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.

World Book Night: Update

I just received the email from the folks at World Book Night letting me know that I have been assigned a book to give away, and to prompt me to choose from where I’d like to pick up those books.

On April 23rd I will be giving away The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and although it was not the book that I had selected (I’m don’t remember what was), it hardly matters. I’m just incredibly excited to participate in this effort to put a books in the hands of people who may not yet be “readers.” I’ve confirmed my pick-up location and now am only awaiting confirmation. Can’t wait!

If you’re not participating this year, you should be on the lookout for when next year’s sign-up begins, this is certainly a positive and worthwhile effort.

If you want more information on World Book Night and what it entails, here are links to my other posts on the subject:

Day 3, Revisited: Books that have made me laugh

I was looking through some of my books this past weekend in a vain attempt to put some order to my shelves, and I realized that I was completely wrong in my response to day three of the Thirty Day Book Challenge. I had originally selected Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, and although I certainly did laugh my way through the book with its unapologetic irreverence, as i looked through my less obviously funny academic books, I realized that they were the ones that truly made me laugh.

I’m not kidding, let me explain. I don’t tend to find humor in obvious places, but I do (I think) have a sense of humor. The vast majority of my reading consists of academic non-fiction, and let me tell you, these historians have a wonderful sense of humor! I think I’ve laughed more reading Isaiah Berlin and Peter Gay than while reading anything labeled as comedy. Thankfully, I annotate my books heavily so I can back this claim up. Allow me to submit the evidence, although I know that I will be dropping some serious “cool points” by showing this…

and yes, even footnotes can be funny...

Umberto Eco’s Semiotic Schema for the World “Neanderthal”

from The Role of the Reader, Umberto Eco
via biblioklept and To a Dusty Shelf We Aspire

Day 4: A Book That’s Made Me Cry

Before I begin, I am bending the rules a little bit with this one. I am picking two books for today’s challenge. Both have very much in common, both in terms of their theme of unfulfilled love, and in regards to how they relate to me. Both are connected to pretty powerful moments and memories, and because of that, I think the power of them to move me is that much stronger.

Perhaps because I read it so recently, or maybe because its theme of unfulfilled love hit so close to home when I did read it, my first selection came quite easily. In fact, it was the first thought that sprang to mind when I saw the list of challenges on the first day. My first pick for day four of this challenge is Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Did it really have to be like this? — that the source of Man’s containment becomes the source of his misery?

That line succinctly expresses the overarching theme of this novel. It is a relatively short and straightforward narrative about a man, Werther, and his inability to come to terms with the fact that the woman he loves can never be his, as she, Lotte, is betrothed, and later married, to Albert. His love for her is passionate and deeply moving, and all-consuming to the point of self-destruction.

I have so much, and my feelings for her absorb it all; I have so much, and without her it is all nothing.

What makes this book so tragic lies in both the way that Werther attempts, and fails, at coming to terms with a love that simply can never be his, and in the beauty and power of the words that Goethe uses to describe Werther’s suffering. I couldn’t help but be completely consumed by the story once I started reading, and watching Werther grappling with the futility of his every action to sway Lotte’s heart in his direction moved me to tears more than once.

One of the most powerful moments in the book, and one in which I could scarcely hold back my tears, was towards the end, in a scene that would the last time that Werther and Lotte would be together. By this point, Werther has already decided to end his life, and Lotte, during the course of the meeting, grows to suspect as much. Instead of confronting the issue, they spend their last moments together with Werther reading to Lotte, a story mirroring their own tragedy, both aware of the power of the words they speak, yet unable to bring themselves to act upon it. They both break down as Werther reads, barely making it through the story.

