Monthly Archives: November 2007

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service

First of all, thanks to Ann for choosing Alan Garner’s young adult novel The Owl Service for the Slaves of Golconda selection; I always want to read new types of books, and this qualifies, as I generally don’t read much young adult fiction. Perhaps I should read more. So thank you Ann!

I feel ambivalently about this book, though. What it comes down to is that while there was much in the novel that made me think, I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it as much as I thought I would. I’m happy to have plenty to analyze as I read along, but I really wanted to get lost in the story, especially as it’s a young adult novel, and I never found myself fully absorbed in it. I felt distanced the whole time.

The novel tells the story of three young people who are vacationing in Wales; Alison and Roger are half-siblings and Gwyn is the son of the housekeeper. They discover a set of plates in their attic with a mysterious pattern on them, a pattern that when Alison traces it, creates owls. The pattern afterwards disappears, though, and so do the owls Alison has made. Soon the threesome notices a whole series of odd events, including strange scratching noises, objects unexpectedly moving, and walls crumbling apart. Gradually, with the help of Gwyn’s knowledge of Welsh folklore and information from the odd figure Huw Halfbacon, they figure out they are witnessing the resurgence of an old legend about a woman created from flowers who betrays her husband for the sake of a lover.

I began reading the book with no knowledge of this legend, and had to piece it together as I read; I think I might have felt less confused and have enjoyed the reading more if I’d been familiar with it to begin with. It took a long time for the pieces to come together. Rather than enjoying this process of figuring everything out — which is partly what reading is all about, of course — I felt there was information I should have had but didn’t.

The dialogue also felt odd to me, and perhaps this is simply a cultural matter, but the characters talked as though they were older; I had trouble believing they were teenagers. I had to re-read many passages of dialogue because the language and, even more so, the rhythms of their speech felt strange.

But I was fascinated by the class issues the novel portrays, and the way these issues touch on language. Gwyn’s mother chastises him for speaking Welsh because she wants him to leave his rural roots behind:

“You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.”

But Gwyn is drawn to the people and the culture of the Welsh countryside, intrigued by Huw Halfbacon and his mysterious pronouncements. He’s also self-conscious about his accent, however, and worried about whether his mother will allow him to continue his education, and whether that accent will hamper his progress. In one of the novel’s most painful scenes, he wants to borrow Alison’s gramophone to listen to records teaching elocution lessons. He is mortified when Roger finds out about this and mocks him for it.

As the son of the housekeeper, Gwyn is constantly reminded of his outsider status, and often cruelly so; Roger teases and belittles him, and when Gwyn begins spending more time with Alison than the others think proper, they make it clear they do not approve and that they will do whatever they need to to make sure he stays away. Gwyn is a hugely sympathetic character; it’s impossible not to feel for him as he struggles with his attraction to Alison, his worries about his mother, and his curiosity about all the mysteries that surround him, including that of the identity of his father.

So, again, I’m glad I read this, even though I had mixed feelings about it — I do enjoy reading books that make me think, even if a lot of what I’m thinking about is why I’m not loving them.

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Booking through Thursday

Booking through Thursday (A Thursday meme I’m actually doing on Thursday!):

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?
I don’t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that… Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors…

I don’t read this way at all, but perhaps I should give it a try. Instead of looking for books that are similar, I purposely go for ones that are different. My goal is to get variety, not similarity. So if I finish an 18C novel, for example, I might pick up something contemporary next, or if I finish a book of literary criticism, I might turn to science or history. I worry about getting bored or bogged down, I suppose, particularly since it takes me a while to finish a book. And there are so many different things I want to read, that I’m reluctant to read two books from the same general category in a row.

But I do like the idea of letting one book lead to another. It would be fun to see how long a chain of connections I could create. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if I could maintain it for a number of months or even a year? The only way to do it would be to try to make creative connections and bring as much variety into it as possible, to include fiction and nonfiction and books from all time periods. Otherwise, I’d get bored. But if I had a long chain of connections, then I’d have a kind of reading narrative, a story of how all my books fit together. That would be kind of fun, wouldn’t it?

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A Thursday Thirteen

Yeah, I know it’s Wednesday when I’m posting this, but Thursday’s not so far off, and many of you will be reading this on Thursday, so it’s good enough. (The truth is I’m beat by a long day at work, so it’s a perfect day for a list post.)

A while back Danielle posted a list of books she’d wanted to read this year but hadn’t gotten to, and that’s what I propose to do for myself, create a list of this year’s “failures,” or, to be more positive about it, books I’m “saving” for next year. The first six books on the list are classics I’d hoped read this year but didn’t, and the later ones are challenge books I didn’t get to or simply ones I keep longing to read but can’t quite manage.

  • Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I want to read more of the Brontes, Anne and the others. I’ve read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Villette, but there are more Bronte novels than these, and as I love the 19C novel so much, I need to get to them.
  • Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day. I read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel, earlier this year, and Night and Day is her second one, and so a logical next step. Eventually I’d like to read everything she’s written.
  • Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. I’ve had this book on my shelves for ages. I’m fascinated and intrigued by Stein and want to read more of her work, and I think Three Lives is one of her more accessible books. Still, I keep putting it off.
  • Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Another 19C novel I’d like to get to. I’ve read no Balzac, and I don’t think that’s a good thing!
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I can’t decide if this is a book I’ll love or one I’ll be bored by, which perhaps explains my failure to read it thus far. I think I’ll like it, as everything I’ve heard about James intrigues me, and I like reading about religious subjects, but I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps next year …
  • James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Doesn’t the title sound so interesting? Or perhaps it’s just me that thinks so …
  • I committed to Kate’s Reading Across Borders challenge and pledged to read five books for it, specifically, books in translation from countries outside Europe. I’ve managed to read four so far (So Long a Letter, Love in a Fallen City, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and Palace Walk), but I’m having trouble getting to the fifth. I do have a month left in this year, so there’s still a chance I can complete it. I’m thinking Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths might be a good choice.
  • I also hoped to read a science book this year, either Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos or Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. My desire to read science varies, though, and I never got the urge right around the time I felt I could begin a new book, so it didn’t happen. I’m interested in science, but these books are big ones and will be large time commitment.
  • I have a whole list of Janet Malcolm books I’d like to read. There’s her Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, or The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, or her latest one, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. I think Malcolm is an author I’d really like, if only I would actually pick up one of her books.
  • I have never read a Margaret Atwood novel. This is a crying shame, I’m sure. I keep saying I’m going to do it …
  • Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. I believe I listed this as a choice for the Reading from the Stacks challenge I participated in last winter, and it was the one book I didn’t get to. I still haven’t gotten to it, obviously.
  • Any novel by Colette, although most likely Cheri or The Ripening Seed. I read a biography of her not too long ago and thought she was a fascinating person, but I’ve read very little of her own writing, except for My Mother’s House and Sido, which I thought a wonderful book.
  • Boccaccio’s Decameron. Since I wrote yesterday about books with multiple stories and plots, I have this book on my mind, with its 100 stories. It’s another book I’m not sure if I’ll love or be bored by. No way to know but to give it a try, right?

