A Poet in Your Pocket

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John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart, 1815

John Adams once said, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”

In reading Marilyn McEntyre’s book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, one of the practices she commends is the reading and memorizing of poetry. In a later chapter, she writes about the delights of wordplay, including wordplay in poetry. In her chapter “Practice Poetry” she writes:

“What the discipline of poetry requires most of all is caring about words and caring for words. I do not believe we steward language well without some regular practice of poesis–reading poetry, learning some by heart, and writing–if not verse as such, at least sentences crafted with close attention to the cadence and music and the poetic devices that offer nonrational, evocative, intuitive, associative modes of understanding” (p. 145).

Reading this chapter made me realize the relative lack of poetry in my life. Apart from the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms, which I find myself regularly turning to, to give words to my prayers, I have little poetry in my life. You may notice I have not reviewed works of poetry here.

In college I first came in contact with the poetry of T. S. Eliot. As bleak as “The Wasteland” was, I felt it captured an essence of his time, and our own, in words that resonated deeply. I thrilled to the mysterious question in this stanza toward the end:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

 

Who is the third…I wonder still?

Another memory of a poem shared was the time our Dead Theologians reading group, between books, spent a morning parsing preacher and poet George Herbert’s “Love (III),” one of many in a collection known as “The Temple.” He wrote,

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
        Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
        I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
        “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
        “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
        So I did sit and eat.

It left me with a deepened sense of wonder of the “Love that bade me welcome.”

There was a time when people memorized both the scriptures, and poetry, two things very akin to each other, it seems to me. There was a day when both the psalms of the Bible and the sonnets of Shakespeare were things we carried around with us, either in our pockets, or in a pocket of our minds. I wonder if it led to a different sensibility, and as McEntyre suggests, a care for words?

In researching this post, I learned that there is a Poem in Your Pocket Day each year during April, National Poetry Month. This year, it falls on April 27, 2017. I discovered that the day was initiated by the Office of the Mayor of New York City in 2002. I found this poem posted at the Mayor’s website (I’m not sure if it was from that first day):poem6-monday

It was plainly intended to be cut out and placed in our pockets. I wonder what would happen if this practice were adopted by more of our political leaders?

I also discovered that Everyman’s Library has a collection of more than sixty “Pocket Poets” books, allowing us to have a somewhat more durable and attractive way to carry poets in our pockets.

I wonder if it might not in fact be time for me to have some poetry in my life. Maybe some of you are further along this way than I. I would love to hear your suggestions of poems that have been life-giving to you, or at least taken you deeper into a care for words. If I receive some suggestions, I’ll post them on Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Reading Rituals

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One of the most famous Presidential readers

The pleasure of reading for so many of us is not simply the book itself but also in the rituals that surround our reading. I often read early in the day, before my wife awakens. Before I read, I pray, exercise, and shower. I brew a pot of coffee, unload the dishwasher and set out our breakfast dishes. By then the coffee is done. In the morning, I will sit in the rocker my wife usually sits in. I understand why she likes this chair so much. It is comfortable, and the fidget-er in me is satisfied because I can move.

After the first sip of coffee, which sits comfortably at my right side, I open the book I’m reading, pull the marker out and pick up where I’ve left off. Often, this is the time of the day when I do my most challenging reading. My mind is clear, the house is quiet, and I usually have an hour before I plunge into the day. Gradually, the light outside the front window brightens as the sun rises. I read for about an hour, maybe 30-35 pages and finish that first cup of coffee.

Some evenings or Sunday afternoons, I like to go down to the family room, also known as “the man cave.” Often I will bring a cup of decaf coffee or tea, a mystery or biography or history, and put on some good music, which could be anything from a Haydn quartet to the Modern Jazz Quartet. If I want to mix a nap in, I’ll stretch out on the sofa. If I really want to read attentively there is a nice cloth chair with a firm cushion and the best light. And if I really want to savor the music, I’ll choose the leather chair situated just right for the full stereo effect. I’ll kick my shoes off and hopefully get lost in a good story.

