Saturday, May 28, 2022



Some people take photographs of their dogs. Well, we don't have a dog. Don't have a cat either. Don't have a child, a grandchild, or a parakeet. We don't dance on TikTok. Don't go to premieres, or do make-up tutorials, or troll online. We do cook, the beloved husband mostly, and I do like to eat. So like entirely too many people nowadays I will snap pictures of my dinner and post them to social media. (That pot roast looked good, child, it really did.) Flowers? Sure. I have photographed the flowers we planted in the side-yard, but only in close-up so no-one will see how I neglect them. People? That's more complicated. 

I have friends, mostly women, who don't like having their picture taken at all and I respect that. My mother still believes a "good" photograph should be taken no less than twenty feet from the subject. Anything nearer and she says, "Too close." Photos of me are easy. Would you prefer your ham hot or cold? Dishabille or turbaned in scarves? Despite my wide and noble brow and the gravitas lent by my white beard, point a camera at me and I will mince and roll my eyes and dance like Captain Spaulding. Give me an excuse, any excuse to put a flower pot on my head. I believe this is called a defense mechanism. Heaven forbid the photographer tell me I look handsome, or even that I am sporting a most becoming ensemble 'cause I will try a handstand. It can all look a bit desperate, largely because it is. Better they be made to laugh with me. Is that pathetic? I don't think so. Have you met the people who will never put on the paper party hat? Nobody says you have to wear it all night, sir. Besides, I come from a long line of people willing to mug for the camera. I treasure the photos of my parents wearing colanders. 

Mostly though I take pictures of my books.

Odd and not. I suppose if I built model trains or collected rare bottle caps I might take pictures of those but I don't. I read books. Better say that like every serious reader I know, I buy books with every intention of reading them and then I do -- so far as I am able. While collecting books is not an uncommon things to do -- yet -- the books I buy and read are not always books in which others will be specially interested. My friends are uniformly canny and polite, gallant even. Happy to "like" my pictures on social media, but  that doesn't mean they are necessarily looking for more information or suggestions of where they might find their own copies of The Letters of David Hume. It is a lesson learned. Friends share their enthusiasms too. Otherwise I would not now know even the little I now do of Ethiopian cuisine, anime, or Alban Berg. And I am grateful, though not equally for all three. Only fair. What friends do. And very good friends will even smile sweetly when I talk -- again -- about Walter Savage Landor. I admit it is not always an even exchange. I am lucky in my friends. So when I post yet more pictures of my books on social media I do not assume that because the pictures are "liked" that my books are, only that I am. That is mostly enough to make me happy. One does thrill a bit when somebody comments approvingly on a snapshot of one's library. What I find odd, even at my age, is that I still want the approval and admiration of others for being such a clever boy. Can one ever learn to not care? Evidently, no. Thus I suppose the sometimes sad spectacle of the aging autodidact on social media wondering if anyone noticed I was reading Montaigne in that picture of me in a kaftan.  Seems I am still the boy wandering the halls in Grove City Junior High School hoping to be noticed carrying a paperback  of Jean Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, hoping my teachers and peers might notice that I'm literate and think me special -- in a good way, for once. Same show, different venue. Still looking to find my tribe, though at least I now know who we are and that we are many. As for Sartre, I was not really up to it at fourteen -- nor I am now. I did read it though, after a fashion, something I will never do again. It was a long time before I learned one could simply stop reading a book one had started.

I still buy books I then find I cannot read. Some of course are simply bad. For we have the poorly written books always with us. Patience I have not much anymore. Many more books I now find are quite beyond me. As it turns out, reading the charming memoirs of a physicist does not mean I will ever have a grasp of physics. Six Easy Pieces indeed, Dr. Feynman? Well, speak for yourself. Even in subjects more congenial to my interests I will never be sufficiently conversant with the serious stuff of scholarship to discuss some things intelligently. There is no good way to tell someone that while I like Emily Dickinson just fine, I don't have a strong conviction when it comes to dashes -- but you go right ahead and tell me why they matter. I will listen. I'm sure you are right. No one is really waiting for my opinion of post-structuralism or my thoughts on enjambment, nor should they be. Regrettably, I mean it when I tell you -- I got nothing. One of the pitfalls of being so attracted to people smarter than myself has been learning to accept their disappointment in my limitations. I mean, I probably brought up Žižek in the first place. Sorry. Didn't mean to start a thing. You're disappointed? Imagine how I feel. But to not now and then at least try to read things beyond me would be like not being curious about the opinions of people I admire. Same thing, isn't it? Not their fault if I don't understand what they say. Sometimes it's just nice being taken so seriously. Sometimes not, but something, as they say, might rub off.

