pre cious adj. 1. of great price or value; costly 2. of great desirability; held in high esteem [precious rights] 3. beloved; dear 4. very fastidious, overrefined, or affected, as in behavior, language, etc. 5. very great [a precious liar]
–Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language
I’m afraid that unless I am talking about babies with fat cheeks and those arms with pale creases that make them look like dinner rolls, I am most likely to use the word precious in the fourth meaning listed above. I loathe preciousness with a fervor that makes me suspect it must be the chief fault in my own writing.
Be advised: this post has little if anything to do with gardening. I own less than half a dozen gardening books and only consult Garrett’s Texas Gardening the Natural Way in any event. Gardening books are not the problem.
I realize blogging is a precious art by definition, but in case you’re not quite sure what “precious” means and you want to see real preciousness in action, check out food blogs. They make me think every adult in America goes to the farmer’s market every day for rhubarb, ramps, and elderberry blossoms in order to put together an unspeakably cool hip healthy dinner followed by a rhubarb clafouti to be washed down with elderberry-flower-infused vodka. But not so much vodka that they cannot put together a batch of perfectly healthy loganberry muffins (gluten-free, agave-sweetened) for the little munchkins’ Montessori class picnic tomorrow.
Really, people? Am I the only one who often makes do with junk food soup and Coca-Cola?
But this is not about blogs, either.
I want to talk about some books problems, which are not only first-world problems but also educated, literate first-world problems. I should be ashamed. To complain about having too many books is absolutely precious in the fourth way, like whining about having too many sports cars or too much closet space. Hold onto your insulin, because I’m gonna do it anyway. Perhaps you might amuse yourself by keeping count of how many precious statements I myself personally can fit into one blog post.
Fifteen minutes ago I was casting about for something to read. I never have anything to read. However, it seems that J.K. Rowling, having run short of millions or finding herself with too much free time on her hands, evidently took up writing detective novels, the second of which has just been reviewed in the New York Times (precious because I need you to know I read the NYT, or at least small pieces of it. See how the game works? No? How about if I mention my recent struggles followed by marked improvements in solving the Friday AND Saturday crosswords?).
Aha! I thought. Such a clever, imaginative writer. Surely her detective novels would entertain me! (Beware exclamation points. Precious.) I went off in search of the iPad (precious because I need you to know I have good toys) so I might download the first in the series, because who wants to enter a series of detective novels late?
Fortunately, the virtual bookstore bore an illustration of the cover of Rowling’s first foray into whodunnits,The Cuckoo’s Calling. I had seen that cover somewhere before. Where?
Could it be?
Eight minutes ago I emerged from the bedroom with the books that had been stacking up on my nightstand. Who doesn’t like to fall asleep to a book, especially when there is no TV in the bedroom? Somehow, though, there had come to be twenty-nine of them. Floyd had expressed concern on more than one occasion that they would fall on Travis in the middle of the night when I turned over in my sleep and swept a hand too close to the pile, frightening the poor shy dude out of his wits and possibly even breaking my glasses.
Of course The Cuckoo’s Calling was in the pile, bookmarked at a page I had no memory of ever having seen. No big loss, as fictionamnesia is a very useful syndrome, allowing multiple readings of even mystery books with no fear of knowing the solution ahead of time. I’m just sorry, as I always am, that this was just another book that fell far short of can’t-put-it-down status.
So I have the problem of unruly piles and stacks of books: read, half-read, nowhere near half-read but abandoned because impossible to get into. Books that were doing just fine until their fickle owner came across a more appealing book: too bad for you, it’s the bottom of the pile for you! Books that had been so full of promise, on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks! Months! Years! Awful books. And yet I have so many.
I must imagine that one day I will be literate enough to read some of them, because they couldn’t have been published if they were truly terrible, could they? Please don’t tell me that terrible books get published, and purchased, and those authors receive checks in the mail that encourage them to write more terrible books. (I think of comic Steve Wright’s line, and you have to say it in his guttural mutter, What if the guy who invented Muzak [beat, beat] invented something else?)