I’m one to read myself to sleep. Often I take a few minutes to read compline, a prayer to end the day, and read something light on my Kindle, which I can do without my glasses. This works well because I often will fall asleep after a few pages–the Kindle shuts itself off, my wife shuts off the light and I wake just enough to put the Kindle on the nightstand and kiss my wife goodnight.

Sure, I may read in some other times and places, but these are my favorites. None of this is terribly dramatic or exciting, but the rest of life has enough drama and excitement. Perhaps what these reading rituals have in common is the savoring of simple but good things, a mug of something in the hand, a comfortable chair or perhaps my bed, a moment of quiet, or perhaps of musical richness, and a good book to inform, to provide material for reflection or insight, or just a good means of stepping into another world to get a better perspective on life in this one.

What are your favorite reading rituals and what do they add to the reading experience?

Reviewing From E-Galleys

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Do you read on an e-reader or tablet? Are you interested in getting books to read ahead of publication from hundreds of publishers, at no cost? Then you might consider signing up on one of the e-galley websites. There is just one hitch–you need to be a serious book reviewer with a website or blog.

There are two major sites that provide e-galleys of forthcoming titles. The better known of the two is NetGalley (https://www.netgalley.com). NetGalley has what I think is the more visually elegant and easily accessible website of the two. When you sign up, you create a profile, which tells publishers about yourself, your audience, and helps answer the question of why they should approve your requests for e-galleys. The homepage features new recommended books based on your profile information. Across the top of the page, you have four clickable boxes. Dashboard features available titles in your categories, shows the different categories of books you are interested in reading and any “favorite” publishers. Your Shelf shows books you are currently reading, books you’ve downloaded that you have not given feedback on, those you have, and those that are “not active,” usually those you’ve been declined or those where you have requests pending. Find Titles allows you to search for titles you can request. There are options to see those from your favorite publishers, books that you are auto-approved for (usually from a publisher you frequently review books for) and from a whole list of categories. Browse Publishers allows you to see the list of all publishers on NetGalley, and to search the offerings each publisher currently has available. You can also find out what kinds of reviewers they are most likely to approve requests for.

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Screenshot of NetGalley Homepage (part). Accessed 2/6/17

The other source for e-galleys I’ve worked with is Edelweiss (https://www.edelweiss.plus/). Personally, I’ve found Edelweiss a bit clunkier to work with (although their Edelweiss+ website seems an improvement and will be the basis of my comments even though it is currently in Beta). One thing I notice is that the Edelweiss home page is much more content rich. The unique feature of Edelweiss is that it also allows you to access publisher catalogs as well as new review copies. The Home page has a column on the left with a publisher list. Then there are four horizontal rows to the right. The topmost is “My Edelweiss” summarizing your activity. The next is a list of recent catalogs, followed by a list of new books, and last is the list of books you have reviewed. There is also a menu bar at the top of the page that, besides Homeincludes Catalogs (with more detailed info about each new catalog and a clickable link to search all the books in the catalog), Buzz (logs your activity on Edelweiss in the last month), Review copies (what is new in the last month and your own request history over the last three months), People (which I haven’t figured out but it appears to connect you with other users somehow), My reading (which includes what you anticipate reading, are reading, and have reviewed), Tags and Orders I have not used. I also receive a weekly email from Edelweiss that alerts me to newly available books and catalogs on the site.

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Screenshot of Edelweiss Homepage at 50%. Accessed 2/6/17.

I’ve reviewed about 50 titles on NetGalley, only six so far on Edelweiss, not including one I am currently reading. Both sites work similarly in that you request a review copy which the publisher must approve. Then you are able to download the e-galley. Both allow you to send it to your Kindle email address if you read on that platform or download and transfer files. You do need to watch. Some books on NetGalley are only available as .pdf or Adobe Digital Edition versions, the latter not readable on a Kindle, although I am able to read these via the Aldiko app on my smartphone. There is also a reader you can download for your computer, but I don’t like reading books on my computer.

