Reading List 2020

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

February

Rocket to the Morgue by Anthony Boucher
c1942 Penzler Publishers 2019
clever locked room mystery, cast of Science Fiction writers (thinly disguised Golden Age luminaries), an insouciant, engagingly breezy style
In the lounge car of the Lark, Pullman train from San Francisco to Los Angeles a tall thin man with a pale face and flaming hair sat contentedly with two highballs and a blonde.

The Path To Rome by Hilaire Belloc c1902 Catholic Answers 2015
a charming, eccentric account of a pilgrimage to Rome, walking a straight line (by the map) and writing about whatever he thinks and meets along the way; illustrated with pen and ink sketches by the author

Continue reading “Reading List 2020”

2019 In Books

I had a good year in books with a total of 68 read. My goals were to read more fiction in translation, something I’ve been consciously pursuing for several years, and to read at least one nonfiction work each month.

Fiction: 46 (27 in English translation)
Nonfiction: 22

Here’s my 10 + 1 list of books I most enjoyed and admired this year. I had to make it +1 because I read Moby Dick and it just seems silly to measure anything against it.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
Homeland by Fernando Aramburu
After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima
The Wake
by Paul Kingsnorth
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jozef Crapski by Eric Karpeles
The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai by Han Jin
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
A Primer For Forgetting: Getting Past the Past by Lewis Hyde

The post “Books Read 2019” lists all the titles with a capsule description/comment for most.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price

Most of the talk about a supposed imminent and inevitable “death of the book” reflects a sincere concern, no doubt, but is generally too confused and dramatic to be helpful. I want a definition of terms before I can evaluate the danger…just what is meant by book? Is the concern for the physical object, its tactile pleasures, history or beauty? Is the concern for the kind of content and form of expression we experience in books? Perhaps it’s worry that the change of delivery technology will diminish the benefits we associate with reading?

Leah Price points out in her recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books that all of these issues have caused anxiety among readers for a very long time. There was never a “Golden Age” of reading but always a mix of purposes and quality for books and other forms of printing. I love books, in any definition, as much as the next reader. While for years I only cared about the content of what I might be reading, I’ve developed a strong interest in book history and appreciation for the artistry and craft of production. There will always be people who appreciate the beauty of fine printing, so I am confident that the book as art object will continue. I don’t expect to ever own one of those small press run gems but I can enjoy the trade edition.

There is unquestionably a lot of trash/junk/drivel, pick your own label, published now. But does it actually drive out good writing or is that an illusion? The range of fiction writing in the nineteenth century was similarly wide but we only think of the great works that continue to speak to us. As a bookseller, I sighed to see children loading up with the Babysitter or Goosebumps series; in a few years will they be the adults with the latest James Patterson or Danielle Steele novel? “At least they’re reading” isn’t a comfort. Reading is a skill that needs to be developed by engaging with good writing. The readership for literary fiction has never been large; it’s hard to make a case that it’s any smaller today.

I’ll admit to sharing some of the concern for the possible implications of the new delivery technologies. Tiny screens, blue light, multiple constant visual distractions, never reading more than a few sentences at a time…what might these do to our physical brains, to our abilities to concentrate, to think? Price writes about the explosion of new kinds of print media in the nineteenth century – pocket-sized paperbacks, news digests, tabloid newspapers – to meet new needs in the urbanizing, industrializing society. People needed something convenient to read for short intervals of waiting in lines, in offices, on the train or to provide isolation from the strangers around them. Sounds a lot like how we use electronic devices, so perhaps we’ll survive them too.

Price tells an interesting story of William Morris, the great champion of design and craftsmanship, who criticized the small paperback book because it is difficult to hold for comfortable reading. He also recognized the human bias to value things based on scarcity and effort required. His books are designed to encourage what we might call “slow reading”, by which the physical qualities of the book call attention to the quality of the content. By restoring the sense of occasion that he associated with medieval manuscripts, Morris hoped to forestall the always-on reading that we equate with the smartphone but that he blamed on cheap print. Like familiarity, ubiquity breeds contempt.

Those of us who love books, who love to read for any of the many reasons there are to read, want books to continue to be valued in our world. We respect the power of good writing to focus critical thinking and to enlarge our lives. It’s the writing that matters. A book is thinking and feeling made visible. The ‘book’ has had many forms over the centuries. How will it adapt in this one? That is what we should be talking about when we talk about saving books.

If you value the union of opposites brokered (sometimes but not always) by long-form, long-term reading–emotional absorption with intellectual reflection, inwardness with empathy, the capacity to withdraw from those around us while remaining attuned to distant minds–then the book may no longer be the only place to look. If we think of printed paper not as an inert collectible but as a cue or catalyst, then fetishizing the wood pulp and thread or glue onto which attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination have sometimes piggybacked means looking in the wrong place. More useful might be exploring what new–or old but forgotten–ways of circulating and sharing and responding to words might allow those habits to flourish.

