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Faust reading
A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

My initial response was to laugh at myself, because my list would undoubtedly make me sound like a dusty old pedant. It would include a good number of the “right” or “great” works, but not because I wanted to sound learned, but because they are the ones that have touched me. I can’t help it; given a choice between John Milton and Jonathan Franzen, I will always choose Milton — with no calumny directed at Franzen: It is merely my pleasure. And I mean pleasure.paradise lost

My old newspaper deskmate, Kerry Lengel, who is a very good writer, used to laugh at me because I would wax eloquent about how much I enjoyed reading Paradise Lost. He couldn’t imagine anyone actually enjoying that dense verbiage. But I was genuine about it. Milton gives me tremendous pleasure. I read it not for its theological import, but for its organ-tone language, which I can roll around on my tongue like a good, well-seasoned, well-aged piece of beef. Poetic umami. meat

But the request, sent out on the ether, did make me consider which books have meant the most to me. As we enter an age where printed matter goes the way of papyrus and clay tablets, I wonder at just how decisive have been the books that entered my life.

I don’t expect anyone to be absorbed by the fact that this or that book changed my life. My life is fairly banal. I certainly don’t expect anyone to run out and buy these books in hopes they might change their lives. But, I hope it might be interesting enough to see just how an anthill of tiny black marks on a page can affect the growth of a sensibility, and perhaps reading about it might give someone the urge to consider not merely which books most affected them, but how and why.

There are books we read with no more lasting effect than a sitcom we watch on TV. They are still worth reading, and they add to our experience of life, but they don’t leave lasting footprints. They make up the bulk of our reading.

There are books that we enjoy more than others and that we want to read and reread many times, and when we do, we discover the book itself has grown as we have grown and is completely different from the one we read as a callow youth. Rereading is one of life’s imperatives.

But beyond these, there are the fewer books that completely changed our way of regarding the world, changed our outlook, our philosophy, our very umwelt. They are the life-changing books and they stay under our skin like chiggers for a lifetime.

They are not necessarily the best books, but the ones that altered our lives. When we are children, they may very well be otherwise insignificant books that nevertheless opened our hearts and minds to things we knew not of.

As young adults, they are the books that removed the scales from our eyes, so that we emerged from our adolescent pupae into the brighter world.

As adults, they are the books that re-oriented us and the direction of our lives.

And as old age closes over, they are the books that remind us most powerfully of our connection to the eons.

I cannot winnow the list down to a mere 10. But I can give you a list divided into the different ages of life and how they helped me navigate into the present.

I will consider them over the next several blogs. First, though, I want to look at the books that ruled my childhood. “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.” the world we live in

In 1956, on my eighth birthday, my grandmother gave me a copy of Life magazine’s The World We Live In. I still have it, in its red leatherette binding, although with a few nicks in it. There is no book that more completely threads the boy I was with the man I became.

The chapters of the book — “The Earth is Born,” “The Miracle of the Sea,” “The Face of the Land,” “The Pageant of Life,” “The Starry Universe” — taught me the great variety of life on the planet, and, more important, the great time frame of the cosmos. It instilled in me — or reinforced what was already an inclination — a love for the things of this earth and conversely, though not actually an argument of the book, a mistrust of things merely “spiritual” or conceptual. I wanted to rub it between my fingers; to taste and smell it. dinosaur 2

The photos and illustrations of sea life, dinosaurs, and “The Woods of Home” became a catalog of those things I continue to hold in my cor cordiumall about dinosaurs

There were other books, too. All About Dinosaurs, by Roy Chapman Andrews, which fed my childhood fascination with the Mesozoic, and other in the “All About” series, each taking on some aspect of the natural world. There were the Golden Nature Guides, those tiny books on insects, weather, geology or weeds written or edited by Herbert S. Zim. golden guidesI have lost and rebought copies of most of them throughout my life. I still have about 25 of them, tucked away on my bookshelves, and I still take them out periodically and leaf through their simple illustrations — pictures that lit up my childhood from within.

One can see from the number of hits on Google that Zim bent many twigs for many young readers.

And there was Compton’s Picture Encyclopedia, an edition from the 1930s that our neighbor gave us.comptons It was filled with pictures of autogyros, streamlined trains and soldiers wearing puttees. It further reinforced a vision of the world that infinitely varied and multifarious. There was more to life, clearly, than the New Jersey suburbia I grew up in.

When I was a little older, my parents bought for me a young-adult novel, thinking that I might enjoy it. Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn’t really understand where my little brain was going. I thanked them, but told them outright, “I don’t like fiction; I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.”

Yes, I was an idiot, but who isn’t at that age. autogyros

The bottom line was that my childhood reading put me in touch with the physical world and its magnificent diversity. Even as an adult, I inclined (there is that word again) toward the “thingness” of the world, and later in life, that what Kant calls the “noumenon” can best be reached through awareness and connection with the physical presence of the world, rather than through words and mere ideas. In other words, poetry, not philosophy.

Yes, as the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.