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Novelistic Multiplicity

I have begun reading Patricia Meyer Spacks’s new book on the 18C novel, Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. The front flap declares that the book is intended for a general audience, and so far (I’ve read the introduction and part of the second chapter), this seems to be true. It’s got lots of good information that a specialist would be interested in, but it’s clearly written and engaging and gives all the background a general, non-academic reader would need.

She argues that while critics have focused on realism in the development of the 18C novel, what actually happens is much more complex, and she will look instead at deviations from realism, at the many experiments that authors undertook with narrative forms. She discusses what is for me one of the most exciting characteristics of the 18C novel: the fact that during the 18C there were no novelistic “rules.” 18C writers made up many of the rules we’re familiar with today, but at the time, they didn’t exist. So Spacks’s idea is to focus on the diversity of form, style, and content present in novels, rather than pointing out unities that existed then and that would later harden into rules.

One of the points she makes that particularly intrigues me is about narrative multiplicity versus unity. Many if not most or even almost all early 18C novels told multiple stories; they did not focus on a handful of main characters and develop them in detail, but instead had lots of sets of characters and lots of stories. These stories were often brief and told without much detail. The focus was not on character development, but instead on events, lots and lots of events:

Narrative multiplicity rather than detailed development marks many early-century fictions, apparently predicated on the assumption that readers will not long sustain interest in a single set of characters or predicaments.

Think, for example, of The Decameron where there is a frame narrative but within that frame narrative a hundred stories are embedded. Another example is Mary Delarivier Manley’s work The New Atalantis, which also has a frame narrative that never gets developed in depth, and then the characters tell each other stories, which make up the bulk of the book. Isn’t it interesting to think that readers might not have wanted to read about the same people at length?

What this focus on multiple plots does is to offer the reader a particular kind of pleasure:

… the reader is invited to take pleasure in a collection of happenings linked more by sequence than by logic and to register the excitement of sheer event.

Writing of the early 18C novelist Jane Barker, Spacks argues that

The vigorous, varied, lavishly multiplied narratives that compose her novels declare the power of fiction, not to make the reader suspend disbelief; rather, to make disbelief irrelevant. The pleasure these stories provide acknowledges invention, manipulation, ground-shifting, and the wide possibilities of the reader’s role. Above all, the stories acknowledge their own fictionality.

We are far from realism here. Instead, what we have is such a multiplicity of stories that the reader is not led to believe in any of them, but rather to enjoy the energy and power of them, to enjoy the author’s inventiveness.

Now I must say that none of this appeals to me particularly. I find it hard to understand how readers would find pleasure in all this diversity and multiplicity. I much prefer the unity of plot and the character development that begins to become the norm in the second part of the 18C. Reading story after story after story where the action zips by and the characters are never fleshed out strikes me as wearisome rather than exhilarating. But it’s interesting to think about how different readers’ tastes can be, and I wonder how much of this is a personal matter (perhaps some of you would disagree with me?) and how much of it is a cultural matter — i.e., perhaps we have been trained by the 19C and 20C novel to value depth of character development and unity of plot and that makes it harder to appreciate the fun of multiple narratives.

Spacks’s account does help explain my impatience with The Recess; although it was published in 1783 when the novel was moving away from the multiplicity characteristic of the earlier part of the century, it still is full of plot events and is rather short on character development. It has unity of plot in the sense that it focuses on two main characters, but it’s so full of events, unbelievably full of them that it’s clear it was influenced by earlier forms of the novel. Believability is not the point at all; rather, the point is to see just how much those two main characters can handle.

Now if you’re wondering where a novel like Clarissa fits into this scheme, a novel where practically nothing happens and we are with the same characters for 1,500 pages, it’s evidence, for Spacks, of the diversity of form in the 18C. You can find lots of extremes in the period — short novels and long novels, novels about few characters and novels about many, novels that have lots of detail and novels that don’t, novels with a fast pace and novels with a slow pace. Over the course of the century, many of these extremes began to disappear and novelists found a happy medium. This happy medium would turn into what we tend today to think of as “the novel.”

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Re-reading Nightwood

I finished re-reading Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood a week or so ago, and the experience was … not particularly remarkable. I’ve been hesitant to write about it because I wasn’t sure I had much to say, and I thought the experience should have been more significant than it was. It feels a bit like a reading failure, as though I should now have major new insights into the book, when I simply don’t. I understood more of it on the second go-round, but not a hugely significant amount more. I appreciated the language once again, and perhaps a bit more the second time around, but I didn’t have any new revelations about it. The experience of reading the novel the second time around wasn’t exactly the same as the first, as I felt much more confident in my reading the second time since I knew what to expect, but it was distressingly similar.

Now I wonder if this is the book’s fault or mine. Or perhaps I was expecting too much? I’m thinking it’s at least partly my fault, as others have loved this novel and praised it highly and taught it and published articles on it, and so there must be a lot going on that I’m not getting. But I’m also thinking that perhaps I’m simply reading it the wrong way (or the “wrong” way) — that I’m still struggling for logical meaning when that isn’t what the book is offering me. I’m not saying that the book doesn’t make any sense, because it does, at least in places, but there are many sentences that leave me puzzled. In my re-reading, I was hoping to make sense of more of those sentences, which would then, I hoped, lead me to more insights into the book’s ideas and themes. But perhaps I would have been better off re-reading for the poetry of it, or to get a deeper sense of character (which, I will say, I got). And I don’t mean to imply that reading mainly for logical meaning is superior to reading mainly for the beauty of the language (see this post for a discussion of that issue), simply that reading for language wasn’t my emphasis.

Maybe, though, I should have let more time elapse before a re-reading. Perhaps the first reading was still too fresh in my mind and I needed some time away from the book to let it simmer and stew in my brain for a while.

