Our Books Ourselves

Teatime

Stackridge

Our Books Ourselves

MyLibrarySepia.jpg

My Library

J. D. Wilson, Jr.

There was an article in The New Republic, “Voluminous” by Leon Wieseltier that talks about how the books we read shape the people we become, about how some books will shape our biography. They do not just entertain us or move us, but become us, shape our memories and who we become, or as Wieseltier says “Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography.” A library is more than a collection of books, it contains those books with which we have established an intimacy; we have conversed with them, written in them and they have written upon us.

The photograph above is of my library and it suggests a lot about who I am. It is very diverse everything from Proust to Dr. Seuss; from the earliest myths and folk tales to The Changing Light at Sandover. It is very disordered and serendipitous, with stacks in front of books put away in the more conventional fashion, standing up with their backs to us; with many that were purchased on a whim or because they addressed a topic that at the time fascinated, and probably still fascinates, me. They are hugely overstocked suggesting an appetite that it is impossible to satisfy in that few, and certainly not me, are capable of consuming so much. It suggests my curiosity on subjects ranging from the American West, to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to astronomy, psychology, and “great” thinkers past and present. But mostly there are stories from Scheherazade to Chekhov, from the mighty walls of Priam to Toad Hall and the Misty Mountains. The song that started things is called Teatime by a group I discovered in 1973 while walking through the streets of Edinburgh and one of the universities there (St. Andrews I think). The song is there because tea is an important adjunct to reading. C. S. Lewis once said something about there not being a book long enough or a cup of tea large enough. He said it much more eloquently of course, but I endorse the sentiment.

MyDesk.jpg

My Desk

J. D. Wilson, Jr.

The desk I work at in my library is uncluttered and more organized, though still surrounded by books that have significance for me, Shakespeare’s First Folio (a facsimile, not the original), Aubrey Beardsley’s edition of Le Mort d’Arthur, probably one of my favorite books and one of the books that drove me, in the sixth grade, towards serious literature. I could not read Malory’s and Caxton’s English, though I tried, but I had read one of the stories in my sixth grade reader at school, a modern adaptation, and so I wanted the “big book” the adaptation came from. I struggled with the opening chapters, but unlike some eleven year olds, the book was clearly beyond me. That said, though, any edition that does not open with the words “It came to pass in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that waged war against him a long time” is no edition for me. There is a sense that a library is a self-portrait of its owner and reveals a great deal about the person who possesses it, and is probably a good reason not to show one’s library to just anyone.

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Érik Desmazières: La Salle des planètes, from his series of illustrations for Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘The Library of Babel,’ 1997–2001. A new volume of Desmazières’s catalogue raisonné will be published by the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery later this year. Illustration © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/mar/10/how-we-know/?pagination=false

Of course the quintessential library is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel.” If the library we have speaks to who we are what do the libraries we imagine say about us. The Library of Babel is essentially unusable in its size and complexity though more complete than any could hope for. But part of what makes a real library a real library is selection, a library that includes everything cannot say much about the collector of the library because the only criteria is that it be in print. Theoretically the Library of Congress is something of an accumulation of everything published in America. It represents the depth and breadth of writing in America but being a collection of everything it does not pass judgment, it does not by exclusion and inclusion suggest what is worth reading and what is not. The case could be made that a public library also does not pass judgment on books, that they merely collect, but their collections often represent the interests of the communities they serve, while also including titles that suggest where the librarian thinks the community should be. Where a personal library may be a self-portrait of the person to whom it belongs a public library in many ways is a self-portrait of the community to whom it belongs.

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Self-Portrait at the age of thirteen

Albrecht Durer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Self-portrait_at_13_by_Albrecht_Dürer.jpg

The drawing above and the painting below are self-portraits of Albrecht Durer, one at thirteen and one at twenty-nine. What do these portraits tell us about the artist and how the artist changed over those sixteen years? The first is much simpler and the subject much younger. The painting shows the unique signature that Durer developed, his initials actually, the letter “D” embedded in the letter “A”. Though both are detailed the later painting captures details that are more complex and intricate. The most obvious difference is probably that of color, which is perhaps the primary difference between a drawing and a painting. I have been told that hands are often the most difficult for an artist to do well. The hands in both the painting and the drawing are very well drawn and suggest the thirteen year old Durer was already a master craftsman. For me the significant difference is in what the artist attempts, the painting revealing an artist who has grown in skill and maturity.

