Saturday, December 24, 2011

What Readers Can Learn from Woody Allen

I’ve always liked Woody Allen.  Not so much the slapstick stuff – I usually can’t get into slapstick – but the wit, the insights, the ease with which he demolishes long held beliefs which few dare question:  he’s willing to say that the emperor is naked....

And he is funny.  Very funny.  Even some of the slapstick films have flashes of this wit, of comedy that’s not physical, but verbal.  In SLEEPER, one of his more slapstick films, a man goes into the hospital for an easy surgery; something goes wrong, and his body is “frozen” until he can be cured.  When he awakens in the year 2173, he’s told to reflect on the miracle of science he's been privileged to experience.  But he is not appeased:  to him, a miracle of science would have been to leave the hospital after a few hours and not have gotten a parking ticket!

And no one who has listened to the discussion of the dietary value of eggs – sometimes good for you, sometimes not – can help but be both amused and satisfied to learn that 200 years from now, it becomes a “well known” fact that things like wheat germ and honey are bad for you, while “tobacco is one of the healthiest things there is.”  And deep fat.  And hot fudge….

Satisfying, too, is the way he creates wish-fulfilling experiences we can relate to, as in this memorable scene from ANNIE HALL featuring Marshal McLuen:

I also love  -- and envy! -- the way he can “define” complicated concepts in one short sentence.  In STARDUST MEMORIES, he tells us that he took a course in existential philosophy.  On his final exam he was asked 10 questions he couldn’t answer; so he left them all blank – and got a 100% !

In the same way, he can define a decade – the sixties – in a sentence, tracing a person’s trajectory from hippy-dom to a career in advertising or finance.  And in ANNIE HALL, we see him describe an upper west side New Yorker in one spot-on sentence:

With ANNIE HALL, Allen began his more “serious” period of film making:  that is, while many of these films are still very funny, there is much less physical comedy, and there’s an increasing effort to deal with more serious subjects:  the state of the universe; the difficulty of interpersonal relationships, of preparing for the future, of knowing what one wants; the struggle to understand the purpose of one’s life; and the moral imperatives that must guide one’s actions.

Nowhere is that better stated than in the film MANHATTAN, and in particular, in the scene in which Allen talks to his friend while standing next to a schoolroom skeleton. 

Woody Allen in a scene from MANHATTAN

Allen confronts a friend who betrayed him, and his friend tells him not to “turn this into one of your big moral issues…. I’m not a saint, OK?”
Allen:  “But you’re too easy on yourself!  Don’t you see that?  That’s your problem….you rationalize everything; you’re not honest with yourself.  You cheat a little [on your wife], you play around with the truth a little with me:  next thing you know you’re in front of a Senate Committee and you’re naming names, you’re informing on your friends.”

Friend:  “You’re so self-righteous!  We’re just people!  We’re just human beings.  You think you’re God!”

Allen:  “I gotta model myself after someone!  …what are future generations going to say about us?  It’s very important to have some kind of personal integrity.  I want to make sure that when I’m [dead] I’ll be well thought of.”
You watch a scene like this, you hear these words, and you can’t help but think that Woody Allen, the creator of them, has admirable moral standards; that he is someone worth emulating.

And then:  he has an affair with the daughter of Mia Farrow (his “significant other”).  He has an affair with a young girl whom he helped raise.... 

What?!?  Really?!?

PBS TV’s AMERICAN MASTERS series recently devoted two nights to Woody Allen.  Here, he’s shown as the creative genius that he is; as the highly prolific and imaginative filmmaker; and one of the very few filmmakers to have complete control of the content and production of his films;

Here, he is shown to be more egocentric than collaborative – he won’t discuss film roles with his film's actors because he doesn’t like talking to them! – and one who seems to realize a great deal of what he wants in his films during the editing process;

Here, Allen tells us that his film collaboration with Mia Farrow went well “until things suddenly started to fall apart in our relationship…." (Talk about understatement!)

Here, in the very few minutes devoted to the subject in a 4 and 1/2 hour documentary, we are told that Woody Allen’s work did not suffer as a result of the sensational trial and custody battle that ensued:  that [like any narcissist], "Woody was able to compartmentalize” the different parts of his life.  And to rationalize: rationalize and ignore any unpleasantness.  "What was the scandal?" he asks in one interview.

This is so contrary to the dialogue he wrote for MANHATTAN (and for so many of his other films) that it's no wonder that Allen says in this documentary that he didn’t like MANHATTAN and was sorry that it had been released…!

But if Allen understands neither his misconduct nor the "scandal" it caused, his biological son, Rowan Farrow, clearly does. This is what Rowan said of his estrangement from his father:
"He's my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.  
I cannot see him. I cannot have a relationship with my father and be morally consistent... I lived with all these adopted children, so they are my family. To say Soon-Yi was not my sister is an insult to all adopted children.”
So:  What can readers learn from Woody Allen?  

