Friday, January 30, 2015

What's wrong with sentimentality?

Our tears become trophies and emblems of our compassion.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

Many years ago I led a series of discussions based on a Dorothy L. Sayers essay about the Seven Deadly Virtues, which she identified as respectability, childishness, mental timidity, dullness, sentimentality, censoriousness and depression of spirits. To Sayers, these were all traits that sometimes pass for virtues but which can easily become vices.

During the discussion on sentimentality, I recall a woman questioning what could possibly be wrong with it. She liked sentimentality, she said. Indeed, we all do to some extent. We like stories with happy endings. We like parades, weddings, patriotic hymns, happy children at play, almost anything that brings good tears to our eyes. So what's wrong with that?

Leslie Jamison wrestles with this very question in her essay "In Defense of Saccharin(e)" in the book The Empathy Exams. "If sentimentality is the word people use to insult emotion -- in its simplified, degraded, and indulgent forms -- then 'saccharine" is the word they use to insult sentimentality," she writes. Jamison admits to having, in her kitchen, a container full of empty artificial sweetener packages hidden from visitors. In the same way she hides her sweet tooth, she hides her taste for sentimentality.

Movies with happy endings usually don't get nominated for Oscars. Novels with happy endings usually don't win National Book Awards. Sweetness is discouraged among true artists. But why?

One answer Jamison hits on is the one quoted above, that tears become trophies. We can view them as evidence of what excellent people we are. We can fire workers during the day, ignore homeless people, cut off other drivers, yell at our children, but if a kiss between two actors at the end of a movie can bring tears to our eyes, we must really be OK.

But then she says, "We reject sentimentality to sharpen a sense of ourselves as True Feelers, arbiters of complication and actual emotion." In other words, rejecting sentimentality can be as much a trophy as sentimentality itself. Anything that makes us feel superior to others can be a vice, however much it may feel like a virtue.

As with sugar or artificial sweeteners, moderation in sentimentality is the key. As Mary Poppins would say, it helps the medicine go down.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A failure to communicate

The Rachel Joyce novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is a story about communication, or the lack of same. The main characters, Harold Fry and his wife, Maureen, are people who aren't very good at communicating, especially with each other. One of the few colleagues Harold ever had a real conversation with in his entire working life was Queenie Hennessy, the dying woman he is walking hundreds of miles to say goodbye to.

Joyce puts a number of notable lines in her novel, and many of them have to do with communication. Here are a few I like:

It wasn't enough to send a letter.

Nowadays, of course, most of us don't even send letters. We send e-mails or texts or perhaps greeting cards with our message, such as it is, already printed in them when we buy them. Letters are better (I surprised myself by writing two in a single day recently), but much better still is meeting face-to-face, perhaps over a meal or a beverage. That's when true communication takes place.

It was a long time since he had made a woman laugh.

For a man, there are few pleasures quite like making a woman laugh, almost any woman, in fact. The joke or witticism represents a means of communication. So does the laugh.

The hiking man continued talking. It occurred to Harold that he was one of those people who didn't require other people do have a conversation.

We all know people like that. My father, so unlike me, was one of those people. He could corner a complete stranger and tell stories for hours. On his deathbed he joked that he wanted an open casket at his funeral "so everyone can see what I look like with my mouth closed." I loved my father and felt blessed to be his audience and to hear those same stories, which I now treasure, over and over again. Of course, most such people we try to avoid and, if we can't, to escape as quickly as possible.

But for years they had been in a place where language had no significance.

That's a way of saying that Harold and Maureen no longer have anything to talk about, at least not with each other. Sadness fills this novel, but that line strikes me as among the saddest passages.

And what no on else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

We all, to one degree or another, put on a show for others. We try to appear kinder, happier, smarter, and as Harold observes, more normal than we really are. This, too, is communication, even if it involves communicating a falsehood.

He only said, "Well, goodbye, Maureen," because it was a sentence. He didn't want to hang up any more than he wanted to walk.

