Penny Simpson

I don't understand why this woman doesn't have a U.S. publisher.

 In the spring of 2010 I read Indigo's Mermaid in Aleksander Hemon's anthology, Best European Fiction 2010.  It was the best of the lot and though it seemed like the quietest story in the world, I was startled by how suddenly the last sentence humbled me into tears of gratitude.  (I just read it again and the same thing happened). A remarkable tale of forgiveness and kindness, two achingly real people etched "in just a few confident incisions."

From the author's note I learned that Simpson lived in Wales and that she had published one novel and was working on a second.  Jake managed to get me a copy of the novel, The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum and I read it that summer.  Here's part of what I scribbled in the back flap: "Spectacular characters and story, within the amazing frame of Esther's consciousness..."  It had all of the things that I look for in a novel, the meticulously crafted sentences that pull the reader along and illumine the real lives of the characters in a setting and a story that is rich and complete as it surrounds you and carries you away. 

I got a copy of The Deer Wedding not long after it came out and finally got to it a couple of weeks ago -- just as impressive and completely different, although certain themes and approaches crop up again.  I wouldn't want to rank writers of this caliber -- I'll just point out that I've been reading Nabokov and Harrison and Chabon and Butler and Updike this spring and Simpson holds her own.

So then I had to get a copy of her 2003 short story collection Dog Days.  Long out of print, but used copies are easily findable.  Mine showed up on Tuesday and I finished it last night.  Simpson shows an amazing generosity of spirit to her characters, damaged peopled in terrible straits, making lives out of the few fragments they've been given to work with.  For a long time I will be hearing the giggles of Caitlin and her Mam.

She says she's working on the 2nd draft of her next novel.  It can't come soon enough.  And for this one, I hope she can work a deal that will get her wider attention in the States.  Her work deserves it.

 

 


Reading E

Lynn sends me an Unshelved comic that, while it may not entirely reflect my experience of reading on the iPad, sure does resonate.

I read Turkle's book on the iPad and I've started The Information (so far I'm only getting books in which the iPad itself has at least a bit part).

Here's what I like: 

I can write notes of any length (or, at least, I haven't hit a word limit yet).  Since I have to type them (which is easy enough with the wireless keyboard) they're more legible than my handwriting ever is, and I don't have to squeeze them into the margins of the page.  In a print book that is really engaging, this sometimes gets ludicrously messy.  I really like that you can then go to the front and see a list of all of the places that you've underlined or noted and go right to them.

With the case that Marian gave me, I can easily prop it up and read while I'm eating lunch.

I love that you can touch an endnote number and go right to it and come back.

What I don't like: 

Blocking the passage that I want to highlight or attach a note to is very awkward. More than half the time it takes me two or three trys to get it to stick. This interrupts the flow of the reading. Very different from just having a pen in hand to underline or annotate as you go along.

There's no variation in marks.  You can highlight or attach a note, but that's it.  When I'm reading I underline, use check marks and circles and stars and a whole iconography that I've developed over 50 years of reading and writing in books.  I feel bereft. 

I was startled, when I started The Information, at how much I didn't like the fact that it looks exactly like the Turkle book.  It's a different book.  It ought to look and feel different.

 

The technology will get better.  We are so much in the early stages of this.  No doubt a scholar in Alexandria who was used to papyrus scrolls was very frustrated the first time he came across a codex.  This'll never take off, he would've thought.

Still, it's hard for me to imagine that an electronic version could ever be better than the equivalent print book.  It can be different.  It can do different things, and be much better at those things.  Josie loves the electronic version of The Monster at the End of This Book.  But when she goes to that she's playing with a toy, she's not reading a book.  Not for a moment does she think that it's equivalent to reading the book (which she also loves).  They're different experiences.  Both worthwhile, but fundamentally different.

I'm trying to imagine the technology getting to the point where I would prefer the electronic version of a print book.  But unless the "book" does different things, I can't see why I would -- and then it's no longer a "version" of a print book.  It's something else.

I do love that endnote feature, though.


The Klosterman Question

Great.  Just what I need.  Another indispensable writer.

