One of my 2019 resolutions has been to downsize my overflowing book collection. I’m actually managing to keep to it, with several dozen books already given away or donated, and lots more to follow. In culling through my books for possible offloading, I’m trying to apply the following test:
- If it’s a book relevant to my work, am I ever likely to use or need it? With work-related titles, I don’t have to read them cover-to-cover. If I can reasonably expect to consult a book at some point for teaching, research, blogging, etc., I’ll hang onto it. Otherwise, I should find another home for it.
- If it’s a book for reading enjoyment, am I ever likely to read or re-read it? For fiction, it means cover-to-cover. For non-fiction, it means at least wanting to dip into a chapter or two.
I’m also using the same screening inquiries for book purchases. Over the past, oh, say, 35 years, I’ve made more impulse book purchases than I’d like to admit. Perhaps I’ve rationalized that this intellectual form of retail therapy is a more virtuous way to lighten my wallet, but it often results in buying a book that sits, unread, on a shelf or in a pile.
Put simply, I’m old enough to be thinking about how many books I can read during the rest of a hopefully decent lifespan. Decisions and choices must be made.
Beware the fickle reading heart
But the reading heart can be a fickle one. Or so it was reinforced to me during the past week or so, when I read with pleasure an espionage novel set in World War II, Alan Furst’s A Hero of France (2016). For some 30 years, Furst has been writing these richly atmospheric novels set in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. As a result, he has a dedicated following of readers and appreciative reviewers.
When I discovered Furst years ago, I thought that I would be one of those fans. The WWII era has grabbed my interest since childhood, and I enjoy reading espionage novels placed in that time. Reviewers have praised Furst’s ability to create evocative, suspenseful tales of everyday people confronted with the on-the-ground evils of fascism and decisions that must be made as a result. And what enthusiast of the genre can resist picking up books with titles such as The World at Night and Foreign Correspondent?
However, several tries at Furst’s books just didn’t take. I sped through one of them and thought it was OK. I read a few chapters of others but never finished. After obtaining several of his books, I eventually gave them away. Something just wasn’t clicking for me, rave reviews notwithstanding.
But a couple of weeks ago, I discovered A Hero of France in yet another pile of unsorted books. A little voice in me said to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. The book’s protagonist is a member of the French Resistance, and the story covers roughly five months. It is written almost as a series of vignettes, sometimes with days or weeks passing in the story, and the reader is left to imagine what happened in between. Different characters come and go as well; some loose ends aren’t tied up. While A Hero of France earned Furst another round of positive marks from book reviewers, some readers who like to have every subplot resolved found themselves lukewarm towards the way he constructed the book.
In my case, however, this time Furst worked for me. I finally got what readers and reviewers have been saying about his ability to recreate this historical time and place. Because the book is written in an episodic way, it made for easy subway reading. One minute I’m stepping into an Orange Line train to take me home, the next minute I’m in a café in 1941 Paris, wondering what will happen when the Resistance members meet up there. Rather than rushing through the book, which I am too often tempted to do with mysteries and suspense novels, I went along for the ride and savored the surroundings created by the author.
Outgoing and incoming
Now, of course, I find myself reacquiring a few of the Furst titles that I had given away. I’m not loading up on them, figuring that after one or two more, I may want to read something else. But I definitely have come to understand the appeal of this author.
So herein lies the dilemma: Will my current round of book culling lead to giveaways of other titles that I eventually will want to read? Am I prematurely giving up on books that I am capable of enjoying immensely?
After a while this starts to sound like a counseling and existential philosophy session for book lovers. Add in the reality that although I love to read, ironically I am not a voracious reader in terms of volume. Even in an imagined retirement, I don’t see myself simply plowing through books.
As I said, decisions and choices must be made. The good news is that I may select from an embarrassment of riches. The process of selecting books for offloading should also reintroduce me to others worth adding to my short list, rather than creating anxiety.
