Monthly Archives: April 2006

Reading and eating

Just having finished dinner, I’m in a mood to think about eating, and Manguel helps me connect two of my favorite things: books and food. Manguel says of reading that it:

demands to be explained in images that lie outside the reader’s library and yet within the reader’s body, so that the function of reading is associated with our other essential bodily functions. Reading — as we have seen — serves as a metaphoric vehicle, but in order to be understood must itself be recognized through metaphors. Just as writers speak of cooking up a story, rehashing a text, having half-baked ideas for a plot, spicing up a scene or garnishing the bare bones of an argument, turning the ingredients of a potboiler into soggy prose, a slice of life peppered with allusions into which readers can sink their teeth, we, the readers, speak of savouring a book, of finding nourishment in it, of devouring a book at one sitting, of regurgitating or spewing up a text, of fuminating on a passage, of rolling a poet’s words on the tongue, of feasting on poetry, of living on a diet of detective stories. In an essay on the art of studying, the sixteenth-century English scholar Francis Bacon catalogued the process: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

What a list! Certainly, Manguel’s book is one to be chewed and digested. I like the metaphor of reading as eating because of the way it implies that books become part of who we are, just as food does. We ingest and digest them, so that they become indistinguishable from other parts of our selves. They become so much a part of us, at least some books do, that we can’t really tell exactly how they have affected us. They become “internalized” so that they shape the way we think and the way we understand the world.

I feel this way particularly about a writer like Jane Austen — I have so thoroughly “devoured” her books that I know they have shaped my thinking, but I can’t quite say how. The books are too much a part of me to analyze their effect. When I was in graduate school, I decided I could never take a course on Jane Austen because I wouldn’t know what to say about her in a critical paper. I can appreciate her, certainly, but that’s not exactly what you do in graduate school papers. I can’t get any critical distance on her, I feel like, because I’ve so thoroughly ingested her.

I’m guessing you can think of similar examples from your own experience??

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Race report

What a mess this day was. My race this morning was fine, and my husband’s was fine too until the very end when he was involved in a big crash, and we ended up spending the afternoon in the emergency room. That was not the kind of drama we were looking for today! He’s fine, but with a cracked rib and a lot of scraped-off skin. He’s on some fancy painkiller they gave him at the hospital.

That’s the risk you take when you ride, I suppose, and especially when you race. The only crashes I’ve been involved in so far are ones I’ve accomplished all on my own — accidently riding off the road and tipping over, not being able to get out of my clipless pedals, that sort of clutzy thing. But one day I’ll be in a real crash, I’m sure.

I’ll keep riding, though, and I’m positive my husband will too. I’m not the sort of person who tries very hard to avoid risk. I’m no daredevil, but I think that, at least for me, a perfectly safe life isn’t the best kind of life to live.

I haven’t had a moment to read until now, so I will be off to my books soon.

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Poetry Friday: Mary Oliver

I finished Mary Oliver’s book American Primitive yesterday, and I recommend it highly. This is her second-to-last poem, and it blew my mind:

The Plum Trees

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t

succumb, there’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.

I was struck by the idea of happiness as being physical first and only then mental. I usually think of it as an aspect of the mind, a mental state. And many think of happiness as a spiritual state. But I love the idea of finding happiness by taking it in through the senses. I think, generally, that attaining a state of happiness isn’t a good goal — it’s so elusive and fleeting and for some reason humans just don’t seem to be made to be happy. And what is happiness, exactly? But I think if one is going to seek happiness, even short experiences of it, seeking it through the physical world is going to be the most reliable way — through experiencing the body intensely and through interaction with the outside world.

The connection between body and mind is built into our language. Oliver’s line about sensual inundation being sensible is breath-taking: she’s playing with word “sense,” its inclusion in both “sensual” and “sensible” and its reference both to the bodily senses and to mental sense, or thinking. Sensual inundation, while it might appear to be excessive, overloading the senses, really is the most sensible, or reasonable, thing to seek. Bodily experience is not something opposed to mental experience — a deeply-felt bodily experience, even one of “disorder and astonishment” that “rattles your thoughts” as Oliver says, is going to strengthen your mind.

I feel like I have things to say about this I don’t have time for now, so I’ll probably come back to this poem and this idea, but I will say that one of the most important things I’ve learned as an adult is to stop privileging mental experiences over physical ones. I grew up in a Christian tradition that is profoundly ambivalent about the body, and it is only by moving away from that tradition that I’ve been able to think about the relationship of mind and body in what I think is a saner way. I like to write about cycling and backpacking because they are part of how I think through these issues: exercise isn’t merely exercise but another way to live in the world. It’s sort of like my body’s way of “reading” — reading is one way the mind understands the world — one way out of many — and walking, running, riding are possibilities for the body.

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Help readers! Our books need rescuing!