In my notes I transcribed the line as "he didn't want to hang up any more than he wanted to talk," which struck a chord with me, recalling past telephone conversations with loved ones when I had nothing left to say but didn't want to break the connection. The actual line seems meaningful, too. Too often, unable to say what is really on our hearts, we speak in cliches and familiar phrases that mean little but fill space. Or we just say goodbye.

"What will you have?" she said. She wanted to add "darling" but the word was too shy to come out.

Not much commentary is needed here, but I like how Rachel Joyce makes the word, not the woman, the shy one.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Harold Fry's pilgrimage

Twice in my life I have taken long walks, once a distance of 10 miles, to help raise money for worthy causes. Even so I have never quite understood what walking or running long distances or devoting long periods of time to jumping rope, rocking in a rocking chair or whatever has to do with benefiting someone else.

This came to mind as I read Rachel Joyce's impressive novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. A retired 65-year-old Englishman, who still lives with his wife though it feels like they have been separated for years, gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a woman he once worked with at a brewery. She tells him she is dying from cancer in a hospice in Scotland, on the coast of the North Sea. He writes a quick note to her and sets off on foot to post his letter. Yet he keeps walking and walking, feeling in his heart that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living. And so, over three months, he walks the entire 637 miles to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The title of Joyce's book provides the first insight. Harold Fry's long walk is a "pilgrimage," suggesting he does it as much to help himself as to help Queenie. Certainly that 10-mile walk in support of my son's school benefited me, as well. For years I had a doctor who would always ask if I could walk home from his office, which was about 15 miles away. Each time I would mention that 10-mile walk, implying that if I could walk 10 miles, I could probably do 15. I always felt the hike got me off the hook somehow.

In the novel, Harold's pilgrimage helps him immensely, even though he is weak, frail and exhausted by the time he finishes. It clears his mind and cleans his conscience, making him feel that a quiet man who had been virtually invisible for so much of his life can still make a difference in the world. And the pilgrimage helps his marriage. Maureen, his wife, at first is shaken that her husband should set off on foot to cross Britain to see another woman. In the end she sees him as a hero, her hero.

As for Queenie, yes, she learns Harold is on his way, and she hangs on.

People could just donate to a good cause without anyone having to walk or run long distances. Harold Fry could have just gotten into a car and driven to Berwick-on-Tweed. Yet Rachel Joyce shows us that the effort that goes into something can be as important as the final result. Life is about the journey, not the destination.

Friday, January 23, 2015


This book should lend some support to the skeptics claiming that the term " the scientific revolution" is another one of those prejudicial historical labels that explain nothing.
James Hannam, The Genesis of Science

When I reviewed James Hannam's book a couple days ago, I mentioned his contention that the Dark Ages were not really as dark as we have been led to believe, that some important scientific progress occurred during that period of history. Furthermore, he argues the Renaisance was not, in all ways, an improvement over the Middle Ages. In some ways it was a step backwards.

Hannam criticizes what he terms "value-laden names" given to historical periods. In the quotation cited above, he points out the prejudice inherent in the phrase "the scientific revolution," usually applied to the period from Copernicus to Newton. But that ignores the revolution that took place during the Middle Ages that made the work of Copernicus and Newton possible, as well as the scientific revolution that has taken place in every century since then.

Historians are not alone in using value-laden labels. Scholars in other fields do it, as do journalists, writers, politicians and others. Labels are a shorthand way to categorize not just periods of history but also people and places. In high school we probably placed classmates into boxes, the jocks, the nerds, the popular kids, whatever. This can prove a bit embarrassing years later, perhaps at a class reunion, when we notice how successful someone from an outcast group has been since graduation.

Decades often get labels that may or may not accurately reflect what was going on in that decade. We had, for example, the Gay Nineties, the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties. Such terms hardly tell the whole story about what took place during those periods. The Eighties were often called the Decade of Greed, which never made sense to me because people really didn't seem any more greedy then than in any other decade before or since. Then I realized the name was probably intended to besmirch Ronald Reagan, who was president during most of that decade. If more people enjoyed prosperity while Republicans were in power, it must have been because they were greedy and got their money by taking advantage of others.