When I was very ill I found myself reading England Under Queen Anne, by George Macaulay Trevelyan. Three big volumes, with maps I never read because I can't read maps. I was still furloughed from my job at the time. Time I had. You should excuse the expression, I was under Queen Anne for awhile. Perfect example of more than one thing, reading Trevelyans. Not working I went a little Trevelyan crazy. George Otto Trevelyan was  G. M.'s dad and also the maternal nephew and biographer of Thomas Babington Macaulay. I've read quite a lot of Macaulay; history, essays, letters, and his nephew's biography. While I was home and in bed I read more than half of George Otto's rather wonderful history of the American Revolution in six volumes. I read G. M.'s biography of G. O. One thing leads to another, you see. Not all that long ago I had read a revelatory book called Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. Lord Macaulay & co. do not come out of it well. I'd recently found another newish book titled Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist, by Zareer Masani which was more sympathetic to the old boy, but a very modern reading nonetheless. I of course then had to reread some actual Macaulay. Just who I am. Now what does any of this matter or mean to anyone other than me?

Short answer? Nothing. I wasn't studying these books. I wasn't preparing any larger project, or researching to write this essay or anything else. I was just reading. And yeah, I posted pictures. Must everything be made to matter by being shared? For instance I don't care what anyone's Wordle* score was today, but I don't begrudge anyone posting their victories. Candy Crush to curing ham at home, if you want to share your hobbies with the wide world, you go right ahead. Remember, like Fred Rogers, "I like you just as you are." So if I post a picture of  six rather dull, faded volumes of an out-of-print history I obviously saw something there that seemed worthy of note. Others needn't. The purpose served can sometimes be as simple as recording my own temporary preoccupations just to show how I've been passing my time and that time is passing with me still in it. Mostly when I put up a picture of my books, I'm just catching folks up on subjects more wholesome than the state of my mind or my bowels. I don't knit, after all. Love some that do, and I am genuinely pleased to see the progress of a beautiful scarf. I've benefited personally from this. I can't do this. I am impressed by those that can and do. (Also? Anyone who cans tomatoes, makes pickles, gardens, dusts, photographs nudes.) It's nice and necessary to be made happy by the things we do well and that do no harm, and good to hear from tribes other than one's own. (And what's more fun than a Venn diagram?!)

It's no great surprise that people can occasionally be mean. I work in retail, remember? I personally do not understand the urge to either mock or dismiss the small pleasures about which I and others post online. If it's not politics or policy or a challenge to one's personal morality, why get so exercised about avocado toast? I only recently learned that avocados are indeed problematic, but maybe don't call your aunt "a bad actor" for enjoying her breakfast. Also, I don't post open questions, or repost memes much. I am rarely looking for confrontation. I don't remember that I've ever captioned a photo with anything like: "I love New York in June, how about you?" Never posed under a sign saying, "tell me why I'm wrong," or "convince me otherwise." I was ( briefly, weirdly) a rhetoric major in college. I understand questions that do and don't invite answers. And one needn't "like" everything anymore than one need like everything. If you post videos of "adorable" spiders or people walking across glass bridges hanging over certain death, I may say to myself, "nope," but I don't take offense at your enthusiasm. Likewise I may have occasionally told folks, "You really MUST read William Topaz McGonagall!" but the imperative mood comes not on me much. You're not the boss of me and that works both ways, honey. I realize that there are in fact people online looking to be problematic so as to bemoan the collapsing hegemony of men who look very much like me, but I am not one of them. Not my tribe.

As to what constitutes problematic content, that has changed and it hasn't, sadly. If anything, the online censors are now busier than they have ever been in my experience policing for the hint of even the most wholesome sexual deviance. Not so much as a male nipple, even in marble, escapes the unthinking, all seeing eye of the robot censors. It seems sex is dirty again, just not in a fun way. Billionaires, poor lambs, are not to be bullied without howling at the unfairness of it all, at least not on the platforms they own -- which is all of them. What constitutes free speech or a threat seems to depend now on at whom one cocks a snook more than what is said. Conservative white male politicians are, as they have always been,  particularly sensitive -- and every potential aggression is amplified by the complete absence of irony from any and all corporate algorithms. Same as it ever was. What has changed is who lets the dogs out. Of course there are still the same sorry souls who sit in their virtual front windows and keep an eye out for impiety, socialism, provocative hemlines and the like. Busybodies and bullies never rest and now the world is on their front lawn just waiting to be told to get off the grass. Best avoided, but not always possible. One of the great benefits of the new virtual society is the ease with which one may slam the door in the face of biblical exhortation and the wrathful goon. You've been blocked, booger. Doesn't always work though. Ask any prominent woman in politics or public service just how supported they feel by social media policies against harassment. Meanwhile, try saying, "men are pigs" on Facebook. Go on, just try. However firmly your tongue may have been planted in your cheek, you are on your way to a time out, trust me. I share your indignation. As at least a three time loser myself, I will not be sharing your post. Sorry, friend. See you on the other side.

"Aye me, how many perils do enfold

The righteous man, to make him daily fall?"