Here’s more from Alberto Manguel, from a chapter on how we categorize and classify our books:

Rooms, corridors, bookcases, shelves, filing cards and computerized catalogues assume that the subjects on which our thoughts dwell are actual entities, and through this assumption a certain book may be lent a particular tone and value. Filed under Fiction, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a humorous novel of adventure; under Sociology, a satirical study of England in the eighteenth century; under Children’s Literature, an entertaining fable about dwarfs and giants and talking horses; under Fantasy, a precursor of science fiction; under Travel, an imaginary voyage; under Classics, a part of the Western literary canon.

Here’s the best part of the passage:

Categories are exclusive; reading is not — or should not be. Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader — the curious reader, the alert reader — to rescue the book from the category to which it had been condemned.

It’s another way that reading is subversive — whether we like it or not. Any book transcends the category we want to confine it in, and as readers we are able to recognize the ways the categories are misleading and limiting. Of course, we need classification systems for our books, or we’d never find them, but I like Manguel’s reminder that our categories don’t have any existence in and of themselves. They are imaginary and they are arbitrary. And it’s great to think that by reading imaginatively we’re fighting tyranny. Even if we are talking about the tyranny of libraries, generally excellent institutions. Actually, he’s not really talking about the tyranny of libraries, but about the habit of believing that the books really and truly belong to the categories we place them in and nowhere else.

So, please, don’t let your books lead narrow lives, isolated lives. Read them with curiosity and imagination, and rescue them!

I promise I’ll stop posting on Manguel one of these days. You may be getting sick of him by now. But he’s SO GREAT!

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More lists!

For those of you who like them, here are two lists, both from UK bookseller Waterstone’s. The first list is 30 books the booksellers think merit rediscovery. The second offers 25 insufficiently-recognized books recommended by authors and celebrities. This list includes a short write-up by the recommender. (Link via The Literary Saloon).

I’ve read only three books from the first list (Vonnegut, Russo, and Yates) and none from the second. Yikes! It looks like there’s lots of good stuff there. My only quibble is that I’m not sure Slaughter House 5 needs rediscovery — hasn’t that book remained quite popular? I fully recognize the purpose of these lists is to generate sales, but still, a good list is a good list. And there’s nothing to keep us from getting the books from the library, if we prefer.

Also, the short list for the Orange prize is out.

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A riding/reading post

I got chased by a dog on my ride today. That doesn’t happen often around here; people are usually very aware of the traffic and keep their dogs fenced in. This one surprised me, as I was distracted trying to get glass off my tires — I’d just ridden over some that was strewn all across the road and impossible to avoid. One of the mildly cool things I’ve learned how to do is to use my cycling gloves to scrape glass off my tires while continuing to ride — to pedal even. Thank God there were no cars around because I had to swerve into the middle of the road to avoid hitting the thing. It was little and I knew it wouldn’t attack me, but I sure didn’t want to run it over.

Anyway, I was remembering recently how racers from my old cycling club — the one I rode with until this last year — told me that the racers from my new cycling club were stuck-up and stand-offish. They weren’t really interested in new riders, and you couldn’t easily break into their group. They certainly weren’t interested in riders who weren’t great racers, which I am not. Now I haven’t found this to be true at all. My new club members, once I got to know them a bit, are actually very welcoming. I felt this most strongly when they formed a little cheering section for me when I finished my last race.

The funny thing is, the racers from my old club had a reputation for being stuck-up too. They weren’t interested in new riders, and you couldn’t easily break into their group, or so I was told. They just wanted to ride with each other, and no one else. That also turned out not to be true. Once I got to know them, they became my friends.

I realized after a while what’s going on here: these people aren’t stuck-up — they are shy! Both groups were. They weren’t the sort to go out of their way to introduce themselves, not because they were cliquish, but because that just wasn’t the sort of thing they did. It didn’t really occur to them. Once I started riding with them, however — which doesn’t require an invitation, all you have to do is show up — they got over their shyness and welcomed me.

I think it’s sad that rather than figuring out that others are shy, people tend to perceive them as closed-off. I think it’s particularly sad because I am a shy person myself, and I certainly don’t want people thinking I’m stuck-up or stand-offish. I wonder if that has happened to me, and how often. I do try to remember that when people act in a way that I think is a bit odd, that there may be something more going on than I realize. As someone who reads and thinks about people a lot, I think I understand what is going on in people’s minds. I suspect, though, that often I don’t.

Here’s the reading part. The other day, I came across this from The Line of Beauty:

Nick blushed with pleasure and wished there was a way to distinguish shy from stuck-up — the muddle had dogged him for years.

You see what I mean?

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Last weekend was terrible for riding. It rained both Saturday and Sunday, pretty much non-stop. Lots of people at work are reporting flooded basements. I’m not even looking at mine.

