Category Archives: Reading–Memoir and Memories

Libraries of the self: Or, are print books more ephemeral than e-books, and is it a bad thing if they are?

There’s a remarkable consistency in the way that readers write about their libraries.  Tropes of friendship, solace, and refuge abound, as well as metaphors of journey and travel that tell the tale of intellectual sojourn that books can occasion and recall for their readers.  Though I cannot recall the details of their first readings, I still treasure my Princeton paperback editions of the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the now ratty Vintage-Random House versions of Faulkner with their stark

Man made of books

white on black covers and yellowing pages,  my tattered and now broken copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and his Selected Essays, held together by a rubber band, the band itself now so old it threatens to crumble into dust.  I keep these books now, not so much because of the information they contain.  Even the notes I’ve written in them aren’t all that entertaining and hold only a little nostalgic value:  I was a much more earnest reader as a younger person, but also duller, less informed, and more predictable, at least to my 51 year old eyes.  Still, these books are the talismans of a journey, and I keep them as stones set up to my memory of that journey, of the intellectual and imaginative places I’ve come to inhabit and the doorways I passed through to get here.  In that sense, a library represents both time passages and the attendant loss as much or more than they represent the knowledge and the information that has been gained.

Ariel Dorfman has a very nice meditation on the relationship between his library and his intellectual, political, and material journey in the September 23rd edition of the Chronicle Review.  In it Dorfman tells the story of his lost library, a library that he had to leave behind in Chile at the beginning of his exile.  The library was partially destroyed in a flood during his absence, and then partially recovered again when he returned to Chile in 1990.  As with many memoirs of reading, Dorfman understands the library as a symbol of the self.

Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world. During democratic times, before the military takeover, I had poured any disposable income into that library, augmenting it with hundreds of volumes my doting parents acquired for me. It was a collection that overflowed in every impossible direction, piling up even in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It was a daily comfort, in the midst of our dispossession in exile, to imagine that cosmic biblioteca back home, gathering nothing more lethal than dust. That was my true self, my better self, that was the life of reading and writing I aspired to, the space where I had been at my most creative, penning a prize-winning novel, many short stories, innumerable articles and poems and analyses, in spite of my own doubts as to whether literature had any place at all in a revolution where reality itself was more challenging than my wildest imaginings. To pack the books away once we fled from the country would have been to acknowledge our wandering as everlasting. Even buying a book was proof that we intended to stay away long enough to begin a new library.

But, of course, Dorfman did begin a new library in his many years of exile, and his Chilean library was altered not only by the natural disaster of the flood, but also by the human transience whereby Dorfman himself changed and so changed his relationship with his books.  The changing shape of Dorfman’s library becomes an image of historical and personal change that must finally be embraced since it is unavoidable.

Six months later I had left Chile again, this time of my own free will, this time for good. I have puzzled often how I could have spent 17 years trying to go back and then, when I did indeed return, I forced myself to leave. It is still not clear to me if it was the country itself that had changed too much or if I was the one who had been so drastically altered by my exile that I no longer fit in, but whatever the cause, it left me forever divided, aware that my search for purity, simplicity, one country and one language and one set of allegiances was no longer possible.

It also left me with two libraries: the one I had rescued back home and the one that I have built outside Chile over the years and that is already so large that not one more new book fits in the shelves. I have had to start giving hundreds of books away and boxing many others in order to donate them to Duke University, where I teach. But no matter how many I get rid of, it does not look likely that there will ever be space to bring my whole Chilean library over.

And yet, I had already lost it once when I left my country and then regained half when that phone call came in 1982, and rescued what was left yet again in 1990 and can dream therefore that perhaps, one day, I will unite some books from Santiago with the thousands of books bought during my long exile. I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me, I can only hope and dream and pray that I will not remain divided forever.