Reading Fiction

The term fiction entered the English language in the early fifteenth century with the meaning “something invented or imagined.” It derived, etymological dictionaries tell us, via the French, from the past participle of the Latin verb fingere, which originally meant “to knead or form out of clay.” Fiction is then a sort of verbal Adam molded from the primordial dust in the Author’s image and infused by the Author with the breath of life. Perhaps that is why, contrary to appearances, fictional characters at their best often seem more alive than our friends of solid flesh. Far from sticking to their stories, they change the plot at every one of our readings, bringing certain scenes to light and obscuring others, adding a startling episode that we had mysteriously forgotten or a detail that previously remained unnoticed. Heraclitus’s warning about time is true for every reader: we never step twice into the same book.

Alberto Manguel
from Fabulous Monsters: Dracula, Alice, Superman, and Other Literary Friends

A Bookseller’s Lot is Not An Easy One

The world of publishing and bookselling has been in such turmoil in recent years that it’s tempting to assume that the business must have experienced better times in the past.  When I recently browsed through issues of The American Bookseller (published 1870’s and 80’s)  what struck me was the familiarity of their anxieties and problems.  The journal served “the Trade” through the last of the nineteenth century, covering everything of interest to booksellers, literary and music publishers, newsagents, and stationers.  The typography is quaint but the content is startlingly contemporary.

Copyright and trademark, especially international agreements, were contentious issues.  The quality of popular writing is lamented.  One reviewer complains that many women authors are shockingly forthright in their intention “to write what sells” rather than what is properly uplifting.  Sometimes business is good but the constant feeling and worry is that it isn’t as good as before.

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It surprised me to read that the practice of discounting from the stated retail price is already disturbing the tranquility of booksellers.  No one knows how to stop the publishers from giving price breaks to their biggest customers or how to discourage discounts offered by individual booksellers.  Price discipline is weakening, threatening the viability of bookselling in small shops.    Any shop owner experimenting with discounts, one commentator concludes, is playing a hopeless losing game.  “It would only enable the large dealer to crush still more remorselessly the small dealer.”

Happily, “of making books there is no end”, nor of people who love them and want to share them in the community of readers.  I mostly buy books in stores rather than order online, but that’s not always possible.  When I do need to buy a book online, however, I always now order from a real bookstore.  I have a short list of stores that I’ve found in travel around the country and particularly like – Lowry’s Books in  Three Rivers Michigan, Bookstore1 in Sarasota, Maria’s in Durango, and Skylight in LA – and I am happy to give them the business.  If I’m using an aggregator site like Abebooks (not ever the other A site) looking for an out-of-print title, I carefully search through the seller descriptions to identify a professional bookseller with a physical shop.

I enjoy so much just browsing in a bookstore and fairly wallowing in the variety and quantity of choices.  They can’t survive, though, without customers.  I will do what I can to keep them going and encourage other booklovers to do the same.  It would break my heart to live in a world without bookstores.

Is That A Fish In Your Ear?

David Bellos subtitled his book “Translation and the Meaning of Everything” and meant it.  It’s a brisk, occasionally head-spinning, always interesting survey of the nature of Language as the tool of human expression and communication and of the inherent challenges of understanding each other across the boundaries of particular languages.

I can’t say for certain that it was the first work in translation that I read, but I distinctly remember one Saturday morning pausing in my assigned chores to pull The Three Musketeers from the family bookcase – just to see what it was like –  and losing myself for hours in the thrilling world of Dumas.  I did have to finish the dusting, but the world had suddenly become larger, more glamorous and variable than I had known.

As I’ve continued to read the literature and watch movies/tv from as many countries as I can, the work of translation has become interesting in itself.  An early awakening to the difficulties of that work came with my discovery of Hong Kong movies, whose subtitles in the early years were rendered into astonishingly poor English.  My book group years ago read Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo and found ourselves more than usually divided in opinion.  In discussion we realized that members had read two different translations.  We definitely preferred one over the other but had to wonder if one was “truer” to the source or if you can even evaluate that.  I recently read a delightful book One Hundred Frogs by Hiroaki Sato in which he compiles more than a hundred translations of the poem Old Pond by the haiku poet Basho.  It reminded me that language always carries multiple meanings.  The translator tries to carry as much of that multiplicity into the new language as possible.

There are more than five thousand languages in use today, certainly more “major” ones than anyone can master.  Even linguists depend on translation.  So what is it? how is it done? what makes a “good” translation?  And more questions, what is language? how does one differ from another? what kinds of meanings are carried in structure? even, what is wordness?  Bellos explores these and many more with a wealth of historical anecdotes and contemporary statistics.

A particularly interesting chapter discusses the different structural qualities of languages and their implications for thinking and expression.  These create what the linguist Edward Sapir called mind grooves or habitual patterns of thought.  But this doesn’t mean that the meaning of one language cannot be expressed in another or that a language is “primitive” if structured differently from ones own.

Different languages, because they are structured in different ways, make their speakers pay attention to different aspects of the world.

The mind grooves laid down by the forms of a language are not prison walls but the hills and valleys of a mental landscape where some paths are easier to follow than others. 

To expand our minds and to become more fully civilized members of the human race, we should learn as many different languages as we can.  The diversity of tongues is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.