But reading was good. Here’s what’s going on in my reading world:

  • I began Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and have read about 120 pages so far. So far, it’s great. It’s a good story, absorbing, with an engaging main character, and the sentences are beautiful. I’ll write more later, but basically it’s about a 20-year-old man living with a wealthy London family; the father in the family is a recently-successful Tory MP. It takes place in the 80s under Thatcher. The main character, Nick, comes from a much less wealthy background and is gay, and so is an outsider in several senses. He is figuring out his place in the family and in the world at large.
  • I’m continuing with Manguel’s History of Reading, which, if you have looked at this blog before you will know, I like quite a lot. More quotations to follow.
  • I’m almost finished with Mary Oliver’s book of poems American Primitive, which I highly recommend. Very beautiful, striking poems about nature and people in nature. I’ve posted a few poems here.
  • I’m slowly reading The Tale of Genji, a series of loosely-linked stories about court life in 11th century Japan and could be considered the first novel (if you’re into things like naming first novels). This world is very remote from ours, in time and in customs. The stories so far have been about Genji’s pursuit of women and the political consequences of those pursuits. I’ve only read about 1/10 of the book and I’m sensing now that the plot is shifting from Genji’s pursuit of women to his taking on a more powerful political role and having to give up some of his youthful pleasures. We’ll see.
  • Finally, I’m slowly reading through Virginia Woolf’s diary, Vol. 1. This is a good book to look into for a bit before falling asleep — not to say that it’s boring, but it’s best read slowly, and I like keeping something on the nightstand to read for 10 minutes or so before bed. It’s largely about her reading and writing, her friends, her entertaining, her work with Leonard on their printing press. It’s a valuable read, I think, for the occasional revealing detail or eloquent description.

In spite of my earlier post about longing to do more rereading, I bought more books over the weekend. I suppose new books will most often win out over the old ones. Pretty, new books are just too hard to resist.

I picked up a copy of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which I heard about through Jane Smiley’s book about reading novels. Those of you who like book lists might like hers — she has a list of 100 novels she read in the course of three years and this book describes that project. You’ll find the list here.

I also got a new book of poems, Jane Hirschfield’s book Given Sugar, Given Salt for when I’m finished with Oliver. I read Hirschfield’s book of essays on poetry, Nine Gates, a couple years back and loved it. This book is a great way to learn how to read poems or to enhance your reading of poetry; her insights are exquisite. I don’t mean to imply that her book is about “how to read a poem,” but in the course of discussing particular poems she models careful, sensitive, deep reading.

Finally, I picked up Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black. I’m looking forward to this one.

So, although I have many, many great Manguel quotes to leave you with, I’ll limit myself to one:

However readers make a book theirs, the end is that book and reader become one. The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world’s text; thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading. We are what we read. The process by which the circle is complete is not, Whitman argued, merely an intellectual one; we read intellectually on a superficial level, grasping certain meanings and conscious of certain facts, but at the same time, invisibly, unconsciously, text and reader become intertwined, creating new levels of meaning, so that every time we cause the text to yield something by ingesting it, simultaneously something else is born beneath it that we haven’t yet grasped. That is why — as Whitman believed, rewriting and re-editing his poems over and over again — no reading can ever be definitive.

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Reading is my default mode

I’ve said and I’ve heard other bloggers say that those who claim they don’t have time for reading aren’t making any sense whatsoever. If you want to read, you will find time. Saying you don’t have time is a way of finding an excuse for not doing what you don’t really want to do anyway. I fit reading into every unfilled corner of my life, and I don’t feel like this takes any special effort. It’s just natural. People might be amused to watch my husband and I eat meals – except for lunch at work we eat most meals together and sometimes even at work we do – and it consists mainly of us shoveling food into our mouths while we devour our reading with equal pleasure. We eat fast so that we can get upstairs to a more comfortable place to read. We have “family dinners” all right, but we don’t talk to each other: we read. We have a stack of magazines on our table, so an article is always handy, and I know well the difficulty of holding on to a book while eating something like tacos or a messy sandwich that requires two hands. Magazines are a good solution to that problem.

I do want to recognize, however, that there ARE people who really, truly don’t have time to read. I’m thinking of, say, someone who works two jobs or a single parent trying to hold down a job, or two jobs. Having time for reading is, to a certain extent, a middle-class privilege. I say that reading is natural, as natural as breathing, and it is, but … it’s not. If you know something about 18th-century culture, you know that reading is connected, in however complicated a fashion, with the growth of the middle class and of leisure time. Yes, probably anyone anywhere can fit in a little bit of reading every day, but I can see having to work so hard, and worrying so much about money and food that reading becomes less important and a person loses the energy for it. Ehrenreich’s book on low-wage workers reminds me of this.

But I think when I and other people criticize others for not having time to read, we aren’t talking about the poor, we are talking about middle-class people who choose to keep themselves busy with other things. I just don’t like the idea of not recognizing that some people’s lives are so difficult that it really would be a struggle to find time to read. And that some people have never learned to love to read because they didn’t have parents who read, or because their education sucked. And I don’t like the idea of looking down on people who make different choices than I do, although I know I’m guilty of doing this. Okay, I DO like looking down on people who make different choices than I do, but I realize I shouldn’t.

