Imagine a bookstore as a sanctuary, a place of refuge to read, think, and reflect.
Reporting for The Guardian newspaper, Kareem Shaheen writes about Pages, a bookstore and cafe in Istanbul, Turkey, which serves that very role for Syrian refugees. The bookstore’s founder, Samir al-Kadri, wants nothing less than to “change the lives of Syrian youth”:
“I’m incredibly happy,” said Samer al-Kadri, 42, founder of the first Arabic bookstore in the city. “I get to meet this generation, between 18 and 25 years old. This generation is surprising me with their understanding, their openness, their dialogue.”
More than three million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian, live in Turkey. With Pages, Kadri hopes to create a space for young Syrians curious about the world, who want to escape the isolation of refugee life, and, for a fleeting moment, pretend they are back in their homeland.
Not surprisingly, the most popular titles at Pages reflect a longing for their home country and a recognition of the terrible situation they left behind:
Among the most popular books at Pages are translations of Elif Şafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, which tells the story of the legendary Persian poet Rumi, as well The Shell, a memoir by the Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa detailing his torture and detention in the notorious prison of Palmyra.
The translated works of George Orwell are also popular, particularly Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian fictional worlds of which bear a striking resemblance to [Syrian President] Assad’s police state.
Let’s treasure our access to books
As I read this article, I thought about how easy it is for some of us to take for granted access to books.
I’m especially spoiled in this regard. I live in Boston, which, despite the general demise of brick and mortar bookstores, continues to offer abundant choices for buying and borrowing books. But even beyond such overly bookish locales, good books can be readily obtained via bookstores, online booksellers, used book sales, and libraries. Those on limited budgets can put together a very respectable personal library if they have a sharp eye for bargains.
It should humble the more fortunate among us that young refugees go to Pages bookstore in Istanbul in search of a safe and comforting place to read and learn. Let’s think about that the next time we’re tempted to watch a reality TV show or get caught up in a Tweet storm between politicians or celebrities. A bookstore, library, or simple shelf of books at home is a much better option for enriching our minds and souls.
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
I stumbled upon George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion (2015) at one of the local bookstores earlier this week. After checking out the table of contents and skimming a few chapters, I knew I was going to buy it. This is an exhaustive (just under 600 pp.) examination of King’s body of work and life, and a much needed update of Beahm’s original 1989 edition. You don’t have to be a fanatic devotee of King’s books to appreciate this volume; earnest fandom will do.
If you want to gauge the influence of, and regard for, a contemporary writer, check out whether others are writing books and articles about the author that go beyond reviews of their latest work. If the answer is yes, it means that their work — however “popular” or grounded in a certain genre — has achieved a certain literary quality. There are plenty of writers who continually churn out bestsellers. Few of them, however, inspire others to write books and articles about their books. J.K. Rowling has achieved this status with Harry Potter and Co. The late Stieg Larsson has managed to do so with only three books, his Millennium trilogy crime novels published posthumously.
And then, of course, there’s Stephen King. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about King’s work last November:
On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. . . . King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come.
What distinguishes these authors from other writers of best sellers is that their work has a level of intellectual depth — perhaps with a psychological, social, historical, or philosophical angle — that invites commentary, speculation, and discussion.
So . . . let’s say you’re an avid reader who, like me, has trouble sticking with the classics or the “Great Books.” But you also may not want to spend your time on books that are here today, gone tomorrow. If Shakespeare, the ancient Greek philosophers, Jane Austen, or even Dickens aren’t commanding your attention span, then you could do much worse than spending quality time with modern authors whose work has invited commentary, speculation, and discussion.
Many years ago, my long-time friends the Driscolls gave me the first two books in the Harry Potter series. Give them a try, they said. All five family members were big Harry Potter fans, and they thought that I might enjoy the books.
I did give the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K.), at least a half-hearted try. But after a couple of chapters, I put it aside. I’ve never been into the fantasy genre, and despite the legion of grown-up Harry Potter aficionados, I just couldn’t see what the big deal was all about.
Fast-forward to this week. It dawned on me that I’ve read rave comments about the Harry Potter series from favorite writers, ranging from Stephen King to Brené Brown, praising the stories and their insights on the human condition. I’ve also admired author J.K. Rowling for her down-to-earth demeanor and sense of social responsibility. So I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of giving Sorcerer’s Stone another try, and several friends share effusive praise for the books.
