Monthly Archives: November 2007

A Wheel Within a Wheel

willard.jpg I am enjoying Frances Willard’s book A Wheel Within a Wheel so much, I’ve decided I’m going to post on it regularly, although it may mean I end up quoting much of the book, as it’s so short. But it has so many gems, I can’t resist. It’s something I could easily finish in an evening, but I don’t want to rush it, and this way I can report on the details better.

One of the things I like best about the book is Willard’s combination of moralizing and rebelliousness. It’s such an odd combination in a way — she seems both conservative and progressive — but when you think about her time period, it makes perfect sense. She’s a “proper lady” in some ways, taking every opportunity to find a moral or a lesson in whatever she is writing about. But she’s also known for trying to shake up the status quo in her roles as a suffragette and as the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And learning how to ride a bicycle at the age of 53 in her day and age is an act of defiance in and of itself. So she sounds both old-fashioned and very modern, and it’s a combination I find amusing at times, and very appealing.

Here is a taste of her style; in a paragraph enclosed in parentheses, she gives this advice about learning to ride:

Just here let me interpolate: Learn on a low machine, but “fly high” when once you have mastered it, as you have much more power over the wheels and can get up better speed with a less expenditure of force when you are above the instrument than when you are at the back of it. And remember this is as true of the world as of the wheel.

She strikes me as someone who would know just how to expend the most force, both on the bicycle and in the world. She is not someone I would want to contradict; when she tells her friends she wants to learn to ride, initially no one approved, but:

they posed no objection when they saw my will was firmly set to do this thing; on the contrary, they put me in the way of carrying out my purpose …

It does not surprise me that her friends would capitulate quickly. She does show a vulnerable side, however, which she reveals in this passage, a passage that also shows her quickness to turn her cycling lessons into lessons about life:

That which caused the many failures I had in learning the bicycle has caused me failures in life; namely, a certain fearful looking for of judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt — at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it.

But I’ll leave you with the most delightful passage, which comes when she hears the bicycle speak to her, in “softly flowing vocables.” Here is what her bicycle says (a long passage, but worth quoting — don’t miss the last paragraph):

Behold, I do not fail you; I am not a skittish beastie, but a sober, well-conducted roadster. I did not ask you to mount or drive, but since you have done so you must now learn the laws of balance and exploitation. I did not invent these laws, but I have been built conformably to them, and you must suit yourself to the unchanging regulations of gravity, general and specific, as illustrated in me. Strange as the paradox may seem, you will do this best by not trying to do it at all. You must make up what you are pleased to call your mind — make it up speedily, or you will be cast in yonder mud-puddle, and no blame to me and no thanks to yourself. Two things must occupy your thinking powers to the exclusion of every other thing: first, the goal; and, second, the momentum requisite to reach it. Do not look down like an imbecile upon the steering-wheel in front of you — that would be about as wise as for a nauseated voyager to keep his optical instruments fixed upon the rolling waves. It is the curse of life that nearly everyone looks down. But the microscope will never set you free; you must glue your eyes to the telescope for ever and a day. Look up and off and on and out; get forehead and foot into line, the latter acting as a rhythmic spur in the flanks of your equilibriated equine; so shall you win, and that right speedily.

It was divinely said that the kingdom of God is within you. Some make a mysticism of this declaration, but it is hard common sense; for the lesson you will learn from me is this: every kingdom over which we reign must be first formed within us on what the psychic people call the “astral plane,” but what I as a bicycle look upon as the common parade-ground of individual thought.

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Filed under Books, Cycling, Nonfiction

Letters from a Stoic

1127397.gif I have now finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and found it a bracing read; he has so many fascinating, challenging things to say about what it means to live well and how to find happiness. I enjoyed it partly, I think, because I have stoical tendencies myself; I tend to be a patient, long-suffering person, one who keeps emotion under wraps and is pretty good at accepting what comes my way. Or at least, I project that image out into the world — what I’m feeling on the inside is sometimes something different.