I added the Alberto Manguel quotation above as my “blog description” because it captures so beautifully how I feel about reading: it’s almost as natural as breathing. It’s something I do without even thinking about it. And, I should probably clarify, Manguel isn’t talking solely about reading books; he’s talking about reading the stars, the landscape, animal tracks, tarot cards, another person’s face. In this broader sense, we all do read, all the time.

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It’s a gloomy, rainy Saturday, which makes it a perfect day to stay inside and read, which is exactly what I’m doing. Since I took a long bike ride yesterday, I am content to be sedentary today.

I’ve been thinking about reading and rereading recently, after I discussed an excerpt from Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies with my students. This excerpt discussed intensive and extensive reading, or reading the same things over and over (a common practice when books weren’t plentiful) versus reading things only once and moving quickly from one thing to the next. Birkerts makes an argument for the value of intensive reading, for knowing texts deeply and intimately and for devoting time to contemplating their meanings. This is one way to develop wisdom, a quality he thinks we’re in danger of losing.

I’m not impressed by this argument about wisdom, and I don’t generally buy claims that bemoan the ways things are deteriorating in these horrible modern times, but I do like the idea of intensive reading. As someone who’s spent quite a few years studying literature, I like rereading texts, contemplating them, reading other people’s ideas about them, writing about them, maybe even gaining a little wisdom from them. But, of course, there are so many things to read, and I want to read as many of them as I can. I generally read extensively — moving from one new book to the next — but sometimes I get a longing to reread something, anything. I want the feeling of coming back to a familiar story. And I’ve heard multiple people saying something along the lines of “You haven’t really read a book until you read it the second time,” which I believe, in a way. The first time through, you are orienting yourself, learning the basics of the text, and the second time through you can pay attention to the finer points and understand more about what the author is doing. But I can’t read everything multiple times, even things I love.

So I’m torn, wanting both to get to all those books that sound so great, and wanting to linger over the ones I like, reading and rereading them. Usually newness wins out.

How many of you reread things? Do you often reread?

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Friday reading and riding report

It was a beautiful day for riding. I just got back from a 35-mile ride, which is medium-long for me at this point in the season, and it felt great. Low 60’s, sunny, the leaves just beginning to appear, lots of pretty back roads to ride on around here. On Wednesday’s ride, however, I experienced one of the problems cyclists occasionally have: swallowing a bug. You are riding along, working hard, breathing heavily, and all the sudden one flies into your mouth and before you know it, it’s down your throat. Actually, it would have been better for me if I had swallowed this particular bug. It flew straight toward the back of my throat where it stayed lodged for a while. I tried to swallow it, it being small and hard to get out. I drank some water to wash it down. But then I kept coughing and coughing until finally I coughed it up. Grossed out? I’m dreading the day I have a confrontation with a squirrel who heads straight for my spokes. That would be gross.

On the reading front — I’ve been playing around with reading a bunch of books at once, and I’ve decided I like it. It’s probably best, though, when I’m not too terribly busy; if I had limited time to read, I think I’d want to focus on just one thing. But my life right now is such that I have a decent amount of time to read, and reading a bunch of books allows me some variety and makes it easier to read things like poetry, that require more concentration. I spend a little time concentrating on the more challenging reading, and then move on to something easier, and that way I get more variety. I’ve been extremely happy reading A History of Reading, but I’m guessing at some point this weekend, I’m going to pick up a novel. On deck: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

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The REALLY dead women writers meme

I’ve linked to this before, but Bardiac has updated her list of early women writers. There are lots of great writers here!

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Subversive reading

I’m loving Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, and I’ll probably be posting about it quite a bit. If you love reading and love thinking about reading in a more theoretical and historical kind of way, you’ll love this book.

So we all know how reading can be subversive; Manguel talks about how totalitarian governments fear reading and readers. What intrigues me in the passage I’m now reading is the way he connects this subversion to silent reading, as opposed to reading out loud, which, back in much earlier times, was the norm. People would read everything out loud, usually to an audience or with a group of people also reading out loud (imagine the noise!). To describe this shift, he mentions the famous scene in St. Augustine’s Confessions where Augustine is amazed and puzzled at Ambrose’s silent reading. Reading that is done out loud is more subject to explanation and interpretation by someone else; it is more of a public act, more of a communal one: “Reading out loud with someone else in the room implied shared reading, deliberate or not,” Manguel says.

But silent reading allows more room for private thoughts:

The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal … and the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.

This, as you might imagine, made people nervous. Silent reading leads to idleness and day-dreaming – and to heresy:

A book that can be read privately, reflected upon as the eye unravels the sense of the words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener. Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader, and the singular “refreshing of the mind,” in Augustine’s happy phrase.

Until silent reading became the norm, Manguel says, heresies were usually individual and small-scale. Silent reading, however, made it possible for heresies to spread and become large movements.

Here’s to silent reading! Here’s to heresy!

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Sacred Reading

I’ve begun Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, and so far I like it. Manguel says some cool stuff about reading sacred texts:

In sacred texts, where every letter and the number of letters and their order were dictated by the godhead, full comprehension required not only the eyes but also the rest of the body: swaying to the cadence of the sentences and lifting to one’s lips the holy words, so that nothing of the divine could be lost in the reading. My grandmother read the Old Testament in this manner, mouthing the words and moving her body back and forth to the rhythm of her prayer.