Well, readers can learn that the writer is NOT the same as the tale he tells.  Or that he is ALL parts of the tale: the good, the bad; the moral and the immoral.  The reader can learn that, perhaps, studying the lives of writers and artists does not help in understanding the work; that the work must be examined on its own merits..

Woody Allen tried to tell us this himself in his film, SWEET AND LOWDOWN, which Netflix describes as a “fictional biopic about a jazz guitarist…that separates an obnoxious man from his heavenly musical ability.” 

You simply can’t interpret the art by using what you know of the life of the artist.

But on the other hand:

All those many, many films that feature betrayal and deception, like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, in which Hannah’s sister has an affair with Hannah’s husband;

All those many, many films like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, MANHATTAN, WHATEVER WORKS, which pair old men with young – sometimes very young – women;

And all those many, many films that display a dilution and finally an abandonment of the moral standards he’d originally expressed in dialogue like the one in MANHATTAN. 

In 1989's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, the “hero” has his young mistress killed; it’s a crime he unable to bring himself to do by himself, and it is a crime he gets away with.  But the immorality of his actions and the fact that he is not punished for them changes him:  his belief in God is shaken; his understanding of the meaning of life is lost; and he is distraught, worried, distant, and filled with guilt and despair.

By the time we get to 2005's MATCH POINT, the “hero” is not only perfectly capable of killing his mistress by himself, but thinks nothing of killing her innocent next door neighbor so that the killings will seem the result of random robberies.  And after a short bout of sleeplessness and worry that he'll be caught, he becomes perfectly happy to have gotten away with it; perfectly happy to enjoy the good life he gained through murder; perfectly happy to move ahead and not give his heinous actions a second thought.

Why hadn’t we noticed this tendency of Allen’s?  Perhaps because it did not neatly fit our image of him; perhaps because this is not funny stuff….and we expect funniness from this "master" of film.  And the documentarians excuse him by never giving any of this more than a passing glance – even expressing admiration of him for being able to “compartmentalize” so well….

It’s hard to know how and if a writer’s life informs his work; it’s hard to know whether or not we do a disservice to the work by delving into the life. 

So:  Do we really know anything much about William Shakespeare?  And does it matter?

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Public Libraries

There seems to be so much interest in terms of books as “objects” that one can practically have a blog devoted to that subject alone!  I have received heaps of email on the subject.  (Strictly speaking, email doesn’t really come in “heaps” – but it really felt like it!)  It’s quite an interesting subject, to be sure, and I will revisit it from time to time.

My blog post, What Makes a Good Personal Library, prompted a wide range of opinions, from “how fabulous to have a personal library,” to “how pretentious,” to “save trees by reading eBooks,” and everything you can imagine in between.

But there’s something about walking into a room full of books – whether it’s a library or a bookstore or a friend’s living room – that feels wonderful:  the scent; the muffled silence (as many sounds are absorbed into the walls of books); the colors and patterns of the book-filled shelves; the enticing anticipation created by all those beckoning spines….

While some libraries fill you with a sense of ease and comfort when you walk into them, others fill you with wonder – and awe. 

Public libraries are a luxury that all of us can enjoy.  In New England, every tiny village was built around its own library.  One might think that this creates an unnecessary redundancy, but local libraries can give you a very homey, welcoming feeling; it’s a place where you see familiar faces and know exactly where to look for the books you want.  It can be so welcoming a place that you are drawn to visit it more often than you might a larger and less intimate one.

But there are other libraries that offer a completely different experience.  When you step inside one of those, you often find that you need to pause for a moment, look around, survey the scene, and drink in the room’s  “landscape” before you venture further inside.

I recently stumbled upon a website which featured “The 35 Most Amazing Libraries in the World,” and the libraries are – amazing!  Each of the 35 libraries is photographed and described so as to explain why they were chosen.  It’s an informative list, and although I’ll be posting some photos here, I urge you to visit the site and look at them all.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in some of these libraries – Trinity College Library in Dublin, the Bodleian in Oxford, the British Museum Reading Room in London, the Vatican Library, the New York Public Library, Yale’s Beinecke Library, the Boston Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York, the Peabody Library in Baltimore, Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, the Library of Congress – and I can say that every time, my experiences exceeded my expectations. 

No matter how august the setting, how precious the books, how steeped with history the building, you can always find a friendly-faced librarian who is eager to show you around, to share the library’s treasures with you.  (And what treasures there are!)  Book lovers seem to love book lovers, wherever they appear. 

