Am I Missing Something?

I used to get really irritated when people told me they didn’t watch television. I grew up on television. I saw the Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Bewitched all as first-run shows. But, not everything we watched was a sitcom. I remember watching Upstairs Downstairs with my parents on Masterpiece (when it was still Theatre). The girls in the neighborhood and I used to play our version called “Milady” in our attic. The older girls made the younger girls wait on them like servants. When it was our turn to be in charge, suddenly the big girls conveniently had to go home for supper. I see now how the system was rigged, but it didn’t seem that way at the time.

Later, I married a man who did not grow up with television, so we have very few popular cultural references of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in common. Sometimes, if I’m home during the day and he’s not, I will turn on an NCIS marathon, but usually we don’t watch much television except for Project Runway and Downton Abbey. For the third time in two years, we’re watching the full DVD set of The West Wing. Usually, however, the television is off and we read.

So now, I am one of those people who says she doesn’t watch much television. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I suspect it’s similar to how I feel about people who say they don’t read. Assuming that they can read, those folks have chosen not to. I feel sorry for them, but I do understand that with the glut of material out there these days, and so many other choices for entertainment, people don’t read like they used to. I wonder what they’re doing with their time. Because I emphatically believe that people who don’t read are missing something by not doing so, I wonder if they, in turn, think I am missing something really good by not watching television.

Bibliophile or Book Nerd?

When I was teaching composition, I used to have my students write an extended definition paper comparing and contrasting two synonymous terms that mean slightly different things. For example, “chef” and “cook.” Or “father” and “daddy.” Technically, they are the same things, but in the vernacular, synonyms can be quite different from one another.

The same is true of the words “bibliophile” and “book nerd.” It’s become cool to be a nerd of any kind, but I wonder what the subtle differences are between the two words. I imagine a bibliophile collects hardbacks – leather volumes shelved in floor-to-ceiling bookcases besides fireplaces. I imagine a book nerd is rather indiscriminant of which paperbacks she reads and how long she keeps them. I feel like I have both inside of me.

I have spent years building a library of Irish literature meticulously shelved in my living room. However, softcover books of poetry and dog food cookbooks are thrown callously on shelves in the den. If I want a particular book, I have to walk into a certain room to find it; this is the way I organize my personal collection. The book nerd in me starts books she doesn’t finish and happily gives them away to someone who will, but the bibliophile in the shadows stacks books on her bedside table and returns to them, sometimes weeks or months apart, taking years to finish them like a find cognac or Brandy. One is a reader with a small r, the other a reader with a capital R. I don’t think one is better than the other. Perhaps book nerds grow in to bibliophiles after years of canvassing dusty bookshops and university libraries? Perhaps inside every 50-year-old connoisseur, is a 23-year-old fanatic screaming to get out?

Death of the Novel?

I wish I had time to read in the store. People come in every day and ask if I’ve read this or that book, and I feel guilty that I haven’t. It would be impossible for me to have read everything on the shelves. I am not a voracious reader; I’m a pleasure reader. I prefer the classics, though I do have a broad definition of what can be included in the canon. Most of my life, I have gravitated towards fiction, although lately I have been reading nonfiction and memoir, and I frown to think that I might be a part of the “death of the novel.” (Don’t worry! The novel isn’t dying any more than bookstores are.) If I could squeeze more time into the week, I’d like to read more political science, sociology, and philosophy. There are just so many books. I’d like to read Lawrence Durrell – an ex-pat British writer. Anyone ever read Mount Olive? It is the third volume of The Alexandria Quartet. I have 5 copies of that book. Yikes. Book club, anyone?