(Slight spoilers ahead…)
I’m now about 100 pages into Sorcerer’s Stone. Folks have cautioned me that it’s a little slow going at first, that the set-up takes a while to build, and that the story won’t start to sparkle until later in the book.
And yet, I already find it charming, engaging, and very, very clever. Of course, as someone steeped in workplace anti-bullying work, I couldn’t help but to pick up on the bullying themes in Harry’s life with the Dursley family. Now Harry is preparing to enter Hogwarts, and I’m excited for him. With Hagrid’s help, he is picking out his school supplies. Rowling captures beautifully the anticipation and nerves that go with starting a new school.
I haven’t read many fantasy or children’s books, but I can tell a great storyteller from an okay one, and this early foray into Harry Potter’s world is enough to show me that Rowling is a brilliant writer. Her ability to create vivid detail and her sense of empathy and humor come through from the start.
Being something of an Anglophile, I love the little references to London, including the Underground and Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at the King’s Cross rail station. As someone who has been around schools and public transportation all my adult life, maybe I’m already identifying with parts of the story!
On Facebook, one of my friends suggested that I suspend my grown up reader’s worldview and let the inner child in me enjoy the stories. The only problem is that I didn’t like to read fiction as a child. I emphatically preferred non-fiction, and my 11-year-old self would’ve rebelled at having to read the Harry Potter stories. Even today, I estimate that some 80 percent of my personal library is non-fiction.
No, mine is more a tale of arrested reading development. Call me a late bloomer, but it’s a twist that I’ve had to go deep into adulthood to be “ready” for the Harry Potter series.
It may take me another week to finish Sorcerer’s Stone, as lately, I haven’t been one to rush through novels and stories. But I’ve already got Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ready to go, so it appears that I am matriculating into Hogwarts as an adult student. Better late than never.
Four times a year, the City-Wide Friends of the Boston Public Library holds a used book sale at the Central Branch to raise monies for their support of the city’s public library system. Usually I stop by in search of bargains for my personal library. But I went to this weekend’s sale with another mission in mind: To donate a dozen of my books.
Yes, folks, although I continue to obtain new books at a regular pace, I am making a concerted effort to thin the herd. Inspired and guided by Japanese “tidying” expert Marie Kondo (author of the bestselling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), I am trying to pare down my book collection from around 2,000 to a more manageable 1,200 or so.
Kondo recommends decluttering by category, in roughly this order: (1) clothing; (2) books; (3) papers; (4) miscellany; (5) items of sentimental value. The first was easy. I sorted out my extraneous clothing in a few hours. Fashion — as anyone who knows me in person will attest — is not on my radar screen. I’ve donated several bags of clothes and tossed a lot of stuff that had been hanging around.
But now I’m tackling my books, and to be honest, it will take me the rest of the year to donate, give away, and otherwise reduce the piles of books in my possession. During 2016, I’ve culled about 100 books.
Why am I doing this? Well, as you can see from photos of some of my bookshelves below, my space at home has basically run out. (It’s worse at my university office.) But more importantly, I am facing the fact that I bought many of these books under a hazy assumption that I would have eons of time to (1) read even the books I’m only casually interested in, and (2) pursue a virtually endless array of writing projects. Now that I’m in my mid-fifties, I know that will not be the case.
Kondo recommends keeping only those books that bring us joy, but that’s an unrealistic standard for me. (Uh, books about workplace bullying and toxic work environments don’t exactly fit that description, but they allow me to do my job.) Instead, I’m simply asking myself what I’m likely to read, re-read, and use during the next couple of decades. I must make choices.
And so I will. It’s not easy; I do have emotional attachments to books. Most of the volumes in these photos are keepers, and many have been with me through multiple moves. But I am taking pleasure in giving away books that may be sources of enlightenment, entertainment, and enjoyment to others. There are a lot more to come.
Among the writers whose books merit the appellation “page turner,” Stephen King ranks high on the short list. After all, millions of loyal readers have been enjoying his books for decades now. He remains a master storyteller who continually demonstrates his growth as a writer.
