Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I love Ray Bradbury.

When he died, I put my head on my desk and wept. He’s one of those writers, the kind of writer whose words are like having a conversation with your best friend. His books and stories are like being captured in a sudden sunshower, or watching the Perseids spark across midnight, or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon on a blazing afternoon. He is fantastic and marvelous and awesome and wonderful, but in the deepest meaning of those words, where the fantastic soars beyond the mundane and marvels, full of awe and filled with wonder. He was a master storyteller, and a joyous dreamer, and a hopeful cynic. I love his books, and I return to them frequently.

Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favorites. I named my dog Faber, after the retired English professor who explained the importance and necessity and meaning of books to Montag. (My dog, by the by, is not nearly so profound, but he is skittish, and he barks with immense alarm whenever my neighbor comes home.) If I had to pick a book to be my motto, or a book to give to a complete stranger, or a book to tattoo across my limbs and torso, it would probably be this one.

If you’ve never read this book, you have seriously deprived yourself.

Fahrenheit 451 is about book burning. But the thing that makes this book so immense, is that Bradbury tells us that books are NOT IMPORTANT as things in and of themselves. It’s not the books that matter, he has Faber say, it’s what’s IN the books. The bookness of a great book is the soul, the ideas, the meanderings and thoughts and figuring out the universe and figuring out humans and all the magic and terror of being alive. Books are not important, but bookness, the stuff of the book, is essential to being human and alive. Bookness is  creative lassitude, it’s a rocking chair on the front porch, it’s talking until midnight, it’s a cup of coffee or tea, it’s a daydream on a walk in the afternoon. When books are burned, bookness is burned. And people, with nothing to think about, are distracted with frenzy and placated like cows.

In the epilogue, Bradbury writes that his subconscious was sneaky; it helped him choose the names of Montag, a paper company, and Faber, a pencil manufacturer. I think his subconscious was even sneakier than he thought, because Faber was the pencil manufacturer whose imported pencils caused Henry David Thoreau, also a pencil manufacturer, and another great humanist, to shift his business focus to selling graphite, which was used in typesetting.

I think Bradbury’s subconsciousness was trying to make sure we knew that books are the quiddity, the essence, of life.   It’s not technology, or idleness, or television that Bradbury rails against in 451, it’s mindlessness. It’s throwing away life by not thinking, by constantly distracting yourself, by not being mindFUL. It’s not paying attention. It’s not allowing ideas to simmer at the back of your mind and it’s not being creative and it’s not living actively. Technology is merely the means for passivity in 451, and books are all the means for bookness.

Whenever we burn books, or ban books, or censor books, in other words, we burn and ban and censor ourselves. “Manuscripts,” another Master of quiddity claimed, “don’t burn.” And he was right; they don’t. But we can. And we do.

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On Serendipity (Or, You Can’t Force a Book)

I have several books on my reading list. Infinite Jest (which I may well get kung fu’ed in the face by the recommender for not reading yet), After Dark, Subliminal (which I actually started and have quite enjoyed, but non-fiction wasn’t doing it), Outliers (which I’ve wanted to read for a very long while), The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, 4:50 from Paddington, Vanity Fair, What Dreams May Come, Orcs, Bears, and Assholes (written by the incomparable Robert Bevan. Reviews forthcoming), et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. My book list fills me with glee. One of my greatest joys is knowing that there is always, and will always be, something else to read.

When I read more in paperback, I would buy new books and put them in a stack. The new books would remain in stack form, occasionally relocated to other parts of the house or dorm room or apartment, but stack intact, until they were all read. The stack never truly depleted, because any new books would be added to the new book stackpile. Only once a book was read would it go on a shelf. I wish I could have a book stack on my Kindle; I never buy enough paperback books anymore to form a true stack.

In any case, my book list operates just like my book stack. There is no order, no timeframe, no imperative to read these books in any particular sort of way. The list, the stack, is merely the category “Unread.” The contents of the stack fluctuate and change like a Gemini–at a whim. There are no rules of what to read next, merely suggestions. The next book is always whatever book happens to be read next.

