Book shelves series #29, twenty-ninth Sunday of 2012
Lots of hardbacks on this long, long shelf. The Vonneguts above were particularly important to me when I was young. They were my father’s. I read them surreptitiously for years and then outright appropriated them at some point. The matching Dodd, Mead hardbacks were rescued from a school I worked at for years. My wife made the vase that serves as a bookend. The copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell that doesn’t quite fit in the frame remains unread.
The BFG: a classic. I reviewed Wabi Sabi. Next to the Crumb:
I found Holidays in a box of free books in a library lobby. Love it. Here’s this week’s schedule of holidays:
One of my favorite books ever is Mitsou, a book that Balthus did when he was like 10 or 12 or something:
It’s about a young boy who gets a cat and loves the cat and then loses the cat. It’s heartbreaking. Image:
And next to this one:
Book shelves series #26, twenty-sixth Sunday of 2012: Some old art books.
This little shelf sits next to a solitary couch in a den/fireplace room that abuts the eat-in kitchen. The shelf is mostly to hold the occasional drink if feet are propped on the coffee table. There are old art books in here, dating back to high school and college, when my wife and I (separately, of course, in those days) still bought lots and lots of art books, before the internet made accessibility to images so ubiquitous. As such, the shelf holds books that reflected our tastes of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years ago: Lots of Pre-Raphaelite and Romantic stuff (hers) and lots of surrealist/modernist/cubist stuff (mine). Anyway. These rarely get dug out these days. If I want to check out Burne-Jones I usually visit an online gallery.
The portrait of Joan Miro and his daughter in the upper right corner is by the painter who called himself Balthus. I love the painting. It’s deeply creepy but also tender.
1st Gent. How class your man? – as better than the most,
Or, seeming better, worse beneath that cloak?
As saint or knave, pilgrim or hypocrite?
2nd Gent. Nay, tell me how you class your wealth of books
The drifted relics of all time.
As well sort them at once by size and livery:
Vellum, tall copies, and the common calf
Will hardly cover more diversity
Than all your labels cunningly devised
To class your unread authors.
—George Eliot, Middlemarch, epigraph to Chapter 13
Book shelves series #15, fifteenth Sunday of 2012
A new book-case this week; the shorter triplet of the twin ladders seen here. What do the volumes on this top shelf hold in common? They are hardback. That’s about it. Yes, I actually go through The Riverside Shakespeare every now and then, especially when sparking new ideas for class lectures. The Balthus memoir is pretty good. No, I never finished Godel, Escher, Bach. It’s not hardback, come to think of it. The Fallada books are good stuff. Will Dylan ever finish up the Chronicles? Probably not. Maybe so. Who knows? We all love Shel Silverstein, of course.
Novels make lousy gifts.
Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with this little blog, you know that I love novels, that Biblioklept primarily focuses on novels, and that I love books in general. I am not anti-novel or anti-giving-novels-as-gifts. Send me a novel as a gift. I will appreciate it (or trade it toward another book, which is kinda sorta a form of appreciation).
I went to my favorite bookstore today, in fact, to buy some books for Christmas presents. But I restrained myself from picking up novels as gifts.
If you love books like I do, I’m sure that some of your most favorite gifts ever have been novels. Some of my most favorite gifts have been novels. The remaindered copy of The Lord of the Rings (from the South Barwon Library that some friends of the family gave me on Dec. 5th, 1990 when we visited Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida)) is probably one of my all-time favorite gifts. I know the exact date because the nice lady who gave it to me wrote a kind note in book and included the date in her note.
I could never bear to get rid of an inscribed book given as a gift, but lots of people do get rid of inscribed books. This is a monstrous practice, one that attests to just how easily people will discard your oh-so-earnest gifts. If you spend a lot of time in used bookstores (I do) you will come across these sad markings. Because it’s close at hand, and I’m aware of its inscription, I’ll share the note that Jean wrote to Helen (no, of course I know neither of them) in my copy of Balthus’s memoir, Vanished Splendors:
I am aware that the memoir of a pervy artist is not the same as a novel, and that, as my first illustrating example, I already seem to be losing my metaphorical balance, but again, it was close at hand, right near the Tolkien in fact (by the bye, Vanished Splendors is pure gold).
In any case, I think Balthus’s memoir “reads” like a novel, which is to say that it’s mostly big chunks of text that require time and energy to decipher, set against the backdrop of TV, internet, movies, etc. It has some pictures, but not many. There’s no gimmick to it. I’m guessing that Helen just wasn’t into Balthus, or, if she had a passing interest in his art, it didn’t translate into wanting to read his memoir. She certainly didn’t read any of it (yes, I have a special sense that tells me when a book has been read. This baby was a virgin). Every time I look over the book, I feel sorta bad for Jean, whose gift seems to have gone unappreciated (by Helen; not by me. I was happy to pick it up used).