In a few of these libraries, I was given special, behind-the-scenes tours, and while that was, indeed, exciting, it’s the reading rooms – the rooms everyone has access to! – that gave me the most pleasure.  You can view and even touch unimaginable treasures in these repositories of civilization and history; you can do research; you can even read!  (I have to admit, though, that just looking and wandering around is what I most enjoy.)

When in such libraries, I feel much as my children did when they looked at our [temporarily owned] copies of the 2nd and 4th Shakespeare Folios; I feel the magic, the wonder, the awe.  I tread softly and touch slowly, carefully.  And I feel lucky.

Here are photos of some of the libraries featured on that website which I found particularly interesting.

The Stockholm Public Library was built in 1928, and I’m surprised at how modern it looks.  I love the way the visitor is surrounded by books, and that the books on the balconies are also open to view and are accessed by an open staircase.  Such balconies remind me of one of my “dream” libraries:  the one belonging to Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY!

Stockholm Public Library

Jose Vaconcelos Library

How’s the Jose Vaconcelos Library in Mexico City for modern?  While this  architecture can be considered impressive, I prefer the books to take center stage rather than the architecture.  Here the books don't beckon to me adequately, but perhaps it feels different when you're actually inside the building.

 The Library of Alexandria, Egypt, is another modern space.  If you’re wondering where the books are, at the moment there are only 500,000 books in a space that is meant to hold over 8,000,000!  
Library of Alexandria

It is hoped that this library will recreate the library that was known as the “greatest library in antiquity” before it was destroyed.

Phillips Exeter Library

Famed architect Louis Kahn designed the modern Phillips Exeter Academy Library.  The building won many architectural awards, and it was even used as a  commemorative postage stamp!  While this photograph emphasizes the architecture and looks rather cold, this is one of the libraries I visited, so I can tell you that it doesn’t feel that way when you’re inside.  There are many intimate spaces in which  small groups can gather, the collection is notable, and the books are very accessible.  

When I worked as a reference librarian and book purchaser for the  Howard County Library in Maryland, we got all of our inter-library loans from the George Peabody Library in Baltimore.  Howard County is midway between Baltimore and Washington D.C., and Columbia, a modern, “planned” city – the first of its kind in the U.S. – was built there.  With all the competitive people working in that cosmopolitan government and business corridor, it's easy to forget that Maryland is a Southern state and fought for the Confederacy during 
The Peabody Library
the Civil War; but when you step into the Peabody, you're quickly reminded:  those ornate iron railings on the balconies almost shout "New Orleans and the South!  It's a wonderful library.

The Trinity College Library Long Room has become something of a tourist attraction.  Those roped-off bays are a bit off-putting, but if you really want to do research, you can arrange an appointment and work there.  I love libraries that have such open “bays.”

The Long Room at Trinity College Library
The Morgan Library

The Morgan Library is also a museum, and the book shelves are gated so that you can’t really get at them but can only look at them as a kind of permanent exhibit. But the rooms are magnificent and the exhibits are always worth seeing.  Here, too, you can ask for permission to actually use the books.

The Chateau de Chantilly Library: what can I possibly say other than "WOW!"

Abbey Library of Saint Gall

I’ve never been to the Abbey Library of Saint Gall, but one 
of my favorite books is the exquisite 3 volume monograph of 
THE PLAN OF ST GALL published by the University of 
California Press in1979.  The original plan was drawn on vellum between the years 820 and 830 CE - and survived!  Astonishing that the public is welcome to use this library!

The New York Public Library

Sometimes I feel as though I spent a third of my life at the New York Public Library.  I lived and went to school in New York, and this was my library of choice.  It was a great and inspiring place to study - and a wonderful place to meet people, too!

The Boston Public Library was the first public library in the U.S. and is my current library of choice.  You can see from this photo what I mean when I say that some libraries are hushed, dreamy, and magical….

Boston Public Library
Beinecke Library
In addition to being beautiful and having an amazing collection of rare books and manuscripts, Yale’s Beinecke Library is also extremely high-tech. That central air-tight column of glass which houses and preserves the most rare of the books is a modern marvel; it’s even been featured in novels and film as the place where the good-guy gets locked into and must find his way out before he stops breathing – or where the bad guy finally stops breathing!

Reading Room at the British Museum
The relatively new Reading Room at the British Museum does not have the charm of its predecessor, but it has an impressive collection of books; and I love that such a wonderful museum has a library as its centerpiece.


For me, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library is the very definition of what a library should be.  One of the oldest libraries in Europe, it has everything:  impressive history, important works, and great beauty – inside and out.  It consists of several buildings, with the Radcliffe Camera Science Library the most beautiful among them.  I love this building so much that I actually bought a paper construction kit of it and made myself a small replica that now sits on my desk.  I love to look at it.

Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library

The Library of Congress really does have everything:  it is the largest library in the world, “as measured by shelf space and number of volumes.”  And just think:  it belongs to us!  