The labels red states and blue states, indicating how states have voted in presidential elections in the past, have been used and misused by members of both parties to refer to the people of those states, never mind that states often vote one way in one election and another way in another or vote for one party in a presidential election and another party in the same election for governor or other offices.

Generations, too, get labeled. We have, for example, Baby Boomers, the Lost Generation, Generation X, etc. Sometimes the labels may be useful. Other times they are just a way of placing people into handy boxes, just like high school.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Dark Ages in a new light

The Dark Ages weren't nearly as dark as we have been led to believe. So argues James Hannam in his 2009 book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middles Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.

Historians have told us that human progress pretty much came to a standstill during the Middle Ages. Not until the Renaissance, beginning in the 14th century, did science,  technology, the arts, etc., begin to bloom. Hannam contends the Renaissance was actually a step backward in many respects. The Renaissance, he says, was "if anything, even more superstitious and violent" than the Middle Ages. Belief in the occult, especially astrology, became stronger. In terms of science, significant work by scholars of the Middle Ages was ignored, while Renaissance scholars turned back to the teachings of Plato and others from an earlier time for scientific insights.

Fortunately the printing press had been invented late in the so-called Dark Ages, and most of the earlier writings on scientific matters had been published and preserved. Later Galileo and other Renaissance thinkers made full use of these books in their own work, even though they did not usually give sufficient credit to those whose work they built on.

Those earlier men of science have much less familiar names, but Hannam seeks to give attention to many who led the way, including people like Richard of Wallingford, Richard Swineshead, John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Cecco D'Ascoli. Today the Church and science are often perceived as being at odds with each other, especially over the question of the origin of life, but most of these scholars from the Middle Ages were men of the Church who saw it as their duty to discover everything they could about the universe God made. Had it not been for the Church, the Dark Ages might actually have been dark.

Hannam even argues the Inquisition was not nearly as bad as history has led us believe. The Church did send some people to the stake, but they were relatively few. In most cases the Church sought ways to avoid severe penalties. The Inquisition, the author points out, introduced a new legal system still in use today in which crimes are actually investigated and defendants are given an opportunity to defend themselves.

"Ironically, by keeping philosophers focused on nature instead of metaphysics, the limitations set by the Church may even have benefited science in the long term," Hannam writes. "Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned the zero, and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas."

Hannam writes for the lay reader, not for either scientists or historians. Read his book to see the Dark Ages in a new light.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Look, Ma, no hands

I am reading the book Faulks on Fiction: A Story of the Novel in 28 Characters by Sebastian Faulks. I will probably have more to say about the contents of this book later, but now I am more interested in the book itself. Published in Great Britain by BBC Books, the volume is a trade paperback of less than 400 pages, yet it seems larger and heavier than most books of this length. Furthermore, the book is something like a bear trap. Open it and it wants to spring shut. To read it requires using both hands to hold it open. After a chapter or two, one's hands might even begin to get tired from the effort.

If Faulks on Fiction is a two-handed book, most of the books I read are one-handed books, mostly trade paperbacks that I can easily hold open with one hand, leaving the other hand free to take notes, drink tea, scratch my nose or whatever.

Then there are no-hands books, those that lie open on any flat surface. I have such a book on my breakfast table now, The Genesis of Science by James Hannam. Not only does the book stay open while I eat, I can leave it open all day without fear it will  suddenly spring shut. I chose this as my breakfast book specifically because of this quality. My hands tend to get messy as I eat breakfast.

My wife, who since childhood has had the use of just one hand, always prefers hardbacks to paperbacks because they will stay open more easily.

We have all kinds of ways of categorizing our books. Mostly we sort them by author or subject matter, but some may group them by size or even color. Some keep paperbacks away from hardbacks or old books away from new books. Most of us separate, even if only in our minds, books we've read from those we haven't read, as well as from those we are in the process of reading. Grouping books by how many hands it takes to hold them open is just one more way.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Writers at the end

Great writers do not necessarily lead great lives, and the end of their lives can be as miserable as anybody's. Wild Nights!, the 2008 book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, examines the last days of five of the greatest American writers. Although she writes fiction, Oates did her homework and bases her tales on biographical information about the writers.