-- Edmund Spencer

Were it not for the righteous among my wider acquaintance, I would never have been exposed to the complicated history of the delicious avocadoes mentioned above. Had someone not gently scolded a mutual friend who had posted a picture of their breakfast, I might never have learned the little I now know about "monocultures." I can't say I have gone on to sin no more, but I will admit to a blush when I order guacamole. All manner of errors in usage and custom, pronouns and privilege have been brought directly and or indirectly to my attention via social media, and for much am I sincerely grateful. It isn't anybody's job to explain to the old man sittin' in his favorite readin' chair just how the world spins, but I have found there are lots of lovely people in the world who are kindly willing to point me the way. Yes, there are the online scourges and with them I have little patience, but  one cannot but admire the fortitude of those still willing to teach. Thankless business, mostly, specially online. And yet people I often know only on the computer have offered me genuinely thoughtful and even useful instruction down the years on everything from the fascinating variants of academic geography to using the Ukrainian spelling of Kyiv. It may seem stupidly sunny if not a little dirty to say it this way, but I've actually learned a lot from being corrected. Not always persuaded, I admit, but usually glad of the opportunity to avoid looking any more foolish than needs be.

The distinction between real and virtual friends is not one I can make anymore. I am of an age when even before the pandemic I was not getting out much and stopped going out long since. My oldest friends are not often in the same city as me, or the same state. Some are not even in the same country. It would be lovely to see people and share a drink or a meal, go to a movie, but that is unlikely now, even if I didn't rush home to beloved husband every night after work. The great innovation of social media for the not-young is that one is able not only to renew and maintain long treasured friendships but also to make a new and often unlikely acquaintance, genuine friends who may live in Hawaii, or Milan, who may be decades older than me, or younger, or even famous. The common criticism of this broadening of the definition of friendship is that such relationships are inherently shallow and somehow dishonest for never having been tested by a road-trip, or a missed dinner invitation, or tolerating the company of a less than sympathetic spouse, or the chance to hold a noisy baby. This seems to me to mistake complication for virtue. Why must life, and love be a trial to be real? Are our sympathies so dull, our curiosity so prurient that we must be made to suffer with someone to feel for their suffering? Evidently among the young there is a performative aspect of social media posting: an arbitrary and impossible standard of beauty, a competitive need for "likes," a strong disincentive to admit struggles with illness, etc. Same show, different venue again. Old people? I believe the term is "over-sharing." In my "feed" I'm likelier to find a gruesome knee surgery update or a discussion of the comparative benefits of various mental health meds than a beauty product endorsement or instructions for a dance craze. In my circle, instant messaging tends to links to the Dickens Museum and enquiries after declining pets. Can feel pretty real pretty fast, folks. Who has time for curating one's reality when increasingly eager to keep hold of our diminishing stores? At this point I'm as honest as I'm ever likely to be, and so are my friends.

So if every now and again I get an unsolicited if thought-provoking link to an exposé on the methane from windy cows, or a sharp nudge in the comments on July 4th reminding me just what hypocrites certain Founder Fathers would seem to have been, I am ready! I've heard worse. Meant well. I can take it. Once in a great while I will still be taken to task for something I've said unthinkingly, or a book I'm reading too casually, or even my selections for my Book Club.

"Do we have to read books written by slave-owners?"

This in response to my choice of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Tolstoy. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. 

"No, you don't," was my only answer to that question, I am now ashamed to say. Huff puff.

Took me the better part of the afternoon to come out from under my umbrage and back into the light of day. And a lovely Spring day it was: sun shining, last of the lilacs in the backyard, first buds on the rosebushes, birds back in the trees, tra-la. 

Now it's all very well to strive for magnanimity online and off, but it seems that I am still every bit as likely as the next old badger to put my back up when challenged. I was asked a question, with context, and I chose to growl and waddle right back into my stinking burrow, or in my case, my favorite, tatty reading chair to stew in my own indignation. I decided I was outraged, outraged I tell you, on behalf of Tolstoy -- who has been dead for more than one hundred years -- and angry because... Literature!

The awkward thing about having actively cultivated one's persona as a rather dear and genuinely harmless duffer is that one sometimes forgets just what hard work harmlessness can be.† Haven't quite mastered it. Sorry. I have however learned that emotions, however valid and even necessary they may be, etc., rarely answer actual questions. "What is Pi?" Consternation! "How high the moon?" Surprise and impatience! So I was unhappy with that question. Now I'm not. Too late, but I'm not, honestly. But why was I, and what happened in the meanwhile?  

Best to start with what was actually said rather than just what I heard. Here are the relevant bits:

"I've really been hoping to join your book club, but I've been waiting for a title that really got me excited... I'm sorry, but have you noticed that slavery seems to be a theme so far? The Count of Monte Cristo has slaves. Samuel Johnson owned a slave. Now Tolstoy -- who owned slaves. Do we have to read books by slave owners? I just can't."