Is there an optimal amount of time that should elapse between readings of a novel? It seems that if you wait too long, you’ll forget the first reading, so that the second reading is really exactly the same as the first. And maybe if you re-read too soon, the book will be too familiar and the first reading too heavy in your mind to allow you to see new things. Hmmm … I’m not sure.

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Best American Essays, cont.

I’ve been thinking about why I like to read the Best American Essays series, besides the fact that I like essays, of course. I like to read these books because I’m interested in the sensibility that chooses the essays. I like to see how the essay selections differ from year to year, which really means I’m seeing how the definition of “best” can vary. But I also like it that these books get me to read essays I wouldn’t otherwise read. In his introduction to this year’s book, David Foster Wallace starts off writing about how he doubts anybody reads the editor’s introduction first, and that people usually skip around in the book, reading first what appeals to them most and eventually getting around to the other ones, including the introduction, or maybe not even bothering.

But I like to read the introductions first, and I almost always read all the essays, generally in the order they are printed, or something quite close. I like letting another person’s choices guide me, at least for a little while. There’s something appealing about submitting to another person’s judgment, briefly, to see where it takes you. I think this is why so many readers find suggested reading lists appealing: it’s fun to have a little bit of structure, instead of feeling so overwhelmed by all the choices that are out there.

So I tend to be a completist with these books. Disliking or being uninspired by a title doesn’t mean I won’t like the essay, after all, and the chances are decent that if I give a piece a chance, I’ll like it, or at least I’ll find something intriguing or worthwhile in it, or I’ll enjoy not liking it. The truth is, I’m afraid of getting confined by my likes and dislikes — if I choose to read only those things that immediately appeal to me, how will I discover new tastes or ever be surprised?

With this particular volume, the essays are often very political. I’ve come across one on the lead-up to the Iraq war, one on torture, another on freedom of speech, and I know from the introduction that there are more political essays to come. For some reason these political essays don’t strike me as terribly essayistic. It’s not that they are badly written, but I just don’t associate writing on contemporary political events with the genre of the essay. I’m not sure they will stay interesting beyond this time period, except for historians, perhaps. But then I wonder how many of the other, non-political essays will still be interesting in another 100 years or so, except for historians.

But I’m glad I’m reading them because I might shy away from them otherwise, if I’d come across them in their original magazine or journal, and some of them, at least, are worth reading. The one on free speech didn’t impress me very much, but the Iraq war and the torture essays were smart and informative (and scary).

And last night I read an amazingly well-written, gripping, and horrifying essay by Marione Ingram called “Operation Gomorrah” about her experience as a young girl in Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. She tells the story of how she and her mother barely survived a night of bombing. They have to deal with the bombing itself, but also with the cruelty of fellow Germans, because Ingram and her mother are Jewish and others either don’t want to help them or are afraid of risking severe punishment if they do. Ingram describes that night in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact way, not giving much commentary, but sticking to the facts. And those facts! I’ve read descriptions of what it’s like to experience bombings before, but I’ve never read anything like this.

In spite of how horrifying the essay was, I’m glad I read it, and I’m grateful to the series for introducing me to it.

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Auden on Criticism

I have a quotation for you tonight. This is by W.H. Auden (a favorite poet of mine) from “De Droite et de Gauche.” He published it in French in a French journal, and the translation here is done by Richard Howard. I found it in the latest Harper’s magazine. I think the entire quotation is great, but don’t miss the last paragraph in particular:

Criticism is tradition defending itself against the three armies of the Goddess Stupidity: the army of amateurs who are ignorant of tradition; the army of conceited eccentrics who believe tradition should be suppressed by a stroke of the pen in order that true art may begin with them; and the army of academicians who believe they maintain tradition by a servile imitation of the past.

The desire to link art to life, beauty to truth, justice to goodness, almost infallibly leads criticism to utter a host of stupidities; a critic who ignores or represses this concern and contents himself with being no more than an amateur or an historian of art avoids covering himself with ridicule, but at what cost. No one reads him.

Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.

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My Last Frances Willard Post

Yes, I have finished A Wheel within a Wheel and am now very sad that there is no more left. But surely I can find other things Frances Willard has written, such as Writing Out my Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard. There is also a biography of her available.

I’ve valued Willard’s ability to tell some incident or story about cycling and then turn the story into some larger philosophical or moral point; in one of my favorite instances of this technique, she starts off by describing how difficult it is for a person to teach another person to ride a bike because it’s so hard to understand what the other is experiencing, and then she says this:

For one of these [people] perfectly to comprehend the other’s relation to the vehicle is practically impossible; the degree to which he may attain this depends upon the amount of imagination to the square inch with which he has been fitted out. The opacity of the mind, its inability to project itself into the realm of another’s personality, goes a long way to explain the friction of life. If we would set down other people’s errors to this rather than to malice prepense we should not only get more good out of life and feel more kindly toward our fellows, but doubtless the rectitude of our intellects would increase, and the justice of our judgments.

I’ve often thought something along these lines — that when we misunderstand each other or when conflict crops up, it’s so often caused by a failure of imagination. We don’t see what the other person is experiencing and can’t grasp what emotions they are going through. We are quick to think they have offended us on purpose, when they really had no such intention or were simply caught up in their own thoughts and feelings to pay attention to ours.

I also appreciate Willard’s witty turns of phrase. I love her line “the amount of imagination to the square inch with which he has been fitted out” — I wonder how much imagination I’ve been granted for each of my square inches! And then there’s this clever analogy she uses to describe learning how to mount a bicycle:

As has been stated, my last epoch consisted of learning to mount; that is the pons asinorum of the whole mathematical understanding, for mathematical it is to a nicety. You have to balance your system more carefully than you ever did your accounts; not the smallest fraction can be out of the way, or away you go, the treacherous steed [she loves to call the bicycle a steed] forming one half of an equation and yourself with a bruised knee forming the other. You must add a stroke at just the right angle to mount, subtract one to descend, divide them equally to hold your seat, and multiply all these movements in definite ratio and true proportion by the swiftest of all roots, or you will become the most minus of quantities.

And, finally, one more quotation that is not witty but is fascinatingly open-minded. She has just told the story of falling off her bicycle and breaking her arm. Before the doctors treat her, they give her some ether to dull the pain. Under the influence of ether, she has fabulous dreams, and then the most profound feeling of peace and love she has ever experienced settles over her. She is convinced that “there is no terror in the universe, for God is always at the center of everything.” And as she comes out of the ether-induced visionary state, she concludes:

Little by little, freeing my mind of all sorts of queer notions, I came back out of the only experience of the kind that I have ever known; but I must say that had I not learned the great evils that result from using anesthetics I should have wished to try ether again, just for the ethical and spiritual help that came to me. It led me out into a new world, great, more mellow, more godlike, and it did me no harm at all.