The one possible exception may be "EDickinsonRepliLuxe," a wonderful bit of science fiction in which Oates imagines a future time when anyone with enough money can purchase small robots with the appearance and personalities of famous people from the past. Mr. and Mrs. Krim choose to have a little Emily Dickinson in their home. Is there any other writer whose personality would be less suited to being, in effect, someone's household pet than the reclusive poet? Little Emily, her pockets stuffed with little pieces of paper covered with lines of poetry, tries to keep to herself until Mr. Krim, his wife away, decides to finally get his money's worth. The title of this collection, by the way, comes from a Dickinson poem.

The least successful story, "Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House," takes the form of journal entries written by Poe while living in a lighthouse near the end of his brief life. Oates captures the increasing madness and declining health of the writer, but I didn't find the story very interesting. The three others prove to be gems, however.

"Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906" focuses on Mark Twain's late-in-life fascination with pretty girls between the ages of 10 and 16. He called them his Angelfish. In the story, Maddie is the favorite of his Angelfish, with whom he maintains a secret correspondence and conspires to meet in their secret place until he discovers, to his horror, that she has passed her 16th birthday. Then he shuts her off completely, even after the girl's mother, discovering his letters, begs him to write again because Maddie, in her despair, refuses to eat.

"Papa at Ketchum, 1961" takes us inside Ernest Hemingway's mind as he contemplates suicide. Always vain and selfish, he worries that even with a shotgun he will not do as good a job at it as his father managed with a handgun.

The writer who looks the best at the end of his life, at least in these stories, is Henry James in "The Master at St. Bartholomew's." The pompous and privileged writer, who loves being called the Master, chooses to become a servant to English boys wounded in the trenches during the Great War. He volunteers to help at a hospital in London where many of these soldiers are brought. At first he only talks with them or reads to them, but as the burden of so many wounded becomes too much for the strained hospital staff, he takes on less agreeable tasks, including emptying bedpans. Never in his life has he performed such labor. Now he does so willingly and with pride, wishing there was more he could do for these boys.

Oates has given us some fine stories about some fine writers. They may be fiction, but you will feel like you know the writers better after reading them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Welcoming places

He felt strongly that libraries of any kind, even one this grand, should prove welcoming places.
Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart

I am writing this in a library, the spacious, modern, beautifully designed and welcoming public library in Largo, Fla. I have loved this library since my first visit a number of years ago when I came for an appearance by Bob Greene, the former syndicated newspaper columnist who had written a new book. Now I come here sometimes three or four times a week during my winters in Florida.

Never mind the cliched image of a spinsterly librarian shushing children and other patrons who fail to speak in a whisper, I think most public libraries are welcoming. They have to be. Their services may be mostly free, but still the jobs of librarians depend on patrons using those services, just as the livelihoods of shopkeepers depend on their customers.

Perhaps fewer people read books today than did a few decades ago, but libraries still seem to be busy places. People go there for meetings, to use computers, to check genealogy records, to read the daily newspaper and the latest magazines, to learn English or to learn how to read, to shop for inexpensive used books offered by the Friends of the Library and to check out movies, music CDs, recorded books and sometimes other items. I've known libraries that lend jigsaw puzzles, works of art and even athletic equipment.

Libraries are such welcoming places that even authors, publishers and bookstores rarely complain about them, even though public libraries significantly cut into their income. When I attended a discussion by independent bookstore owners at Kenyon College last fall, I noted that while they complained about the negative influence of Barnes & Noble, Amazon and discounted books in general, they had nothing negative to say about libraries. Almost everybody loves them.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Another peculiar crime

I recall those old comic horror movies in which Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello or whomever found themselves in haunted houses. At the end the ghostly visions were usually explained as a hoax perpetrated by a villain trying to protect a treasure or whatever. This is a bit like what Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May mysteries are like. There's a lot of the supernatural, black magic and mysticism, all given a rational explanation once the mystery is unraveled. And like those old movies, these mysteries are a lot of fun.