First, it is important to note that the question came in a private message, not in a public space. Nice. Also? Note the enthusiasm for at least the idea of my virtual book club. Also nice. I fear my initial terse response seems to have got me "blocked," or "ghosted," or something of that sort because there's been no communication since from the Dixie cup on the other end of the string. My fault, so I'll say here what I hadn't the common curtesy to say before.

To begin then, an apology. I now realize that the question was sincere and deserved something more than my dismissal. For that I am genuinely sorry. I chose to read the above as a criticism of me, of my choices, my taste, rather than what it obviously is, a potential reader looking at the books I've chosen not as bad books but rather from a vantage I had not considered. Doesn't change my answer, but there is more to this than I acknowledged at the time, so let me try to unpick some of the particulars first before returning to the larger question.

(Spoiler alert.) The Count of Monte Cristo does indeed own slaves. He is made to say some pretty harsh things about their expendability, though the characters in question are revealed to be dearer to the protagonist than nearly anyone else in the story and are ultimately described as considerably better people than either the Count himself or the audience to whom these remarks were addressed. Both enslaved characters were purchased in order to save them. Both are admittedly used as players in Monte Cristo's revenge, but both are eventually set at liberty, as was always, we learn, part of the protagonist's plan. Worth noting also that the author, Alexandre Dumas was himself the grandson of Marie-Cessette Dumas, an African slave in Haiti, a fact that obviously shaped not only the author's life and reputation but clearly contributed much to the creation of Dumas greatest character, namely the great author himself. 

It's also true that Francis Barber when still just a boy was given to Samuel Johnson as a gift; a grotesque idea, if not an uncommon practice at the time. Note however that Samuel Johnson came to publicly call Francis his "son," loved and lived with and supported Barber, his wife and family financially, and made Barber his primary heir. It was Barber who cared for Johnson in his final illness and it was Barber's future with which Johnson on his much dreaded deathbed was most concerned. Please also note that Johnson was an early and vociferous critic of the institution of slavery and was himself a member of one of the first English abolition societies. To not read Johnson or Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson because of the way in which Francis Barber came into Johnson life is to miss one of the most admirable stories in the writer's much storied life, and a disservice to the truly noble character of both Sam and Francis Barber.

And then there is Tolstoy. This one really confounded me at first. He did indeed inherit hundreds of serfs when he came to his estate in 1847, aged 19. When the Russian serfs were freed in 1861, Tolstoy returned from his time in France -- where he met Hugo and Proudhon among others --  determined to relaunch the schools he'd already started for "his" serfs, among other projects for their improvement. I can't begin to summarize here the political and spiritual journey of one of the most important figures in western literature. Suffice it to say his philosophical writing on nonviolent resistance -- influenced in part by the work of the American abolitionist Adin Ballou -- would later be cited as a major influence in turn on both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. There are few figures in history, let alone literature less deserving of dismissal with a single epithet.

All of which I might have said, had I not -- in a phrase I must tell you I hate -- been so "in my feelings."

Eventually though I was prompted to do a little research and take the time to consider the question of slavery in the work of all three authors for the first time. I am now sincerely grateful  to the person who brought this issue to my attention. This is exactly the kind of question one would hope to see brought up and discussed in a book club, mine anyway. (And slavery was discussed in the club with both of the first two selections.) I would hope I may yet be forgiven for not being able to get out of my own way and missing the opportunity to have this conversation.

I regret this not just on my own behalf. I might have learned something. Having raised the issue, my questioner might have had more to say I never had the chance to consider. There is also the very real possibility that that person may not have known what I know about Dumas, Johnson, and Tolstoy. Might have been the better for it. Maybe not. We'll never know now. I'll never know.

"'Oh Tigger, where are your manners?'

'I don't know, but I bet they are having more fun than I am.'"

-- A. A. Milne

Oh, fuck it. I'll just say it. That message was rude, wasn't it? (Wasn't it?) I mean, I was too, which is really what got us here, but is there really any way to read that paragraph without it sounding something like, "I'd love to come to your party, but I heard it'll be crawling with cops," or "Thanks for the invitation, but did you really not make anything for dinner without cilantro, peanuts, wine, or butter?" By now every old head has already been shaken over the new generation's conviction that punctuation in messages is overly emphatic, if not  hostile. Well, it is kinda their thing more than it is ours, messaging, isn't it? Like the rock and roll music and the marijuana cigarettes and the sincere commitment to saving the planet. To be honest, messaging is generally something the beloved husband and I use mostly to talk about dinner menus, grocery lists, and septuagenarian celebrities who have shockingly died so young. And we punctuate. Be fair, so did the other person with whom I am not having this conversation. Nice. So if I'm not offended on behalf Leo Tolstoy et al., then why am I still at least a little irked? Tone? 

