I'm selling off a good bit of my personal library on Amazon -- books I've read, books I haven't gotten around to reading although I've owned them for fifteen years, etc. Those I've read and loved are not up for sale. They're moved into a permanent library of "keepers." But the rest can go, to make room -- and money -- for newer books and more recent interests.
But, when a book I haven't read sells, I decide on the spot whether or not I want to read it after all. If I do, then I drop everything and read it, because Amazon requires books to be shipped out within a couple of days of selling. And it somehow seems that when I put a few boxes' worth of books up at a time, then there is always a sudden run on just those books, out of all my inventory. I imagine that's some hidden intricacy of Amazon software, but who knows?
That confluence of circumstances -- the tendency to have a run of sales and my tendency to decide to read the book after it sells -- led to me engaging in another mad feat of reading, knocking off thirteen books (two of them upward of 500 pages!) in seven days. With just three weeks left before I move to Florida to start grad school, that brings me to forty books read this year.
A couple of posts ago, I listed the dozen or so I'd read as of that date, and singled out a few. I really should also have singled out Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Not only was it the only one of the group that I pushed on my husband to read, but it has stuck with both of us for a while now, always a mark of a good book. I slighted her because I hadn't really enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale as much. I found that too strident, even for me as a feminist. But in the twenty years between the two books, Atwood got much smoother and more subtle in working her themes into the story. I slighted Oryx and Crake because I had a bad taste in my mouth from The Handmaid's Tale, then, but Oryx and Crake is actually really engaging.
That teeny-weeny insult to Margaret Atwood corrected (I'm sure her life was on hold waiting to see that), what I knocked off in one week and shipped out to hopefully happy new owners follows:
- The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris: a self-help book about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh: always a wise, wonderful writer
- Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson, Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter Onuf, Editors: this book was outstanding. It is the only one I regretted letting go, and I immediately put another copy in my Amazon cart because I'm buying it again and this time it's going into my keeper library. This is a collection of essays by major historians on the event of the DNA tests that proved that Jefferson fathered at least the youngest, and probably all, of Sally Hemings' children.
- Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris: a memoir of spiritual malaise, suffering, and seeking
- Citizens, Simon Schama: his 875-page history of the French Revolution. Da noiv of that buyer! Making me read my own book! An outrage, I tells ya. But three days for this was a push and then some. Sorry, Simon, it was good in the beginning and good in the end, but I admit to skimming in the middle 300 pages or so.
- Mr. Jefferson's Women, Jon Kukla: yes, there's a pattern here. I live forty miles from Monticello, and was once offered a job there.
- Spook Country, William Gibson: since I don't read much fiction, this was one of my husband's books he wanted to sell. Okay, but I liked Snowcrash better
- Certain Trumpets, Garry Wills: his book about the qualities of leaders and their anti-types. I'm not a fan of Wills, I think. I read every word of this book and of all the books on this list, I remember and care the least about this one.
- The Burgermeister's Daughter, Stephen Ozment: an incident from a dysfunctional family in medieval Germany. A bestseller when I bought it in the 1990s.
- Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn: about his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Could have been shorter than its 600-page length.
- A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman: another big one, a history of the 14th Century
- Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann: about the practice of composing a short (by necessity!) poem in the waning moments of one's life. Monks practiced this the most, but samurai, poets, and many other members of the literate nobility did as well. There are some several wonderful poems in the book, but I copied those down and then sent the book off happily, glad to have them but also glad that someone else will have them.
- The World without Us, Alan Weisman: this book inspired the History Channel's Life Without People series. It's a great book that wears its astounding research and scholarship lightly. It makes you look at the world differently.
I had shipped the previous load of orders out the previous Monday, and I shipped all of these books out on Monday, so I read them all in exactly seven days. After that, I took a week off from so much as looking at a book. But I've since read ten more, albeit at a much more leisurely pace. The best of that batch was Hamlet without Hamlet, by Margreta de Grazia. I checked that one out from the Mary Baldwin College library, and I absolutely must own it someday soon. It looks at how Hamlet criticism approached the play before the post-modern emo brooder view took over. Since that viewpoint has had a stranglehold on Hamlet criticism for a century, a book that's all about other ways to see the play is refreshing. Moreover, de Grazia seems incredibly brilliant -- there were so many sentences in the book that bore such astonishingly new insights that each one could have been unpacked