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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The arrival of new appliances later this week mean that I have to move the bookshelves on the stairs. Roused to long-overdue action I’ve been using the necessity to cull books, mostly from historical and children’s fiction. My goal is to eliminate all double rows of books on the shelves, but I’m finding it harder to condemn books than I thought.

The historical fiction will survive with only minor culls; it’s full of books by Gillian Bradshaw, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Graves,. Rosemary Sutcliff, and Henry Trease, and Patrick O’Brian. However, I won’t be keeping the Dudley Popes, which are no more than adequately written, nor the odd library remainder with a wretched-looking cover. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of the twenty or so Georgette Heyers, but I figure that anything Trish liked so well should be worth a read some time; perhaps after I’ve read them all, I’ll keep the best half dozen.

Most of my culls are from the children’s section. I’m keeping the Arthur Ransom series, figuring I’ll read them some day. However, I’ve decided that I can live without most of the Doctor DoLittles, the Green Gables, and the Mary Poppins books.

However, it’s wretched to cull any books, and harder still to cull Trish’s book and the odd volume we bought anticipating having children. But I tell myself that keeping a book I’m not going to re-read is hoarding, and denying others a chance to read is simply wrong. All the same, there’s such a clear history of my life on the shelves that I half-believe I could commit a series of murders more easily than I can discard even books I’m not going to read.

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Yesterday, Steve Bougerolle tagged me for the meme of listing “ten books that stayed with you in some way.”

Considering I’ve been on a diet of three to ten books per week (depending on their density) since I was eight or nine, confining myself to ten is a bit of a challenge. Nor did I simply want to name without commenting, or to bother other people with the meme, which is why I am blogging rather than just answering on Facebook.

Still, here is my list, in no particular order:

  • George Eliot, Middlemarch: I’m one of those who think that Middlemarch is the greatest Victorian novel. The story of several couples in a small industrial town, the novel has a psychological depth that is unequaled even today. I’ve read it three times, and can easily imagine me reading several more times, each time finding something new to admire.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: I started reading the first book of the trilogy one Saturday in the summer between Grades Four and Five. I spent a very long Sunday evening waiting for Monday so I could get the last two volumes from the store. The experience was overwhelming, and gave me a life-long taste for fantasy and science fiction.
  • Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Although I have been an agnostic since my mid-teens, I always assumed that a historical Jesus existed. But when I read this plausible case for the non-existence of Jesus, I was shocked for one of the few times in my life. I felt cheated that so much history and art had been founded on nothing. The book itself is obsessive to the point of unhealthiness, but worth wading through for its ideas.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign: I read this fragment of the Vorkosigan Saga for the first time a few months ago. Two weeks later, I read it again – something I almost never do. A mixture of space opera, Shakespearean comedy, and Regency romance, A Civil Campaign is one of the funniest books I have ever read, with a cast of characters that you can laugh at while still identifying with.
  • George Orwell, Collected Essays: This collection features not only the calm clarity of Orwell’s writing, but also the best record of what it was like to be an English intellectual in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time I finished it for the first time, it had had a permanent effect – for the better, I believe – on my prose style by making me much more aware of what my goals in writing were.
  • Wilkie Collins, No Name: A young woman is declared illegitimate, and seeks revenge and justice in Victorian England. Of course she has to repent at the end, but watching her get to that point is so much fun it hardly matters. This is one of the lost classics of Victorian literature, and deserves to be better known.
  • Susan Faludi, Stiffed:, The Betrayal of the American Man: I had read Backlash and admired it, but Stiffed, which was relatively ignored, is even more monumental. Feminists often say that men suffer under patriarchy as well, but, so far as I know, Faludi is the only feminist who set out to examine and prove this contention. It’s a book that every feminist should read, and every anti-feminist as well, and establishes what Backlash first suggested: Faludi is one of the great modern American journalists.
  • Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson, The Pragmatics of Human Communication: This classic textbook applies system theory to psychology. For me, it was a gateway to the works of Gregory Bateson, Jacques LaCan, and Anthony Wilden, and, as such, a lifelong influence on my habits of thought.
  • Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works (in English): I worked steadily through these thick volumes as I was writing my thesis. Jung is not an easy read, but he gave me the intellectual framework for studying fantasy and proved to me the importance of symbols in people’s thinking. If I seem eccentric, one reason is that I am more of a Jungian while most people are Freudians or anti-Freudians.
  • Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book: As a boy, I loved the deliberately archaic language and the poems between the stories, as well as their genuine pathos. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in Cubs as long as I did, except I loved the fact that the rituals were based on Kipling’s poetry.