Don't think quoting As You Like It would have necessarily done me much good in this instance -- as opposed to all the times it's helped me score at closing hour -- but here goes: "Your gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness." Am I wrong? If we oldsters might concede that full stops jar on the eyes of tender youth, might tender youth not talk at us like Red Guards who just found an Elvis poster, at least when they have questions or concerns about, say, our book club selections? Grandma's been sending money to televangelists? Dad wore his MAGA hat to your graduation? Mom put food-waste in the recycle by mistake? Your date calls you "babe" in public? Let fly your righteous anger, avenging angels of the new millennium! Though, maybe vary your colors a little, at least with well-meaning strangers, no? Remember, you and I did not bond at your birth. 

Someone roughly my age reminded me that we were righteous once ourselves. True. I was not always a joy to my elders. I did not always defer to experience. Another friend back in my school days once described the way I made new acquaintances as, "dive and rip." Age has mellowed me, like it does, but it hasn't made me entirely forget what it is to be young; to be subject to condescension from even those we might admire, to go unheard and unseen, to have to shout because sometimes the shout was all that was left in you. We must all of us I think be willing to argue with the gifts we've been given and try not just to be right but also to listen. It is still harder than it looks.

In that spirit I would contend that just as there is more than one reading of history and literature, there are better ways to suggest one look again or anew, ways to read the room as well as all the books in it, and most important to me, reasons to read even the books about which you may have heard troubling things. May not be the time. Okay. You're probably busy with more pressing, more material texts, but I would hope you might yet see your way to reading Tolstoy, serfs and all.

I suppose the three words I find hardest are the last. The finality of that last statement in the original message, "I just can't," makes me shake. I confess I find that hardest of all that was said to take in. Can't or won't or don't think you should? (You should -- probably the least persuasive word in the language -- but you should.) These books cannot now be read but with the reality of slavery somewhere in mind. Got it. Hadn't thought of them that way, as representative of that, but neither was the idea entirely new to me or the book club, as I've suggested. Nonetheless, wasn't thinking about it until I got that message. Can't not see it now, thank you. 

If I've only recently come to some understanding of how trauma works and how it can be located even in the most seemingly innocent entertainment, say the unsuspected page of even a Dumas novel, then clearly I still have work to do, and not just on my electronic manners. Thanks for the not entirely welcome reminder. Again, sorry I baulked, and barked.

Now, as it seems we are saying what ought to be obvious I will repeat, no, it is not my place to tell anyone what they must read -- unless they want to join my book club. And truly, all or nearly all are welcome, but maybe don't kick the door in next time. And I will promise not to kick anybody down the stairs because they spilled the tea.

In the end my primary emotion, well after the fact, is mostly sad-face-emoji. Is it not genuinely regrettable that a reader astute enough to point out the commonality of this ugly fact in three such diverse narratives from three such different writers should also find this sufficient cause to never read any of them? Have I read that right? I know good people who won't read any book with a dog in it for fear the dog will die, as they so often do, in books and out. Another book I recently bought with the idea of possibly reading it in the book club turns out to have been written by someone who enthusiastically joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1933. Feels like a potential deal-breaker, doesn't it? (I hasten to add that the member who brought this to my attention recently, still professed a willingness to read the book if its merits exceeded the author's many sins, thus proving that she is a bigger person than me, bless her.) I will not however concede that any of the books we have read, or the book we are reading now, or the books I still hope to have us read hereafter, are anything less than the very opposite of what that message to me suggested. I refute the premise and deny the particulars, as no one who has actually read Dumas, Johnson, or Tolstoy could do so and not be moved by their greater goodness and humanity. That is as close to a reason as I have for the existence of book club. 

If nothing else, I have been reminded that I am at best more human than my profile. Turns out the jolly fellow pictured in the flowing scarves and silly hats can still be a pretty tetchy sonofabitch now and then. And he really wants you to like his books.

*Wouldn't be unhappy to see this reference age badly.

†See the latter diaries of Sofia Tolstoy for excellent examples of the harm done by an old gentleman's cultivated harmlessness.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

All That Glisters

“And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano 

I knew a girl who couldn't back up. She would circle blocks to avoid parking anywhere she couldn't drive straight into and out again. It was a problem. I was only in her car because she occasionally gave me a ride so I wasn't in a position to complain. Seemed reasonable enough to me at the time. Looking back, I will admit it was strange, but what did I know? I didn't learn to drive until I was thirty-five. I've no idea if the issue was mechanical, psychological, or something entirely other. She didn't explain and I didn't ask. Around and around we would go until there was just the right spot to stop. Meanwhile we smoked and talked and had a lovely time. I also remember scraping ice off the inside of her windshield so she could see. Didn't question that either. People entirely dependent on others for transportation do well to pitch in when and where they may. Nobody made me get in the car. I was just glad of the lift.

Always glad of a lift.

Now the established wisdom is that there are just two types of readers: them what always finishes what they've started, and... the rest of us. The first hesitate to start any book they may not finish but once begun, good or bad, they read on to the end. "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on." The other type stops whenever and wherever we please and may or may not ever see the end. I don't personally know anyone over the legal drinking age who still subscribes to the first rule. As for the latter sort, myself included, the reality tends to be more complicated. 

