Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘reading’

It’s About the Books

In Fulfillment on June 19, 2011 at 1:22 am

There’s been a fair amount going on in our world that I’ve been working hard not to comment on, on the longstanding wisdom that if you can’t say something nice, you ought not to say anything at all. And while, if I tried hard enough, I could probably come up with something nice (all those years in marketing were not entirely in vain), a magazine arrived today with a caption that struck a nerve on a topic I feel completely free to vent about, without choosing my words carefully, without wondering which of my Facebook friends will unfriend me.

“Declutter bookshelves,” the offending magazine advised. “Keep a light look by limiting books to half a shelf or putting them in baskets. Group just a few select accents, which will give the shelves room to breathe.”

News flash! It’s not about the shelves. It’s about the books. The more books you have, the better. If you can’t fit them in vertically, cram them in the space above. If the shelves are completely full, stack the books on the floor. If the stacks bother you, strew the books about. That will give the books room to breathe.

Over the past several months, I’ve seen this book-lite advice more than a few times, along with arranging your books by color or by size, and, I swear, covering your books with white butcher paper so they all match.

I like a match as much as the next person—watch me when I sew plaids—but… how do you find the book? Because, you know, having the books isn’t enough. You want to be able to find them, and read them, and stow them away, and find them again months or years later, like a long-lost friend or, occasionally, like a completely unfamiliar intruder.

My son brought a friend to visit a week or so ago, and somehow the conversation turned to our book organization system. It’s a little convoluted, I know: twentieth century and later starts in the bedroom and continues through the living room, alphabetical by author. Poetry is in the bedroom, as is 19th century. The dining room has reference, Shakespeare, and religion; women’s studies, crafts, and time management are upstairs. The detective collection (a clear deviation, I know) is downstairs, along with business. Design and law are out in the studio; philosophy may be out there, too: I’m not sure because I don’t read it much.

I know where to go when I’m in a certain mood, or need to accomplish a certain something. Can you imagine saying, “I’m thinking a blue book” when you might say, “I’d love a mystery”? “I feel like a tall book” when you might say “I need something like Austen”? Can you imagine searching through all those white-jacketed books in search of the one with the fox and geese mitten pattern? Can you imagine not running into P.G. Wodehouse in your search for Thomas Wolfe?

Please. Let your bookshelves be bookshelves. You may have as many uncluttered shelves as you like, with as many tasteful accessories. Just don’t call them bookshelves.

Let your books be books, not accessories. Let them sport their very own dustjackets, or their very own cracked spines, which, it is to be hoped, you helped them acquire.

And put your books in baskets only to carry them to the beach. To, you know, read them.

“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people

who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”

—Anna Quindlen, “Enough Bookshelves,” New York Times, August 7, 1991

–Lois Maassen

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Read It Again, Sam

In Fulfillment on April 27, 2011 at 12:41 am

I’ve noticed of late that the adventurousness of my reading operates in an inverse relationship to the amount of other activity and stress in my life.

I love to read and do it daily. But there are stretches when I don’t seem to have it in me to choose a new book to read, let alone give it the attention it may very well deserve and sometimes needs.

That’s when I’m glad to be confirmed in thinking that a little amnesia with one’s library is a very good thing. Downstairs is an entire bookshelf of mystery novels. While my spouse-ish one is cursed with a near-photographic memory for details of character, setting, and plot, if I find myself without a book to read at the end of an overly full day, I can wander down and choose one nearly at random.

Some seem as though I’ve never laid eyes on them before. Some, like the dozen or so Erle Stanley Gardner novels I read just after the holidays, seem vaguely familiar, which I could blame on the TV Perry Mason. Others, like Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane books, are familiar in the very best way possible. Rereading those books is like having good friends come to call after an over-long absence.

It was a very late night a week or so ago that I picked up Pride and Prejudice. Blame it on the organization of our books: Mystery and detective fiction is downstairs, Nineteenth Century literature is in the bedroom. Right there at hand. And the floor in the basement is very cold, not the sort of before-bed priming one typically needs.

Pride and Prejudice led to Persuasion, which led to Sense and Sensibility. From there it was a short distance—literally—to Emma. And as I make my way through them, I’m thinking about what it is that makes certain books—books we’ve nearly memorized, so much more than books we’ve already forgotten—so satisfying to reread.