The body gets involved in reading in the Islamic tradition too:

The legal scholar and theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali established a series of rules for studying the Koran in which reading and hearing the text read became part of the same holy act. Rule number five established that the reader must follow the text slowly and distinctly in order to reflect on
what he was reading. Rule number six was “for weeping …. If you do not weep naturally, then force yourself to weep”, since grief should be implicit in the apprehension of the sacred words.

Even if, like me, you aren’t a particularly religious person, you might also find this description moving. I think it’s interesting to consider words or the experience of reading as potentially sacred, even if one doesn’t believe in the sacredness of one particular text or doesn’t believe in a transcendent God. Maybe the act of reading itself can be a sacred thing — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, etc., a form of communing with other people — rather than any particular text.

I also like the way he talks about reading as physical as well as mental, and as so complex, it involves the whole person. We usually think of reading as solely mental, not involving the body at all, beyond the obvious way the eyes and brain are involved, but Manguel writes about reading as an act that involves the whole person, thoughts, emotions, memories, and the body. It’s so hard not to think dualistically, about both reading and religious experiences – reading is seen as mental, not physical, worship can be seen, as it often is in Christianity (although not always), as solely spiritual, not physical. But it’s not so simple as that.

Here is Manguel’s take on a passage from Oliver Sacks:

Dr. Oliver Sacks argued that “speech – natural speech – does not consist of words alone …. It consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition.” Much the same can be said of reading: following the text, the reader utters its meaning through a vastly entangled method of learned significances, social conventions, previous readings, personal experience and private taste …. In order to extract a message from that system of black and white signs, I first apprehend the system in an apparently erratic manner, through fickle eyes, and then reconstruct the code of signs through a connecting chain of processing neurons in my brain – a chain that varies according to the nature of the text I’m reading – and imbue that text with something – emotion, physical sentience, intuition, knowledge, soul – that depends on who I am and how I became who I am.

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Howards End

I finished Howards End last night. I very much enjoyed reading the book, although I made the mistake of reading some of the criticism that comes with my edition right away and therefore marring the original impression I had. I have a Bedford “Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism” edition, which has a lot of essays from different schools of theory. I didn’t read much, just skimmed a bit, but I read some criticisms of the book I wasn’t ready to hear. I like to just enjoy a book for a while if I can, and then think critically about it later.

Anyway, I thought it was an enjoyable read, plot-wise, and I liked the way Forster integrated his ideas and themes into the storytelling. This, however, is something Virginia Woolf didn’t like; she says Forster’s characters aren’t really characters but are simply ways of making his point. It didn’t feel that way to me – I thought the characters were interesting and believable, most of them; that the plot was engaging, although maybe clumsy in places; and that the ideas were important and ever-present, but that they didn’t threaten to turn the whole thing into a work of sociology or philosophy, as they might. I didn’t feel like I was being preached to.

I was interested in the ecological stuff going on in the book, about how people’s relationship to the land is threatened by the fast pace of life, how the automobile changes the landscape and our relationship to it, and how the city and suburbs are encroaching on the countryside. I liked the description of Margaret’s disorientation when she rides in a “motorcar” and loses her sense of space and place. She battles against a feeling of “flux”:

Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!

I suppose one of the flaws of the book is the way Forster gets metaphysical in a vague way, like in that last sentence – what exactly does he mean by Love? But I was struck by how modern all this sounds. Trees and meadows and mountains are all too often a spectacle for us, one we see through our car windows as we speed along on highways.

Has anyone read his novel Maurice? I’m kind of curious about that one.

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Recent acquisitions

Two new books arrived in the mail recently, both about eighteenth-century literature. One of them is Privacy, by Patricia Meyers Spacks, where she tracks 18th C. concerns about privacy and the relationship of privacy and the public sphere in fiction and other prose writings. This interests me, well, because I find the 18th C. fascinating, especially the novel, but specifically because it promises to tell me about changing ideas of the self and of interior life, and, being an introverted person, I’d like to know more about the history of the private world and how reading and writing feed into it. One of the major lessons of the 18th C, it seems to me, is that those things we often take for granted, an interior self, privacy, have a history. This is a very obvious point, but it’s still fun to be reminded of it in new ways.

A story about Spacks: she came to a grad class I was taking quite a few years back as a guest lecturer, and the assignment was Clarissa. I’d done my best to get through the book, and had managed about 500 pages (one third). We were in class, and Spacks told us to open to a particular passage, and, in a moment of silence, a friend of mine opened her book and the spine loudly cracked. We all looked around nervously, hoping Spacks (and my professor) hadn’t heard that sound that made it very clear my friend hadn’t even begun the reading. But, honestly, who can read Clarissa in the middle of a busy semester? I was only able to finish the book over the following winter break.