But stoicism is more than keeping a tight rein on emotion. It’s also about working to bring our lives in line with natural principles, so that we’re living simply and rationally, not desiring those things that harm us and instead learning how to live contentedly with whatever happens. It’s about learning to accept death and suffering and to keep desire from overwhelming us and causing unhappiness. At times Seneca sounds like a Buddhist, urging people to recognize the dangers caused by unchecked desire.

I didn’t always agree with Seneca, however. He has a tendency to devalue the body at the expense of the mind and spirit. He wants people to do the bare minimum to maintain physical health and spend all the rest of their time studying philosophy. He thinks of the body as a separate entity from the mind, as a vessel there merely to keep the mind going. It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t particularly like this, as I believe the mind and body have an extraordinarily complex relationship and that devoting time to taking care of the body can contribute to happiness just as studying philosophy can. I also don’t like the way Seneca elevates philosophy above every other discipline; he has a letter in which he compares philosophy to literary criticism, and philosophy comes out way ahead. He makes literary studies seem like a frivolous waste of time compared to the depth and weight of philosophy.

In spite of some disagreements, however, I found much to admire. Here is one passage I particularly liked:

For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui; the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure. Truth will never pall on someone who explores the world of nature, wearied as a person will be by the spurious things. Moreover, even if death is on the way with a summons for him, though it come all too early, though it cut him off in the prime of life, he has experienced every reward that the very longest life can offer, having gained extensive knowledge of the world we live in, having learnt that time adds nothing to the finer things in life. Whereas any life must needs seem short to people who measure it in terms of pleasures which through their empty nature are incapable of completeness.

What we need is not a long life, although a long life can be good, but instead an ability to live fully. If we can live fully, any amount of time we have on earth is enough.

And here’s another fine passage:

… no new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past. Besides, a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking. “But surely you are going to walk in your predecessors’ footsteps?” Yes, indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth lies open to everyone. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.

There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in this book — I like the idea that there “truth lies open to everyone” — and a lot to quarrel with too. Both of these qualities make this a satisfying book to read.

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A Reading Meme!

From Dewey, via Charlotte.

1. Do you remember learning to read? How old were you? I don’t remember learning to read, although I know I learned when I was in kindergarten. My father tells a story about how as far as anyone knew I didn’t know how to read, until all the sudden I came home from school one day, pulled out a book, and began reading. I don’t really remember this though.

2. What do you find most challenging to read? Philosophy and literary theory. I enjoy reading in these categories now and then, but it can be hard work (at least with certain authors). It’s a good kind of challenge, though. A bad kind of challenging read, something I’m no good at? Reading directions. I never read directions; instead I just jump in and try to figure out on my own what I’m supposed to do.

3. What are your library habits? I visit the library regularly for audiobooks, and sometimes when I’m there I’ll check out a book, although I don’t do this regularly. When I check books out, they are usually very recent fiction that’s not out in paperback, and that I’m not sure I want to buy.  Right now I have the 2007 Best American Essays checked out.

4. Have your library habits changed since you were younger? I used to check books out of the library regularly, when I was a kid and didn’t have much money. When I was really young, there was a library within walking distance from home, and I visited it a lot and have fond memories of the place. Then we moved and had to drive to get to a library. Now, I can walk there once again, which is a lovely thing. I should visit more often.

5. How has blogging changed your reading life? Blogging has changed my reading life in tons of ways; I’ve written several long posts about this subject. Briefly, I now read more than one book at a time, I have a long and constantly growing TBR list, which I didn’t used to have, I now read authors I’d never heard of before blogging, and I depend on newspaper book reviews much less. Most of the recommendations I get come from bloggers.

6. What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand book stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other? This has recently changed. I used to get most of my books from new and used book stores, but now, within the last year or so, more and more of my books come from Book Mooch. In fact, most of my books these days come from Book Mooch. I also get a fair percentage from online stores.