As soon as I stepped out of my home today and felt the near-wintry chill against my face, I knew that I’d be paying a visit to the venerable Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston. You see, for some reason, I associate cold weather with books and bookstores, especially used bookstores. It’s like a Pavlovian response.
The Brattle just happens to be one of America’s truly historic bookshops, tracing its origins back to 1825. It is a treasure trove for those of all budgets. You can watch a short video about it here:
For this visit, I made two purchases: A hardcover edition of Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio (2002), and a beautiful Folio Society edition of Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008). Total tab? $20 plus tax. Darn good.
I also chatted briefly with Brattle’s proprietor, Kenneth Gloss. Along with local radio personality Jordan Rich, he does a regular podcast titled the “Brattlecast,” which can be accessed here. It’s a geek’s delight, full of Gloss’s stories about books, bookselling, and book collecting.
As to cold weather and bookstores: Maybe I simply regard winter as a perfect time to hunker down with some good books. Or perhaps in a past life I lived in London and frequented its quaint little bookshops, following in the footsteps of Dickens & Co. Boston is a fine match for all that. It remains a city where books, reading, and learning still count for a lot. It is steeped in history. And we have real seasons here, including some brutal winters.
In any event, bookstores continue to serve as places of discovery, enlightenment, and sanctuary to me. When the temperature starts dropping, I am drawn to them even more.
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.
Over the years I’ve learned quite well that I am a creature of (1) nostalgia; (2) habit; and (3) cities. All of these came together on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.
As I mentioned in my last post, I made a quick weekend trip to New York to attend a workshop. I decided to extend my stay through Sunday afternoon and play tourist in Manhattan. Well, maybe not as a true tourist, as I spent twelve years in New York (1982-94), but certainly as a visitor enjoying the metropolis.
I started my day with an early lunch at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger, a Greenwich Village diner at Broadway & Astor Place that I’ve been frequenting since my law student days at NYU during the early 80s. Consistent with almost every visit there for some 34 years, I enjoyed a bowl of the Cozy’s incredibly good split pea soup with croutons. Of the hundreds of items on the Cozy’s menu, I’ve probably tried less than a dozen of them: Split pea soup, turkey burger or hamburger, rice pudding (best I’ve ever had), or maybe a sandwich or a breakfast platter for a rare change of pace. That’s it!
Next was a walk up Broadway to 12th Street, home of the mighty Strand Bookstore, one of the largest used bookstores in the nation. When I first visited New York in the summer of 1982 in anticipation of starting law school that fall, the Strand was one of the few things on my must-see list. During law school years and beyond, a weekly visit to the Strand was part of my routine. Back then, it was a crowded, musty, dusty classic old used bookstore, and I loved the place. The Strand has gone slightly upscale since then, but every visit brings back fond memories and yields some new goodies.
I then walked up one block on Broadway to the Regal Union Square Stadium movie theatre, where I saw a revival screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” — my favorite movie of all time — as part of a 65th anniversary celebration of the film’s first release. As I wrote here three years ago, I had never seen this movie until the fall of my first year at NYU, when I was in desperate need of a study break and saw that it was playing at Theatre 80, a famous old revival movie theatre in the East Village. Little did know that within thirty minutes into the screening, I would know it was becoming my favorite movie.
Theatre 80 was small and cramped, but the crowd was loved the movie and applauded after the popular numbers. Regal Union Square had super comfortable seats and a huge screen, but the crowd was more sedate. Given my druthers, I’d prefer the Theatre 80 setting!
When I lived in New York, every week I’d pick up the latest copy of The Village Voice, the legendary alternative weekly. Founded in 1955, the Voice was still very much a part of New York’s cultural, political, and journalistic scene during the 1980s and 1990s. I loved its hard-hitting local political coverage and commentary, taking on the city’s power brokers with gusto. I also looked forward to its event listings, which played to those of us on a budget. Many a weekend was spent at movies, plays, programs, and other events touted in the Voice.
