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A Sign of Civilization…

Thumbnail image for IMG_0219.JPGBryant Park. Frenchified oasis of a park (except that, unlike parks in Paris, here you can sit on the grass). Little green chairs that no one steals; a fountain; a carousel; the black-and-gold American Radiator Building (now the Bryant Park Hotel) gleaming through the trees.

And tonight, after a brilliant three hours of “Mary Stuart,” as I walked through the park from the from the clotted tourist hell of Times Square to the subway, I saw…books. On carts. Just right out there for people to read. The Reading Room en pleine air.

Tables and chairs reserved for readers – even smal
l readers:

IMG_0220.JPGCarts with magazines and newspapers – and “moderator” who is there apparently to recommend books and cover things up if it rains.


Free books and the smell of hyacinth in the evening air.

Maybe there’s hope.


Continue Reading · on April 26, 2009 in Books, NYC

On Reading

Thumbnail image for google.gifIt’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday today, which for those of you without children in elementary school, may help to explain why the “google” logo today looks a little different (thanks Karen). It’s also Read Across America today – a lovely memorial to the man who gave us that cat, the lorax, Bartholomew’s hats, Horton, and a host of others.

I love books. I can’t remember a time, in fact, when I didn’t love books, starting way back when I memorized the words to Look Out for Pirates, which my mother read to me every night before bed when I was three or four.

Thumbnail image for pirates.jpgShe claims that I was reading on my own by kindergarten, and reading chapter books before first grade. Truth? Slight exaggeration? Not sure – but certainly I was deep into biographies of Cleopatra and Elizabeth I by fourth grade, and reading the Claudine books, by Colette, in fifth grade. Needless to say, I had very few friends. Which was (mostly) fine, because I had books.

Liam, unlike his geeky mother, has friends (and hand-eye coordination) but he’s also discovered the rapture that comes from being lost in a book – and the sense of loss that happens when you emerge, blinking, into the real world after the story is over. Caleb can’t read yet, but he loves being read to – we’ve started chapter books together, and have finished Willy Wonka, James and the Giant Peach, and now are laughing at the antics of Mr. Popper’s penguins. 

Books fill our apartment: they are stacked under the coffee table, next to the bed, under our desks. I try not to buy books anymore, actually, and rely instead on the “reserve” list of the public library. That means I get to the bestsellers about a year after the rest of the country, which puts a little damper on my ability to make chat at cocktail parties, but that’s okay – I’m not invited to that many cocktail parties anyway.

My husband loves his Kindle, downloads articles to his computer, reads essays on his iphone; he constantly extols the portable virtues of these gadgets but I am unmoved. I live firmly on the paper side of the digital divide, despite having recently acquired an iPhone.  Yes, I do email and facebook and, you know, blog, but ultimately? I like paper. After all, when I was little, I used to check books out from the library based on their smell, the feel of the paper under my fingers, whether the book fell open easily to my chubby little-girl hands. Even now, the physical object of the book – its heft, scent, shape, texture – can determine whether or not I pick up a book and read it. Some books are simply more welcoming than others.

Right now, I’m making my way through Anna Karenina with, yes, the inevitable parallel running through my head, about Napoleon being defeated by the immensity of the Russian steppes in winter. I’m hoping the dense spread of Tolstoy’s pages won’t defeat me, but it’s slow going, even though the book itself is wonderful, thick with the minutiae of a world, and filled with precise observations: “like all guilty husbands, Stepan was very solicitous of his wife’s comfort…” I’ve got about a hundred pages left and I’ve taken some satisfaction in watching my bookmark march through the pages – a satisfaction I wouldn’t get if I were reading this on a Kindle. Husband points out that if I were reading on a Kindle, I could take the book with me because it wouldn’t be so heavy – but I don’t want to read Anna Karenina on the subway (despite the whole train thing). She doesn’t belong there. Trains are for magazines, detective novels, student papers – things to which you don’t have to give your full attention.

I think something gets lost when you read on a Kindle; it seems somehow impersonal. Husband says I’m a Luddite and should really shake off the dust of nostalgia, but what can I say. Imagine “lending” a book to someone on a Kindle: do I just send you the file? You don’t see the dog-eared pages, or the water spots from when I was reading at the beach; if it’s an old book, you don’t see my loopy youthful scrawl on the frontispiece, spelling out my name. When I say things like this to Husband, he’s all “why would anyone want to borrow a book with crap all over it anyway?”

But then I see Liam, wrapped in a blanket on the couch, face burrowed into a book: he reads with his whole body, it seems, as if he’d like to funnel himself into the pages. When I read things digitally, I’m very aware of the medium – of the keyboard, the scroll function, the click of the keys. The whisper of turning book pages, though, echo the narrative unspooling in my head; the “interface” is seamless, my connection to what I’m reading absolute.

An article in the Times magazine a while back talked about literacy websites for pre-schoolers, commenting on the fact that the websites tried to replicate the physical attributes of books themselves, but without fooling the author’s three-year-old into thinking he’d read a book.  Her son liked the websites, but thought of them as movies, not books. Books, for him, are  “intimate” and “snuggly,” because he’s at the stage where someone has to read to him. But even reading alone, as an adult, can be intimate – passionate and all-consuming, like any good love affair. It’s hard to imagine being passionate about a Kindle, frankly – and while we could go from that thought to a comparison between real lovers and electronic playthings, we’re not going to go there today.