7. How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book? I almost always blog about what I read. It’s rare for me not to mention what I’m reading at the very least, and usually I will write a review, with varying degrees of thoroughness and formality. When I don’t mention something, it’s usually poetry, and usually poetry from an anthology — in other words, it’s not a separate book, but a poem here or a poem there.

8. What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books? I don’t mind so much how people treat the physical object (although when people fold paperbacks almost in half to read them, I’m not particularly pleased), but I do get bothered when people dismiss books based on stereotypes — i.e., it’s women’s fiction and so I’m not interested, or genre fiction isn’t as well-written as literary fiction, etc.

9. Do you ever read for pleasure at work? No. As a teacher, I’m required to be on campus for class, office hours, meetings (tons of meetings!), and special events; otherwise, I work at home. This means whenever I’m at work, I’m always working — there’s very little downtime.

10. When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them? I like to give books only to people I know well, people whose reading tastes I’m familiar with. Otherwise, I’d rather give something else, because I don’t want to get it wrong, and give a book that won’t get read. Buying books as gifts is great, but it can be stressful too, because buying someone a book makes a statement about what you think their tastes are. It’s possible to get it quite wrong.

Please, anyone who is interested — give this meme a try!

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A Book about Bikes

16785279.jpg I received a very nice surprise in my mailbox today. I came home to find an envelope that looked like it held a book, so I figured it was my latest Book Mooch request, but when I looked at the envelope more closely, I saw that it was from Stefanie. It turns out she and her husband had an extra copy of Frances Willard’s book A Wheel Within a Wheel and decided to send it along to me. Aren’t they the coolest?

I’m so pleased with my new book. I love the picture on the front cover, and I rather desperately want it turned into a poster so I can hang it in my study or my office (or both). The book was originally published in 1895 and was reprinted in the 1990s by Applewood Books. It’s a very short book, about 80 pages, and it tells the story of how Willard learned to ride a bike when she was 53 years old. Willard, the back of my book tells me, was the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was a well-known suffragette. The back cover offers this quotation from the book about Willard’s cycling costume:

[It] consisted of a skirt and blouse of tweed, with belt, rolling collar, and loose cravat, the skirt three inches from the ground; a round straw hat, and walking-shoes with gaiters. It was a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception.

I’m suspecting she might be horrified by what people wear on their bike rides today. Or perhaps not — I should read the book before I guess what her reaction would be to today’s not-at-all modest cycling outfits.

I’ve read only the first two pages, but already I’ve fallen in love with the book. I can’t resist quoting from the beginning:

… Born with an inveterate opposition to staying in the house, I very early learned to use a carpenter’s kit and a gardener’s tools, and followed in my mimic way the occupations of the poulterer and the farmer, working my little field with a wooden plow of my own making, and felling saplings with an ax rigged up from the old iron of the wagon-shop. Living in the country, far from the artificial restraints and conventions by which most girls are hedged from the activities that would develop a good physique, and endowed with the companionship of a mother who let me have my own sweet will, I “ran wild” until my sixteenth birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels; my hair was clubbed up with pins, and I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taking from its pleasant pasture, “Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.”

How tragic! Oh, I sympathize completely, even though I never experienced such a thing — I know I would have hated it. High heels and corsets! Terrible.

My work then changed from my beloved and breezy outdoor world to the indoor realm of study, teaching, writing, speaking, and went on almost without a break or pain until my fifty-third year, when the loss of my mother accentuated the strain of this long period in which mental and physical life were out of balance, and I fell into a mild form of what is called nerve-wear by the patient and nervous prostration by the lookers-on. Thus ruthlessly thrown out of the usual lines of reaction on my environment, and sighing for new worlds to conquer, I determined that I would learn the bicycle.