I’m a Stephen King fan, but not necessarily one of his “Constant Readers.” In fact, since discovering his early works during college and law school (starting with Salem’s Lot, which scared the hell out of me), I’ve gone through lengthy stretches of years when I didn’t pick up a King novel. In recent years, however, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of his books, and I anticipate that his work will be a regular presence in my reading rotation.
During my current incarnation as a King reader, I have moved away from devouring one of his books in a short period of time. Rather, especially for his longer novels, I take my time, usually several weeks.
With that practice of slow reading has come a revelation: Stephen King is a brilliant writer because his stories stay with you over a long stretch of reading time. You get emotionally invested in the plot and the characters, to the point where you can pick up the story a week later and be right back in its world.
Those of you who are avid readers may know the opposite experience. You begin a book that seems promising, but then life intrudes and you put it down for a few days or a week. When you try to pick it up again, even the major characters seem foggy to you, or maybe the developing story simply isn’t all that compelling.
By contrast, I just finished a slow read of Pet Sematary (1983), and oh my, is it good. This is one of his scariest and most emotionally wrought stories, a family-based tale that plumbs the depths of death and loss. For some reason Pet Sematary escaped my attention when it first appeared, but I know that I appreciate its richness more today.
A couple of years ago, I read King’s superb novel built around the Kennedy Assassination, 11/22/63 (2012), in the same fashion. (I took over a month to finish it.) Framed by a time travel device, the story spans several years. Reading the book slowly actually helped me to “experience” that passage of time.
On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. Dickens’s stories also had a slow read quality to them, in his case by design or necessity, as many of his works were serialized in weekly and monthly magazine installments. His plots and characters had to be sufficiently memorable in order to maintain the interest of readers over the longer haul.
Stephen King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come. May I suggest that doing so slowly is a great way to appreciate his great talent?
Not too long ago, a popular Sunday tradition was spending a good chunk of the day reading through the Sunday editions of the daily newspapers. Millions experienced the tactile delight of opening up a big Sunday paper, wondering what interesting stuff waited to be discovered. Even the advertising flyers were fun to page through, especially around holiday season.
The hefty Sunday newspaper has been a journalistic tradition for well over a century. One of my favorite coffee table books is Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) (2005), which celebrates Sunday newspapers published during the turn of the last century.
The World on Sunday and the tradition of Sunday newspaper reading represent an aspect of pre-digital culture that may be hard to understand for those weaned on an online world where wishes for news and commentary are instantly gratified. Fortunately, some of the major newspapers still land on doorsteps with a healthy thud on Sundays, containing some of their best in-depth reporting, feature articles, and opinion pieces.
Growing up in Chicagoland
My Sunday newspaper habit goes back to growing up in Northwest Indiana, where local papers and the Chicago dailies were readily available. Among the Sunday editions that regularly got my attention were the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Hammond Times, and Gary Post-Tribune. The Tribune excelled at covering my beloved Chicago sports teams, and the Post-Tribune did a very good job with local news.
These papers deserve credit for turning me into a Sunday paper junkie. The Chicago influence was especially strong. The Windy City was a great, great newspaper town back in the day, fueled by the city’s colorful politicians, sports figures, and crime bosses. Beyond the headliners, however, the reporters and columnists who toiled for Chicago’s daily papers also had a knack for digging out the stories of everyday people. The human interest story had a regular place in the city’s newspapers.
Sundays in New York
When I lived in New York City (1982-1994), the Sunday papers were a special treat. The Sunday New York Times was an especially heavy load, a multi-pound door stopper packed with goodies and advertising circulars. The early edition of the Sunday Times would come out on late Saturday evening (and still does), and many a weekend night out included picking up a copy on the way home.
My personal favorite, however, was New York Newsday, the now gone NYC edition of the venerable Long Island daily. New York Newsday wasn’t as worldly as the Times, but it spoke more closely to the city’s middle class and did a superb job of covering local politics and sports. Its thick Sunday edition was chock full of extended features and commentaries. To this day, New York Newsday remains my favorite-ever newspaper.
And now in Boston
My Sunday paper of choice remains the New York Times. The Times has not abandoned the idea that the Sunday edition of a newspaper should be something special. I especially look forward to its Week in Review and Book Review sections.
The major daily here is the Boston Globe, and I have an online subscription. I have an on again, off again relationship with the Globe, and for now we are on digital terms only. In fact, despite a surfeit of subscriptions to printed periodicals, I increasingly get much of my news and commentary online.
