Friday, February 16, 2018

True or false III

Today I will try to conclude this series of commentaries on lines about literature found in Matthew Pearl’s novel The Last Bookaneer.

Writers must write and they suffer if they don’t. Then they suffer if they do.

True. It’s a different kind of suffering, however. The first kind is similar to what anyone else feels when denied the opportunity to do what they love. Writers gets ideas or characters or plot lines flying around in their heads, and it can be frustrating not to be able to release them onto paper. Afterward the suffering comes from the conviction the published result is not as good as it might have been.

A man’s library opens up his character to the world.

True. Just the fact that you have a library, when so many other people don’t, makes a statement about you. The books in your library add their own comments about not just your character but also your tastes, your interests and your passion for reading.

The biggest secret kept by the literary world ... is that the best way for a book to become successful is to be unread.

False. This statement has two parts, the “biggest secret part” and the “best way” part. I doubt that either is true. To be sure, many people have owned popular books they have never read, the Bible, for example, or books by Stephen Hawking or Will Durant. Some books we buy just to feel better about ourselves. But I’m sure publishers prefer books people actually read so they will want to buy subsequent books by the same authors. James Patterson wouldn’t have sold nearly as many books if nobody actually read them.

A real author would never introduce himself as an “author.”

True. Authors seem to refer to themselves as writers, not authors. The word author sounds pretentious, but it also has the advantage of being more specific. An author is someone with at least one published book, while a writer can just be someone working on a book, or someone who writes for magazines, newspapers, a blog or whatever.

How odd it must be to go through life believing that a book is a book.

True. Overstatement, but still true. The point being made is that a book, or at least one that has been owned and read, is more than a book. It is a museum of memories. We can often recall where we were and what we felt while reading a particular book. Books sometimes contain underlinings, notes, inscriptions, pressed flowers, business cards, photos, newspaper clippings or anything that can be put into a book. Pearl quotes Charles Lamb telling Coleridge that “books are not just the words on the page, but the blots and the dog-eared corners, the buttery thumbprints and pipe ash we leave on them.” So true.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

True or false II

In my last post (“True or false,” Feb. 12) I listed some quotes about literature to be found in Matthew Pearl’s The Last Bookaneer. Let’s continue that exercise today.

Strangers talking over piles of books do not remain strangers for long.

False. I wish it were true, or more true than strangers talking over piles of clothing or stacks of lumber not remaining strangers, but I don’t think it is. I have had good conversations with strangers in bookshops and at book fairs without ever learning the other person’s name or making plans to meet later in a coffee shop. It takes more than a few minutes of good conversation to turn strangers into friends.

A man must never think reading a book makes him special.

True. But that’s true of most achievements, from making a million dollars to scoring the winning touchdown or winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. Once you start thinking you are better than others, you are in trouble.

Books inspire a man to embrace the world or flee it.

True. At least sometimes. The statement suggests it’s a matter of either/or. Rather I think some books sometimes encourage readers to become more involved with the world around them and others who live in it. Meanwhile other books are read in part to escape the world, at least for a few hours. That’s often why we read thrillers, romances, sci-fi adventures, murder mysteries and so forth. A good book can do both.

Authors do not create literature; they are consumed by it.

False. This statement just seems silly to me. Of course authors create literature. If not them, then who? Are they consumed by it? Well, some are. Others are just trying to make a buck.

For readers, books are a universal salve. When we are hot, we read to feel cooler; when we are cold, we read to warm up; tired, books wake us; anxious they calm us.

False. Oh, I find it true for me, and I imagine it is also true for most people with a passion for books. But how many people have such a passion? For most of mankind, a book is not what they would turn to for a “universal salve.” Others might choose their television or a good stiff drink.

Literature is about now. Its pulse comes from today, not yesterday or even tomorrow.

True. Historical novels are really about the time they were written, not the time being written about. Science fiction is really about today, not tomorrow. More accurately, literature is less about the time it was written than the time it is read.

We’re not done yet. More next time.

Monday, February 12, 2018

True or false

Matthew Pearl
If Matthew Pearl's 2015 novel The Last Bookaneer disappoints as an adventure story (see my review, "Book pirates," Feb. 9), it succeeds with its commentary, through its characters, on books, authors and all things literary. For some of us anyway, one could strip away the plot in its entirety and still be left with a book worth having in one's library. I don't necessarily agree with everything Pearl's characters say about the literary world, but each statement is worth some thought.

So let's give some of these statements some thought and turn them into a true/false test. I will answer in my way; you are free to do the same.

You are always better off to read a book ... than to meet the person behind it.