And sometimes it’s a book that’s not on the list or in the stack. Sometimes it’s a book that finds me. Sometimes I can try to read another book, but there’s a book out there that I need right now, and it crosses my path. I try not to resist these moments. I believe that all books find us, really, because I believe that we are found in books.

Yesterday, for example, there was Kindle Daily Deal for The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I’d been meaning to read it, but again I hesitated. A book about a girl with terminal cancer falling in love and  then meeting her favorite author? It sounded like a Lifetime movie. And I know about Lifetime movies–they are my mother’s absolute favorites.  I did not, and do not, want to read a Lifetime movie, or a novel length Hallmark card either, for that matter. I read a review on Amazon that addressed my assumptions. I then spent $3.99 for the book. At 7pm last night, I started reading it.

Why this book, when I have so many other books on my list? I buy and borrow books all the time, and don’t open them all right away. I was already reading Subliminal, and enjoying it. So why put it down for this book?

I can’t really answer this question. Perhaps it has something to do with my unconscious mind picking up on things, processing them beneath the surface, and then outwardly manifesting my conclusions by suddenly reading a different book. Of course, if I’d read more than 20 pages of Subliminal so far, I’d be able to tell you more about that. All I really know is that you can’t force a book. If it’s not time, it’s not time. And drifters come along–those books that seem to float in your vicinity for a while, on the shelves at the bookstore, in your suggestions on Amazon, in reviews that you stumble across while looking for something else on the Internet–and the drifters are the ones that get you where you live. And take you where you’re going. And sometimes change your life.

If I didn’t have to work this morning, I probably would have finished The Fault in Our Stars last night. I stayed up late enough that I refused to look at the clock to see the time. And I only stopped reading when it occurred to me that if I saved the last 30% of the book, I would have more to read today. And in case this book is, as I suspect, a life changer, an outlook alterer, a decision precipitator, I wanted to be fully awake for the metamorphosis.

So in just a moment, I’m going to keep reading, furtively at my desk. And chances are good that I’m not going to write a separate review about this book (but who knows? I might.). It’s hard to write immediately about the books that you absorb into yourself. Will this book change your life? I have no idea. For me, where my life is, and the crazy improbable shit that I deal with on a near daily basis, this book speaks. All I can say for sure is that it’s a serendipitous drifter that eventually fell into my lap. Maybe it’s time it fell into yours. And maybe it’s not. Maybe you have a different drifter that hasn’t ripened enough. Maybe you’re still working on your stack.

It’s all about kairos, really. Karios and serendipity. And it’s one of the great things about reading, and it’s one of the great things about books. You never know what’s going to happen next.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

I’d been wanting to read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 for months when I finally bought it, on impulse, in paperback at Barnes and Noble. My proximity to the book was my downfall–it’s huge. It’s 1184 pages long (matching the title, but only in the English language edition. In Japan, the book was originally published as a trilogy. I have no idea why the English language edition collapsed all three books into one volume). And I love big books. I love the feeling that I have a book that will never end, that I can get really, deeply lost in the pages, that I will be able to pick it up again and again and be consumed by language for weeks. Kindle edition be damned–the reassuring weight of a gigantic book lets you know that you’ll have time to dream, absorb, leave, return, ruminate, sip coffee, walk the dog, stare at the moon, read late at night by a book lamp, sleep a story-filled sleep, and wake to a story-filled morning. A gigantic book lets you settle in. A gigantic book spans your calendar squares like a perpetual beach vacation. I love the moment when I open a really big book. Opening this one was like putting on sunglasses and stretching out by the ocean for the first time in years.

And I finished it in four days.

Murakami is a master story-teller. He unfolds. And each unfolding is more delightful than the last. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to put it. Maybe he’s folding. Maybe he’s creasing the paper again and again, and sculpting it into some kind of ink-ful origami. Or maybe it’s better to say that his story opens and blooms.Or maybe reading it is like falling in love.