It’s possible, of course, to lament our losses, and I suppose in some sense the vision of a library of the self is a utopian dream of resurrection wherein all our books, all the intellectual and imaginative doorways that we’ve passed through, will be gathered together in a room without loss.  But I also sense in Dorfman’s essay a sense that loss and fragility is one part of the meaningfulness of his books and his library.  I know that in some sense I love my books because they are old and fragile, or they will become that way.  They are treasured not only for the information they contain, but for the remembered self to which they testify.

I started this post thinking I would focus on the ways we sometimes talk about the ephemera of electronic digital texts.  There is something to that, and we’ve discussed that some over at my other group blog on the Digital Humanities.  At the same time, there is another sense in which e-texts are not ephemeral enough.  They do not grow old, they are always the same, they cannot show me the self I’ve become because that implies a history that e-texts do not embody.  While looking at my aging and increasingly dusty library, I feel them as a mirror to the person I’ve become.  Looking at my e-books stored on my iPad I see…..texts.  Do they mirror me?  Perhaps in a way, but they do not embody my memories.

If I give a book away to  a student, I always miss it with a certain imaginative ache, knowing that what was once mine is now gone and won’t be retrieved.  Somehow I’ve given that student something of my self, and so I don’t give away books lightly or easily.  If I give a student a gift card for iTunes….well, perhaps this requires no explanation.  And if I delete a book from my iBooks library I can retrieve it any time I want, until the eschaton, one imagines, or at least as long as my iTunes account exists.

Reading about reading about reading about….

I’ve been reading the winter issue of n+1. Smart people, smart and funny writing. I envy their youth. This issue’s take on The Intellectual Situation—a regular feature that’s a rambling blog-like essay more or less focused on a topic, or at least a loosely related series of themes, or united by a sort-of narrative—focused on the reading situation, among other things, noting especially the sudden prevalence of how-to books devoted to reading.

“Self help-style (sic) books about reading reappeared on the publishing scene in the last halcyon days of “Third Way” capitalism—when the world was embracing a kinder, gentler, freemarket as a solution to all our problems, including the problem of universal education. With that memorable 1999 title, How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom completed his transformation from the vatic close reader of The Anxiety of Influence to a lonely crusader against declining standards. In fact, he wasn’t so lonely: Bloom was preceded, barely, by cultural literacy proponent E.D. Hirsch in How to Read a Poem (19999), and he’s been followed, in recent years, by a number of tenured professors and established writers, and even the odd celebrity with time on his hands: there’s How Novels Work, How to Read Like a Writer, the deliberately parodic Ode Less Traveled, Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series, which followed Penguin’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare and American Literature. Most of these now originate in Britain. Even radical-socialist Terry Eagleton has one called, er, How to Read a Poem.

They mention, too, John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide, and the grandfather of this genre, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. Even then, n+1’s is a necessarily selective list. Others include How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Reading Like a Writer and Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I’ve just started the latest hot read on reading—or rather non-reading—How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, which is a book about, among other things, how to not read a book. I would talk about it, but I haven’t read it yet. I did read the review.

Close cousin to these is a veritably new genre of literary non-fiction that I call the reading memoir, books by baby-boomers narrating the wonders of the books we are gradually leaving behind. Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone I’m Reading. Anna Quindlen’s testimonial How Reading Changed My Life. The industry that is Michael Dirda.

Indeed, too many to name them all, and these are merely the visible edge of a great tsunami of books on reading over the past twenty years. In fact, a quick WorldCat search shows 70,000 catalogued items published on the subject of reading from 1967-1987. Since 1987 we’ve been enlightened by approximately 105,000 new investigations of our crisis. With the publication of the NEA’s latest report, I’m sure we’ll see another 25,000 or so before the decade is out. I hope my own is among them.

This says nothing about the several million blog pages of persons chronicling their own reading habits, experiences, revelations, etcetera ad nauseum. (Who? Me, you say?) Reading is an industry of its own. Indeed, without the sea of books on reading, one suspects that the crisis in the publishing industry would be much more well-advanced. Anxious readers buy more and more and read less and less in the interest of understanding their own demise. Why, Oh Why?