Library of Congress

Wouldn’t it be great to travel to all the great public libraries in the world?  And in each of those libraries, you’d probably find a fellow book-lover eager to show you around….

But in the meantime: visit, support and enjoy your local libraries!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Guest Post: Reading "Rules"

Everywhere one looks, it seems that bookstores are closing or becoming caf├ęs, or that they are selling things other than books:  book things, but not books themselves.    There is a constant lament from booksellers, publishers, writers and the media about the death of the book, the end of reading.  These lamenters tell us we prefer video and film and interactive games and books on tape to actually reading silently to ourselves.

Most recently, this sentiment was expressed on the cover of the NEW YORKER – one of several they’ve published in recent years heralding the end of book selling, book reading, and book buying as we know it.  (Not funny!)


But if you were to spend a little time “surfing” the web, you would be forgiven for thinking that the naysayers are not paying sufficient attention.  There are thousands of books sites on the web.  Practically anyone who reads puts up a blog about their book likes and dislikes; there are book review sites in which books are reviewed by committee; there are book discussion sites; book club sites; book seller sites; book author sites; “modern” book sites; “classic” book sites; science-fiction book sites; mystery book sites; chick-lit book sites; book-a-day sites; library sites; and even book sites which review other book sites!

It is daunting.

I said in my very first post, What I'm Planning More or Less..., that I am a very slow reader, and that I couldn’t possibly read all that there is to read, let alone all that I want to read!  Even dipping into these book sites takes more time than I can comfortably manage!

But help has come my way….

Since 1985, Judy Pollock – a close friend of mine for more years than I care to mention! – has been president of Language at Work,  a communication skills training company.  Judy has been a reading teacher, a professional actor, and a public speaker; and she has designed many courses that help others communicate more easily and confidently.  Her clients range from private individuals to businesses and government agencies.

But Judy has had a “hands-off” policy when it came to her friends, and it is only since I began this blog and have been whining to her about my slow reading that she has finally come to my rescue.  While I can’t say that I am now a speed-reader, I can say that I read much faster than I did only a few months ago.

I am posting here one of the things she sent me that I found helpful; I hope it helps those other slow readers out there, as well as those who want to supplement their reading skills.  If you have questions about her post or other communication concerns, you can email Judy directly; or check out her web blog to see what else she has to offer.

Happy reading!
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
Reading “Rules”

Reading is wonderful, but not for everyone. What I frequently hear is, “How I can get through all the things there are to read?  I’m such a slow reader.”  Or worse: “I don’t have time to read fiction.” 

Slow readers can learn to read faster, and all readers can improve their skills. Contrary to what we’d like to think, efficient reading requires some work, and most of the strategies are appropriate for non-fiction.  But, if you can step up your non-fiction speed, you’ll have more time for luxuriating in your fiction!

Here are some things to try:
1.  Silence the voice that says you have to finish reading anything you start.  I give books 100 pages to convince me.  If you’re slogging through books you don’t like, no wonder you don’t have time to read anything else.  And how can you be excited about starting a new book if it means a mandatory sentence of 300+ pages! 
2.  Don’t think you have to read every article in the magazine.   Look for articles that you might want to read.  Tear them out; throw the rest of the magazine away.

3.  Don’t read every article in the same way.  Some will yield their treasures to you with a quick skim.

4.  Identify your reading places: watching TV, in bed, by the phone, in the kitchen.  Here is where you should stash potential reading material. 
Match the material to the place: some things you will skim quickly; some you want to read carefully; some you just need to review; some you want to curl up and read for enjoyment; some you have to work at.  

Now you have a stack of quickies by the phone to whip through while you’re on hold.  You have magazines for previewing in your TV watching chair. Your current book is by your bed, and the latest gobbledy-gook about your health insurance is on your desk where you will presumably be clear-headed and sitting up straight.
5. Preview everything you can.  Look at the title, subheadings, captions, side-bars, table of contents, index.  Many of us begin reading by starting at the first word and plodding along until we either forget what we’re reading or get to the end.  If you take the time to preview your document, you will actually SAVE time because: 
You may decide not to read it; 
If you do decide to read it, the previewing will make the reading easier, and your comprehension and retention will be greater.
6.  Try skimming as an alternative to a thorough reading:
Read the first few paragraphs.  Often the first paragraph or two will contain a little story meant to whet your appetite; skip quickly through the little story.

Read the last few paragraphs if they’re short; just the last one, if not.