I suspect publishers like e-galleys as a much more economical way to get advanced review copies out to readers, particularly with the explosion of online book blogging and e-readers and apps. It is also a much quicker turnaround from request to obtaining the e-galley for review. This service is paid for by the publishers, but these “gateways” serve to connect publishers to a wider audience of early readers, which along with the lower costs are the argument for the use of such sites.

For the reviewer who reviews a lot of books, it reduces the amount of books you physically have to store or get rid of, as well as the dilemma of selling advance copies which technically you are not supposed to sell! It is also one more source of learning of new titles, whether you request them for review or not.

There are several downsides to e-galleys.

  • In common with e-books, the reading experience is different and I find them less preferable for many of the theological texts or other closely written books I tend to review. But sometimes this is the only way you can get approved for a review copy.
  • E-galleys are not finished versions. They are not always in final format which can mean variable type sizes and missing material. A book I am currently reading leaves out all the “fi” and “fl” combinations in words, so I have to supply these as I read. It also leaves out nearly all numbers, and since the book features quite a bit of quantitative data, I feel I’m missing a good bit. And the numerous tables don’t render. I do feel here that if publishers are going to take their reviewers seriously, they would provide a closer to finished version.
  • E-galleys often lack hypertext links from chapters to the particular part of the book and other such features that you would find in a final digital version of a book.
  • It’s also easy to request more books than you will read but this can hurt you when you make future requests and have a low feedback percentage.

Most of us who review a number of books can’t afford to buy them all. E-galleys are a good source of advance review copies in many cases if you are willing to live with the downsides. You get to pick, you learn of a wider array of books, and you don’t have to figure out what to do with them afterwards.

 

 

 

 

Literary Advocacy

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

A book group that I am in, the Dead Theologians Society, has just begun reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I think this has always been a controversial book. In its own day, it galvanized opinion around the abolition of and defense of slavery. Later, it was debated on its literary merits (and perhaps still is). More recently, there has been a discussion of its racist stereotypes, even while being a key anti-slavery work. I am not qualified to opine on any of these matters and so I will leave them to others.

What intrigued me in this week’s reading was a statement by Stowe in her Preface to the work:

“The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.”

If awakening “sympathy and feeling” was her object, Stowe wildly succeeded. In the first year of publication (1851), the book sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over one million in Great Britain. It was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and second only to the Bible in overall sales. It is legend, not fact that when Lincoln met Stowe in 1862 he said of her, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” Slave-holders in the South roundly criticized the book, even while it helped fuel the growing abolitionist sentiment in the North. Part of the impact of the book was the exposure of the systemic evil of slavery enshrined in law, that permitted cruel slave owners to do their worst and diminished even those kindly disposed.

The question I am curious about is whether literature, and particularly the novel form, could still have such impact? Or has visual media (or something else) displaced the written form? I’d love to hear from others on this, particularly on the visual media question, because I would confess I am pretty ignorant of what is happening in that world. I really am a book guy. I am aware that there is both a genre of apocalyptic writing (much of it popular among young adults) and series like Game of Thrones that explore dystopian worlds. What I am curious about is how this translates into discourse about our own society.

It strikes me that there are certainly contemporary published works that have led to significant public conversations. On the question of race, I think of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me as well as his other books and Atlantic articles. Both have evoked significant national conversations (and controversy) around race, incarceration, and other issues. But are there works of fiction that have provoked similar, and widespread conversation?

Someone in our group noted that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked after weekend controversies over “alternative facts”. The Associated Press reports that Signet Classics has ordered an additional 75,000 copy press run of the book, which portrays a totalitarian society controlled by “newspeak.” What is intriguing to me is that this is not a current work creating a conversation, but an older work, in which people are recognizing resonances with our current situation.

It strikes me that part of the challenge is the divide between popular fiction and serious literature. To this day, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is criticized in part because it is a popular work. In addition to the invidious stereotypes, others criticize its sentimentality at points. But readers loved it. I wonder if there is a bar against exploration of serious issues in popular literature, one that Stowe transcended?