“Sighing for new worlds to conquer,” getting mental and physical life into balance, the bicycle as anti-depressant — you can see, can’t you, that I will love this book?

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Book Thoughts

Boy, sometimes Monday hits you hard! I’m feeling rather shell-shocked right now. This is the busiest part of the semester for me, with tons of paper drafts I need to read and comment on and classes to prepare for and meetings to attend and little annoying tasks that come out of nowhere and take forever to accomplish. Plus I want to ride and blog and read, and do all the usual stuff. And I really hate being busy. I don’t thrive on being busy, as some people (amazingly) do.

Anyway, that explanation accounts for my rambling thoughts this evening. So, I’ve begun listening to P.D. James’s The Murder Room, and, oh, what fun it is! Perhaps I should make a habit of listening to mysteries in the car … for some reason mysteries go well with being all on my own in the small space of a car. So far, and I’m not very far into the book, James’s writing is wonderful — smart, literate, entertaining. And there’s something about hearing an actual voice narrating the story that works so well; the reader’s voice is quiet and intimate and also a bit somber, as befits a murder mystery novel. I understand the main character, Adam Dalgliesh, is also in some other of her works, so perhaps I’ll have to seek those out.

I need more light, fun books to read. I’m feeling rather bogged down with Nightwood and The Recess, although I’m almost through with Nightwood, which will free up some time for other things. But, as often happens, the things on my shelves seem too serious. I’m so ambitious when I buy or mooch books, and I forget to think about the times when I’ll need something lighter. Shall I use this as an excuse to go to the bookstore? Or perhaps I can raid Hobgoblin’s shelves for some more mysteries; he’s got lots of Dorothy Sayers’s books and Ellis Peters and at least one Amanda Cross mystery. Perhaps I should throw aside all other reading plans for a while and reading nothing but mysteries until I feel better?

I wish I had another Georgette Heyer novel on hand; that would do quite well too …

My problem is that in the moment when I pick up some difficult book, I’m feeling optimistic and energetic and ambitious. But that feeling rarely lasts during these busy times of the year, and then I feel stuck in the middle of something I don’t have the energy for. If I do this a couple of times, then I’m stuck in the middle of a bunch of things I don’t have energy for. And as I don’t like to set books aside for too long, I generally keep going with what I’m in the middle of. I should just face up to the fact, perhaps, that the slower times of the year are better for ambitious reading, and the busier parts are not, and that’s okay. I don’t have to be reading difficult things all year round after all.

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Talking About Books I Haven’t Read

That’s exactly what I’m going to do in this post, as I haven’t read Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and probably won’t ever. But I did read Jay McInerney’s review of the book from the NYTimes and was intrigued by some of the points it made. While I’m no fan of pretending to have read something one hasn’t (those students in grad school who would dominate the conversation even though they hadn’t done the reading drove me nuts), Bayard makes the larger point that reading is such a complex act that there are many ways of doing it and many ways to relate to a book (see how easily I slip into making pronouncements about Bayard’s book as though I’ve actually read it? Bayard would approve).

There’s skimming, skipping sections, reading about a book, and reading a book and then forgetting about it. McInerney adds the example of the book reviewer who implies that she has read an author’s entire output, when she really has not. And I wonder, while some of these are clearly not reading — reading about a book or implying one has read books when one hasn’t — what about the others? How do you classify skimming or reading everything but the boring parts? War and Peace without the war? Moby Dick without the whaling parts? What about reading and then forgetting? This one interests me most, as it’s the one on this list I do most often (alas). Who has a better grasp of a book, the one who skims or skips and remembers, or the one who has read and completely forgotten? If I’ve completely forgotten a book, should I say I’ve read it? Am I really re-reading if I pick it up again?

Here’s what Bayard says about skimming:

The fertility of this mode of discovery markedly unsettles the difference between reading and nonreading, or even the idea of reading at all. … It appears that most often, at least for the books that are central to our particular culture, our behavior inhabits some intermediate territory, to the point that it becomes difficult to judge whether we have read them or not.