Read the first sentence of each paragraph. And maybe the last sentence.
While your eyes are skimming down the page, be alert to any Stand Out words.  These are words that relate to the subject.  They can give you clues about the general idea, or even specifics.
 7.  While you’re reading, pay attention to the structure.   To untangle long sentences, look for Agent, Action, and, if offered, Object.  Who did what to what?  Try this sentence:
The tired farmer, although a mainstay of the economy, a model of persistence and tenacity, and a symbol of hope to those who espouse a simpler lifestyle, today, in spite of his dogged efforts, faces some difficult choices.
Many a valiant reader would be tired herself about halfway through this thicket.  If you see a hard road ahead, latch onto the agent. In this sentence that would be the farmer.  Now skim across the word weeds until you spot a nice action for him:  Aha! “faces”….and, helpfully right next to it, the object
This seeking of the Agent, Action, Object activity will help power you through long passages, and if you feel later that you missed something, it won’t be hard to go back and find the missing pieces.
8.  Look for key words that direct the traffic for you.  Read along in whatever direction you and the writer are going, but look out for signal changes. Words such as but, however, finally, therefore, also, indicate a change in direction.  When you get better at this, you can mutter little summaries to yourself as you go – great for comprehension and retention.

9.  The speed-obsessed usually want to know how they can increase reading time.  One drill is to practice on easy material, reading at your normal pace for 2-3 minutes, then at a reallyfastpace for 2-3 minutes.  Repeat for a while. Eventually your reallyfastpace becomes your normal pace.

10.  Finally, when you finish reading, recite a review of what you read.  The first few times you try this you might be horrified to realize that you are not able to summarize your reading, or even – gasp! – to say what the main idea was.  Carry on.  With practice, you’ll get better.  With more practice, this will become automatic (well, easier).  And – not surprisingly, your comprehension and retention will improve because you’ll be in the habit of reading for that little test.
Above all, reading should be fun.  If you employ improvement strategies in your non-fiction reading, you should be able to gain some fiction-reading time.  

And that rules!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Makes a Good Personal Library?

It’s quite difficult to answer the question of what makes a good personal library. 

For some, it’s a collection of books on one subject of special interest to the owner:  Golf, Dance, Art, Science, Fiction.

For others, it’s one made up of rare books, coveted books, valuable books.

For still others it’s fine and beautiful bindings, regardless of the subject.

For me, it’s anything I’ve enjoyed reading and hope to dip back into again.

And other than books, what else makes a personal library?  Furniture, bookends, artwork, beautiful or interesting objects that are meaningful to the library’s owner.

My personal libraries – and I have two – are primarily made up of some of the duplicates from my bookstore, and of books that I love – important or not; and it encompasses a wide range of subjects. 

I have separate copies of some of the same books in my two libraries, as I can’t bear to be apart from them when I’m in my other home.  I don’t necessarily need to re-read all of these books, but just passing by and seeing them on my bookshelves gives me pleasure; and sometimes, a flash back to a memory from my past.

One such is a book from my childhood which disappeared but which I recently managed to find in a dusty old bookshop.  It cost pennies when I was a child, but it cost me a great deal to purchase it today.  And in re-reading it now, I can see why my mother chose to buy it for me when I was a young girl.

BEHOLD, YOUR QUEEN is the [quite embroidered] story of the Biblical Queen Esther. It's a “fairy tale” romance that little girls can love, and which makes Cinderella pale by comparison.  But Esther is not just depicted here as the penniless, beautiful maiden carried away by the handsome prince; she’s depicted as something of an “action figure," a powerful person in her own right, and one who never lets fear stand in her way as she almost single-handedly saves her people. 

(Perhaps Esther is the precursor to STAR WARS’ Princess Leah?  Or the inspiration for her?  If so, then creator George Lucas certainly knew this story well!)

Another pleasure of mine is enjoying so-called “quality” paperbacks.  (I presume they mean good quality…?)   They are larger than the paperbacks you find at the drugstore, (often equivalent in size to the hard cover) and are made of better paper - strongly glued and sometimes even sewn - and with clear, attractive type.  I have lots of these.  Even when I own the hardcover, I sometimes have one of these paperbacks along side it.  Why?  I don’t know why;  I just like them! 

Mine are very eclectic libraries, indeed!

But as I keep saying, books alone don’t make the library.  It’s also the artwork and the bookcases, and the rugs, and the furniture, and the like. 

I’ve moved a lot, and I’ve carried my books with me from place to place, from state to state, from house to house.  Depending on the other features of my library, the same books have a different feeling of importance or playfulness or both.

Here are some photos of a few of the libraries I’ve had through the years, including ones from the previous carnation of my store.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that many of the books, furniture and objects are the same, but the “feel” is totally different from library to library:  “serious,” relaxed, ornate, modern.

I design libraries for people, and I love to play with the settings.  Buying the necessary, the wanted books is easy; making the space one in which the owner would be happy to spend time – one which represents the “who” that the owner is or would like to be – is more challenging.   And more fun. 