Finally, while I don’t think you can blame the Civil War on Stowe’s book, it is striking that it contributed to inflamed feeling all around, and to a breakdown of political discourse leading to southern states withdrawing from the Union and the outbreak of hostilities. One wonders what the consequences of a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or a popular video equivalent, would be given the fragile state of our public and political discourse?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I sense we are in a time of great ferment. Can fiction, as well as other forms of writing “awaken sympathy and feeling?” And to what ends. What are your thoughts?

 

 

 

Walking While Reading

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Reading While Walking”  by Vonderauvisuals, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is an older gentleman in my neighborhood, not unlike me in appearance, who likes to read while walking. I find myself chuckling to myself that here is someone even more fanatical about reading than I am! The only place I have ever read while walking is on my treadmill at home, to while away the monotony of wracking up those steps. Actually, even there, I often prefer to pray or meditate on my day. I’ve never gotten “read-walking.” (I will admit that sometimes, when I’ve had to read something and I’m sleepy, I may pace back and forth and read.)

Partly, it is the fact that when I am walking, I like to really give myself to the physical world around me, to savor and enjoy the smell of the air, the rustle of the leaves, the blueness of the sky, the bubbling of the nearby creek, or the variety of people in more crowded areas. All the delights in the world are not to be found between the pages of a book. Wherever they are, in a book, or in my surroundings, I want to savor them as fully as possible. At least for me, a multi-tasking approach of read-walking diminishes both.

I’ll also confess to a bit of clutziness. I’m near-sighted of eye and not exactly agile of foot. I probably need to pay attention when I’m walking or I’ll be endlessly scraping knees and hands and walking into trees, or other people. Perhaps there is a bit of an element of not wanting to appear even more of a book nerd than I am, but that is a minor concern.

So what has provoked my thoughts on this subject? Like many of my posts “on reading” it was a recent BookRiot guest post by Ilana Masad titled, “Readwalking: A Reader in Motion.” While she acknowledges the downsides–the hazards and the taunts of teenage boys among them, she also recounts the reasons why she loves to do this. One is that she really is a book nerd, and wrestles with the reality all of us do–that there are so many books, so little time. She’s an introvert, and sometimes the external world can be overwhelming and the retreat to a book a way to cope. Finally, and we really differ here, she likes the duality of real world/book world at the same time.

Obviously, there are people who see this differently than I do, enough apparently that there is a “WikiHow” with tips on “How to Read While Walking.” Some of the tips confirmed why I don’t do this–things like “have one hand free in case you fall” or “try to look up in front of you every couple of sentences or “every paragraph.” It seems to me that this makes for pretty distracted reading.

A few things do make sense, if you are still inclined to do this–don’t do this with books you want to mark up or write notes in, find books that are light weight, have large print, don’t read library books that could be damaged, particularly if it is threatening to rain, and don’t try to do this on a windy day. The books that have worked best for me on the treadmill are the page-turners, the same type of book that works well in an airport waiting area. You want something that you holds your attention, and that you can easily pick up when you are distracted with things like crossing streets, or stopping to talk to a neighbor who insists on talking with you even though you are giving off your best “I’m reading vibes.”

For me, a walk is its own joy, even in a crowded airport or city street. And curling up with a good book is a different one. It seems that too often we sacrifice savoring for just “getting things done.” We too often seem to define life by how much we can cram into it rather than by how fully we’ve lived each experience, each moment.

But that’s just one way of seeing it. If you are a reading walker, I’d like to hear your take on this. There are obviously a few of you out there!