DurerSelfPoritrait.jpg

Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe

Albrecht Durer

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/48/Durer_selfporitrait.jpg

Where paintings are snapshots of sorts, they capture a moment in time and the way things were at that moment, a library is more of a living self-portrait, it evolves and grows as its “curator” evolves and grows, and though the painting suggests growth and an evolution of style over the drawing, the painting does not contain the drawing in the same way a library contains some of its earlier manifestations. Also, with the passage of time some things are discarded and others are added. The library reveals the librarian then in two ways. What is discarded suggests those things that are left behind or outgrown; they reveal a change in intellectual, spiritual, and cultural directions. My first library included many Batman and Superman comics that are now no more. My brother picked up for a dime or a quarter a copy of the first Superman comic. He found it in a junk shop when we were children in San Pedro, California. That comic book and many others from about the same period were purchased by my brother and I from an old thrift shop three or four blocks up the street from the old ferry building and the ferry that would take my brother and I to the shipyard on Terminal Island where our father worked. There was a table toward the front of the store where the comics were scattered in no particular order. There were many of them and we would rummage for the oldest Batman and Superman comics we could find. We had never read them so they were like new to us, and a little cheaper than the brand new ones we could purchase at the drug store.

When he threw that book away he threw away what would come to be worth over a million dollars (the copy of the same edition having sold for that much in a recent auction). What does this suggest about the value of books and what we choose to keep and what we choose to discard. Is my library better served by this Superman comic or by the old Skeat edition of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with the navy blue bindings that identify it as one of the Standard Oxford Authors (they are roughly the same age, coming as they both do from the 1930’s)? I suppose how that question is answered says something as well about the keeper of the library and how he has grown as a person and a collector of literature.

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Drawing for the novel The War of the Worlds, showing a Martian fighting-machine battling with the warship Thunder Child

Henrique Alvim Corrêa

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Correa-Martians_vs._Thunder_Child.jpg

There were a number of other articles about books and the kinds of stories people have been attracted to over the millennia. There was an article in the London Review of Books, “Homer Inc”, on The Iliad and why, despite what Matt Damon said in Goodwill Hunting, it has from the beginning always been more popular than The Odyssey, which on the surface seems to tell the better story. There was a review of a book on the illustrations done for The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, “Visions of the Arabian Nights”, and how they have changed over time. There was a third article on monsters and what makes them attractive to readers, “Monsters, magic and miracles”. Each of these articles touches on different aspects of what makes a story attractive and draws readers to it. There are monsters in the Arabian Nights, but there are no monsters in The Iliad though The Odyssey is populated with a healthy number of monsters. It might be said that it is the humans in The Iliad that are somewhat monstrous in their behavior. Perhaps that is what combat does to people or maybe it is just a snapshot of a more primitive people who do view human life in quite the same way we do. There is also, generally, something epic in the battle with monsters, whether it is the Martians in The War of the Worlds or dragons in Beowulf and other stories from medieval Europe.

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Zmey Gorynych, the Russian three-headed dragon

Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/38/Ivan_Bilibin_065.jpg

Monsters engage us perhaps because they are so different from us on one level, but on others not so different. We empathize at least as much with the monster in Frankenstein as we do with Frankenstein himself because we understand the monster’s loneliness and desire for companionship. I enjoy the scene in ET where ET and Eliot first see each other and each is terrified by the “monstrous” appearance of the other. ET needs help and Eliot empathizes with ET’s need, in this we see that they both share a common humanity in spite of their terrifying differences and their shared humanity enables each to befriend the other. This suggests that what makes a monster is relative. Polyphemus was not a monster in the eyes of the other Cyclopes with whom he lived. In my library there are many monsters and many monstrous acts depicted. There are monsters, like Frankenstein’s creature and Quasimodo that draw my empathy and others like Grendel and Wells’ extraterrestrial beings that evoke fear and terror. There are also many ghosts who evoke a different kind of terror. There is something in me that enjoys being horrified and seeks out terror in all its grisly forms.

