Search This Blog

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Take a Road Trip (I’m Too Busy)

Our house is in an uproar, with boxes of dishes and boxes of cans and boxes of utensils all over the house (everywhere but in the kitchen), and we are busy, busy, busy. I spent four hours Saturday at my bookstore and had some visitors and sold a few books, but the main focus of the weekend has been and continues to be our house, as you see here.

So what I’m suggesting is that you visit a few bookstores in Washington, D.C. and some if not all of the other blogs listed in the right-hand column of this page. I just don’t have time (or energy) to write more today.

Friday, January 28, 2011

How Much Shelf Space Is Enough?

In a recent post and comments following, there was the beginning of a discussion of books in their role of furnishing our homes. After Walt estimated bookshelf footage in his house, I was curious and, borrowing David’s tape measure and then rounding off and estimating and multiplying from there, I came up with a figure of 75 feet in our old farmhouse. I think I may have forgotten a very full bookcase upstairs in the guest room, but the figure seems close enough. And then (funny how this works out) the very next evening David decided we had to rearrange one of our rooms, which involved moving the larger of two bookcases there from one wall to another opposite. Everything had to be taken off the shelves so the heavy piece of furniture could be moved—and thoroughly dusted!

No, our shelves are not French chalked quarter-sawn oak. They are homemade, pine boards with particleboard backing, and while if you look very hard, you might find one or two leatherbound books, you would also find books that lost their binding long ago. Here’s one:

This is an example of a book not good enough to put out for sale at Dog Ears and too good to toss in the recycling bin. (Robert Burns! Trash, never! I cannot believe I missed his birthday!) Any decorator who inspected our bookshelves would have palpitations, for sure.

While we did organize a little bit (very roughly) in reshelving these books, some titles defy category. Where would you put Without Machinery, an old upper grade school social studies book?

Such a charming book! The chapter I've opened to here, about nomadic reindeer herders in Lapland, is titled "The Winter Home." Our winter home is mostly the central room in our house, while the front porch and the outdoors are our summer home.

Would you put “books by people we know” all together on a shelf or separate them according to whether they are fiction, poetry, memoir or whatever? A couple of my favorite children’s books make special any spot they occupy.

My cookbooks have a separate little bookcase in this same room. (Don’t ask me why my big French dictionaries are with the cookbooks.)

There are more bookcases in our living room, in David’s office, in the “cozy room” and in the upstairs guest room. In our bedroom we have to stack books on our dressers. These are books we’re reading at bedtime, either silently to ourselves or aloud to each other. And now we are in the throes of making ready to tear out our old kitchen, which was the inspiration for last night’s reorganization: our dining table had to move so it wouldn’t be in the way of outgoing cupboards and incoming sheets of drywall, and the bookcase and leather chairs had to move to make room for the dining table. I’m not posting pictures of the room because we have yet to repaint the walls and floors, but already we like the new configuration. “We were getting in a rut,” we agreed. The only problem so far is that there is no room for the little lamp-and-book table that used to sit between our two reading chairs.

Can we live without a place to stack up books? Or will our dining table gradually disappear from view and the future find us with our plates on our laps?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Is the Most Depressing Novel You Have Ever Read?

One Northport friend said Anna Karenina was the most depressing book she’d ever read. Oh, surely not! My own candidates for that honor would be John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Richard Wright’s Native Son (both great American novels) or anything at all by Joyce Carol Oates. Another friend chose Kafka’s The Trial as the most depressing novel he’d ever read, and then one of the younger generation chimed in with Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. We will never have consensus, but it's fascinating to see the roster of candidates take shape.

How about you? What is the most depressing novel of your lifetime's reading so far, and are you glad you read it, despite the feeling you had during and after the experience? Do depressing novels seem more literary? Literary novels more depressing? What's the best novel you've ever read that had a happy ending? Can a novel be both depressing and happily ended?

I need to stop! My head is spinning, and the questions are proliferating like wire coat hangers in an empty closet!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Trying Out Snowshoes

There would be more pictures and a much more complete photo-essay if David had gone out in the cold with me farther than our front walk. I did go way out in the meadow with Sarah, but this you'll have to accept on faith, because there are no pictures of us out there. I have not tried any steep hills yet. Two criteria for success were met this first time out (Sunday): (1) keeping my feet in the snowshoes and (2) not falling down. Shall I try hill-climbing the next time out?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Books for Looks?