Children’s Books IV

Over the past few weeks, I have been sharing a list of my favorite children’s books – and showing my age. I don’t think many of these are read anymore, and that makes me a little sad for those who grew up after me knowing only the Goosebumps and Babysitters series. Previous titles that I discussed include: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

Last in this four-part series, I want to comment of a book I remember with nostalgia and sadness: Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. It’s a story about a young girl who is accidently left behind on an island off the coast of California. Based on a true 19th-century story, Karana deals with her loneliness with complexity and perseverance. Reading that book, I realized for the first time, but books can connect people, even the fictional with the real, in profound ways. Karana taught me that being alone doesn’t have to always mean loneliness. She managed on her own for years, and changed so incrementally, that when she was finally rescued, she had a difficult time fitting back into “civilized” society. Of all the books I have mentioned in this series, the only book I was sure to stock from the moment we opened was Island of the Blue Dolphins. I have a copy in English and in Spanish.

It’s easy to disregard children’s books as simple stories to be dismissed when we become adults. We are supposed to put away childish things. But what a child ingests, she metabolizes. Like vegetables and protein, books become muscle and bone. In an age when children as young as eight stare at screens all day, it’s important to feed them intellectual vitamins and nutrients to make them strong adults. Books are really the only way to do that. Choose wisely.

Children’s Books III

In the last couple of posts, I have discussed the children’s books that affected me as a child and what I feel I got out of them. Composing this list has allowed me to understand how my adult personality and skills were formed at an impressionable age. Everyone should try it. The first two books discussed were The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

Looking back, I can trace my inner monologue and attention to detail to Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. When I read that book for the first time, it was the thickest book I had ever read. I read it over a Labor Day weekend and remember distancing myself from the family and sitting on a hillside to read the last several chapters. I knew then (at maybe 9 or 10) that I was a reader like my parents, and that books mattered–sometimes more than people. Harriet knew how to be by herself although she was always aware of the world around her. Today, when I make up stories in the checkout line based on what I see in people’s carts, I think of Harriet. I never saw the movie with Rosie O’Donnell; I just cannot imagine anything improving upon that book.

Children’s Books II

Recently, I began a short blog series on the children’s books that had the greatest influence on me. Last week, I talked about The Boxcar Children. This week’s book is My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett. This book focus on a young boy who runs away from home to Wild Island to rescue a baby dragon. A bit like an old-fashioned MacGyver, Elmer takes with him everyday household things like lollipops and rubber bands and uses them to extricate himself from tight situations, such as stowing away on a freighter and taming a lion. I credit almost all of my creative problem-solving skills to My Father’s Dragon. No one does it like Elmer. MFD was the first in a trilogy; the other books are Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland. The books are so good they are still in print. I read them to myself in late elementary school, but they are suitable for reading to smaller children. Adults will enjoy them, too. Next time: Harriet the Spy.

Children’s Books I

I recently found myself tracking down first editions of my favorite children’s books on the Internet. I credit my imagination, my creativity, and my love for the brittle and musty page to the books I read as a young girl. I often buy new editions of my old favorites for friends’ children, knowing, of course, that classic children’s books might not affect contemporary kids as they affected me. But still, some titles are timeless classics which every child should know. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to discuss those children’s books that had the biggest impact on me. I hope to carry them all in the store sometime soon.

First (in no particular order) is The Boxcar Children, the first book in the series by Gertrude Chandler Warner. It’s the story of four orphaned children who take refuge in an old train car. The series included 19 books from 1924-1976, but my favorite was the first. My sister and I, along with the neighborhood girls, used to play a game we called “Orphan” in the backyard. It was based on The Boxcar Children, but it was so much more than that. The role-playing adventure got us outside, interacting with nature, imagining an unsafe world while still living inside the safe bubble of suburban Pittsburgh. Now when I look back, I realize it taught me empathy and resilience. I only read a few others in the series, but I reread The Boxcar Children over and over again.

