Thursday, January 19, 2012

Comments Posted on My Blog

Many of the comments posted on my blog are quite interesting and insightful; and they leave much room for thought.  I know that many blog readers don’t read the comments, so I’ll share some of them here.

My last post, The Year (of My Blog) in Review, prompted some sympathetic comments on behalf of the author, Nina Sankovitch, whose book,  TOLSTOY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR, I’d panned.  The book was a record of her year reading a book a day as a means of  “healing” herself after the death of her sister. 

About this post, two people I respect felt that I was, perhaps, a bit hard on the author and her book.

Karen wrote,
“Ouch, go gettem, Helen!  I admire a mind that is clear on her opinions….”
And Pamela wrote, 
“In defense of Nina Sankovitch (I have not read her book), I want to note that grief is a very strange country to inhabit and that she was probably doing the best she could to go on after losing her sister….  Maybe it shouldn’t have been a book—clearly, it wasn’t a book for you at that time—but I have read essays and letters and such by other people who took up books in times of grief, and one of the things they have in common is that almost every written word the grieving reader encounters, however trivial, seems to take on a different coloration and become a personal message from the Universe.  And really, that’s quite wonderful, isn’t it?  Anything written out of that kind of grief is almost like a letter from another plane.”
I suppose I was feeling a little defensive when I responded, as follows:
“My initial reflex was to feel chastened by suggestions that I have been hard and unkind in my analysis of Nina Sankovitch’s book.  (I faced the same discomfort when I had to grade my students’ papers!)

I certainly don’t want to be hard on people; but I do want to be honest.

It’s interesting to note that when I wrote some pretty awful things about Tolstoy in my post on WAR AND PEACE, not only did no one complain about it, but I was cheered by many.  Of course, it becomes more sensitive when it is a living author who is being discussed; nevertheless, I think it’s important to remain honest in one’s assessment of a work, no matter the circumstances. 

I’m certainly sympathetic to the author’s grief:  but it does not excuse bad writing.  If one can grant Sankovitch the right to use reading as a way to ease her grief, and for finding in each book a lesson to be learned and a reflection of her own experiences, we can’t grant her the right to make statements which mean nothing—‘The book is perfect, a genuine communication of the heart.’—nor to use a false premise for her ‘project.’

If reading can, indeed, ease her suffering, why must it be a book a day?  Why can’t books or authors be reread?  Some books that could have helped her might take longer to read; some favorite authors might elicit new insights in a rereading of them.  Choosing an inch-wide spine has nothing at all to do with reading as a healing mechanism; instead, it seems more like an arbitrary decision—or one which she thought would help her get a book published!

In this day when it is more and more difficult for good writers to get their work published, I think we need to be extra diligent in doing what we can to discourage publishers from publishing books of poor quality—or from publishing them because they have some kind of “gimmick” to recommend them.
 It’s not called literary ‘criticism’ for nothing!”
As for Tolstoy:  although most agreed with my assessment of WAR AND PEACE, several suggested that I give Tolstoy another chance by reading ANNA KARENINA.  So, I plan to do that—but not quite yet!

I made some errors in a few of my posts, and those were caught by readers. 

I’d said that one could see Jude Law’s HAMLET on Netflix, but I was mistaken.  The best you can do is see scenes from it on YouTube; but there are lots of scenes there, so you’d practically be seeing the entire play!

In my post, Some Thoughts About Books as Objects, I’d said that I had friends who had Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s set of Homer.  Well, I was wrong on 2 counts:  The set was of Euripides, not Homer; and my friends no longer own it:  they’ve sold it!  If you want to see those amazing books, you'll find them at the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

The post on What Makes a Good Personal Library prompted someone to say that “Most of the voluminous private libraries I’ve seen are for show only.” 

In my reply to that, I noted that this is certainly true of some private libraries.  After all, there are people who buy books by the yard or beautifully bound books of blank pages and the like (see The Year (of My Blog) in Review for more on that).