This was our Saturday afternoon homecoming. Can you blame us for staying home on Sunday with books, magazines and old newspapers?

A friend who braved the weather yesterday to visit Dog Ears Books brought me a section of the New York Times from earlier this month. For those of you who missed the article my friend knew would interest me, “Selling a Book by Its Cover,” you can find it online here.

The idea is that a well-stocked library is part of the design of a house. It’s part of interior decoration:
Jeffrey Collé, a builder of vast Hamptons estates that mimic turn-of-the-century designs, wouldn’t think of omitting a library from one of his creations. A 16,800-square-foot Shingle-style house on 42 acres in Water Mill, N.Y., comes with a $29.995-million price tag and a library Mr. Collé had built from French chalked quarter-sawn oak; with about 150 feet of shelf space, there is room for more than 1,000 books.

It’s up to the buyers or their decorator to fill that space, said Mr. Collé....

Not all clients rule out the possibility of reading their home décor--some, for instance, want only books in English for that very reason—but others are happy to have stacks of books all wrapped in white (or black) as “design elements” in a room where nothing is left to chance, presumably in a house where every tschoschke and its position on a table has been carefully planned. (I guess some people really live like this.) My friend was appalled and thought I would be, too. Well, I can’t see much value in books as nothing more than stacks of white or black, but shelves of real, readable books? Maybe someone will read them—if not the people who paid for the house, then their guests or their grandchildren.

But are we, as one trend-spotter in the article claimed, turning codices (the old word codex is now new again, distinguishing a printed, bound book from an e-book) into fetishes? Fetish! That’s pretty loaded language. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing and making an argument, I looked around my own house and came up with more questions. Why do we photograph natural objects and put those photographs on our walls? Why do we (some of us) have stones and shells and animal bones on our bookshelves, along with the books. Is that small mammal skull a fetish? Those deer jawbones? (Where did my deer jawbones get to, anyway?) Is there something all of these objects on shelves have in common?

[Caveat, disclaimer, disclosure, whatever: There has never been an interior decorator involved in our house. I probably don’t need to say so. Surely our books and bookshelves speak for themselves. Just remember that that’s beside the point, okay? Don’t get distracted! What do books, shells, stones and skulls have in common?]

Here’s what I think. We are physical inhabitants of a physical world and also spiritually connected both to one another and to other aspects of the world, and so we bring into our individual home spaces some of the objects from the larger world that make that larger world our home, too. This stone connects me to a beach covered now by snow and ice. A walk on another beach hundreds of miles away turned up this shell. Finding jawbones of a deer down by the creek years ago, I felt my connection to an individual animal I might never have seen but who was, for a while, a neighbor, and the little raccoon (possum?) also was another being like us, once warm and alive, needing food and shelter. Like these animals, we will one day lose our warmth and life, but even then, like the stone and the shell and bones, we will leave some traces behind.

Every book on the shelf contains human life. Traces, lives, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, events. Readers and non-readers alike sense that books connect us to other human beings in our own and in earlier times, every book a product of other inhabitants of our home, this earth. Wanting them around us, it seems to me, is recognition of their value. Whether or not it constitutes fetishism, I leave for others to decide.

I am fairly well convinced, though, that I need to make crisp new dust jackets for the 25-volume set of the complete works of Mark Twain in my bookshop, its covers worn and faded by the years. A lot of people do judge books by their covers--at least, the cover gives them their first impression--and to many the look of the books on their shelves is important, so Mark Twain needs a facelift. Unless someone comes in to buy the set before I get around to the beautification project. And I have all those stones and shells and bones to handle and rearrange before I start making dust jackets. First things first.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Looking Backwards Through Blizzard Days

My guess is that everyone is pretty fixated on the weather this weekend, so that’s what I’ll feature. Today’s headline photo is of Dog Ears Books. I’m inside! Sarah’s inside! I go out to clear the sidewalk, and within minutes it’s covered again with snow.

We drove through a lot of snow to get here.

Even the driveway was a challenge, though it had been plowed 30 hours or so before.

Here are some ducky scenes from yesterday in Northport. The ducks act like they've seen it all before.

The big snow started on Thursday afternoon about 3 p.m. Here are a couple of snapshots along the path from Northport to home on Thursday.