Because ultimately, inevitably, and inexorably, 1Q84 is a love story. But it’s not immediately a love story, and it’s not obviously a love story. Aomame and Tengo, the two protagonists, alternate points of view throughout most of the novel. A novel, Air Chrysalis, serves as a focal point, or perhaps a grounding point, or maybe a catalyst, and certainly a chrysalis, between the protagonists, who live in different worlds. Or, perhaps it’s better to say they live in different worlds that are nearly the same, because they live in parallel worlds. One is a world with two moons.

I can’t tell you anything else about it, because reading the novel is, itself, the novel. Like any novel, really, we make the worlds we read and the stories we read come alive as we participate with the language on the page and bring our imaginations into collusion with the author’s.  Stories are not stories without audiences. Every story-teller needs a told-to; the telling makes the tale.  When I read 1Q84, I make the story with Murakami as my imagination unfolds under his guidance. His worlds and my world meet, and we make a new world together. This, too, is a love a story.

I’d never read anything by Murakami before, and I struggle now with buying more of his books. Because I want to read them all. And I want them all to be this convergence of sci-fi and fantasy and magical realism and romance and mystery and love. And I haven’t bought them yet because I like the idea of having all the rest of his works stretching before me, spanning my calendar squares with sips of coffee and dog-walking and staring at the moon(s), a beach vacation waiting to cover me with language like sand and waves and sun. I haven’t bought them yet because I know that when I start reading them all it will be like putting on sunglasses and stretching out by the ocean.

And I haven’t bought them all because I know that when I start reading them I won’t be able to stop myself from finishing each one of them in four days.

Or less.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (all 12 feet of it)

It seems that in London a 12 foot statue of Colin Firth now emerges from a lake in Hyde Park to commemorate a scene from the BBC mini-series adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

I cannot stop laughing.

The somewhat menacing statue of Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth, and posed in a scene that is not in the text of the novel, is clearly absurd. And because I greatly like both absurdism and Jane Austen, I rather adore this bizarre and unsightly homage to Pride and Prejudice, even though it seems more like it’s an homage to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which is cute, funny, and trendy. A good pulp read, particularly for the absurd juxtaposition of Austen and zombies. Do not expect anything like Austen’s wit, which was replaced almost entirely with ninjas.).

The reason I adore this statue is because the intentions behind it are so deeply good and the outward manifestations of those intentions are so deeply grotesque. The statue portrays Mr. Darcy instead of honoring the author by portraying the author. Why not a statue of Jane Austen? Not many writers get statues, and most of them are men. So why not make a statue of one of the most beloved and talented women writers? How cool would it be to visit a statue of Jane Austen? And if she is 12 feet high and standing in the middle of a lake ruling over all she surveys, so much the better. I’ll take it.

But it’s not a statue of Austen, it’s Mr. Darcy. So why make a statue of a character in the novel who isn’t the main character? Because remember, the main character of Pride and Prejudice is not Mr, Darcy; it’s Elizabeth Bennet. We, as readers, identify with Elizabeth, and we all fall in love with Mr. Darcy (if you are a straight man who takes issue with that statement, then you should expand your definition of love. And probably read more, too.). We follow Elizabeth, and we know her scorn and anger and hurt. We learn to admire and respect Mr. Darcy, and we chastise our Elizabeth-selves for our prejudice, just as our Mr. Darcy-selves learned to overcome our pride. We get lost in the language, in the nuances of human virtue and vanity, and in the compassion and wit of Austen’s narrative voice.