Here is a link to an article in the FINANCIAL TIMES that shows the libraries belonging to several authors:  not just the books, but the book cases and other appurtenances in their libraries.  Without reading a word written by any of these authors, you might decide which of them writes books you might want to read, and which of them does not.  You might be wrong, but it’s not a bad place to begin, as a personal library can reveal one's soul.  

What kind of library do you have? 
What kind of library do you want?

Monday, November 7, 2011

More on Books as Objects

I’m delighted by the reception of my last Blog post, “Some Thoughts about Books as Objects.”  And surprised. 

Bookstores are closing wherever we look, yet there are book sites galore online; book clubs are flourishing, and people apparently still have strong opinions about books and how to treat them.

This post got the attention of many online book sites (two of which I am now enjoying regularly and will tell you about).  The one called Shelf Awareness has two newsletters, one for readers and one for people in the book trade.  On November 2nd, they had an excerpt of my post in their “Quotation of the Day” section.  Not surprisingly, the excerpt they used was of the very few things I said which referred to new books as objects.

Another enjoyable site but one which is not exclusively about new books, Beattie’s Book Blog, the “unofficial homepage of the New Zealand book community” (which I enjoy because many of the books they discuss are not available in the USA) also excerpted my post, but here, the interest seemed to be more about the difference in “feel” between a real book and an eBook.

And my guest blogger, Pamela Grath, referred to my post in her blog, Books in Northport, adding to the conversation there, as follows:
“My friend Helen at the books, books, books blog wrote recently about books as objects, her point being that there is more to a book than text. I’m sure Helen would not disagree that for those of us who love books, many various aspects—physical, literary, aesthetic and incidental—go into the object we love, and I bring this up because Helen originally wrote of old books, and then she and I and other readers subsequently made the segue, in the comments section following her post, into a discussion of new books as objects and what various people still find valuable in bound, printed volumes."
Later, she made a post of her own called “More on Books as Objects – and One Important Book on the Subject” that I think you will enjoy reading.

On the whole, the people who wrote to me were very positive about the future of books as “objects” in addition to their importance in providing information and pleasure. 

You can read the comments at the end of my post to see some animated and thoughtful opinions about the value of “real” books.  One of the people who commented is someone who publishes books “in all forms – electronic and paper,” but nevertheless, says that she always publishes “limited handbound copies of all [our] books, because books are magical….”

But not everyone agrees.  One person wrote to protest that the printing of books causes the killing of trees, while eBooks help save them.  That’s an interesting point – and would have been posted, had not the sentiment been expressed in some very unsavory language! – and is, perhaps, a topic that can start an entirely new discussion among readers.

The care and treatment of books is another aspect that stimulated a great deal of conversation. Opinions ranged from the extreme of thinking that books should remain pristine and not be marked in any way, to the other extreme of thinking that every inch of a book should be annotated. 

I’m a proponent of the latter: I believe that annotating a book – making it “yours” – is a gift both to yourself and to the book.  I believe that it enriches the reading experience even for those who come to read the book after you.  I know that notations in used books have called my attention to aspects of that book which I might otherwise not have noticed; have given me new insights, shown me other possible interpretations. 

Of course, collectible books of great monetary value are a different matter entirely.  With these, annotating-readers like me have a “hands-off” policy when it comes to annotating or even signing or pasting in a bookplate.  Here, you want marks only by people who have some collectible “value” of their own:  the author, an “important” previous owner, a Melville or other credible person whose opinion illuminates the work in new ways, and the like.   

Imagine if there were such a thing as Shakespeare’s annotated copy of Chaucer – or of Petrarch, from whom Shakespeare took many of his tales.  I would definitely not put my mark on a book like that!

So the questions:

Printed books versus Electronic books;
Writing in books or leaving the pages pristine;

What do you think?


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Some Thoughts About Books as Objects

In this day of eBooks and iBooks and digital publishing; in this day when electronic displays are so sophisticated that one can actually turn pages on the screen and highlight passages and leave yellow sticky notes on the electronic page; in this day when one can carry an entire library of books in a convenient electronic case weighing no more than a pound or two; one is left to wonder about the future of books as physical, printed objects.

I sell books.  Not eBooks, but real books with pages made of paper.  Books rare and old.   My books smell of paper and ink.  The pages are browned by age, and sometimes smudged with use. 

Some are inscribed to a friend, with an explanation of why the book was chosen and given; some are inscribed by the author to an admirer, or colleague.  Some are signed by an owner in childish lettering or in adult script.  Some have the signatures of notable figures.  (These “association” copies are among my favorites.)  Each of these adds to the pleasure of the book, to the understanding of it.  And you are linked to the people who’d owned it before you.

Some are “extra illustrated,” with original sketches or paintings by an artist; or with pertinent extras bound into the book.