Finally, in my backward look over the last four days, I offer two Friesian horses in their paddock on Wednesday, one kicking up excited heels, the other regarding the weather with a stoic expression. Is there anything more beautiful than a black horse running in fresh, white snow? Well, there's Sarah. I bet she would love to run around with the lively horse.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reading--and My Rebellious Nature

Junior high, high school, college, graduate school—that’s a lot of years of assigned reading, so while I love book discussions, sometimes the “assignment” nature of a book club or reading group crosses swords with the rebel in me who says, “No more assigned books! I’ll read whatever I want to read!” I was comforted to hear our township librarian say she sometimes feels the same way.

It helps me that two of the groups I’m part of are very small, and none of the groups meets every month of the year. The intrepid band that formed to read Ulysses is currently reading Anna Karenina together, a much less daunting assignment. It’s long but goes along at a good clip, and we're meeting every other week to discuss two (of the eight) parts at each meeting. Another tiny group (only five women) probably won’t meet again until May, and only two of us have finished the book our May hostess suggested, A Suitable Boy, which may be the longest book I’ve ever read.

The book discussion group that meets at the township library is open to anyone, and different people drop in and out as the spirit moves them. This month’s book is Cutting for Stone, which I have not read (though I read and loved Verghese’s first book, a memoir entitled My Own Country), but I’ll probably go to the meeting and listen to what others have to say. I asked, and the librarian told me I would be welcome without having read the book. That took the pressure off. Bookseller and librarian, we feel the weight of our reading responsibilities keenly, but we can no more read everything than can anyone else, and we have to read selectively, difficult as that sometimes is.

Then there are the tasks I assign myself. A general one is to list every book I read here on the blog but only books I read from beginning to end, which can lead to a feeling that any book I begin I must read in its entirety. But no, that doesn’t work. Halfway through The Book of Salt, for example, I rebelled, feeling like a hostage to the character’s interior life. He would say that he’d met a man on a bridge in Paris, for example, and I wanted to know which bridge, but he wouldn’t tell me! I wanted to be in Paris, not a prisoner in this young man’s head! As you see, this is not a criticism of the novel at all. It was just not where I wanted to be. Now I’m some chapters into An Accidental Autobiography, by Barbara Grizutti Harrison, and for a while I thought I wouldn't keep going, but so far, as I reach the end of each chapter, I begin the next. We’ll see how long Ms. Harrison and I continue together. The punctuation drives me a little nuts, but her way with words and her understanding of memory as neither chronological nor hierarchical has me captivated. For now.

And then there is Dante, lying neglected but not completely forgotten on the top of my dresser. It isn’t that I lost interest in the story, but the translation wasn’t doing it for me. Where is the lyricism I expected of the poetry? Whose translation should I be reading instead? Well, maybe I will, and maybe I won’t! That “should” word in my own question has already roused the rebel spirit who sleeps with one eye open!

What a coincidence! Writing of my neglect of Dante, I went to visit Lifetime Reader's blog and found a topic that made me smile, "Books We Have Hated." Are there books you were assigned to read and absolutely hated? Do you still hate them?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's Happening on Lake Leelanau Today?

If you drive from Leland to Northport on M-22, part of your way is along the west shore of North Lake Leelanau. Along the north lake, you are only a few miles from the 45th parallel, which in our county runs from south of Leland over to north of Suttons Bay. Now that the lake is frozen over, ice shanties are beginning to appear.

The Narrows between north and south Lake Leelanau is the only place to get from one side to the other, M-204 crossing from one arm of M-22 to the other, from the Lake Michigan side to the Grand Traverse Bay side, and going right through the little unincorporated village of Lake Leelanau, formerly known as Provemont.

"Unincorporated" doesn't mean nothing's happening in Lake Leelanau. This winter a new building is rising on the Narrows, to house a new wine tasting room come summer. See more of the view looking north on my other blog. The other side of the Narrows, looking south, was quieter. Even the ducks weren't doing much more than napping.

How different all of these same scenes will be when summer returns! Fishing will be from boats and docks rather than on ice. Here is a man fishing last summer behind St. Mary's School. (He doesn't seem at all nervous about the presence of swans.) Back in the very old days, when M-204 crossed the Narrows south of the present bridge, a high iron bridge reached from the site of this dock to the other side. Different times, different seasons, but the Narrows remembers.