Give me another five list items, and I would include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which started me reading anarchists, and the collected works of Shelley, which taught me most of what I know about poetry and kept me sane during my warehouse job between high school and university. But give me another five, and I would undoubtedly want space for another five, and five more after that. For me, books are not just ways to kill time, but some of the main building blocks of my psychology (most of the rest being music and people). So when I’m asked to list influential books, in an indirect way, I’m really telling my own story, which to me seems endless.

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Maybe it’s a character flaw, but nostalgia for a technology puzzles me. My bewilderment has last all my adult life, and now, with the all the sentimental preference for paper books over ebooks, it returns to me stronger than ever.

I first became aware of other people’s technology nostalgia when I jumped from a typewriter to a word processor. Did I miss working with carbon paper, or having the choice of redoing a page because of a spelling mistake or getting liquid paper all over everything? Not for a moment. Revision was so much easier on a computer that I barely looked back. The IBM Selectric that I kept in a back closet just in case languished in obscurity for a decade before I realized that I would never use it.

Yet much to my surprise, many people started romanticizing the typewriter. I could understand veteran writers who after several decades were reluctant to mess with their creative processes. But other people insisted that the hum of the computer kept them from concentrating (apparently the even louder hum of an electric typewriter didn’t). Their thoughts, they insisted, were geared to the tap of the keys (as though a century of using typewriters could have produced any significant natural selection in favor of them).

Soon, distressed typefaces that mimicked typewriters with old ribbons or out of alignment keys became a fashion in graphical design. You still see these typefaces occasionally today, a sentimental attachment to all the inefficiencies of the old technology added with more ingenuity than sense to the new technology.

Now, with journalists constantly trumpeting the death of the paper book, the same thing is happening. Suddenly, people are forgetting the tendency of paperbacks to fall apart after one reading (assuming pages didn’t start flying away before then), and talking about the shape and construction of the book – which is largely an accident of cheap production – as something to get sentimental over. Again, I wonder what they are rattling on about.

Not that ebook readers are perfect technologies. You have to learn exactly how hard to tap a paper if they use a touch screen, and how often to refresh so that you can turn a page without a pause interrupting your reading. Every reader, too, could use twice the resolution, even if they have improved considerably from a decade ago. I admit, too, that the end of the standard two page spread leaves me wondering what to do with my spare hand, and that a single page looks odd to my typographically-trained eye.

The mistake that people make is imagining that the medium is the book– which isn’t true for either paper books or ebooks. If it were, then to get the full experience of Catullus or Cicero, we would have to read them on papyrus scrolls. Shakespeare would have to be read on vellum, and Jonathan Swift and George Eliot on rag paper. All of these are simply media.

The book – the play, the oration or the novel – is the words and how they are put together. And that doesn’t change, regardless of whether we read a clay tablet or have the words beamed directly into our brains. If we remember a particular technology fondly, I suspect that it’s because we transfer the pleasure of the words to the medium in which we read them.

Personally, I neither welcome nor decry the rise of ebooks. They have their points, such as reduced storage space or the ability to change fonts, but that’s not what I notice when I read, any more than I notice the convenience and portability of paperbacks, or the smallness of the loss if they fall into the bathtub. When I read, what I notice is the story or the arguments, and the skill in word use. Should I live long enough to see ebooks replaced by something else, I’ll use that something else, just as I use ebooks now.

Like those who romanticized typewriters, the people currently anticipating the end of paper books have lost sight of what’s important when we read. Maybe they’re just afraid of anything that’s new, but the medium is a minor issues so long as we can read without being distracted by inefficiency or inconvenience. What matters is the words. Always.

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I’m not a heavy drinker, and, while I appreciate fine food, I don’t stuff myself. But books are another matter. Give me a stack of unread books and the time and place to read them, and I become as gluttonous as anyone.

The habit dates back to my teen years. I’d no sooner get my allowance than I’d descend on the stores to spend it on books. Used books, new books, science fiction, classics, biography, history – it hardly mattered which. After an hour in a book store, I would emerge with a dozen books and rush home to bury myself in my room. Ignoring the parental pleas to come out into the living room and “be sociable,” I’d stretch on the bed, reading intently and staying up as late as possible. In the morning, I’d be at the breakfast table with a book in my hand. If I had to go to school, I’d walk along reading. If I had to go out, I would take along a couple of my new books.

When I reached adulthood, these habits only intensified. When I was in my twenties, I considered the perfect Saturday afternoon a descent upon the local science fiction specialty shop in which I bore home a pile of paperbacks and the odd hardcover for spoils. Just like when I was a child, a good part of my discretionary income went for books.