My Immigration Story

Tan Le

TED Talk

 

The video tells another story of survival and acceptance. It is not a book; it is a video clip of the person telling their story. Oral histories have become more a part of our culture’s historical legacy. Of course there is nothing new in this. In The Last of the Mohicans we are introduced to Hawk-eye and Chingachgook as they discuss, among other things, the relative value of written versus oral history. Neither Hawk-eye nor Chingachgook trust written history, seeing them as shaped more by the interests of the historian than by giving an accurate account of what has occurred. I imagine the veracity of those telling the story, whether written down or spoken, has a lot to do with reliability of the narrative each presents. But how do we classify these stories, whether made up or stating facts? What do we do with films, recordings, photographs, all that other media that tell stories without writing anything down? Many libraries are film libraries or record (CD) libraries. What do these libraries reveal and should an honest “librarian” draw from all forms of story telling? I suppose this is a matter of taste, but Tan Le’s story has some of the qualities of Odysseus’s journey home. There are the predators, the overcoming of the odds, there are elements of fate and destiny. Stories, even true stories, are told after the fact, that is they are selective, events are included others are rejected, based on their relevance to the story being told. This suggests there is purpose to the story, that, even when the story is a true story, a memoir, that there is a kind of order to the events, the suggestion, perhaps, that the outcome was destined.

In the earliest of stories this was true, the Norns or the Fates cut the thread that wove the tapestry of a life when that life reached its end. No matter what the characters involved do, Oedipus will murder his father and will marry his mother. It will all happen inadvertently and no one is to blame for the way things go, but people are accountable nonetheless and all is foreordained. Today it is chance and serendipity that lead to these outcomes. Life is chaotic; there is no order or purpose. When I look at my library it has haphazardly come together the way it has, but there is also a guiding hand, my interests, my values, my tastes in literature; these are the “fates’ that guide my library’s destiny and shape the person my library has made. Perhaps these are the the fates that shape all our destinies. That said, when I look at my library I see the books I have read and collected and they have formed in many ways the person I have become, one can read in them all my strengths and failings, my inadequacies and redeeming qualities. It is where they first took breath.

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Self-Portrait

Vincent Van Gogh

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6b/SelbstPortrait_VG2.jpg

Mindful of the Cost


Bach: Cello Suite #1 In G, BWV 1007 – 1. Prelude
Mstislav Rostropovich

Mindful of the Cost

Scholar and His Books
Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gerbrand_van_den_Eeckhout_003.jpg

The music of Bach has always seemed very contemplative to me, often there is to it a kind of joyousness as well that captures both the introspective nature of scholarship and the pleasure that scholarly pursuits can give. Perhaps I am just superimposing onto Bach my own feelings and interests, who’s to say. Aristotle believed that the desire to learn and develop intellectually is built into every human being and is part of what makes us all human. I think there is truth to this. The painting also captures the contentment the scholarly gentleman it features experiences as well. He looks very at home with his books and his thoughts.

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe, “FreeHarvardEducation.com,” about a web site that makes student notes (and the many of the professors’ lecture notes) available free online where anyone who wishes can read and learn from them. The specific students and professors being discussed in the article are from Harvard University but the underlying issue addressed by the article is “who owns academic work” and the knowledge that is created by study and scholarship.

This is in part why students are required to document the sources of the information that appears in their essays. They are acknowledging that the ideas and information that appears in their papers do not originate with them. But is all that is cited equally original with the source that is being cited in the paper? Is an encyclopedia article that gives information on the French Revolution as entitled to the ownership of the information presented as Darwin is of the Theory of Evolution or Einstein is of the Theory of Relativity? If the student does not quote the article word for word is that student really stealing from the encyclopedia or are they only stating facts that belong to all that have an interest in history.

There is another issue here of course and that relates to preserving the sources of one’s research so that those that come after can duplicate that research. R. C. Bald in his biography of John Donne points out that an earlier biographer, Edmund Gosse, wrote an excellent biography of Donne. But Bald points out that Gosse published at a time when citing sources and printing bibliographies was not as big a concern as it is today. Gosse did the research and prepared the bibliography of that research, but his publisher did not see the importance of printing the bibliography. As a result most of Gosse’s research had to be done over. I think this is an important concern, but the issue is not so much one of who owns the information so much as leaving a trail that those that come after can follow. Even though it is unlikely that the research done by students in a high school English class will be studied by future scholars, the principle is worth learning and the habits of good scholarship are worth developing.

Bangalore Central Library
Mouleesha
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BangaloreCentralLibrary.JPG

There was an article recently in the New York Times, “Despite Ray Bradbury’s Efforts, a California Library Closes,” about how a library that Ray Bradbury had tried to help save last summer was forced to close due to budget cuts and the inability to raise the necessary funding from alternative sources. In the article Bradbury is quoted as saying, “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries, because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” Most of what is worth knowing can be learned at a library. Obviously the bigger the library the more one can learn, but most well stocked and well maintained libraries make a great deal of valuable information available to anyone who wants to learn it. As more books become digitized it is becoming easier to access a good library even if one lives many miles away from the library itself.