The easy answer, and only one I have, is that this flurry of reading about reading is symptomatic of the very death of the book that we are gradually experiencing. In Verdi’s La Traviata, Violetta, dying of consumption, summons a last illusion of strength on the fantasy of her own resurrection. Like the diva dying on her sick bed, book culture summons a last illusion of strength by reading about it’s own demise. Reading lists are like bucket lists: great things to do before I die, or before books do. This is too easy, but it does seem to me that how-to books appear at those moments when a once dominant cultural practice moves from being necessity to option. Gardening manuals only make sense in a world where people don’t know how to and don’t have to grow their own food. Books on how to make a cabinet or how to wire a house are only for those who no longer learn it as a matter of course from a father or the guy next door. My favorite among books of this ilk is The Dangerous Book for Boys, which guards against the loss of our boyish past and our electronic future by teaching boys how to play…marbles. Reading books about reading is a sign of reading (at least reading books) having become a practice of clubs rather than a necessity of living. Some day perhaps courses in reading a novel will be offered at my local YMCA along with crocheting and scrap-booking. Oh, wait. They already are.

n+1 mocks the how-to books, rightly it seems to me. But their solution borders on the bizarre.

So maybe—is this a crazy idea?—reading needs to be taught, and taught well, rather than sold. Instead of writing more well-intentioned books, why don’t academics intervene directly in secondary school education? Let’s lend them out to state schools, public schools, and community colleges to teach for a few weeks a year. Morally, this is the equivalent of pro bono work in the legal profession. Let’s reward junior professors for community teaching rather than for publishing articles in academic journals. An extra sabbatical year could be offered, during which professors would work closely with young readers. Maybe this experience could actually change the way intellectuals think about literature. If a certain degree of literacy and appreciation for htte complexity of great books (or just good novels) is as necessary for a healthy and free society as we’ve often heard or said it is, then maybe the only way (not the “Third Way”) forward is a Maoist –style cultural revolution in reverse: “INTELLECTUALS: INTO THE SCHOOLS!”

Um…Ok, I appreciate the idealism. I really do. But…um…could it be any more obvious that the folks at n+1 only hang out with people who have gone to Ivy League or Ivy league wanna-bes, and went to the kind of high schools that got them in there. Or that they are too young to have kids in the secondary schools? Or that they are fundamentally out of touch with the economics of higher education. An EXTRA SABBATICAL YEAR??? I guess they’re maybe thinking that the moneyed interests at Harvard and Yale–the only places that can really afford extra sabbatical year–are going to come riding to our rescue. Chances are the cure would kill us. Maybe they could imagine Harold Bloom coming to their high schools to teach reading, but if Harold Bloom had come to my high school I would have been shooting rubber bands at his rather expansive posterior. Or falling asleep. Most academics have a hard time making themselves understood to one another, and we’re going to put them in high schools to teach 16 year olds to love to read???

Don’t get me wrong, I teach at a college where the focus is primarily on teaching, and I think that balance is about right. And a colleague runs a program at Penn State that gets grad students into the schools to do just this kind of thing with reading and writing. My own college runs continuing education programs for teachers to get them in touch with literary and other disciplines once again. We clearly need more connections between the colleges and the high schools, both so high schools can better prepare kids for what they’ll face in college and to help colleges understand where their freshmen are coming from. But let’s respect the expertise of teaching that a secondary school teacher has developed, and let’s help them as much as we possibly can.

Despite the naivete, n+1 is one of the best things going. Maybe because of the naivete. They haven’t yet joined those of us who are old and jaded by, among other things, too much reading.

