Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Anchored to one's house

"For books are a desperate nuisance; a library of even a few thousand volumes anchors a man to one house, because it is such a task to shift them."

Robertson Davies, Holiday magazine, 1962

This wonderful sentence was written by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies (1913-1995) for a magazine essay, which was later reprinted in his 1970 collection The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies and then again in A Passion for Books (1999), which is where I found it. Rather than comment on the sentence as a whole, I thought I would break it down into phrases.

For books are a desperate nuisance

I like the author's chosen modifier: desperate. Books are not just a nuisance, but a desperate nuisance. They are costly, they take up space, they collect dust and, as Davies goes on to point out, they are hard to move from one place to another. As with nagging spouses, unruly chilldren or barking dogs, one has to really love them to put up with them.

a library of even a few thousand volumes

The word that jumps out at me here is even. I would love to know how many books Robertson Davies owned to use the phrase "even a few thousand volumes." I own about 5,000 books, which apparently falls into the "even" category. Writer Pete Hamill claimed to have 10,000 books. I notice that one member of the LibraryThing website owns almost 18,000 books. Many other members have many more books than I do.

anchors a man to one house

Here the key word is anchors. Once your library begins to expand, you simply don't want to move, not even to a bigger house with more room for books. It's not just the thought of moving tons of books that anchors a book lover. It's also the fact that no matter how many books you own, you probably have a pretty good idea where each of them can be found. They are organized in a way that makes sense to their owner, even if not to anyone else. Moving those books to a new home means losing that disorderly order and that unorganized organization.

because it is such a task to move them.

But, yes, the real problem is the task of moving them. It can take many years to collect "even a few thousand volumes," and by that time the collector is no longer young. That makes the task of moving all the more taxing. Most of my own books are shelved (or floored) in my upstairs library. So that means not just boxing and lifting those thousands of books, but also carrying them down a flight of stairs. Yes, I can hire someone else to do the work, yet I still think of it as my task, not something to be entrusted entirely to a stranger.

Also, as one ages, any possible move is likely to be to a smaller home, not a larger one. That means an additional task of sorting through one's books and deciding which to keep and which must go. I would prefer to delay this task as long as possible. Thus I remain anchored to my house.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Racial boxes

Mary Omosa of Kenya
I heard the guest preacher say this phrase last Sunday morning: "an African-American woman who is from Kenya." Was she really an African-American woman from Kenya? Or was she an African woman from Kenya? Or perhaps just a Kenyan woman?

I have always resisted the term African-American, in part, for this very reason. It requires too much knowledge both about a person's racial background and about his or her national background. Or, as in the case of the preacher, it requires simply ignoring what knowledge one does possess and using the term out of habit in order to avoid the supposedly insensitive word black. Yet calling an African woman an African-American strikes me as much more insensitive. But I don't know why it was necessary to make an reference to the woman's race at all, both because most Kenyans are widely known to be black and, more importantly, because the woman's race was irrelevant to what the preacher was saying.

Perhaps also because I was a newspaper copy editor for so many years, I dislike African-American because it is long and unwieldy. It doesn't fit easily into a headline. Why use long words or multiple words when shorter words or shorter phrases work just as well, if not better? That's why I would rather tell someone "Good day!" than "Have a good day!" or, worse, "Have a good rest of the day!"

The mixing of races in today's world has reached the point where a stranger, or in some cases even the person in question, cannot easily identify the race of that person. Perhaps the time has come, or soon will come, when we should stop trying to fit individuals into racial boxes. Certainly that is what last Sunday's preacher should have done.

Friday, September 12, 2014

New books on old subjects

People never seem to tire of reading about certain subjects and certain people. Perusing two catalogs of recent books I found 19 books about the Kennedy assassination, including at least three suggesting Lyndon Johnson had something to do with it and one blaming the CIA. These books have titles like A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination and Unsolved History: JFK, Death in Dealey Plaza. Then, too, we find We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963 and Hit List: An In-Depth Investigation into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination.

I count 16 books about Abraham Lincoln (including Did Lincoln Own Slaves and Lincoln's Melancholy) and eight books about Winston Churchill (including Churchill Defiant: Fighting on, 1945-1955 and Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1946). There are at least 11 new books or new editions of older books about Marilyn Monroe. You might try Marilyn Monroe: The Final Years or Marilyn Monroe: Gone, But Not Forgotten. One book, Dead Wrong: Straight Facts on the Country's Most Controversial Cover-ups, that discusses Marilyn's death also discusses JFK's death, so I counted that one in both categories.

I didn't even try to count all the books about the Civil War and World War II, two broad topics that may never lose their appeal to those who enjoy reading about military history. I happen to be reading an excellent book about World War II myself.

I understand the attraction of each of these subjects because I own several books about each of them. I once got rid of a couple of my Churchill biographies because I thought had too many, but I still have five of them. I also seem to be overloaded with biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Hardy and, of all people, Ivan the Terrible. We just can't seem to learn enough about certain people and certain events of the past.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A knack for aphorisms

Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon, whose book Marina I reviewed here in my last post, is a writer who, like Louis de Bernieres in his terrific novel Birds Without Wings, displays a knack for aphorisms. Every few pages, usually through one of his characters, he says something that would not be out of place in a fortune cookie or, better yet, a book of quotations. He has a way of summing up one of life's truths in just a few words.

Here are some lines I noted in Marina:

"To paint is to write with light."

"Sometimes, the things that are the most real only happen in one's imagination."