National Central Library of Florence
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BNCF_7.JPG

Of course this raises other issues about the ownership of ideas and intellectual property. But as Harry Lewis says in the Harvard article mentioned earlier, “Harvard and MIT and Stanford and Princeton, we’re not Decca records. Our job in life is to provide enlightenment to the world,” says Lewis, an outspoken critic of the way content providers have used copyright law online. “We have to make a living doing it and all the professors have to be paid for their labors, but the notion that universities would inherit the oppressive picture of the way intellectual property is treated by the music industry is really a fundamentally warped view of what the ultimate purpose of universities are.” Lewis believes that professors need to be paid and that universities cannot keep their doors open if they cannot charge for what is taught in their classrooms, but the fundamental mission of a school is radically different from that of a business and that mission should guide the decisions, including the financial decisions, that a school makes. If online libraries and study groups can give more people access to knowledge and scholarship ways ought to be found to accommodate that enterprise.

Portrait of Jean Miélot, secretary, copyist and translator to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Escribano.jpg

The medieval monk in his scriptorium worked daily at preserving the accumulated knowledge he had inherited. Most of what was preserved was religious in nature, but not all of it. Classical works of poetry and philosophy were preserved as well. The Beowulf manuscript was probably preserved by a monk. Snorri Sturluson, a Scandinavian monk, preserved a hefty chunk of Skaldic poetry and Norse storytelling. Those who have read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose can appreciate the irony of a manuscript that was lost when the library that provides the setting for his story burns down. This manuscript also lies at the heart of the mystery the story’s protagonist investigates. The novel at the very least suggests who is the owner of the knowledge, of the scholarship, that is housed in the monastery’s library? Is it the property of the monastery and its leadership and are they free to do with it what they will?

Paper Chase
CBS

The film clip comes from the television program Paper Chase. The program, like the film, focuses on a law professor, Professor Kingsfield, who teaches contract law at Harvard (or at least a very Harvard-like institution). He is an exacting legal scholar who expects his students to be equally as exacting, and equally as brilliant. In the film there is a moment when Hart comes to class unprepared and cannot answer a question that is put to him by Kingsfield. Kingsfield attack Hart and Hart, eventually attacks back. Kingsfield praises Hart, after a fashion, for fighting back, suggesting that what is important to Kingsfield is not being always right or preserving his ego but in teaching his students to defend their point of view and to make that defense intelligently based on the law as it is written. As for many teachers worthy of the name, what is important is honing the students’ skills by whatever means necessary.

So, who owns scholarship; who owns learning? Why do we go to school, why do we send our children to school? Is the purpose of school merely to teach the next generation a trade by which they can earn their bread, or is there a greater purpose? Some derive great pleasure from being able to reason out a difficult problem. Isaac Newton used to calculate logarithms in his head for fun (anyone who has ever had any experience with logarithms can appreciate the mental effort involved in this exercise). Many go to college to make contacts with others that may be important for the advancement of their careers, some want a degree from a prestigious university because of the doors the degree will open when they enter to job market. There is nothing wrong with this way of thinking about education, it is probably what motivates the majority of students, but for the university itself and for the student who wants more from an education than just the degree that comes with it this is not (or ought not to be) what is important. It is not just the preservation of a culture, but a frame of mind that sees the development of a mind as an important and beautiful thing. The bank note pictured below is of a Turkish twenty million lira note, the world’s largest currency denomination. I think it is fitting that the image that graces this bank note is of a library, the ancient library at Celsus. Of course it should not be overlooked that the library on the bank note is a ruin, which should remind us that libraries cannot survive if those that value them fail to preserve them.

Twenty Million Turkish Lira banknote featuring the Library at Celsus
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:20million.JPG


Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells


The Four Seasons – “Spring”
Vivaldi
Nigel Kennedy and the English Chamber Orchestra

Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells

The Los Angeles Public Library Central Library – Pools
http://www.lapl.org/newsroom/central/hi-res/Central_pool.jpg

The music is by Vivaldi and is the opening of the “Spring” section of his Four Seasons concertos. It is bright and upbeat, just like the spring after a dark cold winter. Spring is often associated with new beginnings. The world looks new again; the frosts have passed (if you live in a place that has frosts.). Spring is also when the library book sales begin (some go on all year long, but the spring and summer is a popular time for annual book sales). Since first introduced to library book sales I have been a great fan of them and have found some marvelous books. Right now my favorite is an edition of John Gower’s poetry that was published in the early 1800’s and is bound in rather old and fragile leather.

