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.

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Our Books, Revisited.

It has been a seeming eternity since my last post, and for that, my sincere apologies. It seemed I needed a break, and it came unexpectedly when I was swamped with work. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to re-start this, and the answer came just a couple of days ago while attempting, once again, to tackle the disorganization of my library.

When I wrote about that ill-fated last attempt, I was writing what was, in effect, a story of defeat. No sooner had I started piling my fiction books on the floor in neat, alphabetical piles, that I was overwhelmed by such a sense of loss over all that was missing, and I just couldn’t continue. I remember feeling a strange brew of anger and sadness at what the loss of those books represented for me (for the background story read here and here). The books had become symbolic of a life that was my own, that came before him, and that he should not have been able to touch, and to quantify the loss just brought home the point that no part of my life had escaped his violence. By the end of my attempt, I was a sobbing mess, surrounded by books, unable to continue the task. I suppose that “big girl pill” wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, and I quickly re-shelved the rest of my books as haphazardly as possible, so as not to realize the full extent of the loss.

Over five months have passed, and things, as they are wont to do, have changed. Someone new, and pretty damned fantastic, has found his way into my life (hi, Greg!) and in the past couple of months he’s managed to make me feel wonderful again. Add to that a relaxing summer with my funny and curious daughter (who turns four this Sunday), and well, instead of looking for strength, I’m back to counting my blessings.  Feeling buttressed by that, I knew it was time to face the library once again; this time, I’m happy to report, with decidedly greater success.

There were more books missing than I had feared, and the loss of them and all they represented made it difficult to get through the task. Instead of crumbling at the realization, however, I chose to focus on simple, solvable tasks, like playing “What’s the field?” with Greg via text (was Motion and Time, Space and Matter: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and Science history? Philosophy? Science? Philosophy of Science? History of Philosophy? History of Science?). His support lightened the heaviness of the effort at hand, and eased my sense of anger and sadness that at times threatened to overwhelm me. That, along with the simple act of simply taking it one book at a time, helped me see the task through to the end.

I now know exactly what was lost then, and that knowledge that I thought would be unbearable, is not. Although upsetting, I realize that this was a final step in closing the door to what happened back in 2009; a last bit of hurt that I needed to process. The loss is real, but something much greater has come of it (even better than actually being able to find my books), and that is knowing that my library, like my life, is back under my control. It’s so easy to become mired in a past that’s filled with negativity, and our inner masochist tends to keep us locked there, even through things as subtle as a disorganized library. I know the books are ultimately replaceable. Even more importantly, however, for the first time in a long time, the empty spaces on my shelves no longer represent what was lost in the past, but instead they speak to the seemingly infinite possibilities that still lie ahead. For some of us, our collection of books tells our story, and sometimes we cling very tightly to those things that we think speak to who we are. I’m learning, however, that sometimes it’s okay to lose a little of what we thought defined us, in order to make a little room for what’s to come.

Our Books

Renoir, Woman ReadingA couple of days ago I took on the enormous job of organizing my home library. It’s a task that, for various reasons I’ve been dreading, and therefore avoiding. Now it’s not that I’ve never organized my books. In fact, even in the days before computers I had indexed and cross-referenced my books, having created my own cataloguing system, of course, all of it neatly compiled in one giant binder. After I got my first computer, I created a database just for my books, and as soon as the technology was available, I had a program that would allow me to read the barcodes of the books, automatically entering them into my database. Since then I have always taken both great care and pleasure in organizing my library. That is, of course, until a few years ago.

As I’ve alluded to here before, three years ago I went through what was, without a doubt, the scariest and most difficult time in my life. Without rehashing the entire nightmare, suffice it to say that as tends to be the case in these situations, leaving was more difficult than staying, if nothing else because of the fear. I still remember the day that I physically moved out, knowing that I had just a few short hours to grab whatever I could and throw it into the back of a moving truck. Thankfully my friends and family were all there for both physical help and moral support, but it was the least organized and most stressful move of my nearly forty years.  I lost much in that move, but of out of everything that was left behind that day the most painful were many of my books.

Moving into our little apartment later that afternoon and unpacking the boxes of books, I realized that as many as a couple of hundred books were missing, but I couldn’t face the loss then. I’m not sure what they represented, but fully quantifying that loss would have been an unbearable addition to all that was already happening. So I shelved the books as haphazardly as possible, and left it that way. A year later my daughter and I moved again into our current home, and the books were shelved in much the same way. As I was telling a friend the other night, until I decided to take on the task of re-organizing my shelves it was a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat, the books weren’t “really” missing until I organized them and really saw that they were no longer there.

So with all of that in mind, that was that task I embarked on this spring break. I took my “big girl pill” and, with my daughter asleep, started pulling books of the shelves, carefully placing them into so many piles. I quickly started realizing that many, many books were not there, and as I started arranging them by author, subject, etc, the loss hit home. My signed Douglas Adams was gone, as was my first edition Foucault’s Pendulum. All my Huxley paperbacks were missing, as was my Lolita, and my I, Claudius. None of my Tolstoys could be found, neither could my single Grisham book, which I loved because it was one of the only books my grandfather ever gave me. Suddenly, sitting in the middle of the pile of books I started to cry. As I had expected, the loss of those books was pretty difficult to bear. I know that they were only material objects, nothing to become so attached to, and that most of the books were ultimately replaceable. But at the moment they represented something more, something ineffable; those books symbolized all that was lost then, all that was forever changed.

For those of us that are real bibliophiles, I suppose that our books will always be more than just books, they become a part of us as soon as we read them. Moreover, at least in my case, my annotations and other notes (I tend to use my books as notebooks sometimes), make those books holders of a great part of my own history, intellectual and otherwise.

I stopped with my fiction, the smallest part of my library, and reshelved the rest of my books, again with no order or reason. Maybe one of these days I’ll resume the task. But in the meantime, I’ll mourn the loss of those books that were truly irreplaceable, and begin to fill my already overflowing shelves with new books, and in them, start writing a new history.

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Today Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Geisel Seuss, would have turned 108 years old. I have always loved him. There is something about so magical, imaginative, and whimsical about his stories and his animations that captured my interest as a child and has kept me captivated ever since. In fact, as I left the doctor’s office the day that I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter, I went straight to the bookstore and bought her Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

On and on you will hike, And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up of course, as you already know.

You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact

And remember that Life’s a great balancing act.

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.

And never mix up your right foot with your left.

As an adult I discovered the “secret” art of Dr. Seuss, which is just as whimsical and playful, but with a definite satirical edge, and certainly not meant for children. Here is one of my favorite pieces from this collection.

"Green Cat with Lights"

He also once wrote a book filled with nude women, The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family (1939), a bizarre take on the Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom legends. The book was met with a less-than-warm reception, and its failure was one of the reasons that Seuss devoted himself to writing children’s books. He later admitted, “I’d rather write for kids. they’re more appreciative; adults are obsolete children, and the hell with them.”

So happy birthday, Dr. Seuss! And thank you for inspiring both children and adults, and for showing us a world full of wonder and fantasy.

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!