Bob on Books in 2017

happy-new-yearIt is always perilous to make New Year’s resolutions. Many don’t last past January 2. So, you might consider some of my thoughts on the direction of this blog in 2017 to be aspirations rather than resolutions. There are a few things I can clearly say I will keep doing:

  • I will keep reviewing both new and classic works on subjects of faith as well as fiction and literature, history, biography, science, as well as a few good baseball books–and an occasional book off the beaten path of my usual reading. I would contend that any of us who want to keep growing intellectually and in our awareness of the world throughout life, read deeply in the area of our vocational life and widely to see how our work and life fits into the bigger picture of God’s incredibly beautiful, diverse, and complex world.
  • I will keep posting about the world of books and reading. When I get the chance, I will write about bookstores I visit, resources for readers, and more. I did not get to do this beyond a review of a book on debates among librarians, but this year I want to explore more of the changes in technology shaping libraries and how libraries continue to promote literacy as well as serving other information and media needs for patrons.
  • I will keep writing about Youngstown as long as I keep coming up with ideas and memories about my hometown. I’m open to ideas from my Youngstown friends as well.
  • A continuing concern for me is how, in our divided society, we foster better conversations, and relations. The alternative is not pretty! I also am concerned with how our faith perspectives, which are important in so many of our lives, can be part of those conversations rather than being relegated to private life, or dismissed or discounted. I do believe those of faith need to speak with conviction, cogency, and charity, hopefully in a context that welcomes, if not always agrees with that kind of discourse.

And some aspirations for 2017

  • I want to explore the idea of what Peter Berger has called “mediating structures” which stand between individuals and political structure. It seems to me that in our mass media age, we focus so much on “big government” that we overlook the importance of mediating structures–everything from churches, neighborhood associations, leagues, and hobbyist groups to advocacy groups.
  • Inspired by C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good, I want to explore how books and shared reading might strengthen mediating structures, the real communities many of us are a part of.
  • I want to explore some of the places beyond books where we go to read, on and off the net. Related to this, I am particularly interested in how we find reliable information sources and how we sustain them. Two of my favorite journals, Conversations Journal and Books and Culture ceased publishing at the end of the past year. Thankfully others, like The New York Times, have seen a growth in their subscriber base as people realize we need reliable news sources in this “post-truth” era.

The demise of Books and Culture leaves, it seems to me, a great void in connecting Christians (and other literate fellow travelers!) with great writing on books and culture informed by a faith perspective. At the same time, I’ve wondered about whether some form of curated platform for blogs that are attempting to do this kind of work might go a significant way toward filling this void. While none of us has the expertise or bandwidth to fill that void on our own, might there be a way that in the aggregate we could, giving our work a wider audience, and serving a wider network of “mediating structures” by connecting them with the best that is being thought and written? It’s an idea I want to explore–for all I know someone else is already doing this somewhere!

I so appreciate all who follow this blog, and all the comments you share that help me grow in the writing of it. Bob on Books is now in its fourth year, having launched in August 2013. I hope you will keep pressing me to be a better writer and I would love to hear your ideas about what I’m doing here.

Christmas Gifts For Booklovers

giftideasRecently, I surveyed a collection of websites that purvey gifts for booklovers. I would categorize many of these as bookish tchotchkes–more or less useless items or knick-knacks, that just add to the quantity of stuff you eventually have to get rid of (or re-gift if you are that tacky). But I thought I would highlight one item from each website that I thought might be useful or just fun (and others might think not, so I would just add IMHO).

At “63 Gifts for Booklovers and Avid Readers” I found a “Personal Library Kit” right at the top of the list. I wrote recently about the books we lend and never get returned. If this bothers your bookish friend, here is a gift that might help.

The Best Non-Book Gifts For Bookworms” featured some really nice throws. We have one on my reading chair that I like to wrap myself in on chilly mornings when I get up to read, and it is one of those things you can never have too much of.

22 Affordable Gifts For Readers” offers a “Book Lovers Journal”. They write, “Readers know the stress of seeing another list of the best books to read this month, this season, or this year. It’s hard to keep track of a reading wish list when there are so many genres and authors to tackle! This journal helps organize any reader’s inventory—the notebook includes spaces to record books you want to read, books you’ve loaned to or borrowed from friends, and the contact information for your book club. The main attraction: Pages and pages to record details from the books you’ve read, making it easy to reference and recommend your favorite novels in the future.”

Uncommongoods website has a number of suggestions, some which I saw elsewhere, but one looked particularly fun. It was the “Storymatic Game” which is a game that provides a series of “prompts” that allow a group to spin out their own stories.