I've been vaguely aware of Chuck Klosterman for some time -- have read, I suppose, the occasional essay or article.  A couple of weeks ago I read a review of Eating the Dinosaur -- it's just come out in paperback.  I was intrigued, but I'm trying to avoid buying new books until the stack next to my chair is whittled down to something slightly shorter than JoBug.

But I underestimated what I needed to bring to read for the flight to Pittsburgh.    By the time I got to Atlanta I was almost through the David Sedaris book that was supposed to last me the entire flight.  So I ducked into a Buckhead Books and scanned the new arrivals rack and there was Eating the Dinosaur.  I guess it was meant to be.

He's funny, but he's not a humorist.  He just has a funny way of looking at the world.  But he looks very deeply and uses his writing to try to figure out what he's seeing.  Why do interviews work?  Why does the notion of time travel make him feel so uncomfortable?   What does the Kurt Cobain's response to his rock stardom tell us about rock stardom in general?  What does Cobain's sanity, or lack thereof, tell us about our own?

In the essay about time travel he says,

Here's a question I like to ask people when I'm 5/8 drunk:  Let's say you had the ability to make a very brief phone call into your own past.  You are (somehow) given the opportunity to phone yourself as a teenager; in short, you will be able to communicate with the fifteen year old version of you.  However, you will only get to talk to your former self for fifteen seconds.

Coincidentally, I've been thinking a lot about my mid-teen years lately. 

Implicit in the question is the notion that you'd use those 15 seconds to somehow correct something based on the knowledge you now have.  Klosterman says the results tend to split between gender lines -- women "advise themselves not to do something they now regret..., while men almost always instruct themselves to do something they failed to attempt..."

I can't think of a thing.

It's certainly not that I don't have regrets.  The piles grow daily, I'm afraid.  There's the big ones -- I deeply regret the pain that I caused my first wife when I decided to leave that marriage.  Despite knowing that it was the right thing to do, I'll never get over it.  

And there are thousands of little regrets.  In Toronto a couple of years ago, I ended up at The Rex one afternoon.  It was a benefit show for an Asperger's foundation, and a young man with Asperger's spoke briefly about how important the organization was to him.   He spoke movingly and as he walked past me I placed my hand on his shoulder in what I intended to be a gesture of support.  He didn't flinch, but it was an incredibly dumb thing of me to do and my face gets warm whenever that memory floats by -- which it does uncomfortably often.

And why didn't I help those two young women struggling to pull their cart full of office supplies up the curb as I was headed out to lunch this afternoon?

But what could I tell that fifteen year old self that would, ultimately, have improved my life or enabled me to cause less pain to those around me?  I can't think of a thing.

Klosterman pushes you like that.  And I know he's going to talk me into buying more records.


Deep Reading Dylan

The alarm woke me from a dream where I was playing at an outdoor festival.  I was sitting in with a couple of people that I didn't know well.  It was just past dusk, and the stage lights were coming on.  Naturally, I was strumming a Dylan song.  ("Tangled Up In Blue," in fact, which I haven't played in quite awhile.)

No doubt this comes from having finished Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin last night.  I'd started it on the plane back from Honolulu and have been reading a bit every evening since.  I had a great time, but I have to think that the audience for it is pretty limited.  And that it is likely one of those books that far more people acquired than actually read.

No matter.  Ricks was clearly writing for the love of it, and it's a tour-de-force of close reading.  He uses the trope of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Heavenly Graces as an organizing principle.   But his interest is not so much what Dylan has to say about each of these, but to examine, in detail, how he achieves the poetic effects he does, particularly with his use of rhyme.  Ricks loves the mysteries of rhyme.

He sees things that I never would have noticed -- how, for example, the mix of masculine and feminine rhymes in a song can intensify the impact, and how different that impact would be if the mix were different.  Or, in noting the difference between a poem (meant to be read from the page), and a song (meant to be heard), how the singer's drawing a syllable across several beats can create an entirely different effect from what the words on the page alone would achieve.

