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 11: A book by my favorite author

I have been neglecting the book challenge for a while now, simply because as I look ahead, I can’t really see myself addressing some of the upcoming challenges, i.e. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12? Moreover, it seems to me that this challenge is best-suited for people who have read only a moderate amount. Clearly someone who has not read at all, or too little, would find it impossible to complete, but it’s equally difficult for someone, like myself, who has read so much. It’s proven nearly impossible at every turn to come up with a single book to respond to the daily challenges. But I began this challenge and so I will press forward and see it through.

Today’s challenge, despite my complaining above, is not too difficult. My favorite author is Umberto Eco, and I think anyone who has been following my blog since the beginning will say that it’s obvious. I have written about him repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and as I was getting my blog off the ground I had to curb my desire to write about him more lest this become an Eco blog (not that it would be a bad thing). He has been my favorite writer since I was introduced to him in my first college English Comp. course, and have loved his work ever since, his fiction and non-fiction equally.

His work is superbly intelligent, philosophical, historically rich, and always challenging,  while at the same time expressing such a love of language and the written word that reading it evokes a feeling of sheer joy.  They are brimming with an almost excited intertextuality that create these wonderfully complex literary labyrinths. Through his brilliant and beautiful use language, his fiction, which often revolves around the theme of the power of words to shape reality, has the ability to create universes that the reader can easily lose themselves in, as I have repeatedly. In short, reading Eco’s work fills me with a giddy excitement and happiness that I seldom feel with other writers (except maybe Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, both who are linked to Eco in many ways).

Insofar as a particular fictional work by Eco, I’ll select my favorite to discuss briefly here, Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times, each subsequent reading revealing something new and unexpected. I mean no hyperbole when I say that no two readings of this book have been the same. The book, sometimes referred to as the “thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” (they’re in an entirely different league if you ask me), tells the story of three bored editors who, on a bit of a lark, start feeding random bits of a seeming never-ending list of conspiracy theories (think Freemasons, Illuminati, Templars, Rosicrucians, Blavatsky, etc.) into a computer program, Abulafia, who invents connections between their entries. As with many of Eco’s books however, what is written becomes reality, and as they re-write history, their immediate realities are greatly affected.

A superficial read will reveal an exciting and enthralling story, but it is far more than that. I am always surprised the level of historical detail, and although not a philosophy book, it is indeed deeply philosophical in nature. It is far less about the conspiracy theory than it is a book about language, symbol, text, and reality. It evokes Saussure and Meillet in the sense that in this narrative, language is a system where “tout se tient” or where “everything hangs together.” The narrative is only half as exciting as the revelation that language is everything, with lines such as “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.” or “what our lips said, our cells learned.”

Another thing that makes this book, well any book by Eco, so wonderful to read is the care he takes with words. The writing is beautiful and the joy he takes in the written word is clearly evident. These are the opening lines of the book…

That was when I saw the Pendulum. . . .

I knew- but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

Eco wrote, in his essay “Postmodernism, Irony and the Enjoyable”  that the perfect postmodern book is one that can be enjoyed both for its surface story, but which also contains a rich philosophical subtext. This book, along with the rest of his novels including his most recent The Prague Cemetery, seamlessly fit that description.

Ashford, Emerson and Galileo

Emerson's essay "Experience," through the eyes of Will Ashford

Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand. This onward trick of nature is too strong for us: Pero si muove. When, at night, I look at the moon and stars, I seem stationary, and they to hurry. Our love of the real draws us to permanence, but health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” (1844)

Above is an image from Will Ashford’s series “Recycled Words.” In explanation of his process he writes,

When I find a good candidate I explore every page. Like an archeologist I hunt for the words that speak to me with new meaning. Intuitively, one word at a time, they turn into a kind of haiku or philosophical poetry that I can call my own.

At some unpredictable point along the way, in my mind, the images start to invent themselves. Using colored vellums, graphite and or India ink to highlight or obscure my words; I create the image of that invention. Though I strive to make each document visually engaging I find it is the words that I value most.

Go here to see the rest of his work. I absolutely love the manner in he takes which what was already art  and recreates and redefines it, making it wholly his own.

As a complete aside, I’ll confess that one of the reasons that I was so drawn to this particular page of his body of work was because it contained the line “peru si muove,” or more commonly written as eppur si muove (“and yet it moves”). Despite the fact that the phrase is nearly grayed out in the final work, my eyes instantly found it. According to myth, this phrase was spoken by Galileo at some point after his trial by the Roman Inquisition, after having had to recant his heliocentric theory. The accounts vary, claiming he said it either at the trial itself, while under house arrest, or later on his death-bed. It may very well be the case that he didn’t even say it at all, but as with Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake,” it hardly matters.

