The Politics of Reading

Sometimes Twitter seems designed to irritate. Courtesy of social media I find myself clicking on links to articles I’d never see, on sites I’d rarely visit, in the normal course of events. It seldom ends well. Usually I keep my opinions to myself but I found this one post particularly frustrating. Because reading a book is not a political act.  At its best it can be an act of political engagement that leads to political action.  The distinction may seem to be an argument in semantics, but is not.

Just to demonstrate how flawed the logic behind this post actually is, here’s a quick example:  Just because The Hunger Games trilogy deals with the concepts of war reparations,  income inequality, propaganda, spectacle used to control the masses and social revolution doesn’t make you a political activist just because you read the books. If you were to write a paper or an article, link the film to a cause and use it as a bridge to inspire & inform – then maybe.  But for any of those things to happen you must read with an intent other than pleasure & escapism. You must make a decision to take action.

And not all books are political. Historical romance novels make great escapist reading but the vast majority have no viable or actionable political content whatsoever. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King & Arthur Conan Doyle are great writers, every one.  Finding a political message in their books and short stories is going to be a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand – pleasure & escapism are as valid reasons as any to read a book. But the belief that you can passively engage in politics is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. It fosters complacency.  At worst it encourages it.

As in everything else in life a choice exists. A certain amount of active engagement is necessary. Do you as a reader seek out books with a political message – whether subtle or overt? Do the books you read lead you to further explore an idea, a piece of history or a culture? Do you seek out diversity – books written by women, people of color, small presses, self-published, translations? Do the books you read spark discussions on different issues and ideas? Have they led you to support a cause? Or to question your lifestyle? Do they sometimes challenge your beliefs?

I find this post frustrating partly because I don’t believe the idea it professes to support – that reading is political – is actually the argument the author of the post wanted to make.  What I believe she is arguing against is the idea that politics somehow taints the experience of reading. That a reader who chooses to avoid a book because they believe it is political – or refuse to engage in the political component of a book because they dislike the idea of politics – is making a mistake. Politics plays a part in the plots of many of the books we read (though not all) and these books, inevitably, influence our decisions. They shape our opinions.  Readers should embrace rather than avoid this reality.

Because “politics” in and of itself is not a dirty word.

n. 1520s, “science of government,” from politic (adj.), modeled on Aristotle’sta politika “affairs of state,” the name of his book on governing and governments, which was in English mid-15c. as “Polettiques.” Also see -ics.

Reading with political action in mind (or at the very least being open to political theory in what we read) sounds boring – even to me. Or, as is too often the case, divisive. Particularly if you equate politics to Republicans & Democrats, the Right & the Left, Conservative & Liberals, and all those labels that start those god-awful arguments with Uncle Bill during the holidays.  But political parties  – “political allegiances or opinions” as the quote above says –  and politics were not always synonymous. Politics was originally meant to help us navigate our relationships with one another on a macro scale.  To help us find the best way to function as a society. To help us decide whether it is better to help each other or just ourselves.

And even overtly political books don’t always have to be depressing. Or divisive.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is full of hope.  It is inspirational. The authors work to empower women  and believe that the act of empowering women will make the world a better place.  Best-sellers like Reading Lolita In Tehran and Nine Parts of Desire look at the role of women in society – Muslim society in these instances – with the goal of understanding rather than condemning.  Is it so inconceivable to see yourself doing something as small as googling “microloans” or even buying a scarf from a program like Global Goods Partners, inspired by one of these books? A small step, true, but a step nonetheless.

What about novels?  Can fiction inspire political action? Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath are two historical examples of books that impacted society.  Need more contemporary examples?  His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro might have you re-thinking the U.S.’s policy in Central & South America.  The Man With the Compound Eye (about a boy from a mysterious island who lives for a time on a floating island of trash) and The Healer (set in a apocalyptic future) both deal with environmental issues and still remain entertaining/enjoyable reads. Honor by Elif Shafak deals sensitively with the often difficult and complicated subject of the familial relationships of Muslim immigrants. And anything at all by Margaret Atwood falls withing the category of “stories-with-a-message” that I’ve been describing.