NEXT: The maelstrom of adolescent reading

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I began seriously reading in high school, mostly contemporary fiction. I don’t remember what I could possible have made of Saul Bellow’s Herzog at the age of 16, but there it was. I followed that with Seize the Day and The Dangling Man. I read James Purdy, James Drought, Jules Fieffer, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Pynchon, Terry Southern, Albert Camus, and, ahem, P.G. Wodehouse.The Secret cover

Jack Kerouac, Brendan Behan, William Golding, Kingsley Amis, Eugene Ionesco, and of course, J.D. Salinger. I was a teenager, after all.

Quite a load of words for a high school student. I doubt I understood a tenth of what I read, but I couldn’t get enough.

There were a few “classics” thrown in, some required reading for school, but it was primarily new fiction I read — almost all of it over my head.

And almost all of it in paperback. There was a rack of paperbacks in the local drug store, and I would pore over them after school, looking for the latest Bellow or Updike.

return of the native airmontAnd then, there was Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which was required reading in 8th grade — why, I don’t know. But I had the hardest time plowing through it. It seemed dense and impenetrable. I got bored. I couldn’t finish it.

Over the years, there were other books I had a hard time reading. The sense was always the same: They were uninviting; they were dense; they were difficult to read. I lost interest in them and didn’t finish them.return of native page

It was only years later that I realized the problem was not with the writing, it was with the printing: The cheap paperback edition of Return of the Native was really horribly designed: grey type, insufficient leading, narrow margins, bad, under-inked offset printing on grey or yellowed paper.

The problem was not with Hardy, the problem was not with me, the problem was with Airmont Classics, the paperback publisher. They had skimped on book design and created a brick.

Last week, wandering through the shelves of our local used book store, I found a copy of that noxious tome. As I began reading, I realized what a magical writer Hardy really could be. Now that I’m more mature — actually a geezer — I had a bit more patience than I had as a teenager, and I could manage to cut the furze, as it were, of the wretched typography. It is still a dank and uninviting book to look at, but I nearly cried at the opening paragraphs, as Hardy describes that particular and exact time of day and time of year when you can look down at dusk and the ground has lost any visual contrast; it dulls into the gray of evening — but if you look up, the sky is still bright. It is like that Magritte painting, only not meant to be surreal, only beautiful.magritte

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment,” the book begins.

“Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

“The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an installment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: Darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.”

What had I missed over the years by thinking that certain books were dull, when it was only the visual aspect of their presentation that had discouraged me?aeneid

I remember trying my damnedest to shoulder my way through C. Day Lewis’ translation of The Aeneid. Whoever designed that paperback managed to use a page too small to hold the average length of a line in the font size he chose, meaning that almost every other line wrapped to the next line, flush right, giving the text a kind of visual hiccups, making a very ugly page that was nearly unnavigable. It put me off Vergil for decades.

By-and-large, it is paperbacks which are the greatest offenders. Designed to be cheap — which we appreciate — they are also designed to fit as much type onto a page as possible so as not to waste space or paper. Type is small; leading is squished; margins are narrow. To say nothing of the quality of paper used and the ink rolled on.

It isn’t merely a question of type size. Some large-type books are hard to read, and some with tiny text are easy. The issue seems to be the length of the line: Small type on a small page is fine, but spread that line out over a wide page and the eye tires before turning down to the next.

walden 1One of the prettiest books I own is a copy of Walden from the Heritage Club, published in 1939, with wood engravings by Thomas W. Nason. It was proud enough of its look to credit its designer, Carl Purington Rollins. I believe every book should credit its designer: A good design makes a book better; a bad design deserves blame.

Although it is printed in 8-point type, the page is compact, and the margin wide enough that the print-line is never too wearying.

One of the things that makes this Walden so attractive is that it was printed with lead type, not run off an offset press roller.

There are so few who still get pleasure from the look and feel of ink on paper — especially the tender and slight embossment of lead type dug into the fiber, and the ink laid there in the troughs. The soy ink now used flat on offset printing seems so one-dimensional. I have a two-volume Milton printed in 1843 that is as beautiful to look at as to read, as beautiful as a Piranesi engraving or a stained-glass window.milton 1

The question is not one merely of what typeface is chosen; some books are overly “artistic,” with fancy fonts and eccentric spacings — all of which make the book harder to read. What makes it all work is a typeface that is neutral enough not to call attention to itself, but not so dull as to be banal. No one want a whole book wearing Times New Roman like fishscales — you want to take the back of a knife to it and scrape it clean.

No, the question goes beyond type: It is a question of air between lines and around the text. It is a question of the darkness of the type — the heaviness of line in the drawing of the letters. It concerns the break of chapter and the intent of the paragraph: Neither too much nor too little.

And yes, this is a matter of taste, not of metrics: What is too much or not enough? The answer requires not a rule, but an awareness: awareness of the physical properties of the page and its contents. Most of us are unaware that books even get designed, unaware that there was a choice made in type, margin, leading, initial capitals, weight and brightness of paper stock, the deckling or smooth cut of the page edge.