To return to an earlier point: yes, some of our favorite gifts ever might be novels. However, most of the life-changing novels I received were rarely given as birthday or Christmas gifts. They weren’t gifts of obligation, if you’ll forgive the ugliness of that term. Most of the great novels that were given to me were handed along free of occasion, given because the giver thought (knew) I should read them.
At Christmas though, we feel obliged to give. Sometimes we get some great novels as gifts. More often though, it seems like that relative who knows you “like to read” gives you a novel by, I dunno, Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. The worst though are those tiny little hardback books that are designed specifically to be gifts, little faux-tomes of faux-philosophy usually connected to golf or angels or some other bullshit (I was horrified last year when DFW’s “This Is Water” speech got this treatment). Anyway, if you like books, you probably just go trade in this bullshit toward the books you like.
But this post isn’t really about the problem of getting airport novels or gimmick books as gifts. This post is about those of us who insist on giving novels we love to people who we know don’t really love reading novels. Especially really big, somewhat (or very) experimental novels. Important novels. Those novels that we read and decide that everyone needs to read this to become a fully realized human being [gags on that phrase].
I think sometimes we give our friends and relatives novels as gifts because we love them so much and we also love the book so much that we are maybe gunning for an intellectual three-way. We want them to read the novel so that we can share in it together, discuss it, rant about it, argue about it (remember though: that’s what the internet is for).
What often happens though is that these gifted novels (forgive the ambiguous, awkward modifier) tend to lurk about the giftee’s abode, brickishly unread, like dour unwanted houseguests. They skulk at the margins of bookshelves or migrate to the bottom of “to read” stacks; a lucky one might find occasional fingering above a commode. They are ugly reminders to the giftee, signals of how he or she has failed to meet your expectations (your expectations re: 9 or 15 or 25 or 30 hours of her time). (Young people, by which I mean college students in the liberal arts, are the exception here; they probably aren’t going to read the novel, but they are absolutely fine with putting it out for show).
People like books with pictures though, generally.
Even though I think novels tend to make lousy gifts, we should give them to our friends and loved ones anyway, even on those days of obligated giving. We should still offer novels up like they were somehow a part of our own selves in the deluded hope that the giftee will read them and discuss them with us, and that the novel will become an internal, virtual, shared experience. We should give them knowing that it’s likely they’ll go unread, that they may even be a point of shame for the giftee (especially when we ask, “Have you started . . . ?”). We should give them aware that they might point toward our own selfish desires.
Even if a novel may be a gift that implies a certain level of intellectual work, it also implies a sense of trust and respect toward the giftee, and in this sense, giving a loved novel is a clear way to show love.
Flipping through Balthus‘s digressive, discursive, elliptical memoir Vanished Splendors, I came across this notation:
I deeply believe in the genius of painting, which parallels that of childhood. I’ve used painting as a language without really having decided to do so, because it suits me better than writing. Writing tries to be too explicit and go directly to meaning. That’s why I could never be a writer like many of my friends. Some aspects of my life might be clarified by the present short texts, similar to letters. . . . For me, writing can only be in the ellipses, where I express myself; painting conveys this magnificently, sometimes unbeknownst to the painter himself.
Elsewhere, Balthus lists the writers and texts he loves, and gives us (what I believe to be) a great definition for reading:
I often paint young girls who are reading. It’s surely because I saw the act of reading as a way to enter life’s deeper secrets. Reading is the great means of access to myths. Green, Gracq, Char, Jouve, Michaux, and Artuad were frequent passageways, as well as the great holy writings of the Bible and initiates like Dante, Rilke, the Pléiade poets, the great Chinese writers, the mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, not to mention Carroll, the pure German poet Ludwig Tieck, and Indian epics. All these texts and authors were landmarks in my life, and gave me another dimension of time to which I soon felt myself summoned. My young girls who read in dreaming poses are escaping from fleeting, harmful time . . . Fixing them in the act of reading or dreaming prolongs a privileged, splendid, and magic glimpsed-at time. A suddenly opened curtain sheds light from a window and is seen only by those who know how. Thus a book is a key to open a mysterious trunk containing childhood scents. .
But, my favorite lines in the book come at the end of the following passage:
Painting is something both embodied and spiritualized. It’s a way of attaining the soul through the body. . . . Being too cerebral and jokey can obstruct an artisan’s manual labor, and impede the ascent to the soul. Believing that my young girls are perversely erotic is to remain on the level of material things. It means understanding nothing about the innocence of adolescent languor, and the truth of childhood.
Exactly. Whenever I look at Girl with Cat, I think, man, that’s not perversely erotic at all…that’s just the innocence of adolescent languor–the real truth of childhood, actually. Nice try, Count Balthasar.
So today Biblioklept turns a healthy one year old. When I wrote that very first post about A Raisin in the Sun, I had no inkling of the vast riches on my horizon. Ahhh…simple youth. Them were the days, etc. etc. etc.
