A little post on a little free library

When I was growing up, visits to our local libraries were weekly occurrences. There was a children’s library along my route between home and school and I would stop in often to switch one pile of books for another. I recall calico library bags groaning with treasures. I ended up working at that children’s library and at the main municipal library when I was in high school and found it hard not to check out for myself every book I was checking back in. Since finishing two stints at university in my twenties, I stopped frequenting libraries and I don’t really know why. Time, I suppose, that thing we claim never to have. No time to go, not enough time to read before needing to return your borrowings.

I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but they sure have been closing a lot of libraries in the UK over the last 12 months. It makes me angry, but I also feel guilty that I, like a lot of people, no longer frequent them, despite thinking them very important, for the community as a whole, as well as for accessing books. Maybe if more of us ex-library-goers still visited occasionally, local councils wouldn’t think they could get rid of them.

Not a ‘little library’ but a great one nevertheless. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

One of my blogging-friends this week presented her attempt to build community spirit, promote literacy and foster a love of reading. It’s called the ‘little free library’ and it’s a movement gaining popularity in the States. Participants build a small cupboard of some kind, fill it with books and leave it on their lawn or driveway for anyone and everyone to access. It was the perfect thing for Jeanne, a retired librarian, to do and you can read about, and see, her efforts here. And you should read Jeanne and Curt’s blog—Another Stir of the Spoon—anyway, especially if you like food, books or birds (and who doesn’t?!).

You can find out more about the little library people here. There’s only one in the UK so far, and also one in Australia… one day when I have my own lawn or driveway, I’ll have to add to those numbers.

Two Salingers are Better than One

There are rare but beautiful moments when you know you are experiencing something close to perfection: attending a Wilco concert, eating the butter poached coturnix quail breast at Quay, watching Steve Waugh single-handedly drag Australia through the 1999 Cricket World Cup. And recently I experienced reading perfection: JD Salinger’s Seymour—An Introduction.

It’s a big call, isn’t it? And how on earth does one write about writing perfection when they are so far from that feat themselves? Imperfectly, I suppose. Ramblingly. Perhaps with an edge of pedestrianism. All of those things which are not present in Salinger’s work. It is trickier still because I read the collected novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction over two months ago on a holiday, and so I now have that dreadful experience of being able to tell people that I LOVED a book and that they MUST read it but not being quite as able to explain why nor recall all that much about it. It’s a terrible affliction. It is harder still because I did my usual holiday reading ritual of leaving the book for another wanderer to discover, so I now can’t even refer to it to refresh my still-vacationing mind.

So, to be crass, my qucik precis: In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters we hear the tale of Buddy Glass trying to attend his eldest brother Seymour’s wedding, only to find once he is there that Seymour is missing. Buddy is then subjected to an interminable car ride and then visit with some of the guests of the wedding, including the matron of honour. In Seymour—An Introduction Buddy attempts to in some way memorialise Seymour after his suicide (written about in the most excellent short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish) by telling the reader about his brother. I really liked Carpenters—really and truly—but I love, love, loved Seymour.

And though I am failing to tell you much, what I can tell you is that I was so struck with Seymour in particular that I copied sentences and paragraphs out of it into my journal, and that when I surrendered my book to a hotel room in Mykonos in the Greek Islands I wrote a little note to the finder of the book wishing them the same reading experience as myself. These are not things I usually do. I do not usually bother to dog-ear multiple pages, nor copy down quotes from a book I am reading (not unless I’m expected to write an essay on it) but Seymour threw me for a loop. It meanders marvellously as Buddy thinks things through, but is actually a deftly-constructed story that is both high brow and highly sensitive (and also humourous). It only intensified my already firm love for the Glass family.

This is one of those occasions where I’m asking for a little trust, dear readers. At some stage in the future we many try to ‘unpack’ (that awful sociological verb) the reasons why when I have had three months off work and plenty of time on my hands that I have barely kept up with my blogging. In the meantime, please forgive my lack of detail and discussion of these two novellas from JD Salinger and simply take my word for it that they will be a reading experience you will treasure.

W, X, Y and Z were Left on the Wayside

Time for a new year confession. And, no, there’s no juicy gossip about the stupid things I may or may not have done in 2010—let’s just say I’m having a rest from online dating, and leave it at that.

I wanted to simply acknowledge those books that were stoically standing in line all year and didn’t get a gurnsey. Not through any fault of their own, all through the fault of my crazy hectic existence. What can you do? Well, sigh big sighs and cry yourself  to sleep, or wipe off the dust of 2010 from your palms, flash a smile and give 2011 a big ol’ hug. I choose the latter. But for those curious readers, here are the books which were my intendeds.