Lots of reasons to not read lots of books. Many things are simply not to my taste: woodworking, team sports, science fiction, the out of doors, heterosexuality, beets -- though I may or may not have had a go at one or more of the things on that list. I wouldn't say never to anything but the last two, though I am willing to concede that I may yet be moved to try beets again if the preparation looks specially good. I would certainly be willing to read a book about beets if the reviews were uniformly positive and or a friend told me I "simply must." There is still the possibility always, at least when it comes to books. Even excluding the authors and books I am sure I will never read again, I like to think "Barkis is willing" should the right proposal come my way. Not married to anything though -- other than the beloved husband of course.

Old Samuel Johnson shocked his young Boswell by not finishing every book he read. In his defense, Sam willingly read nearly anything to get the sense of it, or as much of it as he could stand, but having done so, more often than not he was done. This is not a young man's argument, nor should it be. Youth requires diligence. Young people may not know all of which they are capable, may be made to try hard things from algebra to auxiliary verbs, and may or may not benefit from the lessons they are made to make. Compulsion probably isn't be the best way to teach, but it can be the only way to make a boy wash or read Silas Marner. As neither a parent nor a teacher it's none of my business. The only thing I am now prepared to make a child do is leave the room. What constitutes a reasonable length of time to listen to a five year old-- say, fifteen minutes? Mommy's trying to play cards, honey. Go play in the dirt. Don't want to be traumatic, or thought inhospitable by anyone who may have to drive me to appointments someday. As to books, I'm with Sam. As I no longer serve on any committees or write reviews as such, I can't really be made to read anything anymore. I think that fine. With that freedom comes the ancillary good of reading any book only so long as I like it.

So it is that I too now start far more books than I will ever finish, just as I probably buy more books than I will ever have time to read. The willingness is all. (Also? Apparently scientific studies show that book hoarders live longer -- unless and until we are crushed beneath the unsorted weight of our "to be read" stacks. Worth the risk I say.) Where Sam read largely for sense, I have less elevated expectations and read mostly for style. Great novelists for example are seldom first rate philosophers. (And in my experience most first rate philosophers tend to be less than stellar stylists, at least by the standards of the other muses. Ever laughed at a joke in Aristotle? Found a bon mot in Wittgenstein? Hume's reasoning tends to be more elegant than his sentences, etc.) I prefer to read what I would never say so well. Someone may have already written something so elegant, so perfectly said about beets that I will not only wish I'd thought of it but may also be moved to try borscht again.

A better question than why don't I finish every book I read would be what makes me read a book to the end, and again there isn't just the one answer. Sometimes it's story, or again style, more often than either it is the author. This will seem a shallow response, but honestly, I need to like the author. Don't misunderstand me: I needn't like all the characters, or even the protagonist -- does anybody "like" Bellow's Herzog? I admit that the last time I tried Middlemarch I found Dorothea Brooke every bit as maddening as her first husband. But who can read Shuggie Bain and not be glad to have met Douglas Stuart? Anyone who can read Nicholas Nickleby and not come to love the man who made it is, in my opinion somehow deficient as a human being. But that's just me. You might love Louisa May Alcott or Isaac Asimov. To each his, her, or their own. All I can say is that to finish a book I must not dislike it's author. I am willing to be bored a little, disagree a great deal, I can even allow for an uncomfortable level of bewilderment on my part. I must respect the writer's work if not always their intent, but ultimately I must like the author's company or why keep it? 

Just here I feel it necessary to say a word in defense of difficult books. I do not avoid or abandon books because they are hard and neither should you (huff puff.) The fashion of the day is that all books are equal and just seeing someone read "an actual book" ought to bring hosannas from the congregation. It seems reading books is not just a good but good for us -- like leafy greens twice a day -- and it matters not a bit what grown people choose to read. Evidently there isn't anything creepy anymore about middle aged persons who exclusively read novels with heroic teenagers as the protagonists, likewise dragons, faeries, witches, magic, and Sailor Moon. We are instructed not to judge adults uninterested in reading about other adults. Likewise adults who use "adult" as a verb. As a bookseller I do not judge what people read, so long as they buy. As a reader? Not all books are meant to be easy, just as not all art is best seen on a t-shirt, or music judged by how catchy the tune. (Remember "easy listening" radio? Shiver. That's how most YA reads to me.) I did not recently read the latest book from Paul Muldoon because he is my favorite poet --  because he isn't. My best poet-friend likes him. Good enough for me. I don't know that I will ever entirely understand up to what Muldoon is, nor do I feel that I need to. I am not a poet. I read him because what he does is interesting at least in large part because I don't entirely understand it. Also? He made me feel things. Some of the images were gorgeous. That seems to me plenty. I read all sorts of nonfiction for the reading of which I am not fully qualified: philosophy, history, even a little simple physics. I want to know what I can even if I never know all that I might or ought. And I sometimes read dense and difficult prose not because I think it improving, but because there can be more to it than the effort required. Hard books can be as good or bad as the easy ones. To ignore the difficult ones seems to me weak-minded and to ignore the seemingly simple, pompous. I'm still trying to avoid being either, when and where I can.