Ricks takes pains throughout the book to make it clear that he is not suggesting that Dylan was consciously creating these effects -- at least not always.   Right at the beginning he addresses the question of intention:

...I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious.  Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual.  So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn't.

Ricks reveals himself to be a fine artist as well, dancing across the service of Dylan's lyrics with a light touch, throwing out a bouquet of allusions, puns, and startling correspondences with T.S. Eliot, Keats, and, of course, the Bible.  He liberally quotes the critic William Empson, the novelist Samuel Butler, and the dyspeptic poet Philip Larkin.

In the 40 years that separate his first book, Milton's Grand Style, from Dylan's Visions of Sin, Ricks has established himself as one of the premier British literary critics of the second half of the 20th century (and into the 21st, as he is still going strong, having just recently finished a term as Oxford's Professor of Poetry).   But here, he writes as a fan -- a fan who just happens to know more about the ways that poetry actually works than just about anybody else who might be inclined to try to write about Dylan. 

So what's the point of reading a book like that?  Did I come away from it with an enhanced appreciation for Dylan's prosody?  Will it increase my appreciation for his songs?  Probably not, actually.  It'll make me listen a little differently, I suppose.  Mostly, it was just great fun.


A Pile of Books

It was introvert heaven.  Lynn left around noon the day after Christmas to take her dad back to Little Rock and to spend a few days sorting through more of her mom's stuff.  Marian and Josie had come over to say goodbye, but they left shortly thereafter.  From then until Tuesday evening, when Lynn got home, I had no obligations, nobody that I had to see, no place that I had to go, nobody that I had to talk to.

There was the daily email to take care of, but with a lot of people taking vacation, that was pretty light.  I fixed myself some nice meals, watched movies in the evening, played guitar for an hour or so everyday.  Mostly, I read.

I had been working my way through Just Enough Leibling, so I was able to finish that the day after Lynn left.  I'd bought it several years ago, based on the reviews it received when it came out.  I suppose I'd been vaguely familiar with the name, a guy who wrote long pieces for the New Yorker during that magazine's early heyday, but I don't think I'd read any of his stuff.  The review convinced me that I ought to, but then, of course, it sat on the shelf for a few years.  It was worth waiting for.  His tales of the characters in the streets of New York are great fun, and his exaggerated sentences, perfectly pitched to the extravagances of his subjects are a delight, but I was most moved by his reporting from World War II.   Here, his sentences are spare and almost flat as he describes the most dramatic and searing episodes.  The restraint makes it all the more moving.  The Library of America has just come out with a collected Leibling that is now on my shelf and I look forward to getting to that one day.

On the stand next to the chair in my study is a stack of books that have come in via the Booksmith's Signed First Editions club, so I looked through that next.  This year's free thirteenth was Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas.  Seemed like appropriate timing, so I picked that one up next.  It's the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol and, in the process, helped to establish many of the traditions that we now associate with Christmas.  I was very impressed with it -- it's fairly brief, but the writing is excellent and Standiford has done great research.  Down here in the Bible Belt, where the recent announcement that scientists have determined that the Christmas Star probably shone in June rather than December has been received with great consternation in some quarters, it was very amusing to be reminded that up until fairly recent times the major Christian holiday was Easter, and that in certain parts of the colonies it was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas, because the holiday had such a reputation for licentiousness and debauchery.  I wonder what Bill O' would make of that?

By then I was ready to dig into a novel, so I pulled from the stack Ron Rash's Serena, which turns out to be a reworking of the themes of Shakespeare's Macbeth set against a backdrop of the battles between the lumber barons and the conservationists in North Carolina in the 1930s.  Great story, well drawn characters, nicely absorbing.  I was particularly taken with the way that he uses one of the work crews to fill the same role that Shakespeare would give to his clowns -- minor characters who can comment on the main action and fill out the picture.  Impressively believable, given how over-the-top the story actually was.