I don’t know what it is about this particular phrase, but it has always, to me at least, represented a kind of both sadness and strength that I find difficult to put into words. On the one hand, it expresses a sadness about the state of the world and the ignorance of the masses. The earth does and will move, despite what everyone wants to believe. I suppose many scientists must still feel that way when faced with the blind ignorance of people who refuse to acknowledge basic scientific fact in favor of some unsubstantiated, and in many cases clearly refuted, belief system. It’s also the sadness that I feel when confronted with homophobia, racism, or any other kind of social injustice. Those ideas are driven by the same kind of ignorance that placed Galileo under house arrest so many centuries ago.

On the other hand, the phrase also symbolic of the resolve to continue to proportion one’s belief to the evidence, as Hume would say. Even more than that, it speaks to the strength to believe in something despite its unpopularity, or even the danger that one may bring to oneself by believing it. It invariably reminds me of the Scopes monkey trial, or Giordano Bruno at the stake; it also calls to mind those that risked their lives in the Underground Railroad, or during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

I’ve often responded to the many conversations I’ve had with fundamentalists or bigots with a low “and yet it moves” muttered under my breath. Granted, they may have no idea what I’m talking about, but at times like that, what else is there to say?

You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?

A few weeks ago, in response to my post about book covers, a fellow blogger linked me to this fantastic cover of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  Every decade or so this book tends to find its way back into my mind and back into my hands, and linking me this image did just that, and a couple of weeks ago I reread the book.

I first read this book in college in a  class titled “Science and Literature, a joint effort of the English, Physics, and Biology departments, taught by multiple professors. I was a physics major with a Literature minor, and this class seemed to merge my interests seamlessly. We had finished a series of lectures on thermodynamics, and of course, my favorite, Maxwell’s Demon (that little imaginary guy that can stop a closed system from become entropic), then were assigned Pynchon’s novel.  I read it in day, then reread it again the next day, since I wasn’t sure about what I had just read at all. After I closed the book for a second time, I remember thinking that for such a small book, it sure packed one hell of a punch.

At the time it was a book that spoke to both my love of science and words. It was playful yet insightful, it included my guilty pleasure (lots of conspiracy theories… did the Tristero actually exist?), and it spoke to some universal truths about trying to stop our lives from becoming entropic, and about our constant struggle to separate real information from all the “noise” around us. In short, it was the right book at the right time.

So a couple of weeks ago I contentedly reread the words that had elicited such a powerful reaction from me so many years ago, yet, when I put the book down, I felt, I don’t know, different. It was not as powerful as I had remembered, and the story now seemed thinner, with far less substance. Then Ken borrowed and read the book, and upon returning it to me he asked what it was about the book that I liked so much. I found myself answering with one word, nostalgia. The book was a signpost in my life, it represented some aspect of who I was at 19. But I’m clearly not 19 anymore, I’ve experienced 20 years of life between then and now, and I began to realize, that the book had changed. Not the text, but what I brought to the text, and that, as Eco would undoubtedly agree, fundamentally changed my reading of the book.

Then last week I wrote about Byron. Here a similar but reverse thing had happened. When I first encountered Byron in high school, I thought he was trite, superficial, and clichéd. But it wasn’t Byron that was lacking, it was my lack of experience. I had nothing to reference. I had not loved nor lost love yet. How could I possible “feel” Byron without a life full of experience to bring to the reading? In the case of the poetry of Lord Byron, it was the wrong text at the wrong time, and it took a lot of living on my part to make it the right text for me. Once again, what I brought to the reading changed my experience of it.

Now just a few days ago, I read this article announcing that Jack Kerouac’s “lost” first novel, The Sea is My Brother, was about to be released. The next day, another blogger posted this, where he said that he probably won’t read it, that Kerouac exists in the past for him, and I thought, is he right?