Reading is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy; about exploring experiences & perspectives that are different from our own. To me the one (politics) seems entirely congruous with the other (reading). But whether they influence and effect each other – in turn influencing and effecting our lives as readers and citizens – is a separate matter entirely.  It is a conscious decision we need to make as individuals. Perhaps, even, a call to action.

What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.

Europe In Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic (translated from the Croatian by David Williams)

Europe in SepiaDubravka Ugresic’s second collection of essays to be translated by Open Letter, Karaoke Culture, enjoyed quite a bit of success on its release in 2011.  Since then Dubravka Ugresic’s fans have been rabidly awaiting the release of her next book.  Though I haven’t read Karaoke Culture… yet. It’s a lapse that will soon be corrected.  A copy was downloaded even before I finished Europe In Sepia.

To truly appreciate the popularity of Ugresic you have to experience her voice.  Direct, ironic and slightly irritated.  As a citizen (or should I say former citizen? what is exactly is the proper terminology?) of the now defunct nation of Yugoslavia she can legitimately claim the status of consummate outsider.  And so she does – with gusto – spending more then a few chapters focusing on the strangeness of her personal situation.   There is an unanticipated absurdity that comes with being a woman without a country.  Ugresic gets to explore something she calls “Yogonostalgia” in one breath and comment on the quasi-fascism of Starbucks in the next.  In a way she’s the Dennis Leary of essayists – raising an eyebrow at her readers as she describes  the idiocy she gleefully observes happening around her.

When a bouncy young Starbucks barista asked my name for the first time,  I articulated it with conviction and clarity.

“Say what?!”

“Du-brav-ka,” I repeated.

“Say whaaaat?!”

I said it again, and then again, just louder. The people in line were already bitching. A short while later, a plastic cup with “Dwbra” scribbled on it arrived. I relayed the episode to a countryman who lives in Los Angeles, where my Starbucks initiation had occurred.  That was twenty years ago.

“Jesus, what a dumbass! Who told you you’ve got to give your own name?!”

To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me not to.

“I always say Tito!” he fired.

“And?”

“And nothing. I just love hearing: Titoooo, your coffee’s reaaaadyyyy!”

I took his advice and tried using Marx and Engels, but the Starbucks crew didn’t get the message I was sending.  In the end I chose a regular name.  At Starbucks, I’m Jenny.

There’s so much I love about that passage that has nothing to do with the joke (though I love that too): its overall rhythm; the fact that all of Tito’s sentences end in exclamation points; the 3+3 syllabic beats in the closing sentence.  (David William’s translation makes it seem impossible that Ugresic ever meant to express herself in any language other than English). And the fact that the particular essay from which it’s taken is about the career challenges Dubravka Ugresic has dealt, perhaps still deals, with: her name, her gender, her nationality, the fact she’s still alive (dead authors command more respect). All inspired by an innocent question from a child.

Great writing.  Wickedly entertaining.  Not necessarily what you’d expect from a book of essays.

Ugresic  covers all kinds of topics, from Zuccotti Park, to a sketch from the Muppet Show, to the need for a women’s literary canon.  She has a talent for handling serious subjects lightly without trivializing them. The essays on writing, literature and translation were my favorites, but that’s just where my tastes lie.  Europe in Sepia is organized into three sections, dishing out a little something for everyone.  The first section, the titular Europe In Sepia, focuses on the author’s Eastern European ties.  The second,  My Own Little Mission, is oriented more towards pop-culture and social criticism.   In the second section you’ll find an excellent essay Who Is Timmy Monster? (the theme of which is: we are our own worst enemies).  And another on preparing for food shortages –“Thank God I’ve got a copy of the Croatian translation of the famous Apicius cookbook. Flamingo was one of the greatest delicacies on the ancient Roman table and luckily Amsterdam Zoo is full of the elegant pink birds…” – which spurred me to re-read sections of Johnathan Swift’s infamous A Modest Proposal.  Endangered Species, the third and final section, is where the essays on literature are gathered.  Of course there is overlap – all the essays are told from and relate back to the unique Eastern European in exile perspective that is Ugresic’s trademark.  Even Who Is Timmy Monster? is a reference to a Muppet Show sketch that featured Zero Mostel, an American comedian of Eastern European Jewish descent. Europe in Sepia is also  firmly grounded in contemporary culture (something that has me wondering if it will feel dated ten years from now) – Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Clinton and E.L. James all get a mention.  As does a former dictator.  And vampires. And (my personal favorite), she takes a dig at Quirk books classics* series.