I once had an “extra illustrated” copy of Morley’s LIFE OF GLADSTONE which was a 3 volume set that had been stretched into 10 volumes as a result of the inclusion of so many pertinent extras:  engraved portraits of Gladstone and members of his political English circle, hand-written letters from John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli and many others.  In the hands of its owner, this modest book had become a treasure-trove of information, a document and history of the period.

Some of my books have traveled to me from across continents and generations.  How did a lovely illustrated book on palmistry (with beautiful endpapers made from old velum scrolls) make its way from 16th century Italy to 21st century Massachusetts?  How many people touched it, carried it, cared for it?  How did they protect it as it crossed oceans and time?

For me, there is a kind of magic to this; there’s tremendous intimacy shared with those who came before you; and there are innumerable tactile pleasures as well – all of which imbue the words with meanings that cannot be conveyed by the words alone. 

You must hold a real book in your hand, smell the pages, examine the type face, the spacing between letters; must note the shape and size of the book, the weight of it.  Only then can you experience the book’s full import.  And its magic.

A book as an object is a piece of history.

If you care to learn it, you can know a book’s age and place of publication just by recognizing the font used; or by how much spacing (leading) there is between lines of text; or by the amount of linen or acid in the paper; or whether the page edges were individually “cut” for reading as one went along, or machine cut as is common for newer books; or by the garish and graphic covers of pulp paperbacks from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s; or by seeing whether the engravings are copper or steel; or by noting the use of the letter “f” for the letter “s” and the like.  You can gage the tastes of the period through the bindings most common to it.

You can spot a smuggled copy of the banned James Joyce book, ULYSSES, even though it has no title on it – or has a fake title, all the better for smuggling! – because the book’s shape is that of an almost perfect square.

I have friends who have a set of Homer that belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Imagine!

Rusty Mott, a bookseller in Sheffield Massachusetts, once had Melville’s copy of William Davenant’s WORKS, London: 1673.  He catalogued it [in part] as follows:
“Signed by Melville on the flyleaf:  ‘Herman Melville / London, December, 1849 / New Year’s Day, at sea).’

With pencil notations by Melville…comprising check marks, x’s, sidelines, question marks, underlining, plus comments…all illustrating passages Melville felt important, such as whales, religion, monarchs and subjects, nature, knowledge, punishment of sin, etc.  In one place he has written ‘Cogent;’ in another, ‘This is admirable,’ and in a third, he compliments Davenant....

The existence of this example of Melville’s reading has been known for some time but has been ‘lost’ since 1952.”

What a remarkable book!  There’s so much to learn about both authors as a result of Melville’s notations.  How wonderful it was to have held that book in my hands:  Melville’s own book!  And now, some other lucky person can hold and study it.  And care for it.

I once had the prayer book belonging to Carlota, wife of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.  Placed on the throne by Napoleon III, Maximilian was eventually captured and executed by Mexican Republican forces.  At the time, Carlota was in Europe trying to get support for her husband.  After learning of his death, she had an emotional collapse and lived in seclusion for the rest of her life. 

What were those light round spots and ripples on some of the pages of her prayer book?  Were they tears?  And which passages of the book brought about those tears?  Of course, I’ll never know the answers to any of those questions, but I’m free to imagine and relate to the scene in a way that is not possible without having the book – the object and not just the words – in my hands. As I held the book, Carlota and I were linked across space and time.  This is magic.

Shakespeare folios also feel quite magical.  All but a few of them are in libraries, but many years ago, we managed to buy a 2nd and 4th folio for a client; and we had them at home for a while.  Bound in  well-cared-for contemporary (of the period) leather, they sat on a table in our living room.  Whenever our 4 children were near the table, they became hushed, almost tip-toeing as they walked by:  the books were so beautiful, so old, so...expensive!

Adam, the youngest, was only 4 at the time.  He and his older siblings would sometimes stand and look at the folios from a respectful distance.  Adam would put his hands behind his back and lean forward so far that he was in danger of falling. 

One day he asked, “Can we touch them?”  This broke the “spell,” and the big girls were quick to say, “Of course we can; they’re books; they’re meant to be touched and read!  They’ve been touched and read for centuries!”  And then they touched them.  Carefully.  Very carefully.

First they caressed the bindings, stroking the leather.  Then the two “big” girls – Sarah,12 and Johanna,14 – opened the books and slowly turned the pages, allowing Abigail and Adam, the two little ones, to see and carefully touch the pages.  The paper was rippled, and the pages crackled when turned.

Except for that crackle, there was silence, almost a holy silence….  They treated the books with reverence and awe.  Even at their young ages, they knew that they were in the presence of something important and wondrous. They felt the magic, and remember it still....

 Of course, new books are not quite the same, but you can be a book's “first” owner, the first to hold, read and study it.  You can learn from its binding and paper and weight and lettering and smell.  You can hold a new book in trust for its future owners.  You can become part of its history.