She advocates the mind-opening, consciousness-changing recreational use of drugs! Well, sort of. She includes a caution about the danger of such use. But still!

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A Thanksgiving Cycling Adventure

Apparently I am doomed to have one of these adventures at least once a year (click here to read last year’s episode). I was riding happily along, enjoying the warm day (it was probably in the mid 50s when I was riding, although it’s since gotten up into the 60s) when I noticed a bunch of glass on the road, and I was riding right through it. It was too late to do anything, so I kept riding, hoping I’d get lucky.

I didn’t. I got a flat right away, and so I settled in to change it, very grateful it was so warm. I thought I was doing a good job — I got the wheel off quickly (the back one, unfortunately, which is much more complicated to change), got the tire off with a minimum amount of trouble, and pulled the tube out. I knew that I needed to check the tire carefully to make sure the glass wasn’t still there, ready to cause a new flat. I found the place in the tube where the puncture was, found the corresponding place on the tire, and saw that there was no glass remaining. So I was good to go. I got the new tube in and the tire back on, and pulled out my CO2 cartridge. Now I haven’t quite gotten the hang of those things; I always seem to waste a bunch of the CO2, or fail to use the whole cartridge. This time was similar — I got some air into the tube, but it wasn’t a whole lot. I thought it would be enough to get me home, though — I was about 5 miles away — and so I set off.

But the air pressure seemed really low, distressingly low, and so I stopped, pulled out my second CO2 cartridge, and thought I’d try again. Maybe between two cartridges, I would be able to get enough air into the tube. I filled up the tube pretty well this time, and set off once again.

But soon enough I noticed the air pressure getting low again. I realized what I’d done — I’d failed to get all the glass out of the tire and had caused myself a second flat. Now I was really in trouble. I had some CO2 left in the second cartridge, but I didn’t know how much, and I had no bike pump.

At this point I did something silly — and I’m a bit embarrassed to tell it: I began to think that maybe I’d put the wrong tube back in the tire, that maybe I’d accidentally grabbed the one that was originally in the tire, thinking it was the new one. This was highly unlikely, but I was grasping at straws, hoping I could figure something, anything out. I get a little panicky when this sort of thing happens and I don’t always think straight. As I didn’t have anything to lose at this point, I pulled the wheel and tire off again and checked the tubes. I discovered I was right the first time. The problem really was that I’d ruined the second tube, as well as the first one.

So I assembled the tube, tire, and wheel again, resigned to walking home or riding some of the way home on a flat tire, when a woman asked me if I needed help. She surprised me, as I hadn’t noticed her approach; she was out running and had just caught up to me. Thank God! It looked like I might not have to walk after all. I was on a busy street with lots of traffic, but I hate the thought of waving people to stop so I can ask for help; I would have preferred to walk the whole way (on my stiff-soled cycling shoes). But if someone volunteered??

I asked if she had a cell phone, thinking that I could call Hobgoblin to come get me, but she didn’t have one on her. Instead, since her house was just up the road (lucky me!), she offered to run home and fetch her cell for me. So we arranged that I would walk the half mile or so while she ran home to get the cell and that I’d meet her at the end of her driveway. When Hobgoblin didn’t answer the phone, I figured he was out on his own bike ride, but the woman had already offered to give me a ride home, and I gratefully accepted.

On the way there, in one of those odd coincidences, we discovered that she works at the university where I used to work. We didn’t know each other, though.

So, on this Thanksgiving, I’m very thankful for the kind people who offer me help when I do stupid things on my bicycle! Last year it was construction workers and this year a marathon runner and former work colleague. Thank you kind strangers!

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Cycling Fashions

As I hoped she would, Frances Willard discusses the issue of women’s clothing, specifically, what women wear when they ride:

If women ride they must, when riding, dress more rationally than they have been wont to do. If they do this many prejudices as to what they may be allowed to wear will melt away. Reason will gain upon precedent, and ere long the comfortable, sensible, and artistic wardrobe of the rider will make the conventional style of women’s dress absurd to the eye and unendurable to the understanding. A reform often advances most rapidly by indirection. An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory: and the graceful and becoming costume of woman on the bicycle will convince the world that has brushed aside the theories, no matter how well constructed, and the arguments, no matter how logical, of dress-reformers.

Hear, hear! I love the idea that the bicycle could be a driving force behind dress reform — and I love the idea of dress reform! As someone who will never, ever wear anything uncomfortable (no high heels for me, thank you very much!), I find 19C clothing for women fascinating, but absurd. Here is what Willard says about it:

A woman with bands hanging on her hips, and dress snug about the waist and chokingly tight at the throat, with heavily trimmed skirts dragging down the back and numerous folds heating the lower part of the spine, and with tight shoes, ought to be in agony. She ought to be as miserable as a stalwart man would be in the same plight. And the fact that she can coolly and complacently assert that her clothing is perfectly easy, and that she does not want anything more comfortable or convenient, is the most conclusive proof that she is altogether abnormal bodily, and not a little so in mind.

Oh, she makes me laugh. She’s a woman after my own heart, for sure. If I lived in the 19C, I’d be right there with her, wearing my sensible, comfortable clothing, whatever it was that would allow me to move about best. I do wonder if she would be shocked at the cycling clothing of today — all that close-fitting lycra and skin showing. Probably she would be shocked at first, but then perhaps, once she got used to our modern way of dressing, she’d see the sense in it.

The bicycle is capable of changing women’s fashions, and it’s also capable of advancing the cause of women’s equality (the “we” here refers to Willard and a friend; Willard is recounting a conversation they had):

We contended that whatever diminishes the sense of superiority in men makes them more manly, brotherly, and pleasant to have about; we felt sure that the bluff, the swagger, the bravado of young England in his teens would not outlive the complete mastery of the outdoor arts in which his sister is now successfully engaged. The old fables, myths, and follies associated with the idea of women’s incompetence to handle bat and oar, bridle and reign, and at last the cross-bar of the bicycle, are passing into contempt in presence of the nimbleness, agility, and skill of “that boy’s sister”; indeed, we felt that if she continued to improve after the fashion of the last decade her physical achievements will be such that it will become the pride of many a ruddy youth to be known as “that girl’s brother.”