 Avoiding difficult books isn't the same as avoiding difficult people. Some complex ideas require more words. Some art requires more effort. Some books invite argument, but unlike actual people, when and if they grow tedious books can be put right back in their place. Perfectly acceptable to tell a book to shut the fuck up. Can't hurt a book's feelings. There have been many mad and even dangerous books well worth reading, well worth the time taken. (Not so in my experience with mad and dangerous people, particularly on buses.) It's true that I most often now read familiar authors, and have grown comfortable with an older style of English, but I don't read only the books I already know and I don't read just to be reassured in my opinions, or to escape my reality, or to imagine what my life might have been but isn't. All perfectly legitimate reasons to read, but not to the exclusion of all else on offer, and not to the exclusion of reality, of life. I read for my livelihood, my life, and for more of life, not to avoid it. I do not understand wanting to feel as one felt at sixteen (who are these people who enjoyed being teenagers?!) and I don't understand not wanting to be a grown person. I don't understand not wanting to think and feel and be who I am. There's nothing very special to being me, but being me now is certainly better than being me was at sixteen. I might regret the state of me, but not the fact. I did at sixteen, poor child. I don't regret the effort, even if I am not always confident in the result. I am smarter now than I was then, and a good part of that has come to me because of reading better books as I went along, and not all of them easy.

I do not now understand reading not to know more, not to be made to think. Wait. Backup. that's not true. Of course I do, but that is primarily what television is for. (Are you watching Season Four of The Circle?! Can't wait for new episodes to drop.)

"What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure," said Johnson. I recognize the effort expended to write the text for Harold and the Purple Crayon -- a work of genius in my opinion -- but a case has, can and should be made just as easily for why one ought to read The Golden Bowl, and or the letters of Charles Lamb, or On the Origins of Species, or Jurgen Habermas. I would argue that all good authors are trying to communicate as directly as they can ideas that may require language other than familiar words of one syllable. I would hope that adult readers are up to conversations they couldn't have with their kids and would want to explore ideas and feelings they couldn't share in an Instagram post. (I suspect that this may be part of the "adulting" about which so many now complain, to which I can only say, "Oh please, a toddler can't even order a drink and most teenagers don't even know enough to eat oysters or watch black and white movies. Enjoy your privilege, people.")

That said, reading Jurgen Habermas was a muthafucka. For me anyway. I don't remember now why I felt obliged but I did so I tried. Unlike the mystical kerfuffle of the French post-structuralists so popular in my youth, at least the German wrote actual prose. Couldn't blame the translation either. What I got from Habermas was had only with hard work, but the fault for anything I missed was mine; my lack of education, my lack of disciple, etc. And no, I never read a whole book by the esteemed philosopher end to end. Nevertheless I still remember most of what I did read, particularly his essay, "Modernity versus Postmodernity" and the encouragement it gave me, and that it made me read on.

I don't feel bad about never finishing The Theory of Communicative Action. You can if you like. I don't feel bad in suggesting it was nonetheless a better use of my time than reading yet another serial killer book, another cozy, another story of a twelve year old come to save the world. Your time's your own, of course. Mine feels too short for too steady a diet of pap, or counting the books I've read in a year, or expecting to be admired to for arranging my books on the shelf by color. Again, who does that?!


Here's what happened. I had picked up a big new book, recently translated and publish for the first time in English. Looked good. I read the reviews and three short chapters. All good. Why not for the book club? It was certainly big enough. Worth considering. Unlike the earlier selections for my Big Fat Book Club, I thought we might try something different, a new book by a contemporary writer in translation  rather than a classic. Then unfortunately, as we came to the end of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, I had another bright idea. Why not read the book together for the first time? 

This was not a bright idea. As it turned out, this was very dim idea indeed.

The Book Club has my name on it. I host the virtual meetings. I select the books. We have three months to read or reread each book. I reread and collect supplemental materials for each meeting. I try to provide history, context, hopefully a good time had by all. Not everyone who signs up or signs on sticks around. True of all book clubs, as I understand it. I get it. Book clubs are like extramarital affairs, it's all very exciting at first, but interest may wane over time and a thousand+ page side-piece in addition to one's other reading can start to feel a lot like eating Christmas dinner twice. "Go! I know you have to spend time with your real family. So I roasted a turkey and made cranberry sauce from scratch, go, enjoy your store-bought pie." (I should also mention, strange as it still seems to me to say, that my Book Club is free! It was just a couple of months ago that I first learned that people can and do earn a living doing this sort of thing online. Seriously?!?! Who knew? Not to worry, loyal members. Keepin' my day-job.) 

