the book as keepsake and souvenir: Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun

Among the many reasons I have too many books in my home, one of the most difficult to resist is sentimental attachment. I have practiced a fairly ruthless approach to the memorabilia issue, what might be called the detritus of a life. Precious little of it remains, making what does, perhaps, more precious than any evident value. And books, for me certainly, are among the most potent carriers of meaning and connections. Beyond its intrinsic merit, a book can also serve as a tangible link to a special person, a connection to the past, or a prompt for treasured memories.

I think a well-worn copy of Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is the only relic of my early school years. Holding it, seeing my name so carefully printed on the endpaper, I feel like laughing again with that lively family and at the memories conjured of my own family growing up.

I like receiving books as gifts but am wary of the danger of conflating gift with giver. I also like to give books, but almost never write an inscription. No pressure, you’re free to pass it on as you like. A written name works a kind of binding magic on me. One day while sorting books for the library book sale I opened an old dictionary to see my husband’s name and college address. It was an artifact of a time before I knew him, finding me somehow forty years later. Of course I brought it home.

My husband and I buy lots of books when we travel, only a few of which, museum guides for instance, might be classified as trip souvenirs. Many will prompt memories of a trip, of course, but that is an incidental function. Possibly only one time did I buy a pretty random book just to have a keepsake. The purity of its purpose can be seen in that I only got around to reading it this month, 17 years later, when a memory of carefree travel seemed especially desirable.

So, my daughter and I were walking across England – I love saying that, and it was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done – when our knees demanded a rest day. We took a tiny bus, slowly, sharing the road with many sheep, into the town of Shap where we spent a delightful day. We watched lawn bowling, walked to some ruins, ate Stilton with apricots (who knew it came in anything but blue?), and found a used bookshop. The shop keeper seemed very dubious about two Americans in boots and packs, and was rather short with my query for “something about sheep”. Undeterred, I browsed until I found something that looked rather jolly.

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I was looking at a book about English Game Laws, popular enough to have gone to a 6th edition in 1927. The author’s preface was highly humorous and many charming pen and ink cartoon sketches enlivened the text. No sheep, alas, but stories of real life in English countryside seemed a good alternative. I paid a few pounds, tucked it into my pack, and eventually carried it across the ocean to sit until whim should call for it.

So there it was, waiting for this right moment when I really wanted something that would take me traveling again if only in memories. And it turned out to be an interesting and rather entertaining account of a slice of English life and law. The author has a sharp wit and flair for anecdotes. The drawings are a welcome leaven to the mind-boggling intricacies of the laws and their application. The layers of laws, rights, and customs and the contradictions implicit and in practice are beyond the explication of even so skillfully plain a stylist as our author.

Really, although entertained, I felt quite baffled and concluded this was definitely more than I wanted to know about when and when not one may within the law shoot a particular animal/bird, or the circumstances when it is acceptable or prohibited to carry same away. My confusion seemed generally shared among the characters populating the stories of poachers, tenants, and feuding neighbors who seek counsel from Mr. Six-and-Eight in his chambers. At least, much work is made for lawyers and much talk for the pub. As learned counsel has it, “Nothing is certain in law except the expense.”

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a recipe for a good old age

When asked the recipe for a good old age, I often give a list “good genes, good luck, enough money, and one good kid usually a daughter”.

Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life
by Louise Aronson, MD

Despite our bravado or fear, most of us will be old and many of us very old. Aronson would have us embrace this stage of life and proposes it be recognized as distinct, but no less valued, from childhood and adulthood. She exposes the inadequacy and outright wrong-headedness of standard medical practice with respect to the biological differences of the older body and the kinds of services that the elderly need to be healthy and to maintain their lives.

Most of us probably want to blur the boundary between middle-age and old, but, however reluctantly, I have to acknowledge that I am crossing it. My husband is in the middle phase of Elderhood and my parents in the late, giving me a pretty good view of life in the last decades. Aronson’s book is very affirming for the dignity and value of each person at every stage of life. She condemns the view of old age as just a series of diminishments and losses. Elders in most times and cultures have been respected for their experience and service; she cites studies which show the greatest levels of happiness and life satisfaction among those in their 70s and 80s.

Aronson gives a withering critique of the medical services industry in the treatment of the elderly patient. I’ve encountered enough of what she describes to be nodding my head as I was reading. The phrase “health care” is beyond ironic when applied to the inappropriate, unhelpful, and violent treatment that so often is what the old experience in the medical system.

I will be recommending this book to everyone. It gives a very positive corrective to the prejudices and fears around aging and much good advice about securing good care until her call to “transform medicine” is realized.

Aronson’s recipe for a good old age is amusing, but has an edge. Whatever the positives in aging are or may be, inevitably our bodies will have problems and need care. Why does the medical establishment have to make things so much harder than they need to be?

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.

May

Dreamers: When The Writers Took Power Germany, 1918 by Volker Weidermann translated from the German by Ruth Martin c2017 Pushkin Press edition 2018
a vivid recreation of the collision of political dreams and idealism with the desperate realities of Germany in the first months after defeat

The Inugami Curse by YOKOMIZO Seishi translated from the Japanese by YAMAZAKI Yumiko c1972 Pushkin Press edition 2020
very enjoyable, satisfyingly intricate murder mystery

Journey By Moonlight by Antal Szerb translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix c1937 Pushkin Press edition 2001 (NYRB)
a wonderful novel; ruthlessly honest, tenderly ironic observation of a man on an improbable journey to recover/understand his youth and to escape his conventional life

Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun by Nicholas Everitt and Ernest Ivens Watson 6th edition c1927 Gilbertson & Page
a tour through English Game Laws with anecdote and illustration; just as incomprehensible but more entertaining than one would expect

Books, a memoir by Larry McMurtry c2008 Simon and Schuster
agreeable shoptalk of a life in the book trade

April

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin translated from the German by Michael Hofmann c1929 New York Review Books edition 2018
an extraordinary feat of translation; a novel that immerses the reader in lower class Berlin in a torrent of images, politics, scenes, sounds, facts, characters, literary set pieces, and more until the reader feels like she is careening through a whitewater rapids of words with only the hapless one-armed Franz Biberkopf to steer as they race to the waterfall’s edge….

Master Of The Day Of Judgment by Leo Perutz translated from the German by Eric Mosbacher c1975 Pushkin Vertigo edition 2015
great atmosphere and suspense in old Vienna, clever twist

The Buffalo People, Pre-contact Archaeology on the Canadian Plains by Liz Bryan c2005 Heritage House Publishing
very well written survey of a century of archaeology, current historical understanding of the artifacts and sites, what’s known and what’s argued about

Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco translated from the Spanish by Lucy Greaves c1955 Pushkin Press edition 2016
many layers of lies and deceptions in this satisfying mystery story
Doubts make nasty enemies

The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis translated from the Italian by Jill Foulston c1935 Pushkin Vertigo edition 2016
the appealing Inspector De Vincenzi solves his first (of 20!) case

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.