Friday, September 24, 2010

When Is a Book Not a Book?

I recently added a badge (to the right) pledging to read the printed word. The controversy over a “real” book as opposed to an e-book shows no signs of ending, with many of us bemoaning the potential loss of books to electronic devices. “A Kindle is not a book!!” the deepest part of me cries.

In a recent post on her wonderful site, Idearella lists some of the reasons she prefers an actual book. Some of our thinking runs along the same lines. She has inspired me to create my own list of just why it matters so much to me that I hold a book rather than a machine. It is a short list, but it is passionate.

1) The Joy of Simply Holding a Book

My earliest happy memories…

It could have been a Little Golden Book of my own or one of my grandfather’s childhood books or a book at the library, but I can vividly remember the sheer thrill I got simply from holding a book in my hands. Beyond the promise of being carried away, for me there is a tactile symphony attached to every book.

The Little Golden Books enthralled me with their bountiful illustrations, stretched across every page. I even memorized the tiny little drawings that decorated the back inside cover of each one. The gold colored foil on the spines cracked in the early days of reading, but gradually softened to open quietly. The pages eventually would not turn as sharply, the edges smoothed by hundreds of turnings. It became familiar, soft, comforting.

The books at my grandparent’s apartment were a mixed bag, some from my grandfather’s turn of the century childhood, some from my aunts, but all hard covers, with scratchy cloth bindings. The illustrations were soft and dreamy, soft focused idealizations of the past. The books were well worn from much handling, but heavy, so I would usually prop them up with a pillow as I read.

There was nothing like new library books. Covered with clear plastic wrappings to protect the pristine new cover from grubby little fingers, these books crackled as you opened them and the crisp pages snapped past as you read. Set aside on a special table, it was always a thrill to see when the table had been replenished and a whole new set of possibilities awaited me. The books on the shelves were less impeccable, having been read more often, but finding one I hadn’t read yet was a special delight. Sliding it out of its spot, carrying it to the circulation desk, opening up the back to the card pocket, every step of the ritual involved touching the book. Each motion had its own feel, familiarity, promise.

2) The Human Connection

Every book itself tells a story…

Whether it has crossed several weeks or many years, every book is distinct in its journey to your hands, it bears its own marks. Before you even open the cover, a book tells a story of where it has been. You can see it and feel it. That is an integral part of the experience for me.

A new book still intimidates me just a tiny bit, although there is definitely something special about being the first person ever to turn those pages. But it is the old books that I truly love. I have so many that I have picked up at second hand bookstores or book fairs. There is the unique scent of aging paper, marks along the way on the covers and the pages that give little clues about who was there before you. Technically, for value, we are never supposed to write in a book. But I am always so touched to find a loving inscription or a firmly possessive name written on the inside cover.

I like to wonder what they thought of the book. Did they enjoy the story, the writing? What about the characters? Did they seem plausible to my long-ago reader? A well worn book gives you the answer when it has obviously been read time and time again. And how has it happened that this once dearly loved possession has slipped away? That answer is part of the circle of life.

I am honored to own books that were once loved by other bookworms, it is a connection that spans decades in some cases and reflects history. I imagine the days surrounding their reading. Someone reading Mrs. Miniver in 1940 didn’t know how the War was going to end. I have a copy of a 1914 English history book full of rude, hilarious cartoons drawn in the margins by bored schoolboys almost 100 years ago. One of my favorite books is a 1935 guide to New York City. When I read it I imagine my beloved grandparents going through their normal routines in that same city in the same year while a tourist would be using the guide to explore places that were so ordinary to them. It is the closest thing we have to time travel.

People belonged to, and loved, these books.

3) Books are Beautiful in Themselves

They are just so pretty…

Millions of dollars are devoted to marketing books. Every detail, the artwork, the wording on the cover, the colors chosen, the font used, are meticulously decided based on aesthetics, with the primary focus being to make that book attractive to you.

Book covers that are illustrated with old photographs or impressionist style artwork always catch my eye and I will gravitate to that book to see if it will interest me further. I have noticed lately a trend toward very decorative covers, a throwback to Victorian days when even the page edges were decorated, either in gold leaf or with a deckled pattern.

The variety of colors and illustrations and print that go into every book is another reason to celebrate simply having an actual book in front of you.

4) Your Books Make a Statement About Who You Are

You are your books…

Anyone walking into my house has no doubt that I am a book lover. I have book shelves or piles of books in every room. They are part of the furniture, literally, and it makes me happy just seeing all those books.