But I also commented that such people still chose books to look at rather than a collection of Rolex watches—which I’ve also seen in some houses I've gone to!  And I noted that
“many private libraries can be ‘personal’ ones as well—which is what I titled my post—in that books in them need not be valuable, but only important to [the owner] in some way:  important enough to drag heavy boxes of books from place to place, as I (and others) have done over and over again.”
The post on Public Libraries had Marash Girl tell us the sad news about her local libraries:
"Here's to the little local library, the library that is disappearing, the library that opened our hearts to books, the library that we walked to on our way to [school], the library that is not economically viable in the greater scheme of things.  After Newton, Massachusetts closed all of its village libraries, it built the most expensive high school in the U.S.  Go figure.  If kids don't learn to love books/libraries/knowledge from their earliest days, what good is the most expensive high school in the U.S.?"
I agreed with her:
"One doesn't need an expensive school. (Didn't Socrates do all his teaching in a grove?)  All one needs are good teachers and good libraries.  Now, even universities  build libraries at the outskirts of the school, or in one awful case, underground!  You can go to school in these places and never even know that there is a library!  In days of old, the library was the center of schools and communities."
In What Readers Can Learn from Woody Allen, I used Woody Allen to ask the question of whether or not it’s appropriate to focus on the life of the artist when analyzing the artist’s work.  The answer to this question is not so clear, as is indicated by Freckles’ comment:
“My first reaction is this:  actors, writers, musicians, sports figures, etc. are lauded for their talents and then burdened with the public’s need to like them.  Why?  Why do I need to like Woody Allen and approve of his life choices in order to enjoy his films?
Because he is famous, I am exposed to ‘inside information’ that would otherwise be none of my business.  I may not like the information, but the facts themselves do not detract from his talent—just from my ability to enjoy his talent.  For me, Allen’s ‘scandal’ does muddy the waters of what used to be clear enjoyment.   It sneaks up on me and puts a damper on things.  I have, however, made a conscious decision to continue seeing his films and to try to enjoy them.
Mel Gibson, not so much….
I’m glad Shakespeare didn’t have to contend with tabloids and documentaries; he would have never made it.”
And finally, in my last post I had photos of sculptures made out of books and asked the question, “are they ‘art’ or are they the destruction of books by other means?”

Is it a book?  Is it art?  Is it craft?
One commenter suggested that these were not art, but “at best, a form of recycling…”  But commenter Karen made an intriguing point when she wrote:
“I share your uneasiness about the implications [of sculptures made from books], and THAT is probably what makes them ‘Art.’  The fact that they were left on the doorsteps of libraries and bookstores anonymously adds to their mystique.  They are skillfully executed, to be sure, but skill alone does not make art.  It’s the imagination, the edginess it causes, the attention it brings to a world that is morphing so fast that one can hardly hang on to what they love before it is swept aside by the winds of change.  It’s a commentary on the changing nature of choice.”
Let’s hope that in all this change and with all these choices, books will maintain their important place in our lives and in society.

Have you a comment on any of the comments?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Year (of My Blog) in Review

You can hardly pick-up a newspaper or magazine; can hardly turn on the radio or TV, without getting a rundown of the year in review.  Here's mine:  The 2011 Year of the "Books Books Books" Blog in Review – and a few additions to begin the year 2012.

There are only 15 posts on my blog.  I began it in August with the post, “What I’m Planning, more or less” which told a bit about me and my reading history, and what I planned for my Blog. 

What it didn’t say was that I began the blog in a fit of pique over a book I’d been reading called TOLSTOY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR.  It’s a “project” book, and project books annoy me—whether it’s a recipe-a-day or a book-a-day, such projects seem artificial to me, not a natural part of one’s day, of one’s life.

This book’s project was to read a book a day for a year.  And the project had strict rules:  no re-reading books that had been read before; no author could be read more than once; only books “with a width of one inch” (!) would be chosen; mystery books were for Sundays; books must be finished by midnight; and every book read must be written about.

Nina Sankovitch’s book was well reviewed in the New York Times, and it is that which prompted me to read it.   I’d hoped it would provide me with a list of books worth reading; and that I would glean new insights into books and writing.

But much of this book illustrates the author's struggle to justify her project, to give it a plausible purpose; but unfortunately, she does not succeed.    

Sankovitch’s sister died after a short and devastating illness.  As a result, Sanksovitch was 
“caught in a bramble patch of sorrow and fear.  My reading…was pulling me out of the shadows and into the light."
 She tells us that
“Now that [my sister] had died [and my family was devastated], I was doing what I could to recover…for everyone in my family.  I was reading.”
"In reading books, I was finding my sister again.”
And--perhaps most unbelievably!--she identifies her reading project and herself with 
“an impoverished Cuban man," a character in one of the books she’s reading, because they both have “hope for the future.  He has faith in Castro’s revolution; I have faith in the power of books.”
What?  (Or as my children would say, “Puh-lease!”)

Which leads to another problem with this book:  Sankovitch tries to shoehorn every one of the books she reads into a lesson that will ease the pain of her sister’s death.  Sometimes this works, but more often, it doesn’t.