There was a time when I lived and breathed the Beats.  from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, to Corso, McClure, and Burroughs… all of them. I immersed myself in them and their lifestyle to such an extent, that I even began to write a book about them (an excuse to lose myself in their more intimate, personal material… letters, diaries, drawings). I got nearly 200 pages into the book before I stopped. I suppose that at the time I was using their lives more as an example then a cautionary tale (that would come later), and I just never finished it. Be that as it may, the Beats occupy a very important place in my personal history with books, and I’m afraid of attempting to step into that river twice. I share Chaz’s hesitation to read this new (well, old) novel, in the fear that it will change what he and the rest of them signify to me, I almost rather leave them untouched, frozen in time, where they are.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote,

This book will perhaps be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text book. Its purpose would be achieved if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it gave pleasure.

and he’s absolutely correct. Books are experienced in light of what we bring to them, and our experiences of our texts are constantly reformed… as we change, so do they. Sometime for the better, as with Byron, and sometimes I suppose it’s better to leave the books where we first experienced them, our memory of them unmarred by the passage of time. This, however, should never stop us from enjoying all that books have to offer.  As Eco writes,

The “reader” is excited by the new freedom of the work, by its infinite potential for proliferation, by its inner wealth and the unconscious projections that it inspires. The canvas itself invites him not to avoid causal connection and the temptations of univocality, and to commit himself to an exchange rich in unforeseeable discoveries.


On the Virtues of Non-Reading?

I recently read wonderfully subversive little book. The book is Pierre Bayard‘s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and if you haven’t read it, might I humbly suggest that you ignore the title and do.  Bayard himself is a literature professor, and decidedly well-read (having written books about Balzac, Maupassant, Proust, Stendhal, among others), he surely cannot be telling us not to read.  So what is this book really about?

It is a book about learning how to live with books and coming to terms with our often mixed-feelings about them.  In short, he teaches us to realize that the many forms of “non-reading” that we engage in (books we’ve read but have forgotten, books we’ve skimmed, books we’ve heard about) do not instantly make us cultural philistines.  That despite the seeming “obligation to read,” and to “read thoroughly” that most of us feel, there are many other meaningful ways that to interact with the books around us.  Even through the various forms of non-reading that he discusses, those not-read books become a part of our “inner libraries” as much as the fully read and remembered ones, leaving a very real imprint on us.  He writes (the emphasis is his),

We are the sum of these accumulated books.

I was recently having a conversation about reading, particularly about what “important” or canonical works we have read or not read.  Proust inevitably was mentioned, and neither one of us had finished it, and although I can’t speak for both of us, I was embarrassed about it.  On some level, I felt I should have read it, all of it, at some point (I have never gotten past Swan’s Way, although I truly loved it).  Although neither one of us ran to pick up In Search of Lost Time, we both did begin to read the short stories of Anton Chekov, another author that we agreed that as well-educated and well-read people, we should read. That embarrassment felt a the moment of having to admit that I had not read all of Proust and Chekov is exactly the kind of guilt that Bayard is trying to assuage.

Bayard’s book also seems to address, and perhaps even critique, the significance of the reader as creator of meaning.  He exaggerates this concept by regularly reminding the reader that “the book is not a fixed object,” that it is “less the object than the consequence,” and that it is “less a book than it is the whole of the discussion of the book,”  he very nearly declares in a Nietzsche-like manner that the book is dead, and that we have killed it.  Our ideas about books have become more important than the books themselves, rendering them insignificant.  So insignificant that we don’t even have to read them to be able to discuss them.

That may be true, but I don’t think he entirely disagrees with the notions espoused by Eco in the work I blogged about yesterday, The Open Work.  In fact, they seem both seem to agree that at the end of the day, reading is not a simple, passive act by either author or reader.  It is a complicated dance, where both the reader and author are active participants. And by discussing the many ways in which we non-read, he ends up really writing about the infinitely complex ways that we do read.

Both Eco and Bayard appeared together on “Live from the New York Public Library” to discuss How to Talk About Books.  Eco’s The Name of the Rose appears in the chapter titled “Books You Have Heard Of: In which Umberto Eco shows that it is wholly unnecessary to have held a book in your hand to be able to speak about it, as long as you listen to and read what other say about it.”  Its a wonderful exchange between two very intelligent, and very funny, men.

Despite Mr. Bayard’s seeming challenge to not read his book, I am quite happy that I did, finding it incredibly provocative and enjoyable.  In the end, this little book about not reading reminded me just why I love to read in the first place.  I agree with Bayard, I am the sum of my accumulated books. From the books I’ve read and remember, to those I’ve read and have forgotten but left their imprint nonetheless, to those I’ve skimmed and yet absorbed, and even those I may have only heard about. My “inner library” defines me as does my physical library.  Even more so.

Aside:  I just received an email with one of the best subject lines possible “Your Amazon.com order of “The Prague Cemetery” has shipped!”