Willard would be a staunch proponent of Title IX wouldn’t she? Her prediction in the last sentence has partly come true, as there many women and girls known for their athletic abilities, but I don’t think we’ve reached full equality when it comes to athletics — I don’t mean equality in terms of ability so much as that of opportunity and social acceptability. Those old “fables, myths, and follies” are still around.

If you’re interested in buying this book, don’t worry that I’m giving away all the good bits — there are plenty of great passages I haven’t quoted.

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Best American Essays

I have begun reading the 2007 version of The Best American Essays. Every year I consider not reading this book, but most years I end up changing my mind and reading it after all; this time around, I saw it sitting in the library and couldn’t resist giving it a look. Last year the editor, Lauren Slater, irritated me, but this year it’s different — the guest editor is David Foster Wallace, and I found his introductory essay both amusing and thought-provoking.

He starts off by saying that hardly anyone reads the introductory essay as an introduction, so you, the reader, are probably coming to him last, if at all. Then he uses that “freedom” — the freedom of possibly not being read and certainly not being considered the most interesting — to express some doubts about the essay form and the book itself:

… just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007′s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of — and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this one requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.

As soon as I read this, I knew I was in the hands of a writer I would like. After the above quotation, he says that surely, after reading such doubts, most readers are now giving up on the introduction and skipping ahead to the essays themselves. But I doubt it, and I suspect Wallace doubts it too. There’s something very fun about deconstructing a project like The Best American Essays even as one is working on it, so I followed him all the way through the introduction and wasn’t tempted elsewhere.

He goes on to say that he’s not sure what an essay is (me either), and, worse, that he not sure about and doesn’t care about the difference between fiction and non-fiction (same here). He also critiques the word “editor,” choosing to call himself “the decider” instead, in honor of our president (and he points out that it’s really Robert Atwan, the series editor, who does most of the deciding), and he shows how the selection criteria for the “best” essays are necessarily arbitrary and biased. He’s happy to point that out directly:

… I have no real problem emotionally or politically, with stopping at any given point in any theoretical Q & A & Q and simply shrugging and saying that I hear the caviling voices but am, this year, for whatever reasons (possible including divine will — who knows?), the Decider, and that this year I get to define and decide what’s Best, at least within the limited purview of Mr. Atwan’s 104 finalists, and that if you don’t like it then basically tough titty.

Yes, exactly. What’s “best” is ultimately arbitrary and let’s admit it outright. So he goes on to describe his selection criteria — no confessional memoirs, no celebrity profiles, no “willfully opaque and pretentious” academic writing.

Interestingly, Lauren Slater in her introduction last year also complained about academic writing, saying that “the academic learns to hide his insecurity behind bloated verbiage.” Wallace has the same doubts, but expresses them much more fairly. First of all, he admits that he is “allergic to academic writing” because he “has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent.” He can be guilty too! But he also recognizes that not all academic writing is difficult or bloated or poorly done. Just some of it is, and that I can agree with.

The end of the essay takes a turn toward the political; he says he prizes essays that make some kind of sense out of what he calls the culture of “Total Noise”:

a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb much less to try and make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.

He has looked for essays that manage facts well, that guide us through the clouds of information we’re so easily bewildered by:

It is totally possible that, prior to 2004 — when the reelection of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct — this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine. In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination” or Elaine Scarry’s “Rules of Engagement.”

I’ve read only three essays so far, two of which have been political in their orientation; we’ll see how many of the remaining ones are. I feel ambivalently about this political bias, but I’ll write more about that later.

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Poetry Out Loud

Cipriano wrote an interesting comment on my post about poetry from yesterday; here’s part of it:

Secondly, I too, prefer to visually SEE a poem, rather than hear it being read out loud. Also, I detest reading aloud, any of my own poems, mostly because how they visually APPEAR [how they are lined out] is as important to me, as what they say, and what they sound like.

I generally assume that poetry is meant to be read out loud, that its origin lies in an oral culture and that this origin has shaped the poetic tradition we know today. I know there are exceptions to this idea — that there are poets who prefer to have their work read rather than listened to, just as there are some plays that the playwright didn’t intend to be performed, even though the vast majority of plays are written for the stage. I’m not sure that analogy works, actually, since performance seems more closely related to plays than oral reading is to poetry. But my point is that I do tend to think of poetry as best experienced out loud.

But I do like Cipriano’s point that seeing a poem can add to its meaning. Seeing where a poet ends the lines and breaks up the stanzas matters (although I can’t always tell you why it matters). And certainly the line breaks don’t always (or even often) come through in an oral reading. I’m not quite sure how one should read the line breaks — I mean, whether one should pause at the end of a line or continue on if the phrase or the sentence continues and there’s no punctuation. Is there a consensus on this? I usually compromise on this matter by making a very short, barely perceptible pause at the line’s end if there’s no ending punctuation, and a longer, more dramatic pause if there is. But I’m not sure what the “rule” is, if there is one.

Then, of course, there are those poems that create a specific visual effect like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” a poem that looks like wings on the page (check out the link for a picture of what the poem looks like in a 1633 edition). Or there are poems like this one from Susan Howe where the words are scattered all over the page, some of them sideways and upside down. It’s not clear at all how one could possibly read that poem out loud.

So perhaps I’m too quick to associate poetry, especially contemporary poetry, with the spoken word.  The picture is more complex than that.

By the way, check out this video of a Billy Collins poem, over at Chekhov’s Mistress.

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Poetry Reading

I spent some time this afternoon reading poems by Billy Collins at a library event; the library has a reading series where they have poets come read their work, and then they end the series with a session devoted to some well-known poet, with local residents doing the reading. I’ve become known to the woman in charge of the series because of the volunteering I’ve done at library sales, and so a few weeks ago, she asked me to participate.

I’m glad I did because it can be so wonderful to hear poetry read out loud, and to read it out loud oneself. We were a small group, maybe 13 or 14, in a small, cozy room, and most people knew each other, so it was comfortable. I had chosen five poems to read, and as I read I was surprised when people found the poems funny and started to laugh. Now Collins can be a funny writer, but I don’t laugh out loud when I read his work. But doing a reading with an audience changes things; what’s mildly amusing on one’s own is laugh-out-loud funny in a group.

I knew that poetry is often meant to be read out loud, and that it’s often better experienced that way, but it’s another thing entirely to experience that directly.

