Monthly Archives: March 2007

How to treat a book

The New York Times Book Review yesterday had an essay by Ben Schott on how he treats books, called “Confessions of a Book Abuser,” where he argues that it really doesn’t matter a whole lot if you treat your books a little roughly. Barring certain kinds of books like rare ones or books of historical interest or books that belong to libraries or to other people, he’s okay with folding corners and writing in the margins and keeping a book he’s reading open face down on a table.

It was mostly a silly, light essay, but I did agree with his conclusions: when thousands of copies of books are made quite easily and quickly, does it matter if we don’t keep them in pristine shape? And isn’t treating books roughly a sign of taking them seriously and engaging with them?

I liked this paragraph in particular:

Indeed, the ability of books to survive abuse is one of the reasons they are such remarkable objects, elevated far beyond, say, Web sites. One cannot borrow a Web site from a friend and not return it for years. One cannot, yet, fold a Web site into one’s back pocket, nor drop a Web site into the bath. One cannot write comments, corrections or shopping lists on Web sites only to rediscover them (indecipherable) years later. One cannot besmear a Web site with suntan-lotioned fingers, nor lodge sand between its pages. One cannot secure a wobbly table with a slim Web site, nor use one to crush an unsuspecting mosquito. And, one cannot hurl a Web site against a wall in outrage, horror or ennui. Many chefs I know could relive their culinary triumphs by licking the food-splattered pages of their favorite cookbooks. Try doing that with a flat-screen monitor.

This is a great argument for why books are wonderful — the fact that they are objects matters, that they become parts of our lives and can absorb and carry a bit of our past. I kind of like having worn and abused books around (although, don’t get me wrong, I like new ones too). I like having books with a history, mine or somebody else’s. While I try not to buy used books that other people have underlined or written in, if I accidently come across somebody’s comments, I’m curious. If I read a friend’s copy of a book he or she has underlined or written comments in, I try to figure out what was going on in that person’s mind.

I like to think about when I first bought a book and when I first read it, and I like the way the presence of underlining is a sign that I read something, even though I might have forgotten it since. I can recall entire college courses by looking the notes and underlining in some of my books. I like the way some older paperbacks with cracked spines will lie flat, so I can read them at the dinnertable without propping them up. I like seeing a book on the shelf with a bunch of post-it notes sticking up out of the top. I like seeing my Penguin edition of Clarissa on the shelf next to me and noticing the multiple cracks of the spine, the incredibly thick spine, that show I read that book from cover to cover.

Here’s the way the article ends:

To destroy a book because of its content or the identity of its author is a despicable strangulation of thought. But such acts are utterly distinct from the personal abuse of a book — and there is no “slippery slope” between the two. The businessman who tears off and discards the chunk of John Grisham he has already read before boarding a plane may lack finesse, but he is not a Nazi. Indeed, the publishing industry thinks nothing of pulping millions of unsold (or libelous) books each year. And there was no outcry in 2003 when 2.5 million romance novels from the publisher Mills & Boon were buried to form the noise-reducing foundation of a motorway extension in Manchester, England.

It is notable that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best. And surely the dystopia of “Fahrenheit 451” is more likely avoided through the loving abuse of books than through their sterile reverence.

A reader can love books without mistreating them, yes, but for me, it’s a sign of taking them seriously if they look a little used.


Filed under Books

Race report

My first bike race of the season didn’t suck! Woo-hoo! That’s really all I ask.

I ended up finishing the race, which is a big improvement on last year’s first race, and I stayed with the main pack up until the last 2 laps (out of 17 or 18 laps, I’m not sure). At that point somebody decided to sprint off the front, the pack surged forward to catch him, and I couldn’t keep up. I might have stayed with them, but I was on the wheel of a guy who couldn’t keep the pace, and when I went around him to try to catch up, I hit a head wind and couldn’t do it.

But going into the race, I had no idea whatsoever what I’d be able to do. Last year for my first few races, I didn’t finish, or I finished so far off the back of the pack that it hardly counted as a finish. I’ve done a lot more riding this year than last, so I thought I might do better, but I had no real idea how much training the other riders have been doing or who most of the other riders would be.

So I went into it hoping just to hang on as long as I could. When I’d ridden a couple of laps without feeling like I was going to die or throw up, I relaxed a bit and thought I might be able to do okay. After that, I told myself to try to hang on for five more minutes — just five! — and after that I told myself to hang on another five minutes, and another, up until the end (the whole thing was about 40 minutes). At that point, many of the guys in the pack still had energy left to sprint, but I most definitely did not, so I wasn’t surprised they left me behind. And there were a bunch of guys who fell behind much earlier than I did — I don’t like to have that competitive attitude, but — it’s really nice to be faster than at least a few people.

It was a cold day, although not colder than one might expect in early March, low 30s in the morning. But it felt much colder than that when I finished my race and stayed to cheer on the Hobgoblin and other teammates. Clouds blew in and covered the sun and the wind picked up, and I stood there shivering, wearing the Hobgoblin’s jacket, wishing it were spring. I like watching bike races, but I’ll like it more when it’s warm.

Oooh — one of my teammates just sent me an email telling me I rode a good race today!  My teammates are awesome.


Filed under Cycling

More of the wisdom of Johnson

I can’t let the week end, I think, without giving you some more of the wisdom of Johnson (I warned you a while ago you’d be reading a lot of him, if you stuck around here …). I’ve noticed just how often the subject of melancholy comes up in The Life; Johnson struggled with it frequently and wrote often about how to deal with it. Here is what he writes in a letter to Boswell after Boswell has complained that “his mind has been somewhat dark this summer”:

I am returned from the annual ramble into the middle counties … I was glad to go abroad, and, perhaps, glad to come home; which is, in other words, I was, I am afraid, weary of being at home, and weary of being abroad. Is not this the state of life? But, if we confess this weariness, let us not lament it; for all the wise and all the good say, that we may cure it.