Yes, that makes perfect sense; I love the idea of the intermediate territory between reading and nonreading. Reading is not by any means a clear-cut act. Scanning the words of a book with one’s eyes to comprehend their meaning is both a reductive definition and a complicated one — mere scanning of words doesn’t seem like enough, but what does it mean to comprehend their meaning?

Bayard also writes about the notion of an “inner book”:

The set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it.

Not only is the act of seeing and comprehending words a complicated one, but we also bring a whole host of preconceptions and assumptions to reading that shape our experience of it. We can never escape this background, can never (or rarely) approach a book completely innocently, with no expectations.

While I don’t like the Bayard’s idea that talking about books you haven’t read is a creative act (that puts too much positive spin on it), I am intrigued by his analysis of what it means to read. McInerney ends his review this way:

I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity. On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading.

Perhaps I should read this book after all?

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The Year of Reading Proust

I recently finished Phyllis Rose’s book The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, and I felt ambivalently about it the whole way through. Have you had the experience of enjoying not liking something, or going back and forth about it? I felt that way about this book. I considered quitting after the first couple of chapters, which didn’t work for me, but I stuck with it when the topics Rose was covering became more interesting, and from there on out, I found myself both moving quickly through it with a certain amount of pleasure and thinking the whole time about how mildly annoying the book is.

On the positive side, Rose is a good storyteller, and I liked the way she wrote about herself and her life honestly, sometimes telling things about herself that weren’t flattering. She’s a good personal essayist. She also knows tons of writers and has some good gossip about them; for example, she writes about her long-time friendship with Annie Dillard that’s full of complications and ups and downs. It’s quite fun to hear about, say, a dinner party she held for Salman Rushdie.

However, if you are picking this book up to read about Proust, you will most likely be disappointed. In fact, I don’t think I did this book justice, because I went into it thinking it was one thing and it took me a long time to figure out it’s actually something else. I like reading memoir/essay type books, however, so I adjusted my expectations and found some pleasure in it. In her first chapter, she describes her project of reading Proust in a year, discussing what the experience was like and giving her impressions of the novel. Subsequent chapters begin with a quotation from Proust and then tell a story from Rose’s experiences that relate to the quotation. She integrates brief discussions of Proust into the chapters to flesh out the point she’s making. Her chapters cover such things as her history with television, her passion for collecting, her first marriage, her struggles trying to write a novel, and battles with her neighbors over landscaping. She can frequently be entertaining, especially in the chapters on sex and relationships, and she captures her academic, literary world quite well.

But her descriptions of this world — a world where well-known writers hang out in Key West and Salman Rushdie drops in for dinner parties — annoyed me too, and my annoyance stems from class issues, I think. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by this story of a literary, academic, and social insider, someone who has lots of famous friends and what appears to be an enviable academic and economic position; she taught at Wesleyan for many years and moves back and forth between Connecticut and Florida, and she seems to have plenty of time with which to pursue her writing projects and personal interests. It sounds like a life many would envy. On the other hand, I wondered why I should care about the details of her life, about her struggles with this and that, about her fights with Annie Dillard, about her difficulty writing a novel. It’s not that I only want to read memoirs of people who have led particularly hard lives, but I wondered, sometimes, whether Rose had really done enough to make me care about her. Why devote my time to reading her story? Where, exactly, does the interest for a general reader lie?

I suppose, ultimately, the book felt a little self-indulgent to me. I feel harsh for saying this, and I’m struggling to find the right words to capture my reaction. I think that it’s a very personal reaction — I’m not sure I like Rose and therefore I’m not easily going to like her memoirs. Can you enjoy reading the memoirs of someone you don’t like? I suppose so, but it would take a different kind of writer than Rose.

So, if you are considering reading this book, please don’t take my negativity too seriously; you might like the book much better than I did.

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