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 7: A Book I Can Recite/ Quote

Although there are books that I have read repeatedly, from which I can quote (or at least paraphrase) bits and pieces, such as Huxley’s Island, Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, or maybe even Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Henry V, there are none that I can really quote with any degree of respectable accuracy, from memory (ok, maybe with the exception of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham).

The words that I do tend to internalize, verbatim, tend to come from poetry instead of prose. I can recall with relative ease many of the works by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Lord Byron, William Carlos Williams, and Percy Shelley. It’s the lyrical, almost musical, nature of poetry that makes it easier for me to remember. I have an uncanny ability to recall song lyrics, even from terrible songs, after only a couple of listens. Anything set to music seems to go right into my long-term memory, and poetry shares that same musical quality.

Writing this post is making me remember a wonderful poetry anthology titled Beowulf to Beatles: Approaches to Poetry. I came across this book by chance. I had just moved to DeKalb, Illinois and was feeling incredibly homesick until I found this great old used bookstore right on the main street. I remember walking in and feeling intoxicated by the smell of the old books with their yellowed pages. My homesickness melted away as I browsed the shelves, and I walked out with an old ratty copy of the book, who’s $1.50 price tag fit right into my budget at the time. In this book, as the title implies, the poetry of Byron sits comfortably next to the lyrics of Bob Dylan, just as they do in my mind.

It’s an old textbook, I believe, but a great addition to anyone’s library, certainly anyone who loves either poetry or music. I loaned my copy to someone years ago and haven’t seen it since, but inspired by this post, I just re-ordered it; a used copy, just like I remember it.

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.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell… Revisiting Blake

Title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ...

This past week’s theme in regards to my reading seems to be the revisiting of old favorites from my “formative years” (early 20s) – Huxley’s  Island, Hume’s Inquiry,  Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (post coming soon), and after last night’s post, and in keeping with the trend, I went back and reread Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

This work is Blake’s attempt at presenting to us, in true Romanticist fashion, an argument against the dualist, Manichaean, view of good and evil which characterized Christian Europe.  Deliberately upsetting the common understanding of those very definitions of good and evil, and dark and light, Blake begins by blurring the lines.  He writes,

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

And just a few lines later he adds,

 Energy is Eternal Delight.

He opens this work by presenting the argument that humans are, and should be, both angels and devils, both reason and passion.  To deny either part is to deny our humanity. It is in these contradictions, and it is in these grey areas that we find our humanity.

The entire work, which often mimics the structures of biblical passages and prophecies, fuses the sacred and the profane, the divine and the fallen, and the spiritual and the material; in effect,  a “marriage” of heaven and hell.  Blake, unlike Dante (who also uses the literary device of imagining himself visiting hell) presents hell as a place of poetry, energy, and exuberance – a place the speaks to our passions and our physicality.  Heaven, on the other hand, is a place of reason, restrained passions, and “unacted desires.”  For Blake, neither is inherently evil nor inherently good.

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.

Blake beautifully express the Romantic desire to recapture the irrational element in man, something that the Enlightenment had effectively, according to Blake, killed off (he regarded the philosophes as “unimaginative killers of the human spirit”). Echoing this idea, in another poem, “A Little Girl Lost,” Blake writes,

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet love! was thought a crime.

Isaiah Berlin, in his book The Roots of Romanticism, in Proustian fashion, attempts to define Romanticism.  He writes,

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence. . . It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. . . It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy. . . It is energy, force, will, étalage du moi. . . It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul.’ It is, in short, unity and multiplicity.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  Blake illustrates this definition eloquently and elegantly.  By “marrying” heaven and hell, by blurring our perceptions of what is base and what is sacred, Blake shows us that our very souls exist in this “unity and multiplicity.”  He is a true spokesman for his age when he calls our attention to the inherent “sturm und drang” (storm and stress) of human experience.

Also in true Romantic style, Blake not only blurs the lines between good and evil, but also between man and God.  He writes,

And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

Which is reminiscent of this quote by Sagan, from his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,

God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, although one of his earlier works, captures the spirit of Romanticism beautifully.  But more than that, he truly articulates what it means to be human, with all of our contradictions and inconsistencies. We are both of the spirit and the flesh, and of the mind and the body. We are both reason and passion, intellect and lust.   He confirms and condones this as he closes the work, liberating us to embrace our entire selves,

Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free: lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!
For every thing that lives is Holy.

The Pull of Huxley

Sometimes it seems as if all the forces in the universe converge to focus one’s attention in a certain direction, or towards a certain thing.  Lately, it seems as if all things are pointing me towards Aldous Huxley.  A few days ago I posted a series of images of illustrations by William Blake.  For me, Blake and Huxley are inextricably bound together.  In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake first wrote that famous line that was later quoted by Huxley (as well as used in the title)  in his Doors of Perceptionabout his experience with mescaline,

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.

Also, this morning while clicking through various articles and blogs about the Occupy Wall Street Library situation, I came across this article, “Michael Bloomberg’s Brave New World.” In it Amy Goodman writes,

As the night progressed, the irony of finding Huxley’s book grew. He wrote it in 1958, almost 30 years after his famous dystopian novel, Brave New World. The original work described society in the future where people had been stratified into haves and have-nots. The Brave New World denizens were plied with pleasure, distraction, advertisement and intoxicating drugs to lull them into complacency, a world of perfect consumerism, with lower classes doing all the work for an elite.

There is no doubt that current events both at home and abroad have a distinct dystopian feel to them, and  Brave New World certainly does provide an interesting analogy.  So more Huxley.

Now tonight, as I sat here on my couch recovering after a pretty tiring day, I found myself watching a documentary on Wavy Gravy (“Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie”), an old hippie, clown, peace activist, and true altruist.  The documentary showed clips from the various concerts he attended and worked, and what struck me was the free kitchen that he and the “Hog Farm” set up at Woodstock.

“What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000. . .”

They carved out and created a little temporary utopia for themselves and their community, immediately calling to my mind Huxley’s last novel (and my favorite), Island.

Island, of course, was Huxley’s counter-point to Brave New World, about Pala, a fictional, island utopia, where our protagonist William Farnaby (“suffering from the disease called civilization”) finds himself shipwrecked. It was Huxley’s last major work, and in many ways, his final testament.  In it he gave free rein to his interests in Eastern mysticism, and the productive and positive use of mind-altering substances.

Lastly, also tonight, Lauraglen, a fellow blogger, replied to my “Perspective” post, writing that the video made her feel insignificant.  My reaction, as I replied to her, was quite the opposite. It made me feel as if I was Will Farnaby from Huxley’s Island, and the video was the mynah bird yelling “attention!” and “here and now boys!”.  Watching the video made me feel small, yes, but that small-ness made my life and those in it seem bigger to me.  The video, like the mynahs, focused my attention on the “here and now.”

My collection of Huxley first editions.

I first discovered Huxley in high school.  I was assigned, like every other high school student in the country, Brave New World.  I adored it.  The way he expressed himself seemed to mirror my thought process.  I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I always found him to be the “easiest” read, because he wrote like I thought.  And I had only begun to scratch the surface.  Soon enough Island fell into my hands right around my first year of college.  We all have that book (or books) that “changed our lives,”  and this was that book for me.  I took me out of myself and really forced me to look at the world around me with open eyes for the first time.  I think it has that effect on most people.  It is, without a doubt, among the books that helped shape me.

Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there. If I only know who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am; and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am.

So I sit here now, picking up Huxley’s Island again.  Far be it from me to ignore the signs. The insight of Eco, the reason of Hume, the perspective of Sagan, the humanity of Huxley… not bad for a couple of weeks of reading.