You will become a Dubravka Ugresic fan after picking up one of her books.  Don’t bother fighting it.  It’s as inevitable as passing a Starbucks in Manhattan.

Europe In Sepia is rare in that it contains complex examinations of human nature and still somehow manages to be funny (and never sanctimonious).  This book lingered with me long after I put it down. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to it weeks after finishing, flipping through the pages looking for a passage that’s been teasing at your brain. That’s the whole purpose of a good essay collection – to captivate readers; to make them laugh (if they’re lucky); and, hopefully, to  get everyone thinking about the things that matter.

 

 

Publisher: Open Letter Books, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 89 4

 

*In full recognition of my own dorkiness: I just made air quotes at my computer screen. 

 

 

 

 

Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet (translated from the French by Siân Reynolds)

The phantoms on the bookshelves probably aren’t what you think.  Page 110 of Jacques Bonnet’s book of essays defines fantôm as a “sheet or card inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf, or a document which has been borrowed.”  The chapter, from which the book takes its title, discusses the dismantling of libraries.  It is something the author takes very seriously.  Not surprising, as he is the owner of some 40,000 books.

What is unusual about his collecting mania is that, by his own account, he’s not really a collector.  He identifies himself primarily as a reader and, other than its sheer scope and the quantity of books it contains, explains that his library is neither special or valuable.  In fact, he appears to be striving to achieve the exact opposite.

… a monstrous personal library of several tens of thousands of books – not one of those bibliophile libraries containing works so valuable that their owner never opens them for fear of damaging them, no, I’m talking about a working library, the kind where you don’t hesitate to write on your books, or read the in the bath; a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read – including paperbacks and perhaps several editions of the same title – as well as the ones you mean to read one day.  A non-specialist library, or rather one specialized in so many areas that it becomes a general one.

Am I the only one who sees Jacques Bonnet is a role model?

Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a petit trésor that I recommend to anyone obsessed with the physical object which is a book.  It’s an elegant translation – written in a conversational style, discussing in depth the minutia of owning, caring for and housing (never over the bed!) a personal library.  Bonnet peppers his own experiences with stories about literary and historical figures who share his compulsion.  He explores the quirks and issues which only the book obsessed bond over.  Throughout the book his sharp sense of humor is on display.

These are the subjects that booklovers will discuss for hours (if not days, weeks and months).  My favorite chapter is called, simply, “Organizing the bookshelves”.  It contains a funny excerpt from the novel The Paper House which describes the main character, Carlos Bauer’s, aversion to placing two authors together on one shelf after they have quarreled in real life.

‘…for example, it was unthinkable to put a book by Borges next to one by García Lorca, whom the Argentine writer once described as “a professional Andalusian”.  And given the dreadful accusations of plagiarism between the two of them, he could not put something by Shakespeare next to a work by Marlowe…’

Bonnet also provides George Perec’s list of 12 methods of classification.  He then reviews their pros and cons.  Over the years I’ve attempted 6 of the 12.  My books have been shelved by category, alphabetically (at different times) by both author and title, and by color.  I’ve wrapped them in rice paper to create visual uniformity.  I’ve created completely personal systems with shelves dedicated to specific areas of interest: pandemics/disease (containing both fiction and non-fiction), philosophical (where Franny & Zooey cuddled with the Dalai Lama), and Sherlock Holmes (Doyle’s original stories, scholarly articles and pastiches).  To this day Faulkner still has his own little kiosk in my bedroom.   I’ve put series together and organized my art books by size.  The one classification I’ve yet to attempt is by geography… and I don’t foresee myself doing so in the foreseeable future.  Too much potential controversy.  Do you distinguish based on the setting of the action, the original language a book is written in or the author’s physical location (should I use her birthplace, where she spent her formative years or her current country of residence?  Should I care about dual citizenship?).

The fun doesn’t stop at organizing!  Once you shelve the books a whole new area opens: that of cataloging… *goosebumps* ….