True. In person, authors are often uninspiring, no matter how inspiring their books are, and dull, no matter how exciting their books are. There are exceptions, of course, and some authors are at least as easy to like as their books are. In my own case, I am thinking of Alexander McCall Smith and Ann Patchett, both extremely engaging. Book festivals, book signings and so forth give fans opportunities to meet favorite authors. Attend enough of these and you are bound to meet authors you don't like. If that experience sours your appreciation of their books, it is something you may always regret. Better to have stayed home with the books.

It is always in the parts that we cannot fully understand -- the holes in story, the piece missing -- where the real truth of the thing lurks.

True. In fiction, as in most forms of art, truth lies in ambiguity. Each reader finds his or her own truth, often something very different from what the author had in mind. The meaning of stories, whether we are talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan or Moby-Dick, can change not just from person to person but from one century to the next.

There is nothing as lovely as a borrowed book.

False. It is a book pirate who makes that statement, and perhaps for pirates or anyone else who borrows books with no intention of ever returning them it is true. I, however, hate to borrow another person's book, even the public library's, almost as much as I hate someone borrowing one of mine. Borrowing a book means an obligation to read it, and the sooner the better. It also means an obligation to return it promptly and in good condition. That's more obligation than I like. I want to read a book at my own pace, and if I like a book, I want to keep it, not give it back.

When you begin to read them, you feel like a boy again, and when you close the book you've turned into a better man.

True. The authors under discussion here are Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose books, especially Ivanhoe and Treasure Island, have often been regarded as children's literature. It has been decades since I've read anything by either author, but I do sometimes read books intended for children, such as the Winnie the Pooh stories I reread a couple of years ago. The advantages to reading such books as an adult are those mentioned in the above statement: They remind you of your youth and, because you read them differently than you may once have done, they teach you something new, ideally making you a better adult.

I find I am still just in the first chapter of The Last Bookaneer. So I will have to continue this next time.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book pirates

Before the International Copyright Act of 1891, American publishers were free to publish books by writers from England or anywhere else outside the United States without worrying about contracts or royalties. Writers like Charles Dickens hated this situation, for almost as quickly as their books were published in their home countries they were being published in the U.S., where the writers won fans but nothing else.

Matthew Pearl saw the possibilities for a low-key adventure tale in all this, and the result is The Last Bookaneer, which takes place just before the end of the era of book piracy. Two such pirates, one who calls himself Belial when he isn't pretending to be someone else and another named Pen Davenport sail to Samoa when they hear Robert Louis Stevenson has gone there to die, but not before completing his masterpiece. Each wants to steal the manuscript as soon as Stevenson completes it and take it to New York. The narrator for most of the story is Fergins, a bookseller who sometimes assists Davenport.

Belial gets close to Stevenson by pretending to be a priest, while Davenport pretends to be writing a travel book. There not being that many English speakers in Samoa, the author welcomes both of them into his home.

Pearl tries hard, but his novel never really catches fire. Perhaps pirates and books just aren't as exciting as pirates and buried treasure. Or maybe the story's leisurely pace defeats its purpose. You make be able to guess which of these characters becomes "the last bookaneer," but you are not likely to guess how this comes about. So in that sense the novel is a success.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

How to damage your books

She was handsome in spite of her efforts to be handsomer.
Ring Lardner, The Love Nest

Ring Lardner
Efforts to enhance can sometimes detract. What's true of people, as observed in Ring Lardner's great line, can also be true of books, as Ian C. Ellis observes in Book Finds. Specifically what Ellis says is, "(O)ften the most damaging things that happen to books are things people do to enhance the book for themselves."

Ellis makes his living buying and selling used and rare books, so he looks at books a little differently than most people who buy and read them. To most people, books are products to be used and then, when they have served their purpose, disposed of. They don't regard books as investments the way Ellis does.

Indeed, most books make poor investments. Most new books, like new cars, are worth much less after you take them home. After the passage of 10, 20 or even 50 years, they will be worth even less. What you do to such books while you own them probably won't matter much. For some books, however, perhaps just a fraction of one percent of all books published, the "damaging things" Ellis writes about can seem tragic, at least to those like him who care deeply about books.

So what kind of things, things intended to enhance but instead damage, is Ellis talking about?

One thing is putting your name in a book, unless you happen to be the author or somebody famous whose name will inflate its value. If you let others borrow your books, writing your name in them or adding a bookplate seems sensible. It will be harder for the borrower to forget where a book came from when it has your name on it. But 50 years down the road, if that particular book happens to be a rare first edition, it will be worth much less because of that name. (If you must write your name, do it in pencil.)

Other things written in books by owners (as opposed to authors) devalue that book for subsequent owners. Even when I see a book I want at a library sale or a garage sale, I will be less likely to buy it if I see it has been written in, underlined or whatever. Collectors of rare books are even less likely to shell out big money for a book in such condition.