Looking at the titles will tell a further story about me. Most of my books are by English authors. There are many, many mysteries. There are a lot of biographies of people that I admire because they have overcome some adversity or because they are just interesting. You’ll find history books, many about London and New York City, two of my favorite places on earth. I actually collect vintage guide books to both cities, books that tell stories of places that my relatives may have routinely visited, but do not exist anymore except in these pages.

At least half of my books are over 50 years old, but only have value to me. I have original (not first edition), vintage copies of Gone with the Wind, Random Harvest, The Grapes of Wrath, Rebecca, all those magnificent stories of the 1930’s that were made into iconic films.

You will find I like to cook, to bake especially, by seeing my collection of cook books. Before I found out I had MS, my daughter and I had planned to open our own business, a tea room. I still have the dozens of books I referred to in planning our dream. There is a whole shelf of well worn parenting books. And I have an entire collection of all the books I loved most as a child.

From room to room my books tell the story of my life, my interests, my passions. Each book is precious to me as an individual.

A story is a story and it is told through the words. I get that about e-readers. But books are stories within stories within stories, a bonus that could never be replicated by an electronic device sliding the words on a screen in front of me.

Interior of Shakespeare & Co., Paris


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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Giveaway Winner!

The winner of the Giveaway for "Past Caring" is Lee, who can be found at his wonderful Tarheel Ramblings blog.

Congratulations Lee!!

Thanks so much to everyone who stopped by and left a comment!

I will be sponsoring another giveaway in the next few weeks, so keep coming back!!

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

American Shame

The Warmth of Other Suns
Isabel Wilkerson

On August 30, 2010, I read a review in the New York Times that was so effusive, so glowing, I read it twice to make sure it wasn’t some kind of a spoof. But it was real. Janet Maslin had written what I think is the most enthusiastic review I had ever seen in the Times. The book is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isobel Wilkerson, an epic analysis of the migration of Americans of African descent over the 20th century from the South to the North.

Wilkerson is a journalist and, currently, a professor in the Communication Department at Boston University. She won the Pulitzer Prize while working for the Chicago bureau of the New York Times. She was born and raised in Washington, D. C. by parents who had moved north to escape the rigid class restrictions in the South. This is part of what influenced her choice of subject matter.

The title is taken from a Richard Wright poem: "I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom."

Wilkerson spent almost 20 years researching the complicated and heartbreaking history of the black experience in the South and the movement North to find a new way of life. She combines an overview of political and social history with oral narratives from thousands of interviews. The story is ultimately reflected in the lives of three specific individuals who left the South in three different decades, the 1930’s, the 1940’s and the 1950’s.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was a sharecropper in Mississippi whose husband moved them to Chicago in 1937 when a cousin was falsely accused of a ‘crime’ and nearly beaten to death. George Swanson Starling was an ambitious, prickly, smart young man who had to move North but fast. He had tried to improve the conditions for citrus pickers in Florida and discovered that he was a marked man. The growers were organizing to lynch him. This was 1945. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was from a prominent, well educated family in Lousiana, but the color of his skin mattered more than the fact he was a doctor. In 1953 he opted for a new beginning in Los Angeles.

The meticulous history and background Wilkerson describes is harrowing in its pervasive evil. A white American from the North can only imagine what it was like to live every second not knowing if you, a black person living in the pre-civil rights South, would accidentally step wrong. That wrong step could at best get you humiliated and beaten, and, at worst, murdered by a legally sanctioned mob. The petty and major slights and disparities are overwhelming as the author catalogs them: less education; lower pay; separate and substandard facilities and housing; routine, ingrained and systemic degradation. This was not only tolerated by American society, but nurtured.

I was mesmerized by the stories and voices of the three people who are featured as representative of the diaspora. Their humanity and courage is an inspiration even as I felt a deep shame for the conditions they endured. Wilkerson began her research in the 1990’s, when each of these people were already elderly. By the end of the book, as she describes the loss of each one to illness and advanced age, I actually felt bereft and choked up. I had gotten to know and admire them.

The book is not without its issues. It can be repetitive and I would have edited parts differently. But these are small, small concerns. Overall, this is a masterpiece of research and oral history. It scrutinizes the background of Jim Crow and why it lasted so long. It evaluates the geographic distribution of the population and, with contemporary data for support, debunks the myth of the migration creating the “Welfare Culture” of the North.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a must for understanding a crucial part of American history.