However, as I grew older, my habits changed. I was no less an avid reader, but except after Christmas or my birthday (when, naturally enough, most people would give me books), my habits became less gluttonous. I’d buy a book or two at a time, and be content. Had I thought of it, I would have said I was a changed man.

Then, about a week ago, I started re-reading a few books by Gillian Bradshaw, the English historical writer. Realizing that the newest one was over a decade old, I started wondering what she had done in the interval. A search on the Internet revealed that not only was she active, but that the local library had at least a dozen titles that I hadn’t read. When Trish checked out five or six, suddenly my book gluttony was back, insatiable as ever.

What triggers the gluttony, I realize now, is not just unread books. It’s books in which I can expect imagination, fine writing, and a variety of them. Although Bradshaw is only one writer, her work stirs the gluttony on all both accounts. Her extrapolations into the remoter regions of the classical past show a convincing imagination, and her understated writing is very much to my taste. Moreover, she writes not only of a variety of classical settings, but also contemporary novels and science fiction for both children and adult. What these things add up to the luxury of choice. When I finish each book, I have a delicious moment when I can stretch and linger over what I am going to devour next.

Fortunately for the rest of my life, these outbursts of gluttony are usually short. But, while they last, I feel wealthier and more privileged than I have any right to feel.

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Ever since I learned to read, I’ve been a chain reader, sometimes literally finishing one book and picking up another one. Books have been my refuge from the bleakness and bad news of the day, a way to while away time while in line at the store, and my companion on constant rides on transit and planes. I even shave while reading to alleviate the boredom of the task (obviously, I use a safety razor). And, inevitably, I re-read.

The first time I read a book, I may have many motivations. Obviously, I need to have an interest in the topic or the writer, but I’m not a very discriminating reader, so that hardly narrows down why I might read something – everything from graphic novels to Middle English poetry might seem interesting to me in different moods. At times, I read because the writer has a reputation, and I want to push back the boundaries of my ignorance a furlong or two. At other times, I read because I’ve been given a book (I count heavily on friends to urge on me books that I might not pick for myself, and, often enough, I find myself pleasantly surprised). Still other times, I read because nothing better is at hand.

However, why I re-read is easier to delineate. I rarely re-read non-fiction from cover to cover, although I might return to particular pages when researching or needing to prod my memory. Mostly, what I re-read is fiction. If I was trying to be a snob, I would claim that I re-read only worthwhile books, but that would be a half-truth. Unless my tastes change, I doubt I’ll re-read standards of the literary canon like Henry James or Anthony Trollope; I recognize that their writing shows some skill, but, like opera, it’s a skill I recognize without appreciating.

It would be more exact to say that I re-read fiction whose skill has impressed me with its craft, regardless of how the canon regards it: Charles Dickens, but also Wilkie Collins; John Fowles and Lawrence Durrell, but also any number of writers who labored their life away in the science fiction ghetto.
What others think of my taste makes little difference to me (although I confess I can’t quite bring myself to read graphic novels on the bus). Instead, what matters is that the work shows some skill. The over-maligned Stephen King, for instance, is a master at pacing and observation of Americana – two skills that are usually missing from the academic’s checklist for greatness, but which average readers reward unconsciously by purchasing his work.
However, the books I re-read the most are those that are not only give aesthetic pleasure, but also reinforce my world view. Three books (or series) in particular come to mind: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which shaped my sense of right and wrong; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, from which I learned the core values of endurance and rising to the occasion; and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, which idealize friendship and a detached but amused view of the world while also offering historical adventure in the 19th century British navy.

Probably, you could gauge my character very accurately, not only from the common nature of these books – none, notably, have a modern or mundane setting – but also from the number of times I’ve re-read them. White I’ve re-read at least a dozen times since childhood, and Tolkien – the last time I checked – over 33 times, a number that astonishes me as I write it. By contrast, I have only read the twenty or so novels in O’Brian’s series three times through, but, then, I came to them much later that the other two, and they probably amount to two or three times the words of White’s and Tolkien’s classics. I’m re-reading O’Brian now, savoring favorite lines (“Jack, you have debauched my sloth”) and finding new subtleties.

The chances are, I’ll re-read all three – to say nothing of other favorites – many times in the rest of my life. However, I doubt I’ll re-read any of them as many times again as I already have. As I grow older, I am more jealous of time, and more aware of all that I have still to read. In fact, probably a new book has to impress me more than my classics did before I’ll re-read it in preference to moving on to something new. But a change of heart or a prolonged illness might change that, and, even if they don’t, I still expect many hours of pleasure ahead with my old favorites.

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Learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
–T. H. White, “The Sword in the Stone.”

After Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the book that most affected me as a child was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The book is best-known through the and for the Camelot! musical and later movie of the same name in which Robert Goulet and Richard Harris played the title roles, and perhaps through the Disney animation of The Sword in the Stone, the first part of the book. However, in each of these cases, that’s like knowing a sunny day through a tanning clinic. What White accomplished was not just an entertainment – although it’s all of that – but, rather, the main retelling of the Arthurian legend for the twentieth century.

White was rather unfortunate in his personal life. He seems to have been throughly dominated by his mother in his early life, and an accusation – apparently of homosexuality and possibly true – made him unable to continue working as a public school teacher. He turned to his love of naturalism and medievalism for solace as well as a living, but remained largely solitary and introspective.

Every great re-telling of the Arthurian legend reshapes the story for its times, and White is no exception. In White’s version, Arthur is a well-meaning and earnest man who has the luck or misfortune to be afflicted by a visionary tutor. For Merlin, Arthur is a tool to attempt nothing less than a major change in human psychology, away from the “Might is Right” philosophy that seems to rule international politics to a more moral, humanistic way of life. The Round Table and the Grail Quest are both efforts to steer life in this direction. At the end of the book, Arthur is even experimenting with the rule of law, although he finds it suddenly used against him.

The tragedy is that human nature seems to pre-doom this endeavor from the start. But the problem is not just the natural selfishness of people, but the fact that they are not.

The romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere that dooms Arthur’s efforts is not simply a matter of selfishness or uncontrollable passion. After all, White says, if Lancelot had been a normal person, he simply would have eloped with Guinevere, and nothing else would have happened. Instead, the tragedy happens because Lancelot is genuinely torn between his love for Guinevere and his whole-hearted support of Arthur’s ideals. Similarly, Guinevere is a young woman married to an older husband whose ideals she can’t really share, and lacking any outlet for her energies. As for Arthur, he is warned from the start about the love affair, but turns a blind eye to it out of guilt and out of his own sense of fairness.

For White, the other element that dooms Camelot are the five sons of Queen Morgause of Orkney, including Mordred, whose father is Arthur. White devotes a rather chilling, if somewhat racist section to the sons in early childhood, showing them totally obsessed with gaining their aloof mother’s approval. Of the five, only Gareth has the imaginative sympathy to support Arthur’s ideals wholeheartedly. Gaheris is slow, Agravaine and Mordred downright vicious. Gawaine, the head of the clan, is at least good-natured, but even he has trouble thinking beyond the tribalism on which he grew up.

In short, what White manages to do is create a psychologically convincing portrait of the main people in the Arthurian cycle, making them credible to twentieth-century readers, and winning through to a pathos in several scenes as effective as anything else you can name in English literature.

But, although that alone would be enough to make The Once and Future King an extraordinary book, it contains far more. The first part, which depicts Arthur’s childhood, is broadly comical as Arthur – or Wart, as his foster family calls him – is transformed into a variety of animals to broaden his mind, a conceit that gives White a chance to put his naturalist’s rambles to good use. At the same time, Wart receives the usual education of a country squire, learning to joust and work with hawks. In fact, the whole book is crammed with medieval lore that gives the book a ring of authenticity.

Tragically, as adult affairs absorb his mind, Arthur quickly forgets his idyllic childhood, retaining only the ideas that Merlin has given him. After he establishes his rule, the whole concept of rooting out the idea that Might is Right slowly goes wrong in a series of descents that last over several decades. At the end of the book, in a scene whose imaginative power is only faintly captured in the movie, Arthur sits awake in his tent, waiting for the battle with Mordred that he knows will end in his death. Abruptly, he remembers his childhood, and wonders if his life effort was futile. The anarchistic geese, who see no borders in their flights, have the right attitude he concludes, but he despairs of humanity ever following their example. In the end, he finds a small consolation in sending a young page – evidently Thomas Malory, who will grow up write La Morte D’Arthur — out of the battle zone, so that somebody can remember the example of Camelot for future generations, then prepares to go out and die.

Having read the Arthurian legend for years, I was ripe for White’s version when I discovered it in Grade Six. I not only devoured the book, but lived and breathed it for months in my mind, even going so far as to ask a local artist down the lane to bring the description of the mews on Sir Ector’s estate to life (she refused, polite and more than a little puzzled).

Unlike Arthur, I’ve never forgot the story of his early years, or his effort to realize Merlin’s vision. Looking back, I conclude that the book seems to have played a large role in establishing my social and political leanings, and every few years I like to return to it. Each time, I find new pieces to appreciate, and I’m reminded yet again that the literary canon is not the only source of artistic excellence.