W was for Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. A foray into graphic novels I’ve been looking forward to. Though I imagine the post may have been a discussion about how I find this form of book hard to read. I have not seen the film yet, having tried to save it for after I’ve read the novel.

X was for Xmas and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If all had gone to plan I would have been posting on this in early December. Lucky we had The Twelve Days of Christmas to add some festive cheer. A year without Dickens is a sad thing. I may have to read at least two in 2011 to make up for it.

Y was for Yella. As in, ‘What are you, yella?’. Plus Elmore Leonard’s Hombre has a yellow cover. Call it a stretch if you like but I had been planning a weekend-reading of this classic western novel, immediately followed by a viewing of the classic western film starring Paul Newman. Possibly while drinking whiskey and eating some chilli made with a Paul Newman sauce.

Z was for Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game. Barcelona gothic. I really enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind. An indulgence of emotion and bookish things, all with a background of the paved streets of that beautiful city.

All these books will stay in the pile (there’s an approaching purge for reasons which will soon be explained) and will no doubt appear on this blog soon. Listing them has whetted my appetite for them all (particularly that Hombre scenario, I want to do that immediately). But first I’m continuing to shake off some 2010 dust. In a few days’ time I will be ready to wholeheartedly embrace the new year before us.

V is for Virtual Reality

Sometimes I finally get around to doing one of those things I’ve been meaning to do and end up disappointed. Perhaps the anticipation outweighs the pleasure of completing the task. Perhaps it was never a good idea to begin with. Being a dedicated, loyal type of person doesn’t help.  Something I agreed to months earlier, or decided was a new interest, has—as a notion—passed its natural expiry date but I am loath to let it go due to my previous commitment and/or original enthusiasm. When it turns out well I congratulate myself on going through with the activity; when it doesn’t I wish I’d kept it as merely a happy thought in my head.

Earlier in the year my book group read Neuromancer by William Gibson. Touted as the seminal cyberpunk novel, the best science fiction novel, the book that invented the internet etc. we thought we’d give it a whirl. After all, there were Dr Who fans among us, we could read science fiction and love it. Plus a few of us had been meaning to read it for, oh, a decade or so. As I traipsed off to my independent genre bookshop, I was feeling all uber-geeky and techno-cool at the thought of crossing this ‘intended task’ off my list. But in the end I felt a little deflated. The techo-cool became techno-tepid.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept—the ideas—are fantastic. Even 27 years after the book was published. They’re probably not as ‘unique’ as they were back in the early eighties, but then, as you read it you see that Neuromancer was most likely where a whole lot of writers and filmmakers got their inspiration. So I appreciated it from that point of view. I liked its dystopic, grungy, metallic feel. And, in a small way, I liked that I was getting around to reading it. But liking a concept and being able to tick it off your list are different things to making a connection with a book.

This could be one of those times when my reading and comprehension abilities let me down, but honestly, if I hadn’t seen The Matrix trilogy I would have had a hard time visualising (and somewhat following) what was going on in cyberspace. Maybe if you spent your adolescent years pulling  apart motherboards it would all make sense, but I struggled at times to have a clear idea of ‘what was going on’ when protagonist Case was in the system, and to move on in the novel I just had to continue blindly and assume my brain would pick things up again when it could. Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re after some literary leaps of faith, but potentially frustrating for a reader who is spending more time trying to comprehend, instead of engage.

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m failing to connect with a book I start finding other things wrong with it, and the current edition that I read left a little to be desired production-wise. As an editor I know more than anyone that there are always small mistakes in books but Neuromancer has been kicking around for almost three decades and yet it seems no one could be bothered on one of the trillion reprintings it must have had to fix any basic typos, dodgy line spacing, or update the internal design to something that looked less Gutenberg. The cover was pretty naff as well, in my opinion.

None of these whinges should have too much effect on a reader if they are loving what they’re reading, but this wasn’t my experience. Maybe seminal cyberpunk just isn’t my thing, and I’m happy to accept that. I’m also happy to accept that I may be a narrow-brained dunce and missed the whole point, but William Gibson’s breakthrough novel just didn’t leave me feeling particularly enlightened or entertained, just kind of fuzzy-minded and slightly disappointed. Even the satisfaction of doing something I’d been meaning to do for years wasn’t quite enough. In the end the biggest influence it had on me was that it made me want to watch The Matrix again.

U is for Unfinished

Always finishing the book they started is a badge many hard-core readers (like hard-core bikies but without so much leather) love to wear with honour. Similar to those who are anti e-book because they like the way p-books smell, the ‘always finish’ crew can get a little Salem-villagey if you dare admit you closed a book part-way through with no intention of re-opening it. They say things such as ‘I never let a book defeat me’ or ‘Once I start it I have to finish it’, as if there’s some biblio-scorecard being kept somewhere.