Reading Entrails

Can you tell anything about a person by what they read? On some level I guess I have to say yes, though I’ve become a bit more suspicious of the general principle and a bit more judicious in the application of any judgment than I used to be. I grew up in a religious tradition that assumed “garbage in, garbage out” was an axiological principle. Thus you absorbed and in some way became what you read. You are what you read, much as you are what you eat. As a result, reading matter was rigorously monitored and, in practice, severely restricted. “Bad books”—stuff that didn’t clearly support our Christian world view—were regularly described as various forms of poison or at least junk food. Things that would destroy the spiritual and psychological body. I wasn’t allowed to read J.D. Salinger while the rest of my junior class in high school gloried in the high literary profanity of Catcher in the Rye. I was morose, perhaps a sign I didn’t think the unwashed were so unwashed after all. You can read my slightly maudlin reminiscence of my youthful reading experiences in the introduction to my book, Recalling Religions (Tennessee 2001). Currently ranked 3,605,185 on Amazon.com! I excerpt just a bit below:

[In] my imagination, the story of this book’s motivations, interests, and point of view threads back to my first encounters with literature, which always seemed to be troublesome encounters with religion as well. My earliest memories of something that might be called “literature” had nothing to do with Twain or Fenimore Cooper or other authors of “boys’ books” that serious young readers were supposed to read. Indeed, I barely knew of their existence. What I did know was tangled with agonized parental debates—probably exaggerated in my memory—as to what was appropriate for a young boy from a holiness church to read. As late as eighth grade, I remember stading alone and wistful at my homeroom window watching my classmates board a bus for the local theater to see Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby. The chances of attending the film had been slim in the first place, since our church forbade movies along with dancing and drinking as contrary to holy living. Still, I had my hopes. School, combined with the responsibility my parents felt to help their smart children be successful in the world, had always been a slick oil with which I could slip through the narrowest confines of home. The Great Gatsby was a classic novel, or so I assured my parents that the teacher had assured me. Such appeals to the greatness of Western culture lost what little cachet they possessed when my mother discovered that in Fitzgerald’s novel a woman’s breast is torn off by a car.

My mother wanted her son seeing neither breasts nor violence. And so, when I pull my copy of The Great Gatsby off the shelf—a book I did not read until my years as an English major at a Christian College—it is this rather self-pitying memory of me at a window that I see most clearly. For the most part, the dead white male writers and their cinematic representations remained far too worldly for a young holiness boy threatened on every side by the corruption of suburban Oklahoma City.

For a while, education underway and then complete, I thought I had grown out of this attitude, but now I’m not so sure. At least I retained the sense that what you read somehow automatically signified something about who you were. The only difference now was that it had a more elitist and sophisticated cast. Heaven forbid that you indulged in pulp fiction, whether romance or mystery. The chosen people were signified by the ability to parse Faulkner or Morrison, or Eliot or Pound or Dickinson or Whitman. By disdaining books sold in grocery stores. Later, as I became deeply involved in ethnic studies, reading Faulkner, Eliot or Pound–for any reason other than showing their faulty white male-ness–was a profound index of intellectual morality, my own ineffable intellectual and political purity made evident in my reading Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Leslie Marmon Silko.This is not the same kind of religious discrimination that shaped my youth, but it did involve a kind of puritanical pulling up of the skirts from the unwashed of the world. Different unwashed, different skirts, same shrinking. Over time I’ve come to think that perhaps it’s not exactly what you read so much as how you read that’s important. Though, to be honest, the values I assign to the “how” are deeply influenced by the what. The average Harlequin romance or pulp western doesn’t bear up to the attentive, critical and imaginative reading that I think signifies something about a person’s mind and imagination. This kind of reading probably is encouraged by certain kinds of books and not by others, even though, having developed this way of reading, it can be applied almost anywhere on the fly, from Desperate Housewives to Coetzee or Lessing. Thus, my general sense that cultural studies is dependent on forms of reading associated with literature, even while literature itself is falling in to disrepair.

The real occasion for this rumination is that on a lark and in the spirit of the political season, I visited the facebook pages of the leading presidential candidates. Just to see, what these people are reading, and whether I could perform a literary psychopolitical biographical reading of their reading. It’s interesting, but I think I’ll stop for the moment and come back to the literary preferences of Barack, Hillary and Mitt in a later post tomorrow.