And to be honest, I wouldn’t trade the remarkable world of information and news available online for the days of waiting for the paper to be delivered. I, too, have been spoiled by point and click access to news coverage from around the nation and the world. However, at a time when we can use more civilized, enjoyable, and affordable rituals in our lives, reading the Sunday newspaper remains a pretty good choice.
This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for another blog three years ago.
Some 12 years ago, when I was in the market to buy a condo in Boston, perhaps my biggest priority was that my new home had to accommodate bookshelves, as in every room save the bathroom and kitchen. My broker was amused. She had facilitated many sales in Greater Boston, but never before had she worked with someone who was so attentive to wall space for placing bookshelves.
During every one of my several moves over the years, more and more books seem to come along. Although I’ve given away many hundreds of books, the number of volumes in my personal library inevitably grows.
Concededly, I can’t keep up with my new treasures. My rate of acquisition outpaces my ability to read. As I wrote a few months ago, if I suddenly had to stop buying books, I would have enough unread volumes to keep me happily engaged for years.
Ken Kalfus and the laments of book buyers
In last week’s New Yorker, writer Ken Kalfus reflects upon the thoughts that swirl in the minds of mature book shoppers, including that mound of unread volumes at home:
I want to buy a book—perhaps it’s a specific book, identified in a review or mentioned by a friend, or perhaps simple intellectual restlessness has put me in the mood to browse a bookstore shelf and find something new. As I descend to the streets of the city where I live, I recall that many fine unread books remain on my overstocked shelves at home. I’m aware of them every hour of the day, even when I look up from the book I’m currently reading. They remind me of promises made to read them when they were bought; some of these promises are now decades old. My shelves also hold certain already-read volumes that deserve a careful, more mature rereading. I should turn back.
I sometimes wish I had that capacity to feel the smallest twinge of conscience about buying another book. But like a favorite dog or cat when it comes to food, I seem to be missing an “off” switch when I walk into a bookstore or shop online. I consider it an act of supreme willpower to walk away (or log off) empty-handed.
Returning to the question
Okay, so let’s get back to the question. Can you own too many books?
In terms of pure physics, I suppose the answer is yes. I mean, if you’re trying to fit 800 square feet of books into a 750 square foot apartment, then you’ve got a problem.
I’ve also read of apartment dwellers so loaded up with books that they’ve had to pay contractors to reinforce the floors, lest their library cause a collapse of epic and life-threatening proportions. Maybe it’s time to ease the burdens on the infrastructure instead.
Otherwise, well, umm, er…I’m not sure.
Ken Kalfus may feel some unease over his neglected purchases, but I find comfort in gazing at my bookshelves and seeing volumes both read and unread. They gently suggest that many old and new adventures await, and all I have to do is pull one off the shelf and open the cover.
Summer reading is a term that catches my fancy every year. It calls to mind images of reading a good book on the beach or in a hammock, with a beverage at one’s side and without a care in the world. (Cue up Seals & Crofts, “Summer Breeze.”) Problem is, I don’t spend a lot of time on beaches, and the small yard of my three-unit condo building contains no hammock, at least the last time I looked.
Summer reading also conjures up a certain type of book, one that appears on erudite lists of, well, suggested summer reading. However, despite the photo above, I actually can’t tell you what staffers for The New Yorker have on their summer reading lists, because I took a quick look and realized that our tastes are, uh, different. But hey, it makes for a nice screenshot.
So what does summer reading mean to me? As an educator, it’s mostly about time to read books that I may put aside during a busy academic year, sometimes with a seasonal twist.
Earlier this week I finished David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (2015). I’ve raved about it so many times to Facebook pals that probably half of them have unfriended me by now. It’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent memory. (For more extended praise, see this piece from my Minding the Workplace blog).
Perhaps McCullough has triggered a summer leaning towards Americana. I’m now reading Hattie’s War (2014), by Hilda and Emily Demuth, a historical novel for younger readers set during the American Civil War. Here’s how the Demuth sisters describe their book:
In 1864 Milwaukee, eleven-year-old Hattie Bigelow, who is more interested in baseball than in sewing circles and other women’s efforts to support the Union cause, loses her back yard to a garden for the new Soldiers’ Home and rebels against her family’s expectations in a society transformed by the Civil War.
