.  That being said, my first love is the history of thought.  I rarely read fiction, although I currently purchased a copy of 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, too many good reviews to ignore it, and lets face it, escaping into well-written fiction is always exciting.  Also on my coffee table awaiting to be read are, The Cultivation of Hatred, part three of Peter Gay’s Freudian study of the Victorian middle class, Cafe Europa: Life After Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic, and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, by Rebecca Goldstein.

My relationship with books has always been a unique one.  I annotate my books… heavily.

My annotated Berlin's "The Roots of Romanticism"

These annotations are often scholarly, sometimes nostalgic, periodically observational, and at times even argumentative; they are a way that I have found to discuss these books when there has been no one to discuss them with, a way to argue with the author, a way to understand their greater context, and the finer details.  In short, a way to satisfy my inner, frustrated academic.

So what is the purpose of this blog?  To finally do something with all of these annotations, to use them as the foundation of a more insightful, meaningful journey through my books.  I suppose, much like Heat-Moon, being a solitary traveler has served me well, but sometimes this traveler longs for a little conversation, a little company on the journey, and I hope that this blog will do just that.