A flood of tears poured from Lotte’s eyes, easing her beset heart and interrupting Werther’s song. He threw the manuscript aside, took hold of her hand and shed the bitterest of tears. Lotte leaned on her other hand, her handkerchief to her eyes. Both of them were fearfully agitated. They could sense their own wretchedness in the fates of the noble heroes; they sensed it together, and shed tears in harmony. Werther rested his feverish lips on Lotte’s arm; she trembled; she wanted to go, yet pain and sympathy lay numbingly upon her like lead. She took deep breaths to revive herself, and, sobbing, asking him to go on, imploring him in very heaven’s voice! Werther was shaking, his heart was fit to burst, but he took up the manuscript and read, in a voice half broken…

He reads another short passage from the manuscript, once again speaking to the impossibility of their situation, and once again he breaks down,

The whole force of those words overwhelmed the unhappy Werther. He flung himself down before Lotte in deep despair and seized her hands, pressing them to his eyes and forehead, and a premonition of his terrible intention flickered in her soul. Her senses were bewildered; she squeezed his hands and pressed him to her breast, bent towards him with feelings of deeply moved melancholy, and their warm cheeks touched. They were oblivious to the world about them. He clasped her in his arms, held her to his breast and covered her with trembling, murmuring lips with fiery kisses….

The book ends with a narrator stepping in and telling of the finding of Werther after he had shot himself. He was still alive, but soon to die. The narrator did not speak to what happened to Lotte and Albert. The story ended as abruptly as Werther’s short life.

The story cannot help but move us because it reminds us that in this life, we will all too often be refused that which we long for the most, that which we feel will make us whole. Werther could not come to accept it, and the result was tragic. And although thankfully we are not all Werther in the sense that we do come to accept our own refusals and rejections, at least to some extent, his suffering is expressed in such a way that it speaks to those feelings in us. The story tugs at us and forces us to face our own suffering and sadness in a way that, if only briefly, makes us wonder if we are capable of bearing their weight. Werther is deeply flawed, but also very human, and in that sense, Sorrows becomes a book about all of us.

On a personal note, and perhaps one of the reasons that this book sprung so quickly into my mind when I saw today’s category, is that I read this book shortly after my own heartbreak. It expressed my sadness better than I could have every thought to do, and it made feel sadness much more keenly than if I had been reading this book at a time when all was “right with the world.” Werther’s situation was too closely similar to my own, and the tears I shed for Werther, were in reality, also tears that I shed for myself. And now that this book has been linked to that moment in my life, I suspect that the any rereading of this book will always bring back a flood of memories and feelings of my own.

As I said at the beginning, I have two picks for today’s challenge, and my second choice is Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I do, however,realize that I’ve already written too much, so I’ll make this short.

I read this book almost exactly one year ago, and I remember that aside from the intellectual satisfaction that I got from reading such a richly multi-layered text, feeling deeply saddened and moved by the story. Atonement shares much in common with Werther, at least insofar as it’s a book about unfulfilled and impossible love, and the narrative is so powerful and so expertly written that we cannot help but feel completely invested in the narrative and in the characters lives. Where Werther is simple and straightforward, however, McEwan’s novel is rich and complex, leading the reader through a narrative within a narrative that tells the story of mistakes with far-reaching consequences, love that is never fulfilled, and the terrible burden of guilt.

The end of this book is where the true tragedy lies, and it reminds me of what we feel when watching the last two minutes of the opera Tosca. The sigh of relief that we had just breathed towards the end of Part III of the novel, when we thought that ending would be a happy one, we quickly learn was merely a fabrication of the narrator, a way for her to come to terms with and atone for the role she played in rendering the love story central to the novel impossible. There was no happy ending, the lovers never had their reunion, and there was never any hope for a fulfillment of their love.

I can write forever about this book, and on so many different levels, but I promised to keep it brief. The entire narrative is one which reminds us, like Werther, that despite how much we long for someone, that desire and love, now matter how deep and seemingly perfect, may not be enough to overcome all the obstacles that life, and others, can put in our way. In this book, like Werther, love does not conquer all. And there, is where the sadness lies, with the realization that in real life, as in these stories, fairy tale endings exist only in fairy tales, and that unfulfilled love is a universal reality.