Many people, when they give a book as a gift, will clip the price off the dust jacket. It's kind of silly, especially if they paid much less to buy the book from Amazon or wherever, but it has long been considered good manners not to have prices attached to gifts. Yet pristine jackets, more than anything, give used books value. By clipping the price off a book, you actually show bad manners by damaging your gift and potentially decreasing its value.

Other things readers might do to damage their books, while seemingly improving their lives, is to mark their places by turning over corners of pages or placing an open book face down for an extended period of time. Improper storage also damages book. They need to be upright on a shelf, neither too tightly or too loosely, in a room that is neither too damp or too dry.

Of course, because so many people damage their books, the value of rare first editions rated Very Fine or Fine, the two highest grades of condition, is inflated because there are so few of them around. And that's how people like Ian C. Ellis make their living.

Monday, February 5, 2018

As they (and Disney) pleased

The title They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Late Golden Age, the 1940s - Part Two seems like overstatement, both in the sense of too many words and exaggeration. This was the Disney studio, after all, which was Walt Disney's own magic kingdom, where he alone had final say over which movies were made and how the stories were told.

Even so, some of the more talented artists were allowed more freedom than others to express their creativity, and six of these are the ones Didier Ghetz concentrates on in this volume in the series. Mostly these six worked in what was called the Character Model Department. That is, they created the characters that went into the popular Disney films of that era. They were free, Ghetz writes, to use any medium they chose to develop these characters. Others would create the actual film using the characters.

Eduardo Sola Franco, born in Ecuador in 1915, joined the Disney team under the mistaken belief that he alone would be responsible for developing an animated film based on Don Quixote. He was disappointed. Not only was the film never made, but all animated films made by a studio are necessarily team efforts, and in Walt Disney Studios, only Disney himself had final say. While he worked for Disney, Franco also worked on characters for Cinderella, Dumbo and other films.

Johnny Walbridge is described as "a real-life incarnation of Goofy," a man who could be as funny in person as the characters he created on paper. These characters include dancing fish and flowers for Fantasia and some of the strange figures seen in Alice in Wonderland.

Jack Miller , born in 1913, started with Disney at 21 and during his career at the studio developed Figario the cat, the Dutch marionette and several other characters in Pinocchio.

Campbell Grant, called “the consumate storyteller,” worked in the equally important Story Department before his transfer to the Character Model Department in 1938. Among his creations were the ostrich dancers in Fantasia and the cars in Wind in the Willows.

James Bodrero at first resisted the idea of working for Disney, not wanting to devote his career to, as he put it, “making ducks’ feet move.” Yet soon he was busy creating amazing images seen in Fantasia, El Gaucho Goofy and other films. And, yes, he sometimes drew ducks’ feet.

Martin Provensen was passionate about music, sculpture and books, but his drawing was pretty good, too. Some of his his creations, such as the Bambi owl and Giddy, one of the Dumbo elephants, are remembered by anyone who has seen these movies.

Ghetz includes many drawings of characters and storylines that never made it into a film. This book, like others in the extended series, will be indispensable to Disney collectors.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Novelists look at online dating

I can recall something called computer dating when I was in college back in the mid-Sixties. It involved punching holes in cards, if I remember correctly. I decided it was a bad idea and have always been glad I found my wife the old-fashioned way. I am even more glad after reading how three writers skewer online dating sites in their recent novels.

Connie Willis just touches on the subject in Crosstalk, for she is more focused on more diabolical ways of trying to bring couples together. In Mister Monkey Francine Prose shows us a couple meeting through a dating site, but neither of them proves as appealing to the other in person as they appear on the site. Besides she is looking for a husband, he just wants sex.

Dexter Palmer
Even though online dating is never at the center of Dexter Palmer's Version Control, the subject nevertheless returns again and again throughout the story, which takes place in the near future. The two main characters, Rebecca and Philip, meet through a dating site and soon are married, yet the marriage proves an unhappy one.

Rebecca goes to work for the same dating site and learns the company's secrets. Although making possible a few perfect matches is necessary to attract new people to the site, the real goal is to prevent matches, or at least delay them, so that clients will continue subscribing. Rebecca's job is to counsel those who call in to complain and to try to talk them into paying more for a higher membership level, something she is very good at.

It turns out that the true objective of the site is not dating but data. The longer clients remain on the site and the higher their membership levels, the more data about themselves they will share, data the company can then sell to eager buyers.

Later Rebecca becomes involved in making computer simulations so that clients think they are speaking with a real person on their screen, someone who matches their ideal mate but who, in fact, is just Rebecca.

All this seems scarier and more real than the time travel story at the heart of Palmer's novel. Lonely people who read it may be inclined to turn off their phones and computers and go to a bar, a church or a bookstore to look for their perfect mate.