Monday, January 17, 2011

C. S. Lewis Recommended Reading Old Books

The exhaustion of my camera batteries last Saturday was bad timing. Not only did we have a terrific blizzard, with snow blowing horizontally down Waukazoo Street for most of the afternoon, but my charger was back at home, so I couldn’t use the bookstore hours to recharge before the evening performance of “The Magician’s Nephew.” Costumes, makeup, sets, kids I've known for years—photo ops galore, and I missed them all. We were glad to see the play nonetheless. The students did an impressive job inhabiting the C. S. Lewis characters in their own script adaptation of the fantasy novel, and they even managed quite creditable British accents, no mean feat in a little northern Michigan town. As my regular readers know, I am not a fantasy fan, but this production held me enthralled.

C.S. Lewis, I was musing, in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, went deeper into his topics than the vast majority of writers on the same subjects. What a coincidence, then, when my son sent me a link to text of C. S. Lewis on the subject of reading old books just two days after we’d seen “The Magician’s Nephew.”
If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. - C. S. Lewis

This is exactly what I used to tell my philosophy students. If you try to read Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, even Aristotle, without knowing the earlier philosophers those men read, you are coming into the middle of a conversation with no idea what went before, and much of what is said will seem to come out of nowhere. Not so. What you’re hearing is fully meaningful only in the context of the entire conversation, as response to or elaboration or rejection of earlier ideas. The full conversation is the history of a culture and its ideas.

As for reading old books, however, I would issue a caution which Lewis also articulated: the value of the older works is not that they are more true or more right than works of our contemporaries but that we can more easily see their errors, as well as their truths, and in seeing errors in old books we are more likely to notice those of our own time.
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united....

Not everyone approaches old books with careful scrutiny. Early in my bookstore days I was surprised by the number of requests for older history books by people convinced that books written closer to the time of the events covered would be more accurate. Whatever gave them that idea? Generally the history books written while the guns are still smoking tend to be less informative than later works. A participant in events sees them firsthand, true, but from a single perspective; a combination of perspectives, on the other hand, along with documents that later came to light, allows a larger, more balanced overview.

Every time period has partisans for one view over another, and so it is true, as the seekers after old truths are convinced, that different historians in 2011 give different interpretations of earlier times. But the seeker of truth who thinks that partisanship did not exist at the time of conflict is the victim of a strange delusion. Why would there have been conflict at all—how could conflict exist—if people hadn't seen things differently then, too?

P.S. Gerry always pushes my thought further, and her comment below is no exception. Here is a student essay I found online and recommend for its statement of the problems of historical research. I loved these lines from the student's paper: “Historians view the world, hoping to make sense of it. The world, however, does not speak – we do.”

What do the rest of you think?

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Paper World

It will be a very sad day for me if books are not published any more. The electronic format isn't interesting to me. The electronic book is always the same.... On the one hand, technology is fantastic. On the other hand, if you have an apartment and the book shelves are empty and there's one Kindle standing there, that's depressing." – Veronica Teuber, artist, in the Wall Street Journal

Oddly, given her love for books, the artist is mummifying part of her own collection in beeswax. It’s an interesting story, an eyebrow-raising story, and you can read it here.

Meanwhile, the larger story of the future of books, with e-reader wars, the Borders financial woes and eternally springing bibliospes (book hope) continues to unfold. Last night, in that last-named spirit (yes, I named it, and no, I never studied Latin), I read the prologue and first chapter of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Discussion, by Allison Hoover Bartlett. All that great gossip from the New York Antiquarian Book fair—okay, I’m hooked! So was the author:
As I roamed from booth to booth, I felt the sensory enticement myself—the feel of thick, rough-edged pages, the sharp beauty of type, the tightness of linen or pigskin covers, the papery smell.

Then there's the smaller picture. Here in Northport, I recently received the news that our wonderful, welcoming little Leelanau Township Library will be closed for the month of February! Help! What will winter residents do? The library has not been painted or had new carpeting for 43 years, and the Board decided it’s time, and I’m starting to wonder (I grind exceeding slow) if I’ll see more people in the bookstore next month, if only for the duration. Maybe an invitation is in order? “Drop in for a visit. Feel free to bring a sack lunch. Please leave your e-reader at home.” What do you think?

I’m having a sale these winter days on my notecards (photo on front, blank inside), dropping the price to $2 each or three for $5. There may be one of your favorite “Books in Northport” images here, or perhaps one you haven’t seen before that will capture your heart and insist on being sent to a dear friend you haven’t written to in way too long.

Words and images, images and words. It’s a big chunk of my winter world.