For the black fumes which rise in your mind, I can prescribe nothing but that you disperse them by honest business or innocent pleasure, and by reading, sometimes easy and sometimes serious. Change of place is useful…

I know the feeling of being weary at home and weary abroad, and going back and forth and back and forth — or of being weary of busyness and weary of leisure (my school year and my summer) and going back and forth and back and forth — but what else is there to do but go back and forth and back and forth and be grateful that a change comes around every once in a while? When I think of my own state of mind, I realize that the thing I’m afraid of is not change so much as things staying always the same. It’s good to have a regular change of place or change of pace to look forward to. It’s keeping in mind that change will soon happen and therefore I ought to be content with what I have now that’s hard.

There is also this passage, a little further on:

Talking of constitutional melancholy, he observed, “A man so afflicted, Sir, must divert distressing thoughts, and not combat with them.” Boswell. “May not he think them down, Sir?” Johnson. “No, Sir. To attempt to think them down is madness. He should have a lamp constantly burning in his bed chamber during the night, and if wakefully disturbed, take a book, and read, and compose himself to rest. To have the management of the mind is a great art, and it maybe attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise.” Boswell. “Should not he provide amusements for himself? Would it not, for instance, be right for him to take a course of chymistry?” Johnson. “Let him take a course of chymistry, or a course of rope-dancing, or a course of any thing to which he is inclined at the time. Let him contrive to have as many retreats for his mind as he can, as many things to which it can fly from itself.”

Now for serious depression, I don’t think this advice would do a lot of good, but it strikes me as quite right for milder cases of melancholy — it seems to me impossible to “think down” sad thoughts, but diversion more often does the trick. Johnson and Boswell talk about diversions of mind — new things to read and study — and those are wonderful, but if I want to fly from my own mind, there’s little better than doing something with my body, a walk or a ride, maybe. The worst thing is to sit there and stew.

And here’s a small touch of Boswell’s humor:

On Wednesday, April 3, in the morning I found him very busy putting his books in order, and as they were generally very old ones, clouds of dust were flying around him. He had on a pair of large gloves such as hedgers use. His present appearance put me in mind of my uncle, Dr. Boswell’s description of him, “A robust genius, born to grapple with whole libraries.”


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Don Quixote group reading?

7075756.gifThere have been rumors going around the book blog world about getting a Don Quixote reading group together sometime this summer.  I’d like to read the book during the summer months, say, from May to August.  So — who’d like to join me?  Shall we set up a group blog?  Blogger or WordPress?  What shall we call it?  I’m no good at thinking up clever names, so somebody else will have to help me.

Would you like to set up a reading schedule or simply set up the group blog and have people post on their reading experiences as they go along?

What translation will you read?  I, for one, am going to choose the new Edith Grossman translation.


Filed under Books

Reading report

It’s that time of the semester again — the time when I begin to get a little busier and have less time for reading. Which means I begin to get anxious and to count the weeks until summer (eight weeks of class, with a spring break thrown in there and then finals week). I’m feeling like I haven’t finished a book in forever, a feeling I don’t like at all. Actually, it’s been a little less than two weeks since I finished a book, which, since I’ve got five going now, isn’t too bad, I suppose, but which still feels like a long time.

I wish I didn’t feel this way — what’s so important about finishing a book if I’m happy reading the ones I’ve got? And I am happy reading them. But I still begin to get anxious. This is the only drawback with reading multiple books at once, I’ve found. Since I don’t like to abandon any book for too long, I find myself switching back and forth amongst all my books very frequently, which means I don’t spend much time with each one, which means it takes me forever to finish what I’ve got.

Part of this feeling comes from the fact that I’m in the middle of two really big books, the Johnson bio and Proust. I’m enjoying them both — so why am I anxious to finish them? I’m also reading a book of poems, Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, which I’m liking a lot and will post on later, but I’m wishing I could get to this one more frequently. It’s the one I neglect most often, just because reading poetry takes just enough more effort that when I’m tired I won’t do it. I’m still working on The Best American Essays 2006, determined to finish the thing — and I’m finding some good essays mixed in with the mediocre ones.

And I’m also in the middle of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I’m not sure what I think about it. At times I find myself a bit bored (which doesn’t help the anxious feeling that I need to finish it); some parts make me wonder if they are really necessary — if they add to the plot or to the ideas. The first-person voice is funny at times, moving at times, irritating at others. More on this book later.

Finally, a meme from Booking Through Thursday:

  1. How many books would you say you read in an average month? These days, 5 or 6. But this month I finished 3, only one of which I began in February, and one of which I began last November (a Proust volume).
  2. In a year? Last year it was 56.
  3. Over the last five years? I have no idea. I didn’t keep records in 2005, but at some point last year I tried to remember and recall only 31. Before that, I have no record at all. But this was the time in which I wrote my dissertation (yes, it took five years, from beginning the proposal to finishing it), and my reading-for-pleasure time was limited. I did a lot of article-reading and academic book-skimming though.
  4. The last 10? No clue here either. But this covers the time I wrote my dissertation and the time I did my graduate coursework, so I know I read a decent number of books for classes. I didn’t read for fun while taking literature classes because I didn’t have time; once I finished these, I began reading for fun again and haven’t stopped since. But “reading for fun” isn’t so clearly opposed to reading for class — I took an awful lot of novel classes and so it didn’t always feel like work.


Filed under Books