Americans are often chided (and most often by themselves) for being too materialistic. But this simply isn’t true: Americans are not materialistic enough — they have little sense of the material world. The acquisitiveness that infects our nation has more to do with the non-material quality of status than with any love of the sensuous world we inhabit. One might say it is a “spiritual” value, not a material one. Certainly a tedious and unworthy spiritual value, but not in any way truly materialistic.kindle

So, it is hardly surprising that we now do so much of our reading on electronic gadgets. One might say one has become one’s own book designer, since one can choose certain visual parameters on your iPad or Kindle. But aside from enlarging the type for easier reading as we venture into the world of presbyopia, few take the chance to actually “design” the presentation on their e-reader.

And as a writer of a blog, I am frustrated by the fact that no matter how I try to make my text look on the computer screen, when it reaches your screen, it is your default choices that govern its looks as you read it. We have cut out the middle man — cut out the book designer, who can make my writing fun to read or a trial to machete through.

hisitory mosaic

History is endlessly fascinating.

If I were restricted to one class of reading, history would be it. I am not alone. Whenever politicians are asked for their favorite books, they seem to be history and biography (even as you suspect that the list was actually compiled by an aide), and the busiest corners of used bookstores seem to be the history sections.

When I was a boy, devouring the school library, I avoided fiction. “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true,” I told my parents — misunderstanding the nature of truth, as one is likely to do in the second grade.

History provides at least four important things for the growing brain. In order of ascending importance, they are:

Entertainment — A well-written history is fun to read. When you are reading Barbara Tuchman or Edward Gibbons, you are reading a page-turner. As one history lover has written on his Web page: “It’s not the facts or dates we want. We want, for a time, to be the person who rode out of Paris to go on a Crusade, and rode past serfs tilling the land, dressed in browns and blacks because they were forbidden to wear bright colors by law. We want to feel the pride of being French, thinking that we could defeat the German army because, we are French! But alas, the Germans crush us anyway. What did we feel then? Tuchman tells history as a story, and makes us feel the wonder of the connection we have with all the myriad, strange, and beautiful humans who have lived and died to bring us to where we are today.”

Guidance — Reading history shows you what other people have done when faced with situations similar to those you may find yourself facing. You can benefit by their mistakes as well as their successes. It is also useful to know history to recognize the prospects for current policy choices made for us by government. Should we get into this war?

Before entering Syria, we might want to re-read our Herodotus. We wish to god George W. Bush had read it before going into Iraq.

But you don’t have to go all the way back to the Persian Wars. You have a different view of it if you know the history of the division of the Mideast into mandates after World War I. If you want to really understand the recent presidential elections, you must know the organization of the Roman imperial and republican governments and the sway they held over this nation’s founding fathers. The roots are that deep.

The saddest truth of all — after Jean Renoir’s quote from Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons” — is that, pace Santayana, it is not those who don’t learn from history who are condemned to repeat it; those who have learned their history are the ones who see it repeated endlessly. To those who know nothing of history, it’s brand spanking new each time it happens.

Humility — More important than reading popular histories, though, is attempting to do some actual history, yourself. Few people ever give much thought to what a historian does. I suppose if you asked the man on the street, he would say a historian reads a lot of books and then writes his own. But history is altogether more difficult and tenuous. For what is history? (I know Gibbon himself gives one answer: “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”) No, history is the tentative answer to the puzzle of missing parts. history tondo

A historian sifts through the extant records of a time long extinguished and attempts to piece them together in a way that makes convincing sense. He reads letters, court records, newspaper accounts, bank statements, weather records, church chronicles and royal edicts; he attempts to put them in chronological order and reconcile the inconsistencies; he has to weigh which records to trust and which to doubt; he has to be familiar with the biases of the times, to know what “code words” mean — and each age has its code words.

You can do some genuine history for yourself: Attempt to write the story of your grandparents, for instance, using your parents’ recollections, old family Bibles, family snapshots, birth and marriage certificates. You will be astonished at two things: how difficult it is to make it all coherent, and how fascinating it is to make the attempt. And that leads to the fourth and most important thing history can bring us.

Respect — If there is a single sin that is most widely committed by the public, it is that of presentism — the belief that people in the past thought and acted just as we would, only without the benefits of modern technology.

In fact, those in the past not only thought differently, they lived in a world differently defined: Things which were manifest to them are ignored by us; things we find self-evident, they never gave a thought to. What we learn is a different kind of humility. Not just the humility of the historian knowing what effort it takes to recreate the past, but the humility of knowing that there are other ways to organize and value the world than those we currently take for granted.

We wander into church in shorts and shirts; our grandparents wouldn’t have dared. They lived in a more formal world, in which the formality expressed respect. We live in a culture that values independence and individuality. Other cultures valued group cooperation more highly.

History shows us that we aren’t always “right” and the past isn’t always “wrong,” but that at all times, we are seeking to know and do what is real and just, but are blinded or frustrated by the biases of the day.

I’m not talking about excusing our slave-owning founding fathers but understanding how they believed the world to be organized by the divinity they believed in. Understanding is different from judging. If we recognize the sincerity of Thomas Jefferson, and not just the hypocrisy, we may allow the possibility that we, living now, may be just as guilty of another sin, which we ourselves cannot see clearly.

History makes us less self-righteous. And the less smug, the less likely we are to make evil on our fellow human beings. This is why the last aspect of reading history is the most important.