I also ordered William Warner’s book Licensing Entertainment, a book on the history of the novel and its relationship with other popular prose genres of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. This is a book I should have read in grad school, although I didn’t.

I think I did, however, write about it in my comprehensive exams. I wonder if what I wrote made any sense whatsoever?

I do, generally, do my homework; it just takes me a few years sometimes.

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Helen and Margaret go backpacking!

Or something. I’m dying to know what. I was intrigued by this passage from Howards End, spoken by Margaret to Henry Wilcox:

“Some ladies do without hotels. Are you aware that Helen and I have walked alone over the Apennines, with our luggage on our backs?”

But, alas, she gives no more details. Henry cuts her off with an assertion that she will never do such a thing again. I really want to know, though, what their trip was like. How far did they walk? How did they carry their luggage? Where and how did they sleep?

And, of course, Leonard Bast does his famous night walk. The walk that shows he has some kind of deep, romantic sensibility, in spite of his lower class origins. I’ve never walked the entire night, but I have gone hiking by moonlight once. It was beautiful, but frightening. Much better to walk without my flashlight on, and just let my eyes adjust to the dark; otherwise I was shutting myself off from the night rather than experiencing it.

I like what Leonard has to say about his experience:

“I’m glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides — you can believe me or not as you choose — I was very hungry. That dinner at Wimbledon — I meant it to last me all night like other dinners. I never thought that walking would make such a difference. Why, when you’re walking you want, as it were, a breakfast and luncheon and tea during the night as well, and I had nothing but a packet of Woodbines. Lord, did I feel it bad! Looking back, it wasn’t what you may call enjoyment. It was more a case of sticking to it. I did stick I — I was determined. Oh, hang it all! What’s the good — I mean, the good of living in a room for ever? There one goes on day after day, same old game, same up and down to town, until you forget there is any other game. You ought to see once in a while what’s going on outside, if it’s only nothing particular after all.”

Exactly. He gets it exactly — the boredom, the hunger, the determination, the needing to get out even if nothing happens, and being glad you did it in spite of everything.

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So, about my backpacking trip

It turned out to be a bit of a dud, unfortunately. I usually come back tired and glad to be home, enjoying a shower, a comfortable bed, and hot food, but then after a day or two I’m ready to go out again. But this time I wore myself out too much. I tried to walk too many miles each day, and it changed from a fun challenge into a wearying slog. Husband and I parked cars at each end of our route, so we kind of had to do a certain number of miles, just to reach our transportation, although we found a way to cut it a bit short along regular roads. We had thought, since the section of the Appalachian Trail we wanted to hike runs near a few towns, that we could take very little food and stop in town to pick up sandwiches instead. Our packs were, therefore, very light, and we thought that would mean we could do a lot of miles, but that wasn’t quite true. By the third day of walking, I’d had enough.

Also, part of the fun of backpacking, believe it or not, is meeting other hikers, and this time there weren’t any other hikers out, on weekdays in April. Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, at least in the summer, can be surprisingly social. On our summer trips, we’ll run into a lot of hikers doing the whole trail – Georgia to Maine – and it’s often been fun talking with them. Yeah, sometimes you camp with strange, scary people or loud snorers, but I have a lot of good memories of hikers I’ve met and the strange, scary ones turn into good stories afterwards.

Living outdoors is great in itself, but usually we find ourselves in some kind of adventure, large or small, that makes the whole trip into something surprising. This time around, nothing particularly special happened, and I got a little bored at times. I can “experience nature” pretty well on day hikes; it’s the adventure aspect that makes backpacking so great. The one interesting animal encounter I had was getting really close, scary close, to a vulture, who seemed to be guarding a nest. I was trying to make my way up a rocky hillside, and I saw the bird about 15 feet away, and I had to get even closer to follow the trail. When I did, it flew away, but I was ready to defend myself with my hiking poles. There’s no knowing what a bird guarding its nest will do.

The landscape we went through was beautiful, and I like hiking before the leaves come out because you can see so much further into the woods. You have to be careful about sunburn, though – there is no leaf cover to protect you.

If you are interested in long-distance hiking or the AT generally, I recommend I learned about this last summer – some hikers take along this small device, made especially for hikers I think, that they can type journal entries into, and then they send those entries to a friend over the phone when they get to the next town, and that friend posts them on the website. So you can follow the progress of hikers, getting updates once a week or so, whenever they find a phone to send in their journal. It’s kind of fun to follow their adventures, particularly when you’ve met them in person on the trail.

You may already know Bill Bryson’s famous book A Walk in the Woods, definitely a good read, but you may not know Ian Marshall’s Story Line, a really great book about literature written in the areas the Appalachian Trail runs through, with a description of Marshall’s own hiking.

The trail is its own community, with its own vocabulary and customs. Here are a few examples of AT vocabulary:

PUDS: pointless ups and downs. I thought a lot about this word on my trip. The trail climbs to a lot of views, but it also climbs a lot for no apparent reason. You climb and you climb and you climb, and you reach nothing in particular, and then you descend and you descend and you descend. I’ve met people who get annoyed at this term and those who complain about PUDS – if you don’t want to climb hills don’t hike the AT!!! – but when I’m climbing one of these at the end of a long day, I complain too.