It reminds me of the poetry reading that took place at the conference I went to last month; a bunch of us sat around in a room and read 18C poems out loud to each other. It was wonderful to hear poems I’ve known and read on my own being read out loud; they were funnier or more moving when experienced that way.

I’m not particularly good at listening to poetry if I’m not already familiar with the work; I am such a visual person that I have trouble following words if there’s no text. But when I know the work being read, then listening to poetry is a pleasure. Perhaps I should see if my library has any poetry on CD to listen to in the car … I wonder what that would be like.

Here’s one of the poems I read today; it’s one I teach, as it’s a good way to get students to think about the sonnet form:

Sonnet

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

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Frances Willard is my hero

fwillard.jpg I promise I won’t post on Frances Willard’s A Wheel Within a Wheel every day, but I have come across another quotation I can’t resist recording here:

I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel. I felt that indeed the will is the wheel of the mind — its perpetual motion having been learned when the morning stars sang together. When the wheel of the mind went well then the rubber wheel hummed merrily; but specters of the mind there are as well as of the wheel. In the aggregate of perception concerning which we have reflected and from which we have deduced our generalizations upon the world without, within, above, there are so many ghastly and fantastical images that they must obtrude themselves at certain intervals like filmy bits of glass in the turn of the kaleidoscope. Probably every accident of which I had heard or read in my half-century tinged the uncertainty that by the correlation of forces passed over into the tremor that I felt when we began to round the terminus bend of the broad Priory walk. And who shall say by what original energy the mind forced itself at once from the contemplation of disaster and thrust into the very movement of the foot on the pedal a concept of vigor, safety, and success? I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning-wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair. That which made me succeed with the bicycle was precisely what had gained me a measure of success in life — it was the hardihood of spirit that led me to begin, the persistence of will that held me to my task, and the patience that was willing to begin again when the last stroke had failed. And so I found high moral uses in the bicycle and can commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed.

I feel the truth of Willard’s point that the mind is at least as important as the body when it comes to riding; where I’m limited as a rider, it comes from mental weakness — laziness and fear, in particular. I could work harder and ride more if had more mental drive, and I am limited by my fear of riding fast, particularly in a large, tightly-packed group, and especially around corners. At times I’m haunted by the “ghastly and fantastical images” Willard describes — images of terrible crashes and collisions with cars and severe injuries. This fear probably only hurts me rather than helps keep me safe — I’m not at all likely to be reckless and so don’t need fear to hold me back, and timidity, at least when riding in a group, can get one into trouble.

And yet, on a more positive note, her point that what “made me succeed with the bicycle was precisely what had gained me a measure of success in life” is a wonderful one, and true for me as well; where I’ve had success, it’s come from endurance, doggedness, and showing up regularly, qualities one needs to learn how to ride well. One also needs patience, determination, and the help of a few good friends. It hasn’t been about talent (I have no idea what amount of innate talent I have for cycling or athletics generally — I was a reasonable long-distance runner in High School, but nothing stellar), but about making the best use of whatever ability I’ve got. So I, along with Willard, feel that I can “commend [the bicycle] as a teacher without pulpit or creed.”

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A Wheel Within a Wheel

willard.jpg I am enjoying Frances Willard’s book A Wheel Within a Wheel so much, I’ve decided I’m going to post on it regularly, although it may mean I end up quoting much of the book, as it’s so short. But it has so many gems, I can’t resist. It’s something I could easily finish in an evening, but I don’t want to rush it, and this way I can report on the details better.

One of the things I like best about the book is Willard’s combination of moralizing and rebelliousness. It’s such an odd combination in a way — she seems both conservative and progressive — but when you think about her time period, it makes perfect sense. She’s a “proper lady” in some ways, taking every opportunity to find a moral or a lesson in whatever she is writing about. But she’s also known for trying to shake up the status quo in her roles as a suffragette and as the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And learning how to ride a bicycle at the age of 53 in her day and age is an act of defiance in and of itself. So she sounds both old-fashioned and very modern, and it’s a combination I find amusing at times, and very appealing.

Here is a taste of her style; in a paragraph enclosed in parentheses, she gives this advice about learning to ride:

Just here let me interpolate: Learn on a low machine, but “fly high” when once you have mastered it, as you have much more power over the wheels and can get up better speed with a less expenditure of force when you are above the instrument than when you are at the back of it. And remember this is as true of the world as of the wheel.

She strikes me as someone who would know just how to expend the most force, both on the bicycle and in the world. She is not someone I would want to contradict; when she tells her friends she wants to learn to ride, initially no one approved, but:

they posed no objection when they saw my will was firmly set to do this thing; on the contrary, they put me in the way of carrying out my purpose …

It does not surprise me that her friends would capitulate quickly. She does show a vulnerable side, however, which she reveals in this passage, a passage that also shows her quickness to turn her cycling lessons into lessons about life:

That which caused the many failures I had in learning the bicycle has caused me failures in life; namely, a certain fearful looking for of judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt — at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it.

But I’ll leave you with the most delightful passage, which comes when she hears the bicycle speak to her, in “softly flowing vocables.” Here is what her bicycle says (a long passage, but worth quoting — don’t miss the last paragraph):

Behold, I do not fail you; I am not a skittish beastie, but a sober, well-conducted roadster. I did not ask you to mount or drive, but since you have done so you must now learn the laws of balance and exploitation. I did not invent these laws, but I have been built conformably to them, and you must suit yourself to the unchanging regulations of gravity, general and specific, as illustrated in me. Strange as the paradox may seem, you will do this best by not trying to do it at all. You must make up what you are pleased to call your mind — make it up speedily, or you will be cast in yonder mud-puddle, and no blame to me and no thanks to yourself. Two things must occupy your thinking powers to the exclusion of every other thing: first, the goal; and, second, the momentum requisite to reach it. Do not look down like an imbecile upon the steering-wheel in front of you — that would be about as wise as for a nauseated voyager to keep his optical instruments fixed upon the rolling waves. It is the curse of life that nearly everyone looks down. But the microscope will never set you free; you must glue your eyes to the telescope for ever and a day. Look up and off and on and out; get forehead and foot into line, the latter acting as a rhythmic spur in the flanks of your equilibriated equine; so shall you win, and that right speedily.

It was divinely said that the kingdom of God is within you. Some make a mysticism of this declaration, but it is hard common sense; for the lesson you will learn from me is this: every kingdom over which we reign must be first formed within us on what the psychic people call the “astral plane,” but what I as a bicycle look upon as the common parade-ground of individual thought.