The current issue of the Voice, pictured above, showed how the times have changed. Running across the top was a bow to legendary Voice writer and reviewer Nat Hentoff, an iconoclastic defender of free speech and jazz aficionado, who passed away last week. The cover features were devoted to ways in which we can cope with the ups and downs of 2017, with an emphasis on mindfulness, healthy habits, and decluttering. It’s an interesting collection of articles, but the editors of the Voice circa 1987 would not have gone there.
Of course, anything to do with my experience of New York yesterday and today must include its sprawling subway system. As much as I love New York, its subways — more than any other element of life there — remind me that I now appreciate Boston’s smaller, slower scale in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, say, twenty years ago. The photo above captures just one of two big pages of weekend routing change announcements due to repairs, which are pretty much ongoing. By contrast, Boston’s comparatively compact subway system is much more manageable, notwithstanding its own major needs for upgrades.
And speaking of the creature of habit part, yes, I’ve mentioned most of these places and things on multiple occasions on this blog, usually with the same soggy sentiment. What can I say? They are parts of the story of my life and the sources of many treasured memories. I hope that you, dear reader, are not too weary of reading about them!
Here along America’s east coast, dropping temperatures are reminding us that winter is just around the corner. Boston has been downright chilly, and a quick trip to New York City for a conference had me bundling up tightly. Other parts of the country are getting snowstorms.
When the weather outside is frightful, watching quality TV shows at home — binge viewing, if blocs of time allow — becomes especially delightful. If you’re looking for a sharp, informed, and opinionated guide to the best of the small screen, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (2016) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, is a good starting place.
Sepinwall and Seitz review and rank what they believe to be the 100 best American television dramas and comedies, devoting several pages to each. There are no news or reality shows here; it’s all about scripted TV.
Many of my favorites appear, including no brainers such as “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” and underrated standouts like “Friday Night Lights.” Some of my childhood favorites are here, too, including “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Sorry, fellow Gen Jonesers, but “Green Acres,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “F Troop” don’t make the list.)
Fans of British dramas and comedies will have to wait for a different book. “Prime Suspect,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Monty Python” would appear on many lists of frequent PBS viewers, but not here.
What truly distinguishes TV (The Book) from other “best of” books and magazine features is the quality of writing. These guys know what makes for quality, groundbreaking television, and they’re good at explaining why a show belongs on the list. It’s not all praise, either, as they engage in very fair criticisms of very good shows. It makes for fun reading and good winter TV planning.
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.
This Facebook meme from Buzzfeed caught my attention over the weekend, leading with the tagline “Your dream was to have a gigantic library in your home when you grew up.”
Now, I have to admit that I was not a classic child bookworm. In fact, my reading tastes as a kid were far from being “literary,” and once I got beyond the storybooks our parents would read with us, I resisted just about any type of fiction. In grade school, I preferred books about history, trains, planes, tornadoes, and science. As I went into high school and then college, books about sports and politics appeared on my radar screen. In college I would discover horror, mystery, and suspense novels.
It wasn’t until well until my adult years, in any case, when I started referring to my book collection as a personal library. This was due in part to the fact that the (then cheap) Brooklyn apartment shares I lived in didn’t lend themselves to the use of such lofty labels. But as the dozens of books grew into the hundreds of books, a library they were becoming.
These memories were tapped the other day when I received the latest catalog from bookseller Edward R. Hamilton, a company that has been in business for many decades, specializing in sales of remaindered books. When I was in college, I would pore over their book catalogs in search of bargains that would stretch the dollars I saved up from working at a local drugstore chain. Several times a year, I would make my selections ever-so-carefully, write them down on the order form, and mail it away. I then eagerly waited for my books to be delivered.
Growing up in northwest Indiana, there wasn’t much in the way of bookstores. A major shopping mall had these tiny, hole-in-the-wall B.Dalton and Waldenbooks stores, but their selections were limited. Mail order booksellers like Edward R. Hamilton and Barnes & Noble (then exclusively based in New York City) were a revelation. I would actually feel my pulse race when their hefty catalogs arrived.