The 11th book in the series, Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (Bantam) proves to be a gem. Two teenagers making out in an old London cemetery see a corpse rise out of its grace and begin walking and talking. Later the boy is run down in the street and killed. Was it an accident or murder? The case seems a natural for Scotland Yard's Peculiar Crimes Unit headed by Arthur Bryant and John May.

Naturally the two aging detectives with unorthodox methods have superiors eager to pull the plug on their funding. And a case which may not even be a case at all, just the hallucinations of a couple of drugged teens, may give the brass exactly what they need to put Bryant and May out to pasture. Bryant is even shuffled off to another peculiar crime, the sudden disappearance of all the ravens at the Tower of London.

Fowler maintains good balance between light and dark, the humor surrounding the team's operating methods and personalities and the serious crimes they investigate. And as bodies begin piling up, both those already buried and those who die violently, it becomes apparent this is a serious crime. But how to explain it? Why would anyone be digging up bodies? What happened to the boy? Why did a man kill himself? Why does his widow blame the man's death on his boss? And what happened to all those ravens?

This new book is an excellent addition to this popular series.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The form of our ideas

I ... find that ideas come along with the form in which they need to be written.
Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

Susan Hill is writing specifically about writing fiction, novels versus short stories. Some ideas come in form of short stories, others in the form of novels. You shouldn't try to turn a short story idea into a novel, or vice versa.

This seems a bit simplistic to me. I would argue that ideas tend to come in the form we have been trained, or train ourselves, to think them. Many novelists began as short story writers. While good short stories may be difficult to write, perhaps even more difficult than good novels, they are nevertheless an easier path for beginning writers to develop their narrative skills. Besides, few writing instructors want to read through student novels. Stories work much better for writing classes. Yet relatively few people actually read short stories anymore, and there are few markets for getting them published. Novels are where the money is, so writers who have trained writing short stories soon turn to writing novels. That first novel may be a struggle, but once they begin to think in terms of novels, it usually becomes easier. That is the form their ideas begin to take.

I noticed something like this in my newspaper career. As a beginning reporter I learned about what is called the inverted pyramid, putting the most essential information high in the story, then adding information of gradually decreasing importance. Soon I could attend a city council meeting and begin writing the story before the meeting was over, as well as any secondary stories that might have come out of the meeting. My ideas took the form of news stories.

Subsequently I became a book reviewer, a columnist and an editorial writer. Each required a somewhat different form of writing, and each required some discipline to think my ideas in that form. Now retired, I tend to think in the form of brief essays for this blog. This is not to say I don't occasionally get an idea more suited for an editorial or a newspaper column. This can be frustrating because those avenues are no longer open to me. Yet mostly my ideas tend to come in whatever form has become my focus. I question my ability to write a novel because, in part, I have never tried. My mind has never been trained to think novel-like ideas, no matter how many novels I have read over the years.

Once one has mastered a variety of writing forms and if one is not locked by circumstances into pursuing just one or another, then perhaps Hill is right. The ideas will come in the form they need to be written. For most of us, however, they will come in the form we know how to write. Novelists don't usually think like poets, or vice versa.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Saying the right words

The students have to say the right words to get credit for compassion.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

In the title essay in her book The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison tells of working as a medical actor. That is, she would play the role of a patient with particular symptoms, a particular personality and a particular life history while medical students tried to discover the source of her problem. One of the criteria on which students were judged was the empathy they demonstrated for their pretend patients. As Jamison notes, it often came down to just saying the right words, or sometimes just not saying the wrong words.

Among the insights into empathy her essay delivers, Jamison writes this, "Their humility is a kind of compassion in its own right. Humility means they ask questions, and questions mean they get answers, and answers mean they get points on their checklist." Most of us have known doctors who could hardly ever be described as humble. They think they know what's wrong with us before we can finish describing our symptoms, and their attitude can sometimes prevent us from revealing what's really troubling us.