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Letters from a Stoic

1127397.gif I have now finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and found it a bracing read; he has so many fascinating, challenging things to say about what it means to live well and how to find happiness. I enjoyed it partly, I think, because I have stoical tendencies myself; I tend to be a patient, long-suffering person, one who keeps emotion under wraps and is pretty good at accepting what comes my way. Or at least, I project that image out into the world — what I’m feeling on the inside is sometimes something different.

But stoicism is more than keeping a tight rein on emotion. It’s also about working to bring our lives in line with natural principles, so that we’re living simply and rationally, not desiring those things that harm us and instead learning how to live contentedly with whatever happens. It’s about learning to accept death and suffering and to keep desire from overwhelming us and causing unhappiness. At times Seneca sounds like a Buddhist, urging people to recognize the dangers caused by unchecked desire.

I didn’t always agree with Seneca, however. He has a tendency to devalue the body at the expense of the mind and spirit. He wants people to do the bare minimum to maintain physical health and spend all the rest of their time studying philosophy. He thinks of the body as a separate entity from the mind, as a vessel there merely to keep the mind going. It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t particularly like this, as I believe the mind and body have an extraordinarily complex relationship and that devoting time to taking care of the body can contribute to happiness just as studying philosophy can. I also don’t like the way Seneca elevates philosophy above every other discipline; he has a letter in which he compares philosophy to literary criticism, and philosophy comes out way ahead. He makes literary studies seem like a frivolous waste of time compared to the depth and weight of philosophy.

In spite of some disagreements, however, I found much to admire. Here is one passage I particularly liked:

For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui; the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure. Truth will never pall on someone who explores the world of nature, wearied as a person will be by the spurious things. Moreover, even if death is on the way with a summons for him, though it come all too early, though it cut him off in the prime of life, he has experienced every reward that the very longest life can offer, having gained extensive knowledge of the world we live in, having learnt that time adds nothing to the finer things in life. Whereas any life must needs seem short to people who measure it in terms of pleasures which through their empty nature are incapable of completeness.

What we need is not a long life, although a long life can be good, but instead an ability to live fully. If we can live fully, any amount of time we have on earth is enough.

And here’s another fine passage:

… no new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past. Besides, a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking. “But surely you are going to walk in your predecessors’ footsteps?” Yes, indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth lies open to everyone. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.

There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in this book — I like the idea that there “truth lies open to everyone” — and a lot to quarrel with too. Both of these qualities make this a satisfying book to read.

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A Reading Meme!

From Dewey, via Charlotte.

1. Do you remember learning to read? How old were you? I don’t remember learning to read, although I know I learned when I was in kindergarten. My father tells a story about how as far as anyone knew I didn’t know how to read, until all the sudden I came home from school one day, pulled out a book, and began reading. I don’t really remember this though.

2. What do you find most challenging to read? Philosophy and literary theory. I enjoy reading in these categories now and then, but it can be hard work (at least with certain authors). It’s a good kind of challenge, though. A bad kind of challenging read, something I’m no good at? Reading directions. I never read directions; instead I just jump in and try to figure out on my own what I’m supposed to do.

3. What are your library habits? I visit the library regularly for audiobooks, and sometimes when I’m there I’ll check out a book, although I don’t do this regularly. When I check books out, they are usually very recent fiction that’s not out in paperback, and that I’m not sure I want to buy.  Right now I have the 2007 Best American Essays checked out.

4. Have your library habits changed since you were younger? I used to check books out of the library regularly, when I was a kid and didn’t have much money. When I was really young, there was a library within walking distance from home, and I visited it a lot and have fond memories of the place. Then we moved and had to drive to get to a library. Now, I can walk there once again, which is a lovely thing. I should visit more often.

5. How has blogging changed your reading life? Blogging has changed my reading life in tons of ways; I’ve written several long posts about this subject. Briefly, I now read more than one book at a time, I have a long and constantly growing TBR list, which I didn’t used to have, I now read authors I’d never heard of before blogging, and I depend on newspaper book reviews much less. Most of the recommendations I get come from bloggers.

6. What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand book stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other? This has recently changed. I used to get most of my books from new and used book stores, but now, within the last year or so, more and more of my books come from Book Mooch. In fact, most of my books these days come from Book Mooch. I also get a fair percentage from online stores.

7. How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book? I almost always blog about what I read. It’s rare for me not to mention what I’m reading at the very least, and usually I will write a review, with varying degrees of thoroughness and formality. When I don’t mention something, it’s usually poetry, and usually poetry from an anthology — in other words, it’s not a separate book, but a poem here or a poem there.

8. What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books? I don’t mind so much how people treat the physical object (although when people fold paperbacks almost in half to read them, I’m not particularly pleased), but I do get bothered when people dismiss books based on stereotypes — i.e., it’s women’s fiction and so I’m not interested, or genre fiction isn’t as well-written as literary fiction, etc.

9. Do you ever read for pleasure at work? No. As a teacher, I’m required to be on campus for class, office hours, meetings (tons of meetings!), and special events; otherwise, I work at home. This means whenever I’m at work, I’m always working — there’s very little downtime.

10. When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them? I like to give books only to people I know well, people whose reading tastes I’m familiar with. Otherwise, I’d rather give something else, because I don’t want to get it wrong, and give a book that won’t get read. Buying books as gifts is great, but it can be stressful too, because buying someone a book makes a statement about what you think their tastes are. It’s possible to get it quite wrong.

Please, anyone who is interested — give this meme a try!

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A Book about Bikes

16785279.jpg I received a very nice surprise in my mailbox today. I came home to find an envelope that looked like it held a book, so I figured it was my latest Book Mooch request, but when I looked at the envelope more closely, I saw that it was from Stefanie. It turns out she and her husband had an extra copy of Frances Willard’s book A Wheel Within a Wheel and decided to send it along to me. Aren’t they the coolest?

I’m so pleased with my new book. I love the picture on the front cover, and I rather desperately want it turned into a poster so I can hang it in my study or my office (or both). The book was originally published in 1895 and was reprinted in the 1990s by Applewood Books. It’s a very short book, about 80 pages, and it tells the story of how Willard learned to ride a bike when she was 53 years old. Willard, the back of my book tells me, was the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was a well-known suffragette. The back cover offers this quotation from the book about Willard’s cycling costume:

[It] consisted of a skirt and blouse of tweed, with belt, rolling collar, and loose cravat, the skirt three inches from the ground; a round straw hat, and walking-shoes with gaiters. It was a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception.