Next from the stack I went with The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig, which got a good review in the NYT shortly after it arrived from the Booksmith.  There's nothing flashy about this novel, which takes it's starting point from a true story.  During WWII, the eleven members of the starting lineup of a Montana college football team all enlisted and all died (Montana had the second highest casualty rate of any state in the union, just behind New Mexico).   In Doig's version (which does not attempt to retell the actual story), one of the eleven is tapped to be a correspondent for a shadowy government outfit tasked with writing propaganda pieces about the other members of his team.  Of course, one by one, they get killed.  Doig comes close to melodrama on occasion and strains a bit at times with maintaining the central premise of his story, but he pulls it off.  It was particularly moving against the backdrop of our current idiotic war in which so many young men and women with so much to offer are being senselessly sacrificed to no good purpose.

By the time I finished The Eleventh Man, Lynn was back, it was New Year's day and Marian and Josie were here.    I was ready for something light.  I'd given each of them a copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard as stocking stuffers and, unbeknownst to me, Marian had bought a copy for her Mom, so that one came to me.  It had gotten mixed reader reviews -- some people were disappointed that it wasn't more substantial, apparently wanting it to be the eighth volume of the Harry Potter series, so I picked it up without any particular expectations.  I thought it was marvelous.  It took just an hour to read, but all of Rowling's humor and inventiveness are on display.  There's no story in particular, but that's okay.  My favorite part was finding out that the seeds of the enmity between Dumbledore and Lucius Malfoy arise from Dumbledore's refusal to remove a book that Malfoy disapproves of from the Hogworts library.

Having cleared my palate, so to speak, I was ready to dig back into something substantial, and I went for Roberto Bolano's 2666 which Lynn gave me for Christmas.  It's shown up on several Best of...  lists and some of the praise has been quite extravagant.  I'm about midway through and from what I can tell at this point, the extravagance is not misplaced.  It's about 900 pages in total, so now that I'm back at work it's going to take me awhile to get through it.  I'm both eager and hesitant -- I know it's going to get a lot darker before we get to the end.

I won't get another chance to indulge in that depth of reading until at least next summer, I suppose, but that's okay.  By Tuesday morning, when I finally went out to the grocery store, it was the real world that felt strange and I knew I needed to get back to it.  Even introverts have to live outside of themselves.


Jealous

Some years ago, when I was in London speaking at the ASA conference, BtheA gave me a copy of Iain Banks' Raw Spirit as a parting gift.   I read it on the flight back home and was amazed at its casual brilliance.  There seemed to be at least three or four story lines coursing through the book, and Banks moved among them effortlessly.  I learned a lot about whisky, and a lot about Banks, and by the time I got back, I was eager to read more.

Banks alternates between mainstream fiction and science fiction (twelve of the former and ten of the latter, so far).  In the months after reading Raw Spirit I read three of the mainstream novels and two of the science fiction and finished each one being more impressed than ever.  The easy facility with sentences is always evident, along with an astonishing imagination, great characterizations and fascinating plots.  He likes to put twists into the endings and I've always been nicely surprised by how he brings each book to a close in a completely satisfying way.   Regardless of the genre he's working in, his underlying concerns are always ethical -- what are one's obligations to others and to oneself, how does one deal with the challenges of love and responsibility.  His novels often contain scenes of terrible violence and injustice, but he is one of the most humane authors I've ever read.

After reading those five books, I moved on to other things, so when I was packing for Scotland, I grabbed the remaining unread sf novel that I had on a shelf and tossed it into the suitcase to read on the flight home.  Then, when we stopped into Whiting's on our last day in Peebles to pick up a jigsaw puzzle for Josie, I bought two more of the mainstream novels.  I finished one of those on the plane, then started the sf novel I'd brought with me.  I finished that one yesterday and started the other mainstream novel.  Each one is remarkably different and completely engaging.

I may take a break from Banks again after I finish this one, but there's a strong temptation to just keep going.   Given the rate at which he churns these out, I might never catch up!



It's Not About Food

In How To Cook A Wolf, MFK Fisher says that she'll be happy to be invited over to your house for dinner "so long as you are self-possessed..., your mind is your own and your heart is another's and therefore in the right place."