Thru-hikers, section-hikers, day-hikers: thru-hikers are hiking the whole trail in one trip; section-hikers (I am one of these) backpack the trail in short sections, often trying to do the whole thing eventually; and day-hikers are, obviously, out only for a day.

North-bounders, south-bounders, flip-floppers: north-bounders are hiking from Georgia to Maine; south-bounders the opposite; and flip-floppers hike from a point in the middle (say, Harpers Ferry) and hike in one direction, and then go back to the middle point and hike in the other direction.

Trail magic: some unexpectedly wonderful thing that happens to you, which can happen surprisingly often on the trail, maybe because it doesn’t take much to please a backpacker. For example, I’ve come across coolers with sodas someone left along the trail for hikers, which is a marvelous surprise. Or someone might unexpectedly offer you a shower, or a trip into town, or a hot meal. Trail magic is performed by –

Trail angels: people who help out hikers, just because they love hiking and are generous.

Trail names: people usually choose a trail name they’ll use on their backpacking trip instead of their usual name, often something related to nature, but sometimes something completely random. I’ve hiked with Out of Chocolate, Timothy Mouse, Dad’s Grin, Earthworm, Mountain Roamer, Tugboat, and Dog Tag, to name a few.

Slackpacking: when someone carries your pack for you, usually toting it to your end destination in a car, so that you can hike without the 30 pounds on your back. I wish I could do this more often!

Yellow-blazing, blue-blazing: yellow-blazing is taking a short cut along the road, which, if you have a good map or know the area, isn’t all that hard to do. It’s tempting if you want to skip a rough patch of trail or a difficult mountain on a rainy day or something similar. Blue-blazing is taking a side-trail as a shortcut. The AT is always marked with white blazes, and side-trails are blue-blazed, and sometimes those blue-blazes are faster and easier and therefore tempting.

I’d like to hike the whole Appalachian Trail before I die, although at the rate I’m going, it might be close. One problem is that I tend to hike the same sections over and over because they are nearby, and getting to the more remote sections is complicated and time-consuming. I’ll do it though ….

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An End to Suffering by Pankaj Mishra

I’ll write about my backpacking trip tomorrow (too tired at the moment), but for now, here’s a review of An End to Suffering I wrote before I left:

Pankaj Mishra’s book An End to Suffering has a lot of good things going for it, but ultimately I found it frustrating. I’m not saying it’s not worth reading, exactly; I don’t regret having read it, but I thought it has unfulfilled potential.

The basic idea of the book is to explore Buddhism from a number of angles: the history and teachings of the Buddha, the history of Buddhism in Asia, the European “discovery” of Buddhism in the 19th century, the response of western philosophers such as Nietzsche, the role of Buddhism in the contemporary world, and Mishra’s own discovery of and thoughts about the Buddha. The book moves back and forth among these approaches, and it moves around in time, considering early on the 19th-century response to the Buddha and only later giving an account of the Buddha’s life.

Mishra mixes the personal with the social, historical, and political. He gives a lot of details of his life in India and his later travels to England and America, and he discusses his changing ideas about the west and about his religious experiences. I find books that connect the personal to social and political issues can be deeply engaging: not just giving the dry facts about Buddhism (although those are good), but discussing what those facts mean to the author. I like to observe congenial minds making sense of information and ideas, and thinking through their implications, for the world and for the author.

But I’ve seen this sort of thing done better than it is here. One of my favorite books along these lines is Diana Eck’s Encountering God, where she considers similarities between Christianity and Hinduism, and writes about her own religious struggles along the way. I learned a lot about both religions, I found myself moved by Eck’s personal experience, and it helped me think through my own religious history. I’m always on the lookout for more books of this sort – in fact, if you know of any, please let me know!

Mishra does discuss his personal experience of Buddhism, but I got the sense that he hadn’t quite sorted out his feelings and ideas fully. This appears to be a story of his early dislike of India and fascination with the west – its explorers and philosophers – which changes over time into an appreciation of Buddhism as a viable response to the troubles of the western world. But this change is never really fleshed out, and, if this is the story he is trying to tell, it’s unconvincing. I’m not sure he’s resolved this tension between his relationship to east and west. What comes through most strongly is his admiration for all things western. Now, complicated feelings are potentially very interesting, but I want to see that the author has fully come to terms with them. Perhaps Mishra wrote the book too early in his life, before he has had time to make sense of his past.

Maybe it is a problem with the way he structures the narrative. His jumps in time end up confusing the arc of the story, so that what could be a clear narrative – about moving from a dislike of India and a fascination with the west to a more balanced view of both – becomes all jumbled up in the reader’s mind. For example, one of the first things he discusses is the “discovery” of Buddhism by 19th century European explorers, a very promising topic. But I don’t know why he writes about this first, and he never explains. In his telling of the story, he praises these explorers for their bravery, and he recognizes that they did harm too, participating in European colonialism, but the impression I get is that he is still fascinated by them almost in spite of himself and that he’s not really fully acknowledging their very mixed legacy.