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

Words of Wisdom from Jorge Luis Borges

As 2012 gets underway, I’m turning to Jorge Luis Borges for advice for this new year. I’ve never been one for resolutions; I find that no sooner have I made one, circumstances change, priorities shift, and what seemed of utmost importance on December 31st has become irrelevant by May.  But as true as that may be, there is no denying that just as much as the close of one year brings about a mood of reflection, the start of a new one evokes a sense possibility, and that sense of possibility invariably gets one thinking about hopes and plans for the upcoming year.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” -Borges

With that on my mind, I lay in bed last night reading Borges. As I read and read, I came across two poems that seemed to fit my mood and thoughts perfectly. The first,
spoke to hindsight and thoughts of all the different ways that things could have gone, but didn’t… and God knows I’ve feeling a lot of that lately. The second spoke to the desire to live a life of meaning and joy. Taken together, these two poems form the kind of resolution that I can embrace.

Things That Might Have Been

I think of things that weren’t, but might have been. 
The treatise on Saxon myths Bede never wrote.
The inconceivable work Dante might have had a glimpse of,
As soon as he’d corrected the Comedy’s last verse.
History without the afternoons of the Cross and the hemlock.
History without the face of Helen.
Man without the eyes that gave us the moon.
On Gettysburg’s three days, victory for the South.
The love we never shared.
The wide empire the Vikings chose not to found.
The world without the wheel or the rose.
The view John Donne held of Shakespeare.
The other horn of the Unicorn.
The fabled Irish bird that lights on two trees at once.
The child I never had.

I think its part of our nature to look at our past and wonder about the myriad paths that our lives could have taken. In and of itself, it’s not necessarily an unhealthy thing to do. But becoming mired in what may have been can be stunting and paralyzing if we allow it to take our focus on what we do have and on what actually is. This, I think, is one of those things that is easier said than done, and I know without a doubt that I’m struggling with it. But I’ve known people who live like this, and their lives seem clouded by a regret that never quite dissipates. 

The Just

man who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates his garden.
He who is grateful that music exists on earth.
He who discovers an etymology with pleasure.
A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.
The potter meditating on colour and form.
The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.
A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.
He who is stroking a sleeping creature.
He who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for Stevenson’s existence.
He who prefers the others to be right.
These people, without knowing, are saving the world.

Here Borges gives us glimpses of a well-lived life, snippets of contentment, of generosity, of tenderness. He shows us a life whose meaning comes from simple pleasures, gratitude, and kindness; a life not defined by the external, such as wealth or position, but rather by what occurs in our minds and hearts. I know that this is the life that I want.

I had these poems on my mind when I woke this morning, and went on an internet search for more Borges. As I was clicking through various sites, I came across this. It’s an excerpt from an autobiographical documentary titled Images of Absence/ Buenos Aires, meine Geschichte (1998) by German Kral, an Argentinian filmmaker. This excerpt (I have not seen the entire film) includes an incredibly touching remembrance of an encounter with Borges, followed by words from the author himself. It’s from the filmmaker’s recollections of Borges that I found the third bit of sage advice for this new year.

Borges, who had so intensely loved books, and for whom literature was alive, advised us not to read any book we didn’t enjoy. He told us that morning that if we didn’t like a book, it was better to leave it for some other time. Reading it by force did no good to the book, the author, or ourselves.

Don’t dwell on what may have been and focus on what is. Live a life full of simple pleasures and with a gentleness of spirit. Read those books that you can truly enjoy. Thank you Mr. Borges, these are words of wisdom, indeed.

For more on Borges, watch Buenos Aires: Las Calles de Borges, a short documentary by Ian Ruschel, influenced by the German Kral documentary mentioned above. If you have a little more time, watch Jorge Luis Borges: The Mirror Man, a longer documentary that’s “part biography, part literary criticism, part hero-worship, part book reading, and part psychology.”