50 best literary gifts for a modern-day book lover” features an abundance of posters with book quotes, phone covers, e-reader covers, t-shirts and other items. I liked the personalized library sign that you could custom order.

The transparent book weight that I found on “24 Insanely Clever Gifts for Booklovers” caught my eye. It is transparent, keeps your books flat and protects them from spilled food and drinks! Insanely clever indeed.

Bookish Gifts Under $20” features a t-shirt that says the obvious: “This is my reading shirt.” Others may be more fashionable. None is more basic than this!

Gone Reading” has some of the nicest bookplates I found at any website, if you want to identify whose library that book that is in someone else’s library came from.

Of course, nothing says love to a book lover like books themselves. Astute book lovers will have created an Amazon wish list that will give you ideas. Looking at their GoodReads profile is another way of figuring out what they’ve read and what they like. Sometimes, I’ve appreciated gifts of books that are just outside the range of what I usually read–for example a book on social media shaming that I recently read is probably not one I would have picked up, but given my presence on social media, it ended up being a really fascinating read (thanks, Ben and Hannah!).

You might think a gift card to be a cop out. But not to the book lover! Knowing you have to spend so much at this particular store makes for fun as one thinks about that wishlist. It is easy to do that big chain of bookstores or that online seller. But I would suggest that this is your chance to support that favorite Indie store trying to make a go of it, particularly if this means introducing them to a new customer. By the way, I would recommend for the regular followers of this blog, and particularly my reviews, buying a gift card from Hearts and Minds Books. I asked my good friend there, Byron Borger, if they sell these and he said, “Oh yes, for any amount. We can send them to the recipient with a little note or, of course, to the person ordering it to sign themselves.” Typical of the personal service orientation I’ve come to expect from these folks, and what you will find from any good Indie.

Happy shopping for that book lover!

Coming tomorrow: My best books of 2016!

Borrowing and Lending Books

gregoryIf you haven’t been feeling guilty lately, one way to invoke that guilt is to peruse the shelves of your library for books that belong to others. Recently, for example, I came across a catechism of the Catholic Church I had “borrowed” thirty-five years ago! There is no way I can return it. I have another book, an early history of college student movements. It turns out the lender died ten years ago. And those are just ones I’ve “happened” upon. For this, there is this quote of Anatole France:

Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other people have lent me.”

Feel better? Those folks should have expected that the books would not be returned. Actually, the truth is, I often lend (really give away) books that I have no expectation of getting back. In some cases, I don’t really want them back. And the truth is, with over-flowing bookshelves I need to pass along books in any way I can. Lending (giving) a book to someone who will find some help or enjoyment in it just makes sense. Another quote, attributed to Joe Queenen:

“Lending books to other people is merely a shrewd form of housecleaning.”

Of course, there is that awkward situation of someone wanting to borrow a book that you really treasure. We can try things like bookplates signifying whose book this is, or from whose library (ex libris) this comes. Some use embossed stamps, some just inked stamps. Some even go to the trouble of library cards. Most of us just lend the book, bidding it “good bye” in our hearts, sometimes wistfully eyeing it on our friend’s shelves when we visit. Only on rare occasions have I said, “this book is kind of a family treasure that we don’t lend.” And then I feel terrible. This sentiment, uttered by an unknown booklover captures the feeling:

“No books are lost by loaning except those you particularly wanted to keep.”

Likewise, there is this saying attributed to Anatole Boyard:

“I feel about lending a book the way most fathers feel about their daughters living with a man out of wedlock.”

I’m not sure I want to take it that far (but then I’ve never had daughters!). Most of the time, I feel, at least with a good book, that what is in its pages is too good to be kept to oneself, to collect dust on my shelves if it can be of benefit to another. Lending books can be a way to give what is most precious about our experience with that book to another so that the experience is multiplied in the sharing. Laura Bush once said,

“The power of a book lies in its power to turn a solitary act into a shared vision.” 