At times his narrative jumps become hard to follow, and I found myself wondering again and again why he was writing about a particular topic at that moment. The book needs more framing, I think. I wanted to know where we were going and how we would get there. Or, if I couldn’t have that, I wanted to come to trust Mishra that he would take me somewhere worthwhile. I don’t HAVE to know exactly where a writer is headed, after all. I actually really like narratives that wander a bit. But I have to trust the writer, and I didn’t really trust Mishra.

So, read the book for some great information about Buddhism. It’s valuable for its discussion of Buddhism in the west. I didn’t need another book giving me the basic facts of the Buddha’s life and his teachings, as I’ve read those before, but this book offers more than that. But I think Mishra hasn’t quite gotten control of his own story yet.

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How my complete lack of coordination led me to cycling

I’ve vowed I will never play soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, tennis, basketball, football, lacrosse, golf, etc. ever again. I’m well out of high school, so you can’t make me! I might play ping-pong, but only with someone who’s no good. I’m one of those people who just can’t improve, and I won’t be convinced otherwise. I realize that riding a bike requires some coordination, but not nearly on the level of those sports that involve kicking or throwing or hitting or bouncing a ball. I tried to play volleyball in high school, but that didn’t work out so well, and I learned my lesson. I had much more luck with track.

But I decided early on after graduating from high school that running is boring, and so I didn’t do much for exercise until getting a bike in the winter of 2000. My husband rode a lot and had raced before, and he got me interested. For a couple summers I rode mostly by myself or with husband (but he’s much stronger than I am, so that didn’t always work all that well), and then I joined a cycling club, riding with them a couple times a week during the spring and summer. I found that I was decent at it. I suppose my best attribute as a cyclist is my willingness to work hard. I often feel like I’m not quite at the level of the riders I’m with, but I work very hard to make sure I don’t get left behind, and then I improve pretty quickly.

And it’s a ton of fun. There really is nothing better than feeling strong and riding in a pack with people who love cycling too and are out there to work hard. Riding with a club is a mix of competing with each other and helping each other out. Riders would give each other advice, or push others to work hard. They congratulated me when I did well, and encouraged me to try new things like racing. But we also competed with each other, in a casual kind of way. I’m not competitive in the sense that I want to be faster than everyone; I DO get competitive with people who are at my level but I never take it too seriously.

These days, after my move to a new town last year, I’m not riding with a club much anymore. I may begin again at some point, as there is a good club nearby. But it always takes me a while to work up my courage to join a group. In the meantime, I’m learning a bit about racing. I wasn’t sure if I would like the competitiveness and stress of racing. In high school when I ran track, I always liked the training part of the season, but I found the track meets too stressful to enjoy. But so far with cycling, I’ve felt differently. I guess being twice the age I was when I ran track makes a difference. Now I feel a little anxious before a race (enough to get my adrenaline flowing), but not so much that it ceases to be fun. And, so far at least, the riders I’ve raced with have been very welcoming and encouraging. If people took this deadly seriously, it wouldn’t be much fun, but they don’t, and it is.

So now I’m trying to get used to the different form of riding I’m doing. My club training rides were generally a couple hours at a reasonably fast pace, but now I’m doing very fast 40-minute rides, and these require a very different kind of fitness. Less endurance (although that’s always a factor), and more power. Races require more bike-handling skills than a group ride, although group rides are great places to get used to riding with other people. But in a race, the riders are more aggressive and you have to learn how to take corners smoothly and hold a straight line.

So far I’ve had the most luck riding with the Category 5 men, the newbie racers, since the women’s races usually include riders with a lot of experience who are much faster than I am. There aren’t enough women racers to have women’s beginner races; they usually put all the women together, which means mixing up the ability and experience levels. But women have the option of joining certain men’s races, so I can pick and choose a bit. I like it that I aspire to move from the men’s race to the women’s!

I went to a yoga class last night, and it was a lesson in humility. It’s easy to think that because you are good in one sport or activity that you can do others easily, but it’s just not true. I felt like I worked harder in one hour of yoga than I might in six hours of riding. Of course, it’s a matter of what I’m used to, but I find it fascinating that while we tend to think of covering a lot of miles, on foot or on a bike, as challenging, staying still in a pose on a yoga mat can be just as hard or harder.

And tomorrow I’m off on my three-day backpacking trip. I will find new ways of making my muscles sore. I wish I had more time for these things; so many books, so many bike rides, so many trails ….

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Goodbye until Saturday

I’ll be bringing Howards End on my backpacking trip. I would have preferred to pick something new to take along (thanks for the great suggestions!), but I didn’t get all that far into the book, and I don’t want to set it aside for the sake of something else. And I am enjoying Howards End and want to stick with it. It’s a bit on the heavy side, but not too bad, and I’m pretty sure I won’t finish it before I return. It’ll be good company.

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