Hilda is a dear friend going back to our student days at Valparaiso University. A high school English teacher and novelist, she gave me a copy of her latest when I met up with her and her family during their recent pitstop in Boston. The first clue that I’d like Hattie’s War comes right in the opening scene, with kids playing baseball. It contains a neat little detail revealing that the Demuth gals did their homework in understanding the vintage rules of the game. I can’t claim to be a young reader, but I’m enjoying the book a lot.
The baseball theme continues as well, in the form of John Feinstein’s Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball (2014). It profiles the lives of players, managers, and umpires in baseball’s highest level of minor leagues, called AAA or Triple-A.
Feinstein is one of our best sports chroniclers, and he’s done a great job of capturing both the ongoing draw of the game and the realities of professional baseball played one tantalizing, frustrating step short of the major leagues. So close, but yet so far certainly applies here.
Eventually my reading will break away from the North American continent. Later this summer, I’m presenting a paper at a law and mental health conference in Vienna, Austria. I’ll want to read up on a city that I haven’t seen since a quick visit during my collegiate semester abroad. In addition to a travel guidebook or two, I’m considering crime novels by Frank Tallis (A Death in Vienna, 2005) and J. Sydney Jones (The Empty Mirror, 2009), set in the turn of the last century.
Because I am somewhat undisciplined and impulsive when it comes to pleasure reading, this is not the last word on the matter. At least one of Stephen King’s recent books will likely enter the picture, and maybe one of Alan Furst’s atmospheric thrillers set in WWII-era Europe.
There’s one book, a big bestseller right now, that I’ve been carrying around but just can’t seem to crack: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014). It’s about the “Japanese art of decluttering and organizing,” a talent that I’ve managed to avoid despite my Japanese heritage. Especially when it comes to work, I tend to be the type who creates order from, and makes sense of, what may appear to be cluttered pieces. Alas, this can produce ferocious piles of books and papers, and I’m not good at tossing. Whatever.
I just finished a terrific novel, Su Sokol’s Cycling to Asylum (2014), described by the author as “the story of a family that flees a near-future New York City and crosses the border into Québec by bicycle to demand political asylum.” I’m going to be a bit lazy and let Su’s website synopsis do the work of describing its essence:
…[T]he novel is the story of a voyage, both an actual and personal/metaphorical one. This voyage is experienced differently by each protagonist and it is for this reason that it is told in alternating chapters, using the unique voice and perspective of each of the four main characters. These characters include Laek, a history teacher with a mysterious, radical past; Janie, an activist lawyer and musician; Siri, a tomboy with secrets; and Simon, a dreamy child addicted to violent screen games.
I’m pleased to report that Cycling for Asylum has drama and suspense, compelling characters sharing deep emotions, and a thought provoking political and social context, all sprinkled with clever detail and humor. I read the book slowly, over the course of many Boston subway rides. Its short chapters and compact, memorable story were perfect for that.
Concededly, I’m not an unbiased reader or reviewer. Su is a classmate of mine from NYU Law School, and many years ago she and her husband Glenn lived down the block from me in Brooklyn. During law school and throughout her career, Su has been a strong advocate for the disenfranchised and for social justice, a quality that informs her novel.
Su and I fell out of touch when I moved to Boston, but through Facebook we reconnected. I would learn that Su and Glenn moved their family from New York to Montreal about a decade ago. Earlier this year, Su was making a swing through the Boston area, and we enjoyed a delightful lunch along with her long-time friend (and book cover artist) Lin-Lin Mao. Here’s a photo that Lin-Lin took, with plenty of snow around us:
During lunch, Su told me how important this kind of writing has become to her. That care is evident in Cycling to Asylum, her first published novel. For me, reading it was a fun little revelation. I’d long admired Su’s commitment as a public interest lawyer, a job that often requires the skills of a good story teller to put a client or cause in a favorable light. But a strong knack for advocacy doesn’t make one a novelist, as the world is besieged with wannabe writers holding law degrees! In Su’s case, however, I found myself taken by her ability to create interesting characters and to tell a story.
I’m not a literary critic; I either like a book or I don’t. I really liked this one. While riding on Boston’s Orange Line, it drew me into another world of interesting people and times, a journey for which I am very thankful.