In my day I have possessed many thousands of books, gotten rid of thousands of books, and remain in possession of thousands of books. I love them and I don’t. They need to be dusted a couple of times a year. When you have to put your bedside table stash into the bookcase, dozens of books will have to be moved so the new arrivals can fit into their categories: food, mystery, essays, non-fiction. Why bother? Such a pain.
Almost all of them disappoint me; a number of them I have read dozens and dozens of times. I’m pretty sure I read Jane Eyre at least once a month throughout my entire adolescence. It took me years to get through the first few pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Finally made it. Totally worth the wait, of course.) There is no apparent rhyme or reason to any of these realities.
It’s a problem.
I can say this: I favor non-fiction. At least with non-fiction there are some real people in there, and real things that actually happened. (Yes but well I just finished The Woman Who Wasn’t There, which may be an interesting example of real people who claim a great many things that never happened. Go figure.) Even if the writing is sub-par, peoples’ lives and experiences are interesting enough to transcend the authors’ flaws. Most of the time.
But even then, non-fiction provides an array of backstories that are amusing to ponder. Like Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman. (And you decided that despite all the corpses of slaughtered biographers on this same route that you would attempt yet another biography of Sylvia Plath? What were you thinking, exactly?) Malcolm is a master of writing about the perils of writing about people, weaving backstory and psychoanalysis throughout her narratives and never leaving her self out.
Why did “The Idea of Order at Key West” just come to mind? I see Stevens’s line, “For she was the maker of the song she sang” absolutely capturing and setting the tone for a crucial component of 20th century thought: the old romantic concept of nature’s existence being one thing, our observations of nature another thing, and our utterances about nature’s existence being something else. We can’t really remove ourselves from the equation, so we might as well – as Malcolm does – admit that we were there, and the experience had an impact on us. So long, neutral observer/reporter.
I have always loved biographies because I am nosey by nature. Even as a child I couldn’t quite believe that other, actual people lived behind the facades of all the houses I saw. I thought it was wonderful when we had to go out or come home in darkness, because those brightly-lit windows gave me momentary glimpses into lives about which I knew nothing. (It still amazes me sometimes to realize that people know the same words I know like “countertop,” or “comb,” or that even many famous people know how to do laundry even if they haven’t had to for quite some time. Egocentrism dies very hard in some of us, I guess.)
Right now I’m reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, and shift back and forth between the text and Updike’s own writings – a favorite activity when reading about writers. I’ve read Couples a dozen times for reasons I find hard to explain. As unsavory as the novel’s characters might seem, Updike’s astonishing literary agility draws me in every time. (I’d like to say the same for Rabbit, Run, but those characters strike me as too awful for even brilliant writing to redeem them.)
How is it we can feel great sympathy for some characters and not others? Are all books merely mirrors into which we look, wanting to discover – if not aspects of ourselves – at least pieces of a world we might find familiar? For even people who love science fiction seem to me to be on a quest to find worlds and creatures as different as they have felt in this life. Whatever we may be looking for in books, our searches are at once as individual and as universal as any human experience.
On the topic of sympathizing, I do confess I find it difficult to comprehend how biographers write about the lives of people they so clearly loathe. Thinking now of a biography of Anais Nin I picked up out of curiosity about a writer who had also, oddly, been a hero of mine way back in my poetry life. You can’t count on a “diary” after all, to tell you much about the person who wrote it. Maybe there was a fat book contract that served as down-payment on a house and by the time the author realized that she found her subject a terrible person, it was too late to turn back. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think you should make money writing about someone you clearly despise unless it’s like Hitler or Pol Pot.
I also like essay collections. Essays perfectly fulfill my need for short interludes of reading, and they don’t leave a whole lot of room for dithering. Tell me something, make it new and interesting, make me feel something, and get out. I can read my favorite essays hundreds of times, no exaggeration. My copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is not only puckered from the bathtub and dog-eared from a life of interruptions, it is also redolent with peanut sauce from the Thai lunch buffet I frequented once or twice a week for years. When I go back to those pages I can still taste it, and mourn the restaurant that no longer exists except in memory.