Perhaps it is good to get over this thing of personal ownership of our books. As I get older, I realize that if I don’t pass along my books, particularly making sure those that matter get to those who matter to me, it will be left to someone else who probably won’t do this nearly as lovingly. The words of C. S. Lewis are a particular comfort to me:

My friend said, “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.” “Which?” I asked. “The ones you gave away or lent.” “I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I. “Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.*

*C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 216.

Long-Form Thinking

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James Patterson, by Susan Solie-Patterson – http://www.libarything.com/pic/156833, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15593339

I draw my title from a recent essay by best selling author James Patterson, titled The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking. His essay raises the question of what kind of republic will we be when the average amount that first time voters read is less than ten minutes a day? He is concerned that a tweet-length attention span is inadequate to give careful attention to the complexities that face our nation.

This brought to mind my recent reading of The Wired Soul (reviewed here) and the finding that how we interact with the digital media in our lives literally re-wires our brains, and does so in ways that dispose us to lots of short bursts of disconnected information in tweets, Facebook posts, and scanned articles on screens. There is more and more evidence that these habits of reading make it more difficult for us to give extended attention to a text–whether it be the Bible, a long-form essay, or a book. We are losing our ability to give extended attention to anything.

I wonder if this applies not only to text but to our interactions with people. How many times have you heard the phrase, “cut to the chase?” How many times have you felt that you needed to say something faster, because the other person seemed impatient, distracted, eager to get to the “next” thing, whatever it is. How many times have I (or you) been that impatient person?

Yet how many times are the most important things we want to say to another person reducible to 140 characters? This is even more the case when two people (or parties) cannot see eye to eye about something. Real understanding requires far more communication than a tossed-off slogan. Patterson’s concerns seem pretty valid to me–if we cannot engage in long, attentive conversation where understanding a different point of view, wrestling with complexity and nuance are involved, we might be in real trouble. Consider, for example The Federalist Papers, which lay out in a series of extended arguments, the reasons for the particular form of government that was being proposed in our Constitution. I cannot imagine where we would be if we had to depend on a series of tweets!

So, what is to be done? Patterson, to his credit has put his money where his mouth is, providing grants and scholarships, and funding for reading programs and bookstores. His challenge in his essay is that those of us who recognize the value of the “long-form thinking” involved in being able to sit down with a book and follow an argument should get off our duffs and do something about our functional illiteracy as a culture. He suggests:

“Are you upset about this election? Are you upset about the direction of this society? Then fix it. You’re a reader. You know what reading does for your ability to think things through. Get out there and make this your No. 1 priority. Got a kid? Make her read 20 minutes a day. Got a neighbor who stares at his phone all day? Get him a good book. Volunteer at the library. Volunteer at a school. At the very least, subscribe to a newspaper or magazine that supports long-form journalism and stop reading stuff for free through your screen.”

The last one got me. I have been thinking about subscribing to The Atlantic I’ve clicked on so many good articles from this publication recently and continue to be impressed with the thoughtfulness of the writing I find there. So, before writing this paragraph I decided to subscribe. Apparently there are others who are thinking this way as well. According to a Fortune article, at least 132,000 people have subscribed to the New York Times since the election with other publications like The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post also seeing rises in subscriptions.

Given that I am writing during the holiday season, this sparks some other ideas of what we could do:

  1. If you are taking vacation, take a book along and take at least 20 minutes a day to read uninterrupted, preferably stashing your smartphone somewhere else.
  2. Buy at least one book for each child or grandchild. If appropriate, read it together, snuggled up on a comfy couch or chair. You will never regret it.
  3. Many libraries and bookstores have programs where you can donate a book to a child. Giving the gift of reading to someone else is a great way to celebrate the season.
  4. If you are retired and looking for ways to volunteer, go to your library, or local elementary school. In many cases they have opportunities to help children read.
  5. Buy a book you think your circle of friends would like to read and give it to them. Suggest reading it by a certain date (maybe by the end of January during the winter doldrums) and get together to discuss it. If you like the idea, you could form a book group. If not, you can say you read at least one book in 2017 (something that 28% of the population has not done).
  6. Give a gift subscription to a magazine you like to a friend. It helps them, and helps magazines subscribe as well. And for the digital natives, most magazines offer both print and digital versions with a print subscription.