Instead, we’re going to think about a book of photographs by Andre Kertesz, called On Reading (with many thanks to Patsy & co. for giving me this beautiful book for my birthday). The entire book is just…pictures of people reading. And while in most of these pictures people are reading alone, they don’t look lonely. They look content, at peace – as if, having lost themselves in the pages of a book, they have found themselves.


Continue Reading · on March 2, 2009 in Books

Lost in the twilight

Book_jacket_of_Twilight.jpgI’ve been hooked, bitten, seduced, sucked in, pulled under.

Ever since last Tuesday, more or less, I’ve been living in two worlds: Manhattan, and Forks, Washington.

Yes, it’s true. Stephanie Meyer, the sweet-faced Mormon Mom from Arizona, author of the Twilight series, can now count me as one of her readers.

It shouldn’t have happened this way. I mean, I’ve got a doctorate, fer crissake! In literature!  I’m supposed to read books like Twilight with an ironic sneer, with a knowing wink-wink at the cognoscenti to indicate that I’m reading these fat books with their sexy red, white, and black covers just to stay in touch with pop culture.

Truth be told, that is how I started – a colleague and I are having a “book chat” with a group of first-year college students about Twilight and then taking the group to the movie. So when I got my copy of the book, I figured if nothing else I’d get a little insight into the world of the YA reader. An adult friend of mine had started the first book and hadn’t gotten past the first few pages, so I wasn’t expecting much.

That night I read until 1:30. The next night until 12:30. Then I went to Barnes and Noble and bought the other three books (two of which are still in hardcover).  This detail matters because I’m a get-it-on-reserve-in-the-library gal – if any more books take up permanent residence in our apartment, we’ll have to move out.

Not this time. Plunked down my money, grabbed my books, and went home to my small fractious children (one of whom had strep throat last week, one of whom was home on a school holiday). I proceeded to let them both watch the telly (usually verboten in our house until that dark hour after dinner and before bedtime) so that I could READ. AND READ. AND READ.

I finished the fourth book Friday night.

Sunday I started the first one again.


Don’t get me wrong. These are not well-written books. The Jack Reacher thrillers, by Lee Child, for example, are probably better written, and the great Donna Leon detective stories, set in Venice (thanks, Sean, for telling me about those), have characters who are infinitely more “real.” In Meyer’s books, characters say things like “I love you more than everyone else in the world combined,” which, while perhaps an accurate transcription of how a 17 year old girl might  talk, doesn’t make for profound insight.

And yet – I am obsessed. Maybe I was an easy target: I’ve always been a bit of a vampire junkie, ever since I was a little girl sneaking to a friend’s house to watch “Dark Shadows” (which gave me horrifying nightmares for months, but that’s a post for another day). I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which had much more interesting, complicated things to say about gender relationships than does Twilight. But even though Buffy’s sensibility is closer to my own, the show never enthralled me the way these books have. Even that other pillar of vampire pop culture, Interview with a Vampire, which I read when I was about thirteen, didn’t hook me like Twilight has,

So here I am, a middle-aged woman with several advanced degrees, completely enamored of an alternate universe in the Pacific Northwest, where vampires and werewolves and shape-shifters live among us, going shopping, going to the prom, and driving really, really hot cars. 

My real life – that pesky pile of student papers on the floor, the email stacking up like planes at Newark, the laundry that threatens to spill into the hallway – seems intrusive, almost rude. Vampires don’t have laundry or dishes or dust or bills or children with strep throat.

Meyer paints a fairy tale about an ordinary girl beloved by an extraordinary being, although this fairy tale has quite the kicker: to keep the prince, you have to sacrifice your soul

And it’s tempting, I have to say. Maybe that’s because I’ve not quite come to terms yet with that whole “soul” question, but from where I’m standing, it looks like an easy trade: sacrifice my soul, which may or may not exist, in order to get: eternal love, exquisite beauty, an extraordinarily well-mannered lovah (as Sarah Jessica P would say), lots of money, loads of free time (no time spent sleeping, you see, so plenty of time to learn a language, travel, paint, write, study). What’s not to like?

Meyer sweetens the pot even further by making her vampires “vegetarians”  (their joke): they have sworn not to kill humans, only wild animals. Thus the whole “blood-sucking” thing becomes a little less hard to swallow (sorry, couldn’t resist). I mean, if you’ve ever ordered steak tartare in a restaurant…

So is it just the fairy tale? Is that what has led to the series’ enormous success and the huge buzz around the movie? Is that why I’m feeling a bit befuddled these days (or maybe I’m getting strep, who knows) – a case of fairy-tale-itis?

There is more for me to think about here, in part because I’m vaguely appalled that I’ve been recommending that people read these damn books. But I can’t write any more tonight. I’ve got to go re-read book three.

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Continue Reading · on November 16, 2008 in Books, Feminism

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