Of course, today it’s all different, with book buying options galore. And now that I live in Boston — a city tailor made for book lovers — the local choices are plentiful, even in this era of decline for brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Last week I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the series. A few days ago I started in on book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve never been one for fantasy literature. But I’m now comprehending what the Harry Potter hype has been all about. J.K. Rowling is a brilliant, clever, imaginative, and socially intelligent story teller. And going from book one to two, I am bearing witness to her growth as a writer.
Of course, I may be biased because the stories are placed in a school setting. Hogwarts is basically a junior high and high school boarding institution, albeit a quite unusual one. But because of ongoing references to specific books and courses — a wonderfully imagined “curriculum” on Rowling’s part — it also feels like a sort of Cambridge or Oxford for junior apprentice witches and wizards.
I don’t know if I’ll read the entire series straight through, but I’m betting that I will finish the books by sometime in the fall. It’s fun to lose myself in that world, so I’ll savor the stories rather than speed through them. No need for a Nimbus two thousand here.
I may be just embarking on year two at Hogwarts, but in real life I’m finishing another academic year. Grading final exams and papers isn’t nearly as bad as taking them, but nevertheless I still manage to summon the procrastinatory habits that served me so
well steadily in college and law school. This has been an exhausting semester for reasons that have little to do with my courses or students — let’s just say that the internal politics and drama of academic institutions can be very draining and unnecessary — so I will be happy to close it out.
On a local note, we’re finally seeing some real spring weather here in Boston. I shot the picture below on late Wednesday afternoon. It’s right outside my subway stop in Jamaica Plain, and after exiting the station I sat down on one of the benches and did a bit of reading and catching up on e-mails. For a while I forgot about the pile of exams and papers awaiting me!
One of my favorite boyhood books was Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), a collection of short stories about a group of young science geeks in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls. The boys of the club used their scientific know-how to get in and out of various adventures. They had a clubhouse, scientific equipment scrounged up from here and there, and enough outdoor gear to support their explorations.
With stories like “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Big Egg,” The Mad Scientists’ Club takes us back to a time when kids created their own fun, without having every hour scheduled and coordinated by adults. The unstructured time enabled children to improvise and imagine. More often than not, they, nay, we managed to do so without getting into too much trouble!
Grade school years are a wonderful time to stoke curiosities about science, and The Mad Scientists’ Club captures that fascination. But I know that things have changed. Today, I’m afraid, keyboards, screens, and smartphones might overcome the exploratory instincts of yore.
I caught the science bug early. My first view was to the skies. I became interested in astronomy early in grade school. This was, after all, the early heyday of America’s space program, and our young imaginations were filled with wonder over what might exist above. What would it be like to travel in a space capsule? Is there life on Mars? Do UFOs exist?
Soon my fascination turned toward the invisible, and those curiosities required a microscope. A birthday present in the form of a student microscope (much like the one pictured above) brought enough magnifying power to observe the activities of one-celled animals — protozoa — such as amoeba and paramecia. I read up on early pioneers such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 17th century Dutch scientist who used his own hand-crafted microscopes to explore the world of microorganisms.
The microscope gave me many hours of fun exploration, especially when I made slides filled with stagnant water, blood, tiny brine shrimp, plant cuttings, and other objects. The cheap metal case that came with the microscope opened to form my own little lab in the bedroom I shared with my brother Jeff.
I think it’s more than nostalgia for my childhood — which wasn’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as that portrayed in The Mad Scientists’ Club — that has caused me to go online at times to price out student microscopes and biology kits. I live within walking distance of a pond where I could collect all sorts of specimens to view through a microscope, and I sometimes wonder if I could lose myself in a hobby that appeals to the little kid in me.
For now, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to keep me busy, and I’m not sure where I’d find the time to add another hobby. But I’ll definitely keep this on my radar screen.