For quite a spell, I reread Jane Austen every summer. My motivation was not so much educational as recreational, and I suppose that’s why a couple of summers ago I decreed that my summer should be spent reading books I hadn’t read before.

A pointless deprivation.

Anne Elliot, Elizabeth Bennet, and Elinor Dashwood are characters I’d like in my neighborhood, or at least to be my Facebook friends. They’re smart and witty and principled, and Elizabeth, especially, would do good status updates.

While I do know how each book turns out (by virtue of owning them in movie form as well as book), there is a satisfying tidiness to seeing the pieces fall into place. There’s a reassurance that all is right with the world. I can’t be fooled on the grand scale, of course, until I stop listening to NPR, but I can at least get the same satisfaction I get from seeing the week’s laundry freshly folded and hung, a harvest’s worth of tomatoes preserved in Ball jars, or the hem of a skirt that hangs exactly right.

There’s also so much subtlety in Austen, so much irony and wit, so many near-throw-away lines, that every reading lets another jewel stand out. I like to read these books because they make me smile, repeatedly.

And I realize that we can’t read the same book twice any more than we can stand in the same river twice. We are different people each time we read a book, shaped by our moods, the day, recent events, relationships. I never noticed before this reading, for example, how much my spouse-ish one has in common with John Knightley:

A man… must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside… for the sake of coming to see him. …The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home, and the folly of people’s not staying comfortably at home when they can!

I hope, for the sake of my edification as well as my book club colleagues, that sooner or later I’ll make my way back to my local bookstore or library. Or, heaven forbid, join my friends (all my friends, it seems) and get a Kindle, which makes every possible thing I might read accessible all the time, no cold floors involved.

For now, I’m satisfied to know that I’ve got years of enjoyment, well-loved or half-forgotten, right here on our own shelves.

-Lois Maassen

School of Life

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, makes a good case for changing the way we teach the humanities (literature, philosophy, the arts) in higher education. Instead of focusing on factual information and scholarly analysis — memorizing the names of the major artists of the Ming Dynasty, say, or explicating Thomas Hardy’s use of flowers as metaphor in Tess of the d’Urbervilles — de Botton wants classes that teach us “how to live.”

“It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, and blinkered human beings.”

Along with a group of like-minded professors, writers, and artists, de Botton has founded a school in London that practices what he preaches. “The School of Life” offers courses in marriage (“Making Love Last”; required reading includes Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary),  choosing a career (“How to Find a Job You Love”; readings include Thoreau’s Walden and The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber), and dying (“Facing Death”; reading works by Samuel Johnson, Luis Bunuel, and Joan Didion).

Unfortunately, The School of Life does not yet offer online classes, but their website showcases some interesting “Ideas to Live By.” I’m tempted to try out the  “Bibliotherapy” services they offer. An individual consultation with a bibliotherapist via phone or Skype will get you a customized reading “prescription” for your “particular area of concern or curiosity.” 

–Debra Wierenga


Still Hungry

In Fulfillment on December 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I wasn’t planning on reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto until I heard the author, David Shields, talk about the origin of his controversial compilation of quotes, paraphrases, and personal musings on the future of fiction.

Speaking to an embarrassingly small audience here in Holland, Michigan, Shields, who has written a number of novels himself, explained that he started collecting the material that became Reality Hunger in an attempt to explain to himself and his students how and why fiction has become something he no longer cares to read.

It’s happened to me, too.

After a lifetime of devouring novels, mysteries, story collections — from Jane Austen to John Updike, from Dorothy Sayers to Amanda Cross, from Elizabeth Bowen to Anne Beattie — I find it increasingly difficult to find a piece of fiction that will hold my interest. Sometimes I can’t even make it through The New Yorker’s weekly short story.

In the past month, I have picked up and put down new works by A.S. Byatt, Michael Chabon, Jim Harrison, and Zadie Smith. My reading partner and I have been working for weeks now to make it through Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, mostly because we sprang for the hardcover.

During the same period of time, I zipped through three memoirs, two biographies, several poetry collections, and a volume of essays, as well as books on how the brain works, how dogs think, how people grieve, and what I should be feeding my family.

And, of course, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which explains a lot — at least to me.

–Debra Wierenga