There was an article in an edition eSchool News recently about the struggles school libraries are having meeting the requirements for 21st century technology standards while maintaining their traditional services. Libraries are marvelous places and most cities of any age or reputation take pride in their libraries. It is an essential part of any school. How, after all, can students be taught to do research, especially historical and literary research, if the school does not have an adequate library. Add to this fact that the world is changing radically and the way research will be done in the very near future bears little resemblance to how it was done when I was in school. How will our students survive in the 21st century world of college and of work if they are being trained for the world as it looked and behaved yesterday? It is expensive to prepare students for the world they will encounter and relatively cheap to prepare them for the world that was. We are living in an age, it seems, where cost takes priority over value.

The image at the top is of the Los Angeles Public Library. It often appears in movies, especially television movies, but rarely as a library. The last time I saw it in a movie it was supposed to be a courthouse. A few years before I moved from Los Angeles to Massachusetts the library was seriously damaged by a fire. The city rallied to restore it by donating large sums of money to restore the building and its collections. Even a local pastor known for his ability to raise large sums of money conducted a few fundraisers in support of the cause. The library was successfully rebuilt and though some aspects of its collection that were lost were irreplaceable (if I remember correctly it had copies of every addition of the Los Angeles Times since it first began publication), it has a healthy collection once again.

I think this is a testament to a community’s commitment to learning. Perhaps times were better than. I think that it is interesting that the symbolism employed by the structure, the pyramid on top being the most obvious, is Egyptian (one of the old classic movie houses was also called “The Egyptian Theater” but it may have disappeared in my absences). I like to think this is a nod to the most renowned of classical libraries, the Library at Alexandria, Egypt. But being next door to Hollywood it may have more to do with the silent film version of Cleopatra.

The Library of Congress main reading room, Jefferson Building
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Library_of_Congress.jpg

The library serves as a kind of symbol of a culture’s literacy and its commitment to literacy and scholarship. This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of famous library reading rooms, that of the Library of Congress and that of the British Museum. Thomas Jefferson sold his book collection to the nation to start the Library of Congress. The British Museum’s reading room has seen many important works assembled beneath its roof and at its reading tables. I am told, for example, that it was here that Karl Marx worked on his Das Capital. On a different side of the coin Mahatma Gandhi also used the Museum’s reading room.

The British Museum Reading Room
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:British_Museum_Reading_Room_Panorama_Feb_2006.jpg

There is something inspiring about the thought of so many people doing serious scholarship (and I am sure some not so serious scholarship as well) at these tables jammed on top of each other. If everyone did not work quietly it would be very difficult for anyone to work at all. The Library of Congress, at least in this photograph, has only tables, books and papers, while the British Museum Reading Room is equipped with banks of computers. I have not seen a card catalog in a library in a very long time and I imagine even in the Library of Congress the traditional catalog is being replaced by the computer and the digital card catalog. Maybe not, it is one of those things I will have to check out.

There was an article in the Sunday Guardian on The Free Access World Digital Library. According to the article a number of the world’s major libraries worked together to put their collections online so that they could be accessed anywhere by anyone. The project was the idea of the librarian of the Library of Congress. When the European version was given a test drive it had so many visitors it had to shut down temporarily because it could not handle the traffic. For those interested in seeing a sample of what the library houses there is an online sampler of sorts. The irony of this is that about a month earlier The Guardian published a different article on the disappearing libraries (actually it is series of photographs of library scenes, one of which is the original British Museum reading room). It is odd that at a time the “World Library” suggests the interest in libraries is great, libraries are struggling to survive.

I have an iPod Touch. I also learned this week that through Google Books I can gain access, when I am online, to a huge library of digitized books. This library is available to anyone with a computer, a smart phone, or a device like the iPod Touch. This suggests, among other things, that the library of the future will be a very different place. Copyright laws and such have to be worked out, but that is likely only a matter of time (I suppose until those with the power to say yes recognize a library is a library). My iPod already has about fifty books on it and with the Google app I have access to thousands of books, as long as I also have access to the web and the server is not down.