It's the kind of perfectly balanced, tart and quick line that shows up on at least every page of every one of her books.  I was telling someone at the Booksmith awhile back, when I picked up another couple of volumes, that although I had been aware of Fisher for years, it was only in the last year or so that I'd started to read her myself, and I was irritated and impatient at discovering what I had missed. 

"It's a great shame," I said,  "that's she's characterized as a food writer, because that's likely to put off some people from reading her.  Food is her central metaphor, but what she writes about is love and relationships and the struggle to be that very self-possessed person that is her ideal.  And she does it with some of the most glistening prose that an American writer ever put to paper."

The version of How To Cook A Wolf that I just finished is the revised edition and one of its particular delights is that Fisher extensively annotated the original volume (published in 1942) nine years later, and those glosses are interpolated throughout the text.  She expands sections, chastises herself for earlier foolishnesses, changes her mind and quarrels with herself, goes off on tangents.  It's great fun.  She is a remarkably unselfconscious writer. 

I've no idea how hard making the craft work was for her or how much revision she ended up doing, but the effect is certainly of someone tossing off brilliant sentence after brilliant sentence as if they've just come into her head.  She never panders to her audience.  Indeed, you get the impression that she doesn't give a damn if anybody reads the stuff at all.  Her first audience is herself, and if she can please that tremendously demanding one, then it's fine if anybody else wants to read along...  or not.

I'm happy to say that her reprint publisher (North Point Press) seems to get it.  The bio blurb on the back cover says, simply, "MFK Fisher (1908-1992) is the author of numerous books of essays and reminiscences, many of which have become American classics."

The blurb that most impressed me, however, is on the back of The Gastronomical Me.  "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose."  The author of that line is W.H. Auden -- who knew a thing or two about how to put down words, one after another, without wasting anything.

I suppose that part of the reason I take such delight in a writer like Fisher is that we are surrounded by so much flabby prose.  Blogs, by their very nature, are generally terrible, of course -- they're intended to convey ideas quickly and few bloggers pay much attention to the construction and balance of their sentences (at least I hope that's the case, given the results).  But most published prose suffers from the general decline in good editing.  Along with everything else in our hyperculture, writers write too fast, too eager to get their ideas expressed, than to be bothered with making the prose as tough and sharp as it ought to be.

When I was teaching my intellectual property on the internet seminar some years ago, I would bring to one of the first classes a replica of Thomas Jefferson's favorite pen -- a slender silver tube with a large nib.  I'd send it around the table with a bottle of ink so that each of the students could try it.  I'd hold up the Library of America volume of his collected letters and remind them, "And he wrote all of this -- and so much more -- with that kind of technology."  It would have required taking much more time thinking about each sentence before committing it to paper, given the work involved in revising.

My own blog posts are primarily experiments in sentence construction.   The game has rules.  Thirty minutes (more or less) for the initial draft, and then another thirty or so to cut and shift and push and listen.  Alas, there's not a one that doesn't suffer from the same faults that I complain about in other's.  But every once in awhile, I come up with a sentence or paragraph that marginally pleases me.  That's enough to keep me going after it.



The Permanence of Paper

I suppose that few bibliobloggers will take the time to read William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal.  It's long -- 20,000 words or so, plus bibliography and notes.  But it's one of the most illuminating things that I've read.

Powers' ostensible subject (this is an entry in the Discussion Paper Series of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy) is newspapers, but he spends most of his time discussing the nature of paper itself.  He points out that in all of the chatter about how soon digital media are going to completely eliminate paper, we rarely take the time to consider paper as a technology itself.   "...we don't ask the questions we routinely ask about other technologies: How does it work?  What are its strengths and weaknesses?  Is it easy and enjoyable to use?"

He points out that our experience of reading is, in part, determined by the technology that we are using for that communication, and that paper has certain qualities that are unique to it.  Media are more than just containers -- the experience of reading a paper newspaper and a digital newspaper with the same content are qualitatively different.

Much of the discussion about print books vs. e-books ignores that fact.  There is an assumption that the advantages of digital are such that, once the technology gets just a little better, people won't want to bother with print books anymore.  But Powers reminds us that print has its own advantages and that, in some cases, those advantages are, in fact, superior.  He talks about "supersession" -- what Paul Duguid refers to as "the idea that each new technological type vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors."  But, in fact, this very rarely actually happens.  New technologies create new opportunities; but the older technologies don't disappear, they find different niches.