This is the magic of Jane Austen. This is the magic that the BBC television series tried to capture, and apparently did (I haven’t seen it. It’s on my list. Maybe a little higher now since this statue emerged.). And it’s the magic that is nestled into the heart of the giant Mr. Darcy in the lake. It’s not sexism or illiteracy or an excessive love of television and indolence that explains why this 12 foot statue of Colin Firth leers over Hyde Park. Because by walking in Elizabeth Bennet’s shoes, we are transformed, and Mr. Darcy is the catalyst for the transformation. And the rendering of Colin Firth as a soaking wet, vaguely confused, not-true-to-text Mr. Darcy is a display of the very vagaries of humanity that Austen sought to depict. When the BBC conducted a poll on the most memorable moments of its televised dramas, respondents chose Pride and Prejudice, specifically the moment when Mr. Darcy swam in the lake. The BBC chose to literally depict their favorite moment, regardless of expensive, aesthetics, or any sense of decorum. This poor, entreating golem of a Mr. Darcy showcases all of our vanities, our desires, our good intentions and misplaced gestures. It’s the perfect homage.

I think Jane Austen would appreciate it. And she would be laughing her ass off.

Library Cards

Aside

Growing up, I not only had a library card, I knew every public library in my county intimately. I knew which one had the best selection of poetry, of science fiction, of literature and general fiction, and of philosophy. I knew which ones had the most pleasant reading spaces and which ones had the best browsing. I knew which ones tended to have recent releases on hand and which ones had the longest waiting lists. I love libraries with the deepest of gratitudes–these are my churches.

So I really have no explanation as to why, when I moved to another state, it took me seven years to get a library card. I blame it on grad school. Although I never lost the ability to read for pleasure, I stopped going to public libraries–a crime I’ve since remedied upon graduating.

How to Worry Less About Money by John Armstrong

I realize that this is an odd choice for my first book review–my first “real” blog post, even–but there’s a very good reason for it. I chose this book because it’s summer. A very sodden, grey, sunless, chilly summer here in the deep South, where it was a blinding 107 degrees this time last year. And if there is anything I want to do when it’s rainy, it’s read. And in order to read, I buy books.

I buy a LOT of books. Kindle Daily Deals are my kryptonite. What’s $2.99, right? I gave away seven or eight boxes of books when I moved last year. And I still hoard them and buy them in electronic and paper formats. Even though I finally got a library card where I now live, I still can’t stop spending money on books. And film. And thread. But mostly books. My middle name? It’s Erasmus.

And with all my spending on books, like this very book I’m writing about, which I brought in paperback from Amazon, I worry that I’m fiscally irresponsible, that I can’t manage money, that I need to save more, that I need a better job, that my student loan debt is too great, my mortgage is too great, my debt is suffocating me and I should never buy anything ever again except Ramen noodles and oh-my-god-what-have-I-done Ican’tbelieveIboughtanotherbook when I need to spend $800 to fix my car and the real world is going to come and revoke my adulthood status and I feel vaguely guilty every time I drive into the parking deck at work because I have to open my car door to swipe my parking pass because my window no longer rolls down and. . .

And I clearly needed this book.

It’s a bargain, actually, not only because the price is low for a paperbook book (it’s not available in e-book formats), and not only because its value is high (to me, anyway. And value is not the same as cost, I learned), but ALSO because it is wonderfully, delightfully written. Yes, it’s about money. And yes, it’s a pleasure to read: clear, inviting, insightful, thought-provoking, and short. John Armstrong uses literary references, which I deeply appreciated, and anecdotes to make his points. And his points are really quite excellent.

Probably the most important point, for me, was about flourishing. Money, he contends, should be used to flourish, to enrich your life, to give you the things you need to be the person you are/want to be. (I should note that he says that money worries and troubles are very different, and that this book is for worries. He is quite clear about this. Troubles are far more dire.) Money itself is actually neutral (something I used to know, but had forgotten); it’s how we think about money and make money have meaning that determines our relationships to money. How I view money, in other words, determines how I worry about money.

Armstrong gives an example about his car that described my own car conundrums as thoroughly as a passage in a Victorian novel describes the heroine. I worry about my car, but the truth of the matter is, I don’t really care about my car. I feel that I should want to have a reasonably nice, grown-up car, but I just want a car that drives, preferably for several hours at a time if I want to travel somewhere. If the repairs my car needed were necessary, I would have made them. My aging car makes me feel guilty, because not caring about my car makes me feel like I’m still a teenager. I’m an adult, so don’t I need to have a nice car that I maintain and wash more than once every two or three years?