The Age-Old Question

I’ve always been fascinated by the question “What famous authors, living or dead, would you like to have dinner with?” Sometimes that question is phrased in such a way that it’s a dinner party; sometimes it’s phrased in such a way that the meeting is one-on-one. As I do many other things in my life, I overthink those questions and get bogged down in the answer. I compose my dinner party guest lists the way I would compose an invitation list for a birthday party or holiday party. How will all the people react to one another? How will all the personalities combine to make the meal and conversation a memorable event?

If I wanted to invite a bunch of serious partiers who probably only get better with a drink, I’d ask Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and Dorothy Parker. I wouldn’t even have to attend that party—just being a fly on the wall would make me happy.

If I were looking for meaningful conversation from people who have a keen sense of the human situation, I would ask James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison. Although I love them dearly, I would probably avoid the long-winded and potentially morbid personalities of Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, and Oscar Wilde. I’m pretty sure they can hold an audience, but I wouldn’t want them to absorb all the air in the room.

I’d love to have a quiet dinner with Jane Austen and August Wilson, or maybe even set a table where the three of us could sit down together. That would be, by far, the one of the greatest conversations of my life. The listening, the giving and taking, and just the right amount of gossiping, would be more satisfying than any meal.

Reading in Bed

My favorite place to read is in bed. It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and, I have made sure, it’s well lit. Because my biggest weakness is my dogs, I am most relaxed when they are within arms’ reach. Their snoring soothes me like nothing else. I won’t read at a table or desk because the dogs can’t curl up beside me. Nor will I read in an armchair because we don’t have one big enough for the three of us.

I have occasionally read on the sofa, but because the living room is not well lit and the natural light from the window is unpredictable, I prefer to read in bed where I can control all variables. Clio sleeps at the foot of the bed, while Cooper snuggles under the covers on my left or right side. Resting my hand on his soft warm belly brings down my blood pressure at least 30 points.

A few years ago, right around the time I started needing to wear readers, I bought an inexpensive clip-on lamp for my side of the headboard. I can angle the bulb directly over my shoulder so I can see the page without straining. With my down comforter and a hot cup of tea, it’s the perfect location no matter what time of year or what time of day. In fact, I’m in bed even as I write this.

Where are your favorite places to read?

Organizing Books

When I was a little girl, I used to love libraries so much that I would make little pretend pockets for the inside of my Scholastic books and “check them out” to my friends. I always found comfort in the Dewey decimal system — so much so, that when I made a massive playlist (on cassette and in order of release date starting with the 1950s) for a New Year’s Eve/Millennium party that I hosted, I created my own numerical system of organizing the songs so that I could keep track of decade and artist as my friends sent in requests. That sort of regimentation reminds me of the Meg Ryan character in when Harry Met Sally who keeps her videotape collection listed on notecards and alphabetized above her bed. I could never keep my own books, let alone a few DVDs that I have, that organized. My books travel too much: from room to room, from floor to floor, from home to office to car.

Over the 19 years that I’ve lived in this house, however, I have worked out a small system of keeping track of my ever growing number of books. I have three rooms of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves — the living room, the den, and the guest room. The living room houses my Irish literature, German language, and travel books. The den is a catch-all for my poetry, general fiction, and literary anthologies. And, until I married my husband, the guestroom was full of nonfiction, but now, Patrick’s art and cookbooks have taken over.

When the time came to declutter the house, at the very least, books found their way back to the rooms they belonged in, if not necessarily onto a shelf. That way, if I was looking for something in particular, I at least knew I was warm if I was in the right room. I almost always remember the color of a book’s cover, so I can say to myself, “I’m looking for a green spine” or red one or a pink one or whatever. The only time I was completely lost for location was when I tried to organize my books by color. That is, I tried to “Roy G. Biv” all of my books in a twisted rainbow fantasy that I had seen on HGTV. Even though all of the green spines were together on two or three shelves, I still could never find the books I was looking for. I was hypnotized by the color blocks. I’ve heard that other people who have tried to arrange their books in a rainbow-like fashion have also found it disorienting and disappointing.

Would any readers like to share their thoughts on book organization?