If Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, Father’s Day is surely the hardest. What do you get for the member of the family—at least if your dad is anything like mine—who claims to never want anything? Peruse the mall in early June and the choices appear to fall into three categories: 1. yawningly boring shirt-and-tie combos, 2. assorted World’s Greatest Dad paraphernalia, and 3. gadgets. So many gadgets. Bluetooth-enabled titanium-alloy grilling spatulas. Bottle openers made from machine-gun rounds. Star Wars waffle makers.
There are, of course, messages encoded in each category. A shirt and tie says, Keep working, Pops. Anything labeled World’s Greatest Dad is an overcompensation, either on your part or his. And the gadgets, no matter how futuristic or flashy, tell Dad he’s basically a child in want of a toy. For the last several years, my own father and I have sent each other cards with a one-dollar bill inside (basically a handshake by mail) and called it even.
But the best Father’s Day gifts might be the most novel. I’m not talking about the Apple Watch or robot vacuum cleaners. I’m talking about actual novels. Books. Read More
A few words about an underappreciated piece of reading technology. Talking about underlining in books.
Nobody shows you how to do this, and it’s a pity. You find out quick that if you do it wrong, you ruin the book. If you do it right, though, you create a precious heirloom.
How do you do it right? Use a ruler, for starters. They make little stubby ones for this purpose. Then there’s the question of where exactly the line should go. Should it touch the bottom of the letters on the line, or should you give it a little space there? Depends.
And then there’s the ink. When I was first underlining, I didn’t understand. You can’t use inks that are gonna show through. Also, you probably don’t want the ink’s color to dominate the page. Bloodred ballpoints are usually too much. The effect can be as bad as that of a highlighter. And you can’t use pens with runny noses that are gonna form solid droplets at their tips. You can’t, unless you like big ol’ gobs and smears of ink at the end of each stroke.
Heaven knows not every book asks to be underlined. But heaven is founded on the idea that some books really do demand it. Reading any of these nineteenth-century supremo-supremo novelists without marking the best bits is insanity. You’re going to need those sentences later. Read More
Our era is a digital one, to be sure, but libraries of physical books are still holding on defiantly, even triumphantly. According to the Library Map of the World, there are over two million public and school libraries on planet Earth. Of these, 103,325 are in the U.S. and 12,570 in my native Australia. Globally, the number of private libraries is much larger still—because who’s to say that even a humble shelf of Penguin or Pocket paperbacks doesn’t qualify as a private library?
The census of American libraries spans a wonderful diversity of institutions, from modest municipal book rooms and mobile libraries to the grand collections of such hallowed places as the Morgan, the Folger, the Huntington, and the Smithsonian. Surveys of library users reveal a passionate attachment to these institutions, one that is voiced in very human terms. The word love is an emotion often expressed toward libraries, and not just for National Library Week. Libraries are places in which people are born—as authors, readers, scholars, and activists. (Think Eudora Welty, Zadie Smith, John Updike, and Ian Rankin.) Read More
“The object is beautiful in itself, worthy of appreciation as a whole and for its own sake.”
“And the single deep voice of the singers lay upon the dance, lay even upon the valley and the earth, whole and inscrutable, everlasting.”
—N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn
Dividing what’s indivisible leads to heartache. That’s true for people, and it’s true for books.
At their best, categories in literature function as identities authors appreciate, as badges of honor they’re seeking or creating, or as marketing tools for publishers. But at their worst, they’re shorthand for critical dismissal, dog whistles used to hold a work apart from white ideas about “the universal human experience,” or instruments of systemic oppression and cultural fetishism.
However you see them, categories, including terms used in literary criticism, are never impartial. That’s not to say they’re bad. But they’re not neutral. They complicate rather than clarify. Read More
I recall, though my recollection may be faulty, a magnificent article by Giorgio Manganelli explaining how a sophisticated reader can know whether a book is worth reading even before he opens it. He wasn’t referring to the capacity often required of a professional reader, or a keen and discerning reader, to judge from an opening line, from two pages glanced at random, from the index, or often from the bibliography, whether or not a book is worth reading. This, I say, is simply experience. No, Manganelli was talking about a kind of illumination, a gift that he was evidently and paradoxically claiming to have.
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst and professor of literature, is not about how you might know not to read a book but how you can happily talk about a book you haven’t read, even to your students, even when it’s a book of extraordinary importance. His calculation is scientific. Good libraries hold several millions of books: even if we read a book a day, we would read only 365 a year, around 3,600 in ten years, and between the ages of ten and eighty we’ll have read only 25,200. A trifle. On the other hand, any Italian who’s had a good secondary education knows perfectly well that they can participate in a discussion, let’s say, on Matteo Bandello, Francesco Guicciardini, Matteo Boiardo, on the tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri, or on Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, knowing only the name and something about the critical context, but without ever having read a word.