"The territory of humans is life. Death does not belong to us."

Those lines are pretty good, but Carlos Ruiz Zafon does even better in some of his other novels. Here are a sampling from The Shadow of the Wind:

"We exist as long as somebody remembers us."

"Books are mirrors. You only see in them what you already have within you."

"Keep your dreams. You never know when you might need them."

And here are a few from The Angel's Game, to date my favorite of his novels:

"Theory is the practice of the impotent."

"To believe or to disbelieve is a pointless act. Either one knows or one doesn't."

"One can convert only a sinner, never a saint."

"Routine is the housekeeper of inspiration."

Those are some pretty good lines, I think. Bartlett's should reserve a page for this writer in their next edition.

Friday, September 5, 2014

He just met a girl named Marina

Marina, the latest novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, was actually published in Spain before The Shadow of the Wind and other novels that have proven so popular in their English translations in the United States. Reading it one can see why this earlier story was not translated into English before now. While worth reading, Marina is just not up to the standard American readers have become used to.

Set in 1980 in Barcelona, the novel tells of a 15-year-old boy named Oscar stuck unhappily in a boarding school. Wandering the streets one day he meets a lovely girl named Marina and her father, a once great painter who gave up art after the death of his wife. Soon Oscar becomes so involved in their lives that his own life, his own family and his school shrink in importance.

All this is fascinating, but then it becomes fantastic as Oscar and Marina's adventures take them, quite literally, into the Barcelona underworld, where a tortured madman, like a 20th century Frankenstein, seeks to reanimate the dead. While all this seems far-fetched, the hardest thing for me to believe was how other characters, including a hardened former police officer, so quickly and seriously accept these two kids as if they were Sam Spade-like investigators, instead of sending them home to their parents.

Of course, all of Ruiz Zafon's novels have a bit of the gothic and the fantastic in them. That explains their appeal. Marina just seems like too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

My movie bucket list

I once subscribed to Entertainment Weekly because I was drawn to the idea of a weekly magazine that reviewed the latest movies, television shows, books, music, etc. In time, however, I tired of the magazine's flippant, shallow coverage and let my subscription slide. Yet I still buy the magazine's movie preview editions when I spy them.

I especially like the fall movie issue, which comes out in late August at a time when I am always hungry for movies made for grownups. Theaters in the summer now ending did offer The Hundred Foot Journey and Magic in the Moonlight, films adults can actually enjoy, but even so fall brings us closer to Oscar season, and that means a better chance of finding a good movie playing on a big screen.

My practice is to use the preview edition to make a list of movies to watch for in theaters or, if I miss them there, to catch on DVD. A year ago my fall list led me to gems like Parkland and Enough Said, movies that I don't remember ever showing up at theaters near me but which I later found on DVD and enjoyed watching at home.

EW writers haven't actually watched most of the fall movies, or apparently even seen the trailers now playing in theaters, so the cover promise of "all the scoop on 88 new films!" seems a bit inflated. Yet sometimes just knowing who will be in the cast and what the general plot will be are enough to get a movie on my list. My list for this fall, for example, includes The Judge because it stars Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. and St. Vincent because it stars Bill Murray. Some coming movies make my list because of the books on which they were based. These include Unbroken and A Walk Among the Tombstones. Others films on my list are My Old Lady, Tracks and Interstellar.

Trailers, supposedly designed to make people want to see the movie, often have just the opposite effect on me. I recall adding Mitty to be my movies-to-see list after reading Entertainment Weekly, then crossing it off after catching the trailer. That may happen again this fall.

In any case, the magazine, for all its faults, has once again given me a checklist to start the movie season with.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Avoiding Hollywood

Novelists who have moonlighted by writing screenplays in Hollywood read like a Who's Who of American Literature in the 20th century. They include the likes of William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, James Michener, Norman Mailer, John Steinbeck, James Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, Larry McMurtry and lots of others. Some of them, like Joseph Heller, used pseudonyms in hopes their work on films would not detract from their more serious literary efforts.

The main reason writers have gone Hollywood, other than the glamour of meeting movie stars, is the money. Serious novels may win praise and occasionally prizes, but they don't usually make much money. Writing a few screenplays, for which they were paid whether their screenplays were ever turned into movies or not, helped feed their families while they worked on their next books.

One writer who never yielded to this temptation was Ernest Hemingway, and he took a dim view of those writers who did. Yet Hemingway was never financially desperate enough to have to consider accepting a Hollywood paycheck. His books were consistent bestsellers that remained in print and, for the most part, sold well throughout his lifetime. Hemingway also made a good living as a magazine writer.

Most writers don't lead particularly exciting lives. Mostly they just write. Hemingway, however, though he took his writing seriously, also devoted much of his life to hunting big game, fishing in the ocean and going to bullfights. He was also involved, at least on the sidelines, in more than one war. He had a lot to write about, and magazines were eager to print anything Hemingway wrote about his life. His books, whether fiction or nonfiction, also tended to be about his own life.

In the early 1930s, when Hemingway was at the top of the literary world, Esquire magazine was just getting started and trying to make a name for itself. A Hemingway article appeared in the very first issue. The editor, realizing how much clout Hemingway had, later said he promised to pay the writer double what the magazine paid anyone else for articles of the same number of words. This may have been an exaggeration, but nevertheless those frequent Esquire checks helped Hemingway buy his fishing boat, finance his hunting trips to Africa and, in general, live the good life without ever having to set foot in Hollywood.