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.


P. J. Grath said...

Dear, dear Helen, three responses:

(1) 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. (I cannot imagine losing one of my sisters. Sisters are supposed to be forever!) Maybe it shouldn’t have been a book--clearly, it wasn’t the 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 thing 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.

(2) (2) I was interviewed by e-mail a couple of years ago for the magazine FINE BOOKS AND COLLECTIONS on the subject of books being used as raw materials for new art objects. The other person interviewed in the article is a friend, at the time she was president of a national organization of people specializing in creating such works, and we took opposite sides in the debate, both of us sincere and strong in our convictions. Unfortunately, the piece did not appear online, or I would send you a link to it, but you can imagine what I would say!

(3) (3) No, we booksellers are not “mere,” and YOU could never be “mere,” whatever avenue you were to take in life! There is a way to go back and edit a post that has been published, but I hope you will not change anything written here. Your passion shines through, and that is a wonderful thing to have and to share with the world. Bless you!

Lissy said...

I'm a new reader of your blog. It's been a real pleasure and I look forward to your posts in the coming year. Thank you for articulating so thoughtfully many of the same feelings I have about books and reading. Perhaps one area to expand your blog's scope of examination is the topic of writing, which of course is the key to our getting to enjoy our fix of books. Thank you for blogging so sincerely with an eye towards quality, not quantity.

Karen said...

Ouch, go gettem, Helen! I admire a mind that is clear on her opinions. And I like your concise and witty style very much.

Regarding the last question on the “book art”… I share your uneasiness about the implications, and THAT is probably what makes them “Art”. The fact that they were left on the doorsteps of libraries and bookstores anonymously add to their mystique. They are skillfully executed to be sure but skill alone does not make art. Maybe a more fitting description of the physical execution is even Craft. But 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. There is more and more research on what the internet is doing to our brains that detracts from deep introspection, focus, concentration and long term memory. Holding a solid book in one’s hands, and settling in for a “deep” read is the antithesis to this new world of apps, ease and hyperlinks...

Anonymous said...

I think I view the book sculptures, at best, as a form of recycling. I don't love them; the creator/artist (?) may argue that he/she made something out of something (a book) that was going to be thrown in the trash. Whether 'tis nobler.... said...

Thank you, Lissy, for your kind and encouraging words.

I plan to do more on writing -- although in many ways, I think this post was about writing. In the meantime, you may want to look at my friend Judy's site:

I welcome you to my blog and look forward to your comments and suggestions. said...

Your definition of what makes "art" is intriguing, Karen. Between you and Pamela, we have the two extremes well expressed. I also enjoyed the notion of "recycling...."

But I still don't know quite how I feel about these....

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, I understand your point of view and hope you didn't feel I was being hard on YOU! Not my intention, I assure you. Check your mailbox on Tuesday for an article on altered I snail-mailed to you. Meanwhile, I look forward to your next post. Whatever you write is thought-provoking, and that I love! said...

“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, Pamela: 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 her to see in each book a lesson to be learned which is 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 and 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 her 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 something of a “gimmick” to recommend them.

It’s not called literary ‘criticism’ for nothing!”