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After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I spent several years as a part time clerk in a mall bookstore. I had been reduced to a state where I was fit for little else: Not only had I gone straight through from high school with the exception of one or two summers off, but I had taken a double major and married in the same period. I needed time to coast while I considered the next step, and to earn enough money to pay my share of the expenses in the mean time.

In my naivety, I thought an enthusiasm for books was a natural qualification for such a job. Add a good memory for books and titles glimpsed, and I seemed a natural. Probably the fact that the job was minimum wage should have tipped me off to reality, but I was as green with inexperience as a new branch in spring.

Looking back, I have to say that disillusion took a surprisingly long time to set in. Yet, gradually, and with growing horror, I realized that other employees were far more interested in their shreds of status than books, and that my affinity for books was dismissed at the same time that I fielded all sorts of questions from them. I was unworldly, they decided, and they were right, although not in the way they thought.

All the other employees and managers, I realized, considered books commodities, not as exciting diversions and intellectual stimulation. Their lack of university degrees might have tipped me off, I suppose, but show me the twentysomething man who doesn’t believe he knows how the world works.

But I endured as I recuperated, experiencing the change in my life as Sunday store openings became the norm, and the embarrassment of having the older sister of a school acquaintance arrive as manager. She never said anything, but I grew increasingly afraid that she would mention my lowly status, and whispers would start to circulate that I was a failure.

However, despite this background of discontent, what I mainly recall were the surreal moments of comedy that went with the job. Some of these were corporate, such as the constantly shipping of reduced items back and forth for sales until long after any profit could be recouped from them.

One book I remembered was entitled Les Femmes aux Cigarettes, a reprint of a French photo study from the 1920s by a photographer who found the then-novelty of women smoking irresistible; it started at forty-eight dollars soon after I took the job, and had been reduced to twenty-five cent by the time I left.

I remember, too, the buzz of cleaning and drill that surrounded the visit of the owner – an event that lasted perhaps two minutes as he strode to the back of the store, shook the district manager’s hand, and went out to lunch with him.

Then there was the time I considered applying for a full-time position. The manager took me aside and talked to me solemnly of the duties and responsibilities of working full-time – as though I hadn’t been doing everything the full-timers were doing anyway. Asked point blank if she was implying that I wasn’t responsible, she back-pedaled furiously, but, with such events in my past, no wonder my view of the corporate world is ironic and bemused at best.

But what I remember most vividly are the customers. Many would enter the store in early afternoon, wanting the book they had seen on Oprah that morning, and could not understand that I had been at the store since 9AM, let alone that I’m not an Oprah sort of person. My favorite in this category is the woman who came up to me and said, “I can’t remember the name or the title of the book, and it’s hard to explain what it’s about, but it was on some television show this morning, and had a green cover.” What I wanted to do was direct her to the green book section, but, wisely, I refrained.

Another time, one of the many mothers who used the children’s section as a cheaper version of mall daycare berated us because her son had wandered. We should have kept an eye on him, she kept saying.

Then there was the time I chased a young shoplifter out the door, through the mall, and halfway across the parking lot. I didn’t catch him – which was probably good, since I might have got into trouble with the law – and, to tell the truth, I didn’t much care if I did. For me, the incident was an unexpected moment of excitement in an otherwise monotonous day. But from the terrorized look on the shoplifter’s face as he looked over his shoulder, I doubt he felt the same way – although perhaps he went on to tell his own boasting version of the story.

And who can forget the hordes who arrived in the last few hours of Christmas Eve, overheated in their winter coats, furious about everything that had sold out, and about as full of Christmas cheer as a tax collector? One Christmas, I had just slumped against the door lock when a young male executive came bounding at the door.

“I have to get a gift for my wife,” he kept saying. “I have to!” His tie was askew, and he was more than a little drunk, and all I wanted was to go home and start my own Christmas. Safe on the other side of the glass, I muttered, “Keep this up, and you won’t have to worry about buying for your wife much longer,” and let a staffer take pity on him.

I think that these random encounters helped shaped the basis of my worldview: Things don’t make sense, I decided, and I would only get a headache if I insisted in looking for the logic.

But I had outgrown the job by the end of my first shift. I enjoy people, but not constantly, and I’m not a naturally servile or patient person. After two and a half years, I was looking for a way out. I started applying for any job remotely suitable, then hit on grad school. That fall, I applied for both the Communications and English Department at Simon Fraser University. The Communications Department would only take grad students in September, and I wasn’t waiting another eight months, so I became an English master’s candidate, sinking gratefully into the familiar world where ideas mattered and books were viewed as precious.

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