The answer, of course, is nah. Fuck that. I just need a car that works. And I should possibly clean it more, since I rather like clean things and general tidiness. But buying things like books and film are needs, too. Remember Maslow? I’m getting stuck in the middle of the pyramid, and no wonder it makes me anxious. The middle of the pyramid isn’t exactly what we shoot for.

So while How to Worry Less About Money is not the most typical summer reading, it’s probably been one of the most valuable books I’ve read so far. I’ve bought quite a few more books to read, stopped tormenting over NOT buying things, and soon I will be adding sewing to my hobbies (because crafting flourishes me). My summer, and probably my fall, winter, and spring, have all been made better. And that’s because I’ll be spending less time worrying, and far, far more time with a hot cup of coffee, reading a good book.

One

I want to write about books.

I have a Ph.D. in English, but that’s not the way I want to write about books. I’m no longer sure that I agree with the way that academics write about books (although some academics have some delightfully brilliant insights into books and reading and language and people). I want to write about books because I love books. I carry books around with me. I have a Kindle and I still carry extra books around with me because I not only need books with me at all times, I need access to as many books as possible at all times.

Graduate study, especially in English, seems to kill “pleasure reading.” I had just begun my Ph.D. program when I first noticed this phenomenon. I had already completed a Master’s program in English in another state, and so I was fully prepared for the grueling load of teaching, taking courses and writing papers, and developing myself professionally allatonce. So when the first holiday of the first semester Labored into view, I holed up in my apartment and I read. I read like I would never read again (because I wouldn’t have a chance to read like this again until winter break). I read the His Dark Materials Trilogy and then managed to squeeze in The Rebel Angels. And I thought everyone in my program must be doing the same thing, until I went to campus on Tuesday, and learned the following:

  1. I was the only one who spent the whole long weekend reading.
  2. No one else in my program read outside of classes.
  3. No one else in my program enjoyed reading any longer.

This information terrified me. And it still does, frankly. How could anyone get a PhD in English and NOT ENJOY READING? Where did the enjoyment go? How did the pleasure in reading, and books, become acceptable sacrifices for the work of a getting a PhD in English?

The questions aren’t that hard to answer, as it turns out. English is a marginalized area in the university (and the public school system overall). In order to make itself important, it must follow the lead of business and STEM, the “important” courses and departments. That’s the first soul-suck. Related is the second: that rhetoric and composition focuses on research and pedagogy, not reading, and literature focuses on research and theory, not reading. The humanities must be measurable in order to be competitive in the university, and being competitive results in funding, which means professors get paid (considerably less than professors in other fields, but paid nonetheless). Pleasure, imagination, creativity, quality–these things can’t be measured. So by removing the soul of literature–the love of a book, the way books open vistas of experience and stir the imagination like coffeespoons, the revelation of purpose, self, and other gained through reading books–by removing the things that can’t be measured, we make English measurable. Making English measurable means that it can be kept as part of the curriculum (at any level), and that English, or at least, the bones of English, can continue to be taught–even though it’s rather like being taught music by only reading sheet music, without ever hearing the composition or playing an instrument.

Of course, that’s terribly reductive. And my analogy only makes sense if you were lucky enough, like me, to have been taught music in school. The imperative to remove unquantifiables, like pleasure and beauty, from English isn’t the only problem in our educational system. But it’s the problem that is one of the reasons I want to write about books. I want to write about books because I love them. I want to write about books because they are beautiful. And I want to write about books in a way that can’t be measured.

So if you’re looking for a ranking system of books or systematic reviews, this is not the place for you. But if you’re looking for a good book, digressions about writing and reading, and a strong justification for sitting in an armchair all day with a book, a dog, a cat or two, a basket of yarn, and cup of something hot, then you’ve come to the right place.