U is for Unfinished. Yes, you tome-tallying library lovers, I ‘gave up’ on a novel.

One of my favourite university tutors (I have two), a great man, writer and reader who had the odd job of teaching us about ‘the internet and digital media’ back in 1998 when many of the class were yet to open an email account, once mentioned that the only book he couldn’t make it through was Kangaroo by DH Lawrence. As I liked and respected this tutor so much I have always had Kangaroo on a mental ‘never-to-be-read’ list, though occasionally I am struck with a sadistic urge to attempt it. I’m not sure what it will prove if I finish it. That my boredom threshold is stronger than my tutor’s was? Seems an odd thing to give a damn about. (As an aside, Kangaroo is one of the books I sometimes imply I have read when in a high-brow conversation about ‘tough’ books, so much do I trust my tutor’s views.)

A common theme across the blog this year has been that ‘life is too short’—to focus on regrets (or, as I’ve started calling them, ‘recognisable errors in  judgement’), to beat yourself up about not managing to squeeze four thousand tasks into each day, to read a bad book, to read a book you don’t want to. And so, this year, there was one book I didn’t finish. It was Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Haymann and there were two main reasons I closed it, never to be reopened: it was too long and it wasn’t interesting enough for me to forgive its length. And when I say too long I don’t just mean it needed a few paragraphs cut. I mean it was overwritten, overblown and overfull with unnecessary plot, exposition and description. It was the kind of book where I think I could have randomly skipped 10 pages and still follow the plot. But why would you want to do that? As an editor I wondered if the author even considered any of the editorial suggestions, and then I shudder at the thought that she did, and this was still the result. It was a shame as there were some lovely little details, expressions, thoughts from the narrator, but you had to find these rare gems in the jungle of words around them, and in the end, well about half-way through, I just didn’t feel it was worth it anymore and just looking at it on the bedside table gave me a heavy heart.

As I didn’t finish the novel I’m not going to sit here and bag it for three paragraphs. Take what you will from the fact that I didn’t read the whole thing, and the fact that this was a book group selection and I have never attended a book group session where passions ran so high when discussing whether the book was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ novel. (Seriously, people brought visual aids with them to support their argument.)

The language we hard-core booklovers sometimes use fascinates me. Books ‘defeat us’, we ‘give up’, we take a break to ‘gather strength’ to go back to it, but ‘won’t succumb’ to letting it go. Sports fans are often ridiculed for comparing their games to military battles, but surely us book geeks should also be put to task for similar appropriations.  And if we’re going to play word games, why do we so rarely blame the book? Maybe the book let us down. Maybe our greater sense, imagination, reasoning or life experiences ‘beat’ the lesser merits of the book. Maybe, just maybe, life is too short to read something we’re not enjoying or being intellectually tickled by. Maybe some books should remain unfinished.

Finding the time to read

One of the over-simplistic pop-philosophy-catchphrases I’ve come to despise is: ‘If you really want to do it, you’ll make the time.’ Maybe these faux-Foucaults* have limited things they want to do; maybe I over-committ myself; maybe there are too many things I want; maybe life-statements like the above are pure tosh.

Here’s a secret: most people who work in book publishing can’t find the time to read books. Honestly. It’s the sad but goddamn truth.

One of the reasons I started this blogging escapade was to ‘make’ myself find the time to read more. Other tactics include spending random Sundays in bed to catch up on some fiction-fun, blocking out diary pages in large harsh capitals to prevent me from sneaking in any other activity on a particular day, slipping off to a cafe which serves less-than-excellent coffee for some lunch hour ‘book time’ away from  office gossip, and turning down a lift to catch the train to give me 30 minutes of page turning… and still, still, I don’t get to read for pleasure as much as I would like. And I’m a fairly high-functioning human being with unnatural reserves of stamina.

When the thing you love becomes the thing you do it can be hard for the practice of  it to not feel like your job—even if you can find the time. Like all relationships, you have to work hard to keep the love alive. And still you walk a fine line between finding time for things you love and finding that those things then feel like a chore. So I read a lot for work, and reading for pleasure can remind me of work, and then trying to force myself to read for pleasure (because I know if I  just get started I. Will. Really. Enjoy. It.) starts making it feel like an obligation and I’m trapped in a vicious work-is reading-is pleasure-is reading-is work cycle.  I love my job, but still…

And then, of course, there is the guilt. Those lovely stories and bound paper packages lying about all unloved and unread, and the self-abuse you put yourself under because if you really wanted to do it you would make the time, and you end up shaming yourself if on a sunny Sunday your reading plans were waylaid by brunch and the new season of Supernatural on DVD…