I’m suspecting she might be horrified by what people wear on their bike rides today. Or perhaps not — I should read the book before I guess what her reaction would be to today’s not-at-all modest cycling outfits.

I’ve read only the first two pages, but already I’ve fallen in love with the book. I can’t resist quoting from the beginning:

… Born with an inveterate opposition to staying in the house, I very early learned to use a carpenter’s kit and a gardener’s tools, and followed in my mimic way the occupations of the poulterer and the farmer, working my little field with a wooden plow of my own making, and felling saplings with an ax rigged up from the old iron of the wagon-shop. Living in the country, far from the artificial restraints and conventions by which most girls are hedged from the activities that would develop a good physique, and endowed with the companionship of a mother who let me have my own sweet will, I “ran wild” until my sixteenth birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels; my hair was clubbed up with pins, and I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taking from its pleasant pasture, “Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.”

How tragic! Oh, I sympathize completely, even though I never experienced such a thing — I know I would have hated it. High heels and corsets! Terrible.

My work then changed from my beloved and breezy outdoor world to the indoor realm of study, teaching, writing, speaking, and went on almost without a break or pain until my fifty-third year, when the loss of my mother accentuated the strain of this long period in which mental and physical life were out of balance, and I fell into a mild form of what is called nerve-wear by the patient and nervous prostration by the lookers-on. Thus ruthlessly thrown out of the usual lines of reaction on my environment, and sighing for new worlds to conquer, I determined that I would learn the bicycle.

“Sighing for new worlds to conquer,” getting mental and physical life into balance, the bicycle as anti-depressant — you can see, can’t you, that I will love this book?

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Book Thoughts

Boy, sometimes Monday hits you hard! I’m feeling rather shell-shocked right now. This is the busiest part of the semester for me, with tons of paper drafts I need to read and comment on and classes to prepare for and meetings to attend and little annoying tasks that come out of nowhere and take forever to accomplish. Plus I want to ride and blog and read, and do all the usual stuff. And I really hate being busy. I don’t thrive on being busy, as some people (amazingly) do.

Anyway, that explanation accounts for my rambling thoughts this evening. So, I’ve begun listening to P.D. James’s The Murder Room, and, oh, what fun it is! Perhaps I should make a habit of listening to mysteries in the car … for some reason mysteries go well with being all on my own in the small space of a car. So far, and I’m not very far into the book, James’s writing is wonderful — smart, literate, entertaining. And there’s something about hearing an actual voice narrating the story that works so well; the reader’s voice is quiet and intimate and also a bit somber, as befits a murder mystery novel. I understand the main character, Adam Dalgliesh, is also in some other of her works, so perhaps I’ll have to seek those out.

I need more light, fun books to read. I’m feeling rather bogged down with Nightwood and The Recess, although I’m almost through with Nightwood, which will free up some time for other things. But, as often happens, the things on my shelves seem too serious. I’m so ambitious when I buy or mooch books, and I forget to think about the times when I’ll need something lighter. Shall I use this as an excuse to go to the bookstore? Or perhaps I can raid Hobgoblin’s shelves for some more mysteries; he’s got lots of Dorothy Sayers’s books and Ellis Peters and at least one Amanda Cross mystery. Perhaps I should throw aside all other reading plans for a while and reading nothing but mysteries until I feel better?

I wish I had another Georgette Heyer novel on hand; that would do quite well too …

My problem is that in the moment when I pick up some difficult book, I’m feeling optimistic and energetic and ambitious. But that feeling rarely lasts during these busy times of the year, and then I feel stuck in the middle of something I don’t have the energy for. If I do this a couple of times, then I’m stuck in the middle of a bunch of things I don’t have energy for. And as I don’t like to set books aside for too long, I generally keep going with what I’m in the middle of. I should just face up to the fact, perhaps, that the slower times of the year are better for ambitious reading, and the busier parts are not, and that’s okay. I don’t have to be reading difficult things all year round after all.

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Talking About Books I Haven’t Read

That’s exactly what I’m going to do in this post, as I haven’t read Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and probably won’t ever. But I did read Jay McInerney’s review of the book from the NYTimes and was intrigued by some of the points it made. While I’m no fan of pretending to have read something one hasn’t (those students in grad school who would dominate the conversation even though they hadn’t done the reading drove me nuts), Bayard makes the larger point that reading is such a complex act that there are many ways of doing it and many ways to relate to a book (see how easily I slip into making pronouncements about Bayard’s book as though I’ve actually read it? Bayard would approve).

There’s skimming, skipping sections, reading about a book, and reading a book and then forgetting about it. McInerney adds the example of the book reviewer who implies that she has read an author’s entire output, when she really has not. And I wonder, while some of these are clearly not reading — reading about a book or implying one has read books when one hasn’t — what about the others? How do you classify skimming or reading everything but the boring parts? War and Peace without the war? Moby Dick without the whaling parts? What about reading and then forgetting? This one interests me most, as it’s the one on this list I do most often (alas). Who has a better grasp of a book, the one who skims or skips and remembers, or the one who has read and completely forgotten? If I’ve completely forgotten a book, should I say I’ve read it? Am I really re-reading if I pick it up again?

Here’s what Bayard says about skimming:

The fertility of this mode of discovery markedly unsettles the difference between reading and nonreading, or even the idea of reading at all. … It appears that most often, at least for the books that are central to our particular culture, our behavior inhabits some intermediate territory, to the point that it becomes difficult to judge whether we have read them or not.

Yes, that makes perfect sense; I love the idea of the intermediate territory between reading and nonreading. Reading is not by any means a clear-cut act. Scanning the words of a book with one’s eyes to comprehend their meaning is both a reductive definition and a complicated one — mere scanning of words doesn’t seem like enough, but what does it mean to comprehend their meaning?

Bayard also writes about the notion of an “inner book”:

The set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it.

Not only is the act of seeing and comprehending words a complicated one, but we also bring a whole host of preconceptions and assumptions to reading that shape our experience of it. We can never escape this background, can never (or rarely) approach a book completely innocently, with no expectations.

While I don’t like the Bayard’s idea that talking about books you haven’t read is a creative act (that puts too much positive spin on it), I am intrigued by his analysis of what it means to read. McInerney ends his review this way:

I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity. On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading.

Perhaps I should read this book after all?

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