St Jerome Reading in the Countryside
Giovanni Bellini
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Giovanni_Bellini_St_Jerome_Reading_in_the_Countryside.jpg

If one does not look too intently one could almost imagine that the book in front of St. Jerome is in fact a Kindle. Jerome lived in a time when a book was copied by hand and was probably quite costly. About a thousand years later Gutenberg and moveable type made books available to most anyone who could read one and about two thirds of a millennia later books as we know them are perhaps becoming obsolete. The book itself, though, will probably take on another incarnation and survive in a somewhat different form for another millennia or two.

The City of Dreaming Books Virtual Book Club (suggested by Walter Moers book The City of Dreaming Books)

The film clip shows strange creatures in pursuit of knowledge, learning, and a good story. In the book that inspired the clip a bookstore or a library can be a dangerous place and the championing of a literary text could get a person in very serious trouble. Perhaps a book is a dangerous thing. The ideas found in Jefferson’s library inspired a revolution, as did the ideas developed in the great library of Britain. What is the difference between a good idea and a dangerous one, ideas like Jefferson’s and Ideas like those of Marx? Is it Marx’s ideas that are dangerous or only the way that those ideas were implemented? Like many valuable things in life thought and the ideas that thought produces come with their own special dangers.

The photo of Radcliffe Camera of Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bodleian_Library.jpg

The Bodleian Library is affiliated with one of the word’s oldest and most prestigious universities. The Radcliffe Camera originally housed the science library and dates back to the eighteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century it was made a part of the Bodleian, the Universities principle library. J. R. R. Tolkien, according to Wikipedia, thought this building looked like Sauron’s Temple to Morgoth, which suggests a view of some towards libraries, especially libraries dedicated to science. Perhaps Tolkien’s view of this library has more to do with the time he spent there as an undergraduate than with his view of libraries in general.

I think libraries are exciting places, especially in springtime. Harold Bloom talks about reading his way through libraries. He read the books of various libraries, though I do not know if that means he read everything or only the things that interested him. I have never read my way through a library but the idea is an appealing one, though probably unlikely for one with a reading speed like mine. It was said of Milton that he had read every book that was available in print in his lifetime. He was a very learned man, and knew enough and read enough to make the story plausible. If Google and all the other folks trying to digitize libraries are successful it may not be long before we can carry in our pockets every book that Milton was thought to have read, even if we cannot find the time to read them ourselves.


Reading by the Book


“I’ll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book”
Jimmy Durante

Reading by the Book

Library of Alençon
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bibliotheque_alencon_670px.jpg

There is in Durante’s song an attitude towards reading that reflects the attitude of many today, especially those who are in the process of receiving an education. The song is from the 1940’s, as near as I can tell, which suggests that unfriendly attitudes towards books and reading is not a new thing. Mark Twain in his definition of a classic (“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”) captured a similar sentiment.

A book published last year, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard takes this idea a step further by instructing us how to sound knowledgeable about books we have not only not read but have no real desire to read, while also recognizing that there is an image that attaches to a well read person that many who are not well read would like to project. Andre Agassi sold tennis shoes by telling us, “image is everything”, though he probably did not say it first. And he cultivated the image of a champion long before he became successful at actually winning major tournaments. So why is it that so many people do not want to read but want the circles in which they move to think they do?

Inscription regarding Tiberius Claudius Babillus of Rome (d. 56 CE) which confirms that the Library of Alexandria must have existed in some form in the first century AD.”Forschungen in Ephesos”, Vol. III, Vienna 1923, p.128.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alexandria_Library_Inscription.jpg

This inscription from the first century makes a reference to the ancient Library at Alexandria. It was destroyed on three separate occasions and on all but the last occasion rebuilt. It is said to be the first library that aspired to assemble a serious collection of books and actively sought out books from all parts of the then known world. To this day most communities in America recognize the importance of having a town library, though the library is often one of the first institutions to lose funding when the economy becomes troublesome.

I live a few miles from one of the oldest libraries in the country, The Boston Public Library. It is an impressive place to visit. It is not just a collection of books, but of sculpture and painting as well. There is a collection of murals by John Singer Sargent that have recently been restored among other exhibits in the library that attest to its value as more than a book depository. The New York City Public Library has a cottage industry of sorts accumulating lists of facts and information contained in its collection and publishing them in books under their imprimatur.