Jamison examines her subject of empathy not just from the point of view of a medical actor but also from that of a patient who has experienced both an abortion and heart surgery. She was in a position to give her own grades, not just to medical professionals but also to friends and family, and in particular her boyfriend. She was acutely aware when they measured up and when they didn't. So are we all whenever we suffer, mourn or just feel down in the dumps. We are sensitive to everything others say and do, aware whenever something helps and especially when something just makes it worse.

Yet as aware as we may be when we are the ones in pain, most of us are at a complete loss as to what to say and do when somebody else suffers. What can you say to someone who has just lost a spouse, a parent or a child? Does it help a surgery patient to describe your own surgeries? Do flowers really do any good? We don't even know when a visit from us might be welcomed by those who suffer, or would they prefer to be left alone?

We know when others fail our empathy exams, but that doesn't mean we know how to get passing grades on our own.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Hitchcock and his leading ladies

Pauline Kael's strengths as a movie critic may have sprung from her weaknesses as a human being, as I noted in my review of Brian Kellow's biography of Kael (Dec. 19). Much the same thing could be said about director Alfred Hitchcock. What made him a great director were the very qualities that made him much less than a stellar human being.

Much has been written about Hitchcock's relationships with the actresses who starred in his films, but Donald Spoto makes those relationships the focus of his 2008 book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies. Hitchcock was particularly smitten by Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren. The latter was a 31-year-model when the director noticed her on television and then, through a third party, signed her to a long-term contract without informing her what the contract was for or with whom. Hedren, with no acting experience, expected a series of  bit parts for her $500 a week. Instead she became an underpaid star. He physically and sexually abused her through two films, The Birds and Marnie, before she was able to free herself from his domination.

Other directors of his generation infamously used the casting couch method to put actresses in their films. The obese Hitchcock, who by his own admission had sex just once in life, had other approaches to bringing his fantasies to life. He tried to control the lives of his favorite stars, dictating what they wore, where they went and with whom they associated. Perhaps not coincidentally, Vertigo, believed by many to be his greatest film, is also the movie that reveals the most about its director. In it, James Stewart plays a man obsessed with a certain woman who compels another woman, also played by Kim Novak, to transform herself into that ideal.

Spoto goes film by film through all of Hitchcock's movies, although naturally he gives less attention to those starring women the director didn't particularly like.

Alfred Hitchcock was something of a mess, both physically and psychologically. His fears, passions, obsessions and insecurities dominated his life and made him an unhappy man, loved by few. Yet somehow he translated all these qualities into his films, loved by many.

Friday, January 2, 2015

On burning books

For there is nothing essentially sacred about a book just because it is printed on paper and bound between covers.
Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

In the movie Wild there is a scene where Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, is given advice on how to lighten her load as she walks the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Oregon. "Are you burning what you read?" the man asks her. He suggests that when she finishes reading a section of a book she should tear it out and burn it in her next fire along the trail. It won't make her a Nazi, he assures her.

The scene brought to mind the line by Susan Hill quoted above. There may be sacred books, but books themselves are not essentially sacred. If a book belongs to you, you are free to write in it, underline passages, give it away or throw it away when you are done with it or, if you choose, burn it. We burn flags when they become tattered and worn. We can surely do the same with books.

Yet "book burning" has such a negative connotation, and rightfully so, that many of us hate to destroy books that are already falling apart. I imagine thrift shops, chapters of Friends of the Library and others who accept books for resale get a lot of books so worn that nobody would buy them. Yet somebody just didn't want to throw them away.

I recall once receiving a review copy of a book on erotic Chinese art. I can't imagine why the publisher thought a newspaper would review such a book, which to my mind wasn't erotic at all, just obscene. But if I wasn't going to review it, what should I do with it? I didn't want to add it to my personal library. I had a little boy at the time, so I didn't even want to take it home. I normally gave unwanted review copies for used book sales raising funds for worthy causes, but I couldn't imagine donating the book to any of these. I suppose somebody would have loved to have the book, but I wasn't about to start offering it around to see if there were any takers. So finally, feeling a bit guilty, I just dropped it into the trash.

We need to value books, of course. We need to try to protect them and preserve them and try to find them a good home when we are done with them. But sometimes, as when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it's OK to burn them.