When a serious relationship I was in ended about 18 months ago, I decided two things (well, I decided a few things but these two are relevant to this conversation): I was not going to live with regret, and I was going to start being kinder to me. Beating oneself up because you can’t seem to make the time to do what you claim is important to you, is neither productive nor good for the soul. Life is busy, obligations are many and free time is scarce. I’d rather celebrate when I do get the chance to read a glorious book, than castigate myself for taking a year to get around to it. I am one of those folk who try to squeeze much too much into their lives—and I suffer from a slight case of workaholism to boot—so even though I can’t always make the time to do all of those things  I really want to be doing, it can be oh-so-much-more pleasurable when I do manage to get around to it. And I’ll have more to talk about at parties than that one measly hobby all those pop-philosophers tend to bore us with when their time comes to converse with their fellow humans. They can take that in their cereal-box-adage pipe and smoke it.

* I know Foucault philosophised on social institutions, rather than social habits, I just liked the alliteration.

F is for Friends

I fell for this book a little like I do for some men. Cute cover, intelligent-sounding, interesting ideas, quirky humour and, if we’re being completely honest (at least recently), a foreign origin. And a little like some of those other episodes, without stretching the comparison too far, I perhaps expected this book to turn out a little bit differently to how it did. But such is both the reading (and romantic) life.

You see – and we’re back on the subject of books now – our ‘F’ book is a little non-fiction number called How Many Friends Does One Person Need? and I was expecting it to be an insightful contemporary commentary on social networking. And Robin Dunbar’s book does touch on this and much to do with personal connections but in a much wider context than I expected, moving through a series of interconnected subjects and intriguing facts and research about the many, many different reasons people are like they are. And if I had thought about it more when I had read the blurb I may have realised this, but I had latched on to a particular notion of ‘what it was all about’, judged the book by its title and wasn’t considering what the book’s true aim was (and now we refer back to the ‘man’ scenario). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I had imagined, so I had to adjust my reading brain.

Yes. We’re reading non-fiction. And a book on evolutionary biology of all things. Well, a change is as good as a holiday (a recent one on which I barely turned a page – the shame!). But I’m not very good at reading non-fiction for pleasure, unless it is presented in a narrative fashion,  even if I find the subject matter interesting and the writing entertaining. Both of which, I am keen to point out, I do in HMFDOPN?

I’m just not skilled at reading information for information’s sake. I seem to require stories, some kind of narrative arc to guide me through the data, a character to follow. Give me glorious facts and theories, and though I truly do sit there and think, ‘Isn’t that bloody amazing/wondrous/smart/mind-boggling’, I struggle to keep my attention on the book and its structure and fail to retain a lot of what I’m ‘learning’. It’s a bit like the mental version of those vague notes and diagrams you used to sketch for yourself in university lectures thinking they would jog your memory later, only to discover at assessment time that they jogged nothing. And that’s the other thing when reading ‘books about stuff’, I worry the whole time that I’m not taking in anything and feel a little like I’m going to be tested afterwards.

I mention these things to illustrate my failings as a reader, not of Robin Dunbar as a writer (and presumably an evolutionary biologist). Because his book really does contain many intriguing and fascinating insights into human behaviour. He has a lovely, delightful tone and his writing is chatty but still intelligent. I would like to have lunch with this man. Several long lunches, in fact, where I hope a mere skerrick of his smarts would rub off on me and I could discover so much more about why human babies are actually born 12 months earlier than they should be, how women developed language, why skin colours vary, why we tell stories. I recall these things now because the book is fresh in my mind though I am already forgetting the reasons why these things are so. I’m starting to worry about that test.

Fascinating, entertaining and approachable, cute package. Not a bad thing in a book or a bloke. But alas, I am not a reader made to feel compelled to keep reading this kind of book out of a sheer will to learn more facts and theories. It’s not what I want to snuggle up in bed holding or loll about on a banana lounge with – for that I need stories. How Many Friends Does One Person Need? is more a Saturday morning, eating eggs kind of reader, where you can look up from your page and say to your pancake-eating partner (or dog, or whoever is there), ‘Did you know…?’ before getting back to those eggs.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the answer is 150. That’s how many friends we need; in fact that’s in the upper limit of people we can accommodate in our social networks who we actually know, socialise with, enjoy their company and care about to some degree. The author describes them as someone you would be happy to approach and catch up with when you see them across an airport transit lounge at 3 am. Everyone else is an acquaintance, a colleague, a family member you’re not close to, someone you met once, or you know, only a Facebook friend.