Give your eReader a rest, grab a real, printed book:  and feel the magic.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Season's End: Photos of My Store

This year, the Berkshire Mountain Region of Western Massachusetts (along with its New York State and Connecticut neighbors) is bringing in the autumn by finally and at long last having a bout of wonderful summer weather.

All season long we suffered through rain rain rain; hurricanes (Irene) and even a tornado or two! Or three…. And it was COLD! Now, suddenly, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the breeze is gentle and caressing. Now, the tourists are gone, but the birds have come back! And the bees. (And the mosquitoes and wasps, too!) Where were they hiding all summer?

But still, there’s no mistaking that fall is here. Not just because the tourists are gone, but because there’s the mess of leaves falling everywhere; and there’re the sight and sounds of crops being harvested; and there are the county fairs and sheep-shearing contests and the apple picking. And, of course, we have the beautiful, beautiful trees fairly bursting with bright and vibrant color. 
Land and stream behind Farshaw's, my store.

And this beauty is mine to enjoy; I see it out of every window; I see it wherever I go.

Behind Farshaw's
(I once knew someone who actually immigrated to the United States because he’d seen a Hitchcock film – THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY -- which featured a New England village much like ours, with the trees all decked out in breathtaking color.)

Yet this beautiful season which marks the end of tourists also marks the end of my summer selling season at Farshaw’s Too, the rare book and antique store I own. Columbus Day weekend, whether it comes early or late, is the season’s official end.

For me, that means a bit of vacation time with family and friends; it means shopping around for new inventory for my store; it means unpacking and carefully placing my new purchases for optimal viewing when I reopen for the winter holiday season.
Remember, everything's for sale!

So now that I’m “officially” closed, I want to tantalize you with photos of some fabulous new finds that you’ll want to purchase come December.  Hold off on your holiday shopping until I reopen on Friday, December 16th. It will be worth it!

Be warned: though I'm an enthusiastic photographer, I am not a good one. These photos are simply meant to give you an idea of some of the new things I have for sale. The descriptions here are very general; I expect to have a a more detailed catalog by December.

And remember: everything you see in these photographs is for sale. And I mean EVERYTHING!

These few photos are of two of the three rooms that make up my store.  In the back room you can see a huge 1881 framed map of Newark, New Jersey.  Huge and heavy!  

The photo below shows some of my favorite new finds.  The old North Egremont sign hanging from the shelves was a real coup; unfortunately, I live in South Egremont...! 

The sculptural looking creature at the side of the sofa is actually an African headdress.  It sits on top of a paint can on the floor of the store, but men actually walked for miles wearing that huge and swaying thing on their heads!  It has red eyes made of wool, and the bottom of it is ringed with shells.  It's quite wonderful.
And speaking of Africa:  The amazing statue in the photo below is a Congolese Nail Fetish, about 150 - 200 years old.  It's about 6 feet tall, and looks a bit pained. 

These fetishes can be dated so precisely because the ones that were used for ceremonial purposes over the centuries were small ones which could easily be carried from place to place.  But as with the Native Americans in the United States and the Aborigines in Australia, once the natives met the white man, they began doing their art for trade rather than for ceremony.  And the white man wanted BIG ones!  

He is quite grand, I think.  Even modern:  Picasso would certainly think so.

But more conventionally modern is the huge Curtis Jere sculpture in the photo below.  Signed and dated (1983), it hangs above my desk and is a happy presence.

As modern as it is, it makes me think of older and more innocent times.  And it makes me smile.

(Actually, 1983 was quite a while ago...and it feels like over a hundred years ago to me!  So much has happened since then.  Blogs, for instance, to name just one small thing.)

Curtis Jere Sculpture

Poster promoting sale of 'Modern Transportation,' 1890's Style
Huge 1853 Linen Mounted Map of Berkshire County w/original wooden poles
Prang Album of Collectible Chromolithography Samples.  Scarce.
Autographed Edition of the Works of John Burroughs
Signed 1st Edition Steinbeck w/Letter
1st Edition
Signed 1st Edition w/Scarce Dustjacket


Pen & Pen Holder with it's own Inkwell
Original Drawing by Kate Greenaway

Scarce 1933 Pencil Sketch from the Disney Studios.
 And here's the very best:

Wonderful Inscription from George Bernard Shaw to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
I have lots of bags and and boxes of books like the one in this photo to sort, catalog, and shelve before reopening day, but before I do that and before I end this post, I want to mention that Pamela Grath of Books in Northport, last week's guest blogger, told me that visits to her blog spiked dramatically after her guest post on this blog.  Of course, we have all of you to thank for that.

So:  Thank you!   And enjoy the new season.