It's never a case of either/or.  We're still in the very beginning stages of understanding what can be done with digital media.  With e-books, we're still at the stage that Gutenberg was when he tried to make a printed Bible adhere as closely as possible to a manuscript Bible.  Eventually, we will learn to discard those features that paper will always do better and focus on the features that are unique to digital.  "E-books" as a concept will disappear.  We won't think of them as a digital analog to a book -- they'll be something else entirely.

Whenever I hear a technophile going on about how once those readers get just a little better, or once electronic ink is fully perfected, we'll have digital media that will be just as good as paper, I think about my copy of Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan's novel in which each chapter is printed in a different color.  It's a perfect example of the medium being part of the content -- the printed book isn't just a container for the content of the novel -- it is inextricably part of that content.  One might be able to do a wonderful electronic rendition of that novel, but it won't be the same novel.  As we get better at understanding what digital media can do, we'll create amazing things.  And for many of the purposes that we now use print, we'll find those media to be superior.  But we'll always continue to use paper, because for certain purposes, it will always be the best thing.


The end of the story

Lynn and I had to promise Marian that we wouldn't discuss Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows without her.   So when Lynn and I finished our copies early in the afternoon on Sunday, we didn't say much more than to agree that it was very satisfying and an excellent finish to the series.    By Monday afternoon, Marian called to say that she'd be finishing it that evening, so could she and Josie come over for dinner the next night so we could talk.

They were at the house when I got home and Lynn was right behind me.  L & M immediately plunged into business talk (the opening is just two weeks away), while Josie "helped" me get dinner on.  I confess that I was getting a little worried that Marian was forgetting why we were getting together in the first place, but once we all sat down she said, with a big grin on her face, "And now...  Harry Potter!!"

Overall, our responses were generally in line with each other.  There were a couple of puzzles one or the other of us was still a little confused about, and we had to go back to the ending of the previous book to work out the wand thing.  Marian and I had slightly different feelings for the last chapter, but there were no significant differences of opinion.  We were all quite satisfied, a little sad that it was finally over, and looking forward to rereading the whole series again sometime.

In recent weeks, I've seen a couple of essays bemoaning the fact of adults spending time on the Harry Potter novels when, I suppose, we're supposed to be reading more "serious" books.  I don't begrudge anybody's opinion on the matter, but it seems like an awfully narrow view of the pleasures and profit of reading to me. 

A couple of years ago, in advance of my first trip to Ireland, I blocked out a long weekend to reread Joyce's Ulysses (for the 4th time), because I think it's a great fun book and I wanted it to be fresh in my mind when I first walked the streets of Dublin.   In the last couple of months I've read (among other things) the new novels by Chabon & Lethem, The Education of Henry Adams (for the 2nd time) -- arguably the best book to come out of the US in the 20th century, Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous (which I found to be a little too facile & glib, although it has some good points), a couple of De Botton's amazing excursions into literature, philosophy and art, Nitobe's Bushido (on the flight to Tokyo) and, oh yeah, the sixth Harry Potter (for the 2nd time) so that I'd be primed for the new one.  So what does that say about my approach to reading?

What I don't do is make much time to watch television.  It struck me when the Emmy nominations were announced that, except for The Daily Show & Colbert (which we put on when we go to bed at night), I haven't seen a single episode of a single series that's been nominated, and I haven't seen a single one of the various specials or one-shot shows that are up for awards. 

This is not a matter of snobbery.  There's a tremendous amount of really good stuff on TV that I know I would enjoy and it pains me that I don't make the time to see it.    On Friday & Saturday nights, Lynn and I will watch a movie or two, or episodes of the new Dr. Who series on DVD (or, sometimes, Xena or X-Files), but that's a special thing that we do together.  Occasionally, I'll then stay up late and watch DVDs of music performances -- David Gilmour, Dylan, U2, the Old Grey Whistle Test, Tom Petty...  But on any given evening, when I've finally got an hour or two to myself, reading always takes precedence.