(OK, I feel it necessary to state here – despite it being a collateral piece of information and adds nothing to this post – that I use Goodreads to track what I read, but for the actual cataloging of a personal library LibraryThing has, in my opinion, the slight edge).

…This 125 page book contains 9 delightful chapters on topics ranging from the internet, the act of reading, the accumulation of books and “Reading Pictures” (I love that!). At the end is a bibliography of all the titles mentioned and at the beginning is an introduction by James Salter.  Jacques Bonnet has something here to suit every bibliophile’s taste, regardless of whether you write in the margins or not.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves will appear on the bookshelves of a shop near you Thursday, July 5th.  Until then – I’m curious – what’s your favorite way to organize your books?

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York (2012)

ISBN:  978 1 59020 759 8

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

“I could live under a table reading Borges.” – Roberto Bolaño

The covers of the Pearls are minimalist & gorgeous. The orange color block is embossed, as is all the text. And, like every other New Directions book I’ve seen, it’s numbered. Imagine a complete set lined up on a bookshelf… stunning!

Everything and Nothing is a collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ writings, released in a New Directions Pearl edition.  I’m a huge fan of the Pearls – they’re throwbacks to a time when paperbacks came in 4-1/2″ x 7″ format and fit handily inside your jacket pocket.  Ficciones holds a special place in my heart.  But this particular collection is beautiful, compact and contains some of the author’s best work.  If you already know & love Borges, it is the perfect vehicle to become reacquainted.  If you’ve yet to have the pleasure of reading Borges’ sublime (truly!) prose, Everything and Nothing is a powerful introduction to the best of the short stories, lectures and essays.

Borges is one of the few writers I’ll read over and over again.  His prose style is clean, succinct.  It nicely balances out against the complexity and cerebral quality of his subject matter.  The Lottery in Babylon is a story about a society ruled entirely by chance.  At first it seems ridiculous, – a city in which all decisions are made through lottery.  But as the story progresses, the plot inverts and life in Babylon becomes eerily familiar.  The Garden of Forking Paths is spy vs. spy, a labyrinthine espionage tale with a twist at the end you’ll never see coming.  Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is supposedly about the internet… but I, personally, don’t see it.  For me it’s a much more straightforward narrative on the manipulation of reality and history by a small group of individuals.  My absolute favorite of the collection, Blindness, is a lecture Borges gave in the 1970’s.  If I am ever stranded on a desert island I want it with me.

For me to live without hate is easy, for I have never felt hate.  To live without love I think is impossible, happily impossible for each one of us.  But the first part – “I want to live with myself, / I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven” – if we accept that in the good of heaven there can also be darkness, then who lives more with themselves?  Who can explore themselves more?  Who can know more of themselves?  According to the Socratic phrase, who can know himself more than the blind man?

A writer lives.  The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule.  No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six.  Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry.  I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him.  Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds – the strangest world of art – is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him.  For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune.  It may be an instrument.

Four separate translators worked on the stories and essays that make up Everything and Nothing.  Donald A. Yates, who also wrote the introduction; James E. Irby; John M. Fein and Eliot Weinberger.  This is worth mentioning because Borges voice remains consistent from piece to piece, regardless of who is translating.

I don’t speak or read Spanish.  But in the past I’ve read multiple works of a single author, each interpreted by a different translators.  The substitution of one translator for another can be glaringly obvious.  After reading a book translated by Lucia Graves  I went looking for more novels by its Spanish author.  The next book I picked up was (unfortunately) done by a different translator in whose hands the characters became flat and two-dimensional.  I never bothered with that author again.  To the point: With great power comes great responsibility.  The credit for the smooth flow of this collection is a testament to the skill of the translators.  And while I know it must be so, how could the original Spanish possibly be any better?

Please forgive the poor metaphor, but I find reading Borges’ soothing. Comparable to watching words float by on a stream.  Every so often you fish out an idea like so much flotsam.  Sometimes to keep, sometime to throw back.  You can spend hours doing this.  Days.  Possibly weeks.  And be perfectly content the entire time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me?  It’s time to crawl back under my table.

Publisher:  A New Directions Pearl, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1883 2