I’ll celebrate this momentous occasion by recounting my recent trip to my favorite used book sellers, where I loaded up on more than I can possibly read in 2007. Eidetic readers may recall my last book buying spree: I’m happy to report I read 5.5 out of 7 of the books bought on that trip (I’m only counting half of The Portable Faulkner): that’s almost 79%! Not bad. Because that’s what reading’s all about: percentages and stats. Like baseball.
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
I’ve been dipping into the select chapters of FW included in The Portable Joyce for a few years now. I’m currently enrolled in a Joyce seminar but we won’t be reading more than a sentence or two of the book. My professor described it as a “vortex, a black hole from which no one returns.” He said this with a smile and meant it in good humor but maybe he has a point. The book is possibly probably incomprehensible unless you’re someone like, say, Terrence McKenna or L. Moholy-Nagy (whose graphic organizer for FW appears below) or Joseph Campbell.
I recently listened to a series of lectures given by Joseph Campbell on Joyce; Campbell suggests that FW is the dream that happens after Molly and Leopold Bloom fall asleep at the end of Ulysses. Campbell also posits that Joyce has a final book planned that would finish the four book cycle that began with Portrait; he thinks that the book would be very simple and clear and probably short, and would be thematically based on the mother-as-ocean. Campbell’s lectures are brilliant, beautiful, human, and humorous, and best of all, they are enlightening. Besides explicating the book as a whole, he also guides his audience through select sentences of FW in ways that make you go “!!!” Brilliant stuff.
You and I both know that I will probably never read this book in its entirety. That’s okay. It’s a vortex of fun.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
I almost bought this book in the central train station in Rome two summers ago; I bought Eugenides’s somewhat disappointing novel Middlesex instead, because my wife had more interest in it. I’ve actually started the book already (despite having a ton of Joyce and Joyce-related academic crap to read); it’s pretty good. I’ll probably finish it if I can keep up this pace.
Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem
It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Mr. Lethem around the ‘klept. This is supposed to be a mystery novel involving memory-annihilating drugs and thug kangaroos. My plan is to read this over the Thanksgiving break.
Vanished Splendors: A Memoir, Balthus (with Alan Vircondolet)
As with most of the books that I end up buying in labyrinthine used books stores, I found this by mistake. For some reason it was mixed in with children’s hardback picture books. Balthus is one of my favorite painters of all time, so of course I had to buy his memoir. The chapters are short, vague, and achronological, making this a book that you can just pick up and read at random (kinda like Finnegan’s Wake).
Nightfall: Country Lake, David Cunningham and Whistling Thorn, Helen Cowcher
If I wasn’t so lazy I’d go heat up the ole scanner and show you some of the beautiful images in these “children’s books.” I find that lots of children’s “picture” books tend to be condescending or just plain stupid, and finding good ones is not easy. I spent over 40 minutes plumbing through dusty boxes before coming across these two. David Cunningham’s gentle and dark-hued watercolor depictions of a lake at night are deep and soothing, as is the simple text that accompanies the illustrations. Cowcher’s Whistling Thorn details the evolution of acacia, giraffes, and rhinos. Lovely stuff.
Slow Century, Pavement (DVD)
I never look at the used DVDs; I have a Netflix account, library card, and a program called DVDShrink, so if I want to own a DVD it’s a pretty simple operation. Still, there are rare cases where I want the packaging, usually music films like Sonic Youth’s Corporate Ghost DVD. Like the Balthus book, I happened across this two-disc Pavement film among the children’s books. I’d seen it before: the hour long documentary is really good, and the videos are excellent. The concerts…well, I dunno. I’m not really into that kind of thing, unless Martin Scorsese and The Band are involved.
From said documentary: Pavement destroys Lollapalooza in West Virginia:
I think that’s it for this recent trip.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a book theft in our birthday edition, so here goes.
There really isn’t much to this story, and I’m actually deeply ashamed of this one. No irony, no joke. Most of the book thefts I discuss on this site are books that I’ve borrowed and never returned or books that I’ve purloined that no one was going to read anyway. This one is a straight-up theft from an indie book store. Ouch.
When I was a young stupid college freshman (note the defensive tone)–it was my first semester in fact–I had to go to a certain Gainesville book store to buy my course texts. They seemed outrageously overpriced and I was outraged, despite the stipend the state of Florida was giving me as part of my scholarship to buy books (I thought of this as beer money). In order to “get even” with these high prices, I not-so-subtly swiped a copy of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark: I simply picked it up after I’d paid for my course texts, walked out of the store with it, got on my bicycle, road home, and never read it. That was about ten years ago. Mea culpa. I’ve never done anything like that since, and, like I said, I feel bad about it now, so bad that every time I pick up the book to give it a shot, a small shudder of shame creeps through me and I put it down.
So there you go: new books and a book theft. Here’s to another year of cranky commentary with elitist overtones.