If the culture seems to care so little for books why does it go to such lengths to accumulate them and make them available to people, especially if people do not want to read them? Is it just so people can sound credible when they claim to have read a book they have never owned? I think that in spite of what some people say, including many students who do not seem to be personally interested in books, there is a belief that books are important to a culture and that someone should read them. Samuel Goldwyn once said “I read part of it all the way through.” And the parts that he read were turned into some impressive films. I think perhaps this attitude pervades aspects of the culture, that for many it is enough to have read a page or two to get the flavor of a book, they are just not hungry enough for the complete meal.

Part of the blame for this is probably public education that requires everyone to get an education whether they want it or not. Not everyone aspires to be literate, though I believe in the mission of the public schools that encourages everyone to be literate and that the process converts many. But if public schools too rigorously maintain a high academic standard those without academic aspirations will be lost. But to fail to maintain a standard trivializes the whole enterprise. A middle ground of sorts needs to be found that preserves a meaningful standard while providing a path through the process for those that are not interested in the standard. Ideally those that lack interest would be won over, but I am not sure that is possible to win over everyone. It seems that at the heart of the public schools is this compromise between standards and student interest and how far the compromise can go before the diplomas the nation’s schools award lose their value.

There was a discussion this week in a social network for English teachers English Companion. The name of the discussion was “The Difference Between Good Literature and Books We Like to Read.” I cannot link to the actual discussion because you have to be a member to gain access, but do feel free to join and check it out. The gist of the discussion focused on what books should form the curriculum and whether there is a place in the curriculum for the books students like. I do not think students need a whole lot of instruction on the books they already like and in my experience it is as much the analysis of a text that students resist as the books themselves and if I were to introduce more current and popular fiction I would probably be criticized for analyzing it to death, which I am sure I would do because as an English teacher I love analyzing texts to death.

The cover art of the novel The Name of the Rose.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Name_of_the_Rose.jpg

A book about books that I thoroughly loved when it came out about ten or so years ago was The Name of the Rose. It combined a love of books, with a medieval setting and a good detective story. Who could ask for more? Even the detective in the story evoked Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorite detectives. But what I thoroughly enjoyed was the labyrinthine library with its vast collection of books, including one by Aristotle that has since disappeared from the face of the earth. There is also a sentiment on the part of certain characters in the story that books are dangerous things and cannot be entrusted to everyone. I think sometimes that one of the unintended consequences of public education has been that by making books available to all the hunger for books has been quenched. There is something subversive that is appealing to many about doing something that has been forbidden or deemed unhealthy by those in authority.

I think reading is important. All reading. I think more information is gotten from reading an article in the newspaper than is gotten from watching a summary on the nightly news or reading the blurbs on Netscape or MSN when we open our web browsers. I think there is also a broader spectrum of coverage in a newspaper. The paper does not have to be read off sheets of newsprint, it can be read online (I just got an iPod Touch that lets me read books and newspapers and even instruction manuals online wherever I go). It is not the venue in which the reading is done but the reading itself.

I want to introduce students to the wonders of great literature as was done for me, but I also understand that like solving the Riemann hypothesis, it is only those who already posses an interest, or are susceptible to the temptation to cultivate an interest that are going to be won over. As an English teacher I am not only passing the wonders of the language on to the next generation of English teachers but also to the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and carpenters whose interests lie in different directions. I do not remember much of my high school biology, but I imagine I would remember significantly more if I had gone on to become a Biologist instead of an English teacher.

84 Charing Cross RoadBrooks Films and Columbia Pictures

Many find this movie overly chatty because all that really takes place in the film are conversations, through the mails, about books. The hunt for books, the nature of books, whole works verses abridgements and the like. But anyone who appreciates a passion for books will find that passion comes through the dialogue in this film. I also like the film because like the book collector in the film, Helene Hanff, I am captivated by British Literature. As a result I could identify personally with most of the authors that are mentioned.

It is this passion that cannot be taught. I can share the passion I have and that passion might be a bit contagious, but for someone who has never experienced this passion for the written word it may not resonate very much. I think most of my students have books that have deeply moved them and they will probably go on to read books that resemble the books they have enjoyed. I am not certain there is a decline in the number of people, as a percentage of the population, who read classic literature or the kinds of modern books that will one day be classic literature. I imagine that as a percentage of the population those moved by language are probably comparable to those moved by quantum physics or evolutionary biology. But whatever the numbers actually reveal there will be some that got so excited the day they read a book that they rushed out and read another and others for whom it will be a fond memory of something they did once upon a time.