Now that I think of it, there’s nothing about essays that should appear in a piece about book problems. Except for that piece about learning to speak French in Me Talk Pretty One Day that I cannot read in bed (the one about the adult language class) because I laugh so hard every time, I would awaken my peacefully slumbering spouse and our dear dog. All of us who love books know there are many excellent book problems, from I-can’t-make-dinner-I’m-reading to beach sand that falls from between the pages of How to Cook A Wolf, reminding me that I am not now in fact at the beach but will be in a few weeks.
I know people who never eat while they are reading, and people who wouldn’t dream of taking a book to the bathtub. As soon as I recover from my astonishment I find I’m thinking of people who make you take off your shoes before you step into their house. All well and good, but not the way I like to live. Books are to be read all the time, in all the places; and floors are meant to be walked on. (You’re going to have to re-do them before you sell the place anyway. Might as well use ’em up.)
Then too there is the problem of bathroom books. Do you leave some there? Do you carry your current book in and out? Some books cover multiple categories. Shelley Hales’s The Roman House and Social Identity , apart from covering the history category, has provided me with fascinating reading for the past year in our master bath, and it has the scars to prove it. Such signs of wear seem perfectly appropriate for books about antiquity. However, I can’t reliably say that any of my books are sacred enough to be protected from a damp fate, except perhaps the children’s books in which I occasionally indulge.
All my life I’ve been a horrible reader of history, I’m sorry to have to say. I chalk this up to having been taught history as poorly as I was taught math, leaving me with a confusing admixture of boredom and loathing for both topics along with an odd longing to know more about them. This is a problem.
However, I discovered after our visit to Italy last year that like any elementary school child after a field trip, I love to read all about places and things I’ve seen. This gave way to numerous books about Pompeii and Herculaneum. No progress in the math department, sadly; and no place to visit to trigger an exploration. (Fran Leibowitz: In the real world, there is no such thing as algebra.) Math remains one of those universes in which I am lost as soon as the topic moves beyond the four basic operations involving easily recognizable digits.
Some books I keep because I have loved them so much, and have found them beautiful. A tattered library discard from the beach house of my childhood somehow ended up in my permanent possession, and I remember its stories and illustrations as if I looked at that book every day. A few years ago I bought a less tattered version and another book in the same series, to pass along to any grandchild who seemed interested in art or aesthetics (Ray and Marion, are you listening?).
The series was Art Stories, published by Scott, Foresman & Co. in the early 1930’s as part of a grade school art curriculum. Imagine: grade school books devoted to color, form, architecture, and factors that make the human-made world beautiful. For no reason I can explain, that aesthetic, so art deco, was infinitely pleasing to me. I wanted to live inside those illustrations.
The problems of e-books are largely a matter of taste and preference. At first I thought I would find the medium too cold – where is the scent of new paper? How do you find a passage you want to go back to when you can’t envision it on the page, right page or left, a third of the way through the book or toward the end?
But I have a number of e-books now, and they do what they do just fine. I like that when I turn the pages I can see the back of the page I’m turning, just as if it were made of paper, with the light coming through. So the illusion of “book” remains even without the paper smell. Obviously they are handy for travel, with the added benefit of all those games you can play when the books turn boring. And they are extremely handy to read in bed without the light keeping your spouse awake. I even have a very handy cookbook app, though I rarely think to use the thing.
Is it a good thing, or a problem, to be able to buy books while you are lying in bed or traveling to California?
Here’s another books problem: all the thoughts and opinions expressed heretofore are constantly, unremittingly up for grabs.
Example: because it is summer, and because I prefer being outdoors to being indoors, I find a novel about a hot place a perfect fit. Yesterday after my yard work was done for the moment, I took to my garden bench with a drink and Mma Ramotswe. As the afternoon sun drew this part of the world into a scorched stillness broken only by the rustle of leaves and whirring of cicadas over my head, I immersed myself in the folksy world of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
I surprised myself a little while later by posting something in reddit about Grace Makutsi finding a cobra under her bed and having to summon her husband Phuti Radiphuti home from his furniture store to dispatch the creature. I find it hard to imagine that many redditors knew what the heck I was talking about. Nothing new there.
As much as I love non-fiction in almost all its forms, sometimes fiction is the only way to go.