So many books read much too quickly!  Ultimately, we learn little about them other than a bit of the  plot, and how the characters and the lessons they learn feel similar to Sankovitch's own experience;

So many books read so quickly that we, the readers, get little beyond a series of platitudes repeated over and over again in different words, no matter what she happens to be reading, as in:
“We cannot control events around us, but we are responsible for our reactions to those events.”
“The meaning of my life is ultimately defined by how I respond to the joys and the sorrows…”
“[The character] comes to understand then that his own sanity depends upon his accepting what he cannot change.”
OK: we get it!

And although Sankovitch states that “the purpose of great literature is to reveal what is hidden and to illuminate what is in darkness,”(?) when she does spend some time describing and analyzing her one-day–to-read-it books, she uses words and phrases that tell us nothing: 
“This book is perfect, a genuine communication from the heart.”
“[We are] connected to the rest of the size of our hearts."
“The world shifts, and lives change.
“I would find...the always within never.”
Here, once again I must ask—“What?”

I know how difficult it is to write, so I hate to say it, but I think that the New York Times was wrong:  this is not a good book.  Sankovitch is probably a good reader and a good writer, but I think that here—perhaps because she turned reading into a “project” and read the books too quickly, chose some of them too poorly—she couldn’t do the books (or herself) justice.

So my blog was to be an antidote to this approach:  I would read books over and over again, I would write about books and film and theater; and as a slow reader, I wouldn’t predict how frequently I would post.

And that’s how it began:  Analyses of WAR AND PEACE, books of food writing; a review of Jude Law as HAMLET; a reflection on the difference between Live in HD and Live at the Met, etc.

And then, the Blog took on a life of its own.  I'd posted my musings about book auctions and books as objects, and these generated a huge—and surprising—interest from readers in many parts of the world.  So, the discussion continued:  of private libraries and public libraries; a bit about literary analysis which used the films of Woody Allen for its examples; thoughts about the rising fear that books—and bookstores—would soon be a thing of the past…  And here we are.

As these thoughts continued to reverberate, readers sent me suggestions for posts, and even sent me things to post.  Here are some of them:

Danny wrote,  “Here's a magnificent blog I thought you'd enjoy:  <>
I do enjoy it.  And it’s the perfect companion to the book I’ve been reading and which I highly recommend:  SECOND READING. NOTABLE AND NEGLECTED BOOKS REVISITED, by Jonathan Yardley.

The posts on Personal Libraries prompted Johanna to alert me to an astonishing and rather depressing article in the New York Times called “Selling a Book by Its Cover” which talks about “book solutions” and expresses surprise that there are people who want “more than pretty bindings: [they] wanted the option of being able to read [their] books.”  (Imagine that!)

The article tells of “books wrapped in silver paper to match the silver hardware in the room….

You think that’s bad?  It gets worse:  
“For the spa in Phillipe Stark’s Icon Brickell, the icy glass condo tower in Miami, 1,500 books [were wrapped] in blank white paper, without titles, to provide a ‘textural accent’ to the space.”  They bought “mass-market hardcovers that flood the used book outlets — titles by John Grisham and Danielle Steel, or biographies of Michael Jackson— because they are cheap, clean and a nice, generous size.”
And worse:  
“A TV news program wanted linen-wrapped books chopped in half to fit the shallow, faux-shelves of a political interview program.”
Moreover, the writer of this NY Times article thinks "book lovers" should be grateful that physical books are being “kept alive” by the “library artist” who is more “than a mere book dealer.”  (“Mere book dealer?”  That would be me…)

A not-to-be-missed slide show is included in this article, and the last 2 items in it are “books” that have been used as a medium for the creation of “art.” 

Which brings me to Andre, who wrote to me about this very subject:  “I thought these very beautiful and mysterious sculptures [made from books] which have been turning up anonymously in honor of libraries and books around the world was worth a look....”

I took a look, and here are photos of some of those sculptures:

Staying on theme by having a Tyrannosaurus Rex bursting from Doyle's LOST WORLDS

I don’t know what to make of this or quite how I feel about it.  Some of these are, indeed, beautiful:  but are they “art” or are they the destruction of books by other means?  Do they “honor” libraries or make a mockery of them?

I'm curious to know what you think about this.

So that was my Blog in 2011: behind us now. 

Now it's the year 2012, during which you have 365 (make that 363) days to: 


Make art using any medium you like. 

Write to me as much as you want; I will always reply. 

            And most importantly:

Visit your local booksellers:  we are not and never have been “mere!”
- - - - - - - - - - -

Apologies to those of you who receive blog posts via email for receiving an unfinished post.  I simply pressed the wrong button -- publish instead of preview -- and off it went.  (Could this have been the result of too much celebrating?)

The internet is an unforgiving medium; but I hope that you will be forgiving...

Thank you, and have a very Happy New Year.