Do I bemoan the fact that reading for pleasure seems to be declining among adults?  No, actually.  When I was growing up, I didn't have many peers who read much.  My mother reads all the time, but my dad read hardly ever, and my siblings' habits are all over the place.  The fact that we live in a culture where there is such a vast array of media available to stimulate and entertain is marvelous, and I don't know why reading, in and of itself, should get some sort of pride of place.

I wish that people were more thoughtful about the world than they typically are, that they would challenge received wisdom more, that they would question their own motivations and actions and strive constantly to be better people more than they seem to.  Reading widely has helped me to do that, but so will any activity that exposes one to new ideas and different cultures.  Sticking with the familiar, and seeking out only those opinions and ideas that confirm what one already feels -- that's the dangerous route, no matter what the medium is.


A Book Found Where I Least Expect It

I had an hour to kill at the airport before my flight home from Milwaukee.  The previous morning I had delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Health Science Library Association, an expanded version of the talk I'd given a week earlier at the UKSG meeting in England.  I was pleased with the talk, and enjoyed spending time with the attendees, some of them people that I've known for decades, and some that I was meeting for the first time.  An added treat was that my mother had driven down from Appleton for the weekend, so she and I were able to spend some time together.  She came to see my presentation (the first time she's actually seen me in that role), as well as joining the group for lunch and the evening's banquet and entertainment.

I was feeling satisfied, but deeply weary.  I'd gotten back from London on Thursday evening, put in a full workday on Friday, and then I was back on a plane at 9:00 Saturday morning heading to Wisconsin.  I was prepared for the copyright lecture I'm going to give to a group of medical students this morning, so I wasn't thinking too much about that, but in two weeks I'll be participating with Andrew Booth in a debate in Durham about the value and applicability of Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, and I was planning on working on that during the flight home.

I wandered a bit aimlessly through the small terminal, just to see what was there.  I think I've only been to Mitchell field once or twice before.  It's fairly small, easy to get around.  At first I didn't pay a lot of attention to the bookstore that I saw out of the corner of my eye, assuming it was the standard airport bookstore, stocked with the latest bestsellers and not a whole lot else.   But getting closer I realized it was very different -- a branch of the venerable Renaissance Book Shop, whose main location downtown carries hundreds of thousands of items.

I was amazed when I went in and walked around.   Old wooden shelves, loosely categorized, stacks of books everywhere -- the very typical used bookstore vibe.  Not at all what one expects to come across in an airport.  I've been looking for a copy of Ellman's bio of Joyce for my mom, so I drifted over to the biography section.  No Ellman, but to my complete astonishment there was a copy of the first commercial printing of The Education of Henry Adams.

The book has appeared on a couple of lists as the best nonfiction book of the 20th century and when I first read it half a dozen years ago (in the Modern Library edition that Lynn acquired in college) I thought that judgment was pretty accurate.  He's an extremely funny and erudite writer, with a weary, self-deprecating tone that belies the tremendous insight and analysis he brings to the story of America trying to come to grips with the beginnings of the 20th century.   It is astonishing that a man who died in 1918 should have been able to describe how the century would unfold so accurately.

As with most of his work, Adams was dissatisfied with The Education... and felt that he hadn't really been able to pull it off as he had hoped.  He considered it unfinished and in 1906 had just 100 copies privately printed and distributed to friends and colleagues for comment.    Even so, by the time of his death, it had already become tremendously influential, and the Massachusetts Historical Society brought it out under the Riverside Press imprint of Houghton Mifflin only a few months after he died.  And it was a copy from that 1918 print run that I now held in my hands, standing in a used bookstore at General Mitchell field in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Of course, I bought it.  It's in excellent shape, the pages only very slightly yellowing and not at all fragile.  EBLIP was going to have to wait.  I went to my terminal, found a snack bar, ordered a glass of wine, and began to read.  By the time I got home, I'd finished close to 100 pages, and young Henry was in Rome, still searching for something that might give him education.