More reading:

Another Times review:

About Isabel Wilkerson:

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Monday, September 6, 2010

A Hiccup

Somewhere along the way, an application for comments attached itself to my blog. I didn’t download it, it just appeared and I hated it. It was cumbersome and didn’t e-mail me when a comment was left and I have spent almost a year fighting with them to get it removed. Finally, I had to send the entire HTML code for them to remove it. AND THEY REMOVED ALL THE COMMENTS TOO!!! Which they had assured me wouldn’t happen.

So if you left a comment for the book give away, please leave another? Or e-mail me and tell me you left a comment and I’ll add your name. I am extending the contest by another week, to September 21, for people to catch up. The book I am offering is Past Caring by Robert Goddard, a great saga of mystery, betrayal and love that stretches over seventy years.

Sorry for the complication. Nothing in my life is ever easy. And I hate the people at Echo who caused all this trouble in the first place. Bastids!

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Lost Lakes and Lost Souls

Growing up in New York City was a wonderful experience. When I was old enough to go places on my own, like the library or other neighborhood spots that were further afield, I took full advantage. I explored the blocks around my apartment building, the Aqueduct, the Hall of Fame on the NYU campus and generally had a ball.

But the idea of the country was a unique novelty to me, so stories that focused around rural adventures were especially appealing.

Gone-Away Lake tells about cousins Portia and Julian, who are spending the summer in the country. While exploring, they discover an abandoned Victorian summer colony. The lake the houses were built around disappeared when a local dam was created years before, so the homes were rendered worthless and no one returned. Portia and Julian soon find that the structures are not completely empty however, when they meet an elderly brother and sister who grew up there and have returned to live.

The book was written in 1957, so the long ago past at that time was long ago indeed, the turn of the previous century. I was fascinated by the historical references and the link in the story between the past and the present. My own parents had no interest in anything old or antique, they were firmly planted in contemporary times, which I think made anything old fashioned especially attractive to me. Gone-Away Lake is full of exploits that were extraordinary to a city kid of the 1960’s and I followed Portia and Julian’s summer with envy. I was sorry when it was over.

But luckily for me, there was Return to Gone-Away! This book has more involvement with grown-ups who were on the periphery of the first story. The best part involves the purchase of the grandest home at Gone-Away Lake by Portia’s parents. Discovery after exciting discovery unfolds as the house is explored and renovated. Improbable stuff, but such fun to imagine!


***First, don't miss my Give Away!!! Leave a comment on any post until 9/14/10 and you will be entered to win a copy of Robert Goddard's Past Caring. See my 8/31/10 post for more details about this faboo book!!***

Denise Mina
The Garnethill Series




Maureen O’Donnell is my kind of heroine. Fresh out of the looney bin, she smokes, drinks and sleeps too much. She is emotionally fragile and totally believable as she makes incredibly bad, self destructive decisions, just like I would. She is involved with an emotionally unavailable man. Her family is a lethal concoction of dysfunction: incest, alcoholism, drug dealing. But most of all Maureen is brave, funny and fundamentally virtuous in all the ways that matter.

Unfortunately for Maureen, as if she didn’t have enough to deal with, her married boyfriend is tied to a chair, murdered and mutilated in her flat. The general consensus is that she did it and we hold our breath as she desperately searches for the real killer. Her investigation turns up all kinds of ugly goings on at the psychiatric hospital she left only months before. And as she gets closer to the truth, she gets closer to being in mortal danger herself.

Denise Mina creates a dark, funny, bleak and powerful version of Glasgow and its grittiest residents. Her dialogue is so true to life, it was as though I could hear the characters speaking out loud. And her descriptions showed she is a girl after my own heart. On a friend:

“Unlike Liz, Leslie was great to talk to. Whatever had happened, she unconditionally took her pal’s side, happily bad mouthed the opposition and then never mentioned it again…”

That’s what I like in my friends, don’t you? Who needs mature and self aware?

After her success in Garnethill, Maureen travels to London to solve another mystery in Exile. She makes more really bad judgment calls and endangers not just herself but people she loves. Resolution returns to the plot of Garnethill, where the prosecution of the real murderer has gone horribly wrong.

These stories are completely original and utterly believable. The writing is evocative and heartbreaking and moves the plots forward effortlessly. You know Maureen is going to make a mess of things because of her brutal history, but her heart is so good you understand and forgive her and endlessly root for her.

This is a riveting series.

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