I think Patterson is right. The trends in the decline of functional literacy are alarming, and the implications even more. It might mean we begin with ourselves. And if we already have cultivated the reading habit, it might mean being creative–and not insufferable–in inviting others to begin to re-wire their brains through the delights of long-form reading with physical texts. We may not have the millions Patterson is putting behind his conviction. But we all have social capital–other people whose lives we influence. We all can do something.
 

 

Veterans Day in Books

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In Flanders Fields, Robert Vonnoh (Public Domain)

Today is Veterans Day in the United States. The day traces back to Armistice Day when fighting ceased at the end of World War I, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. It was re-named Veterans Day in 1954 and is intended to honor the service of all military veterans, whereas Memorial Day honors particularly those who died in the service of their country. The day is special to me as I think of my father, who served in the Army in World War II. He was so proud of his service to the country, and we shared this in the military salute he was given when he was laid to rest a few years back. Thank you, Dad, and so many others who have answered the country’s call and honorably served.

I was fortunate to come of age just at the end of the Vietnam War and did not serve. But over the years, I’ve read the history of many of our country’s wars. The truth is, as Sherman said, “War is hell.” The accounts of war are always a mixture of strategic brilliance and failure, bravery and sacrifice and the horror of mangled bodies, the tragic ends of the lives of young men with loves, families, and future hopes, and sometimes the numbing tedium of life between battles. Most of the time, it isn’t the happiest of reading, yet I think important both to more fully honor those who served and to think carefully about what is involved in committing the lives of our young men and women to battle, something never to be done rashly.

Here are some of my favorites, one for each of our major wars up through Vietnam. I have to confess that I haven’t read accounts of some of our more recent conflicts, particularly in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I would love it if those reading this post who have recommendations would share these to add to my list.

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  1. 1776, by David McCullough. A great, readable overview of our War of Independence by one of the great history writers of our time.1812
  2. 1812: The War that Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman. Again, an overview of this early conflict that nearly wiped out our young nation but served to launch the careers of Winfield Scott and Andrew Jackson, among others.a-country-of-vast-designs
  3. A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry. An account of President James K. Polk, our involvement in the Mexican War, and how Polk expanded the boundaries of the nation through this war.battle-cry-of-freedom
  4. Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson. There are so many great Civil War books but this is my favorite one volume account of the war.wwi
  5. The First World War by John Keegan. He shows the breakdowns of diplomacy that led to this war, the terrible bloodshed amidst the stalemate and how the end of the war shaped the world as we know it today.49250
  6. D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Stephen Ambrose. This is just one battle but Ambrose gives a compelling account of the bravery of American and British troops attempting to gain a beachhead on the shores of Normandy.korea
  7. The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam chronicles what is often called our “forgotten war” in Korea. Halberstam brings the journalistic brilliance of all his other books to this account of a war that never has really ended.vietnam
  8. Vietnam by Stanley Karnow. One of the best and most balanced histories of the conflict. Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest was also good in showing how the elite brain trust of the Kennedy’s wasn’t smart enough to avoid getting us deeply involved in the conflict.

Again, my apologies to those who served in more recent conflicts. I deeply value your service–just haven’t read any books about these conflicts and would love to get recommendations so that by next Veterans Day or the one after, I can recommend books that acknowledge your service as well.

Our nation’s armed forces have fought in a number of conflicts in our 240 year history. Many have died. Others have returned, some with wounds on their bodies, some with wounds on their psyches, few unchanged. I’ll leave to the historians to debate whether all these wars should have been fought. What cannot be debated is that those who have served and those who are actively serving even now are worthy of honor. To say “thank you” is one way of honoring. To listen to their stories is another. To advocate for their care is vital. To read the history of their service is fitting. Perhaps today would be a good day to begin.

We remember.