So. I chose a book and nobody liked it. Backup. That's not entirely true. At least one of my regulars seems to have enjoyed what she'd read of the book so far. In fact, I think she may have enjoyed it more than me. By the time our first meeting rolled around, I'd read better than five hundred of the nearly nine hundred pages of the book. I did not hate it. Others did. Which is not to say that I liked it.

It was not for want of  novelist's gifts. "Life had slipped between her fingers like squandered flour." That's lovely -- and kudos to the translator as well. The structure of the novel was more piled than planned, but nothing daunting. Of plot there was none but again, for this at least I was prepared, and prepared to defend it. Not every great novel tells a compelling story. Some tell several stories, some more interesting than others, usually united by a theme, a family, a place. Ivo Andric's The Bridge on the Drina comes first to mind. This I thought would be one of those. There was much of a history with which I was too little familiar. Easily addressed with a computer. I was ready to defend nearly all of the author's choices -- at first. The thing for which I was not prepared was the meagerness of emotion. There wasn't much affection for the family from which the novel was made, seemingly the author's own. The women had the worst of it, despite being the nearest to the narrator's life. There was a very deliberate reserve, a cold objectivity even when describing the grandmother who had raised the protagonist, presumably the novelist himself. A point was being made (and made, and made again,) about the transience of memory, affection, history. Got it. The writing could be very good, even beautiful, but the book was ultimately off-putting. Perhaps that was the intent? If so, it succeeded too well, at least with me and the majority of the Book Club. 

For me the break came after a long chapter detailing the decline and death of the narrator's mother. Evidently a difficult woman. The son does what he can to care for her needs, but there was no sense that the author cared much for the woman at all. He flatly refuses the idea that she was capable of loving her son. Describing in vivid, sometimes crude, even cruel detail the mother's suffering, the author tells us that this inconvenienced rather moved him. He tells us her death changed him not at all. The mother's irrationality, her anger, her contradictions, her howling regrets, her pain comes to nothing. It seems that even her prolonged and hideous death was just something that happened. He wasn't there. No reason to be. As the novelist made the choice to be the central character in his novel, it became impossible to not think the author, however talented, and by his own admission, had been a bit of a shit. He is quick to point out that this is not something he regrets. Just the way things are. Not everybody loves their mother. Not every mother deserves the devotion of her children. Half way through the book it seemed to me that perhaps nobody's mother, and certainly not his, deserves such a kicking, particularly when followed by a shrug.

It is an odd choice to make so big a book, a book with so many characters and with so many stories, and then make everyone in it a cypher. That seems a grim reading of family history, and of history as well. It also felt false, his indifference, more an affectation than a fact. Really? Nine hundred pages that would seem to come to nothing? Was one meant to admire his doggedness in writing so much and so well about places and people and a country he can't quite bring himself to regret? All one ultimately knows of these otherwise forgotten men and women, long or recently dead, are just the few scraps the writer has recovered; his own incomplete memories, a bit of family lore, and the unsatisfactory answers he had from his mother. To distract her from her pain and complaints in their last conversations, he asked her to talk about the past. This chapter, like the character of the mother proved exhausting without being very interesting. That seems unnecessarily cruel. There might be more to all of this, if anyone could be bothered to look, but why would they? He hadn't much. Even at nine hundred pages it all seems strangely grudging. He ends most of his family stories by telling the reader that such stories, such people, don't really matter all that much to anyone but him and then only to extent that somehow a book must be made of this. He's made a book because it is his to make and he, if you hadn't noticed, is a famous novelist. That seems to matter even if the rest doesn't much. It is only this novel, his writing of it, that justifies even the events described in greater detail. He isn't what's become of the largely forgotten generations before him so much as he is the only reason they still exist at all and only because they are the sorry stuff with which he has to work. Even the history of his troubled homeland seems little more than another stone about his stiff neck. In the end I realized that I didn't dislike the book so much as I did the man for writing it. That's not good. Backup. Time to get out. Time to walk away.

Was it a bad book? Certainly not. Difficult? Yes, but not bad, just a bad choice. 

If I'd been reading the book for any reason other than for my Book Club I would have quit sooner and frankly would never have given the novel and the novelist another thought. Happens all the time. Nobody's fault, just not for me. But I'd already told other people to read it. I realized that I'd broken trust. Nothing for it but to apologize and pick another.

So that's what I did. 

All of this happened to be happening while I was away from the bookstore where I work, far away for a solid month, at least in part to mourn the death of my young nephew. Perhaps if I hadn't been with family of my own I might not have had such an unpleasantly visceral reaction to so big a book about a family for which the novelist seemed determined to make no one including himself care. Bad timing if nothing worse. 

If I've learned nothing else in my life, I have at least learned how to reverse.

And because I am not someone who can travel with just one book, I had the good sense to bring other books with me. The place where I'm from is not known for books or bookstores. I packed two books of poetry, acquired three mysteries along the way, and in a very last minute decision I included an inexpensive edition of what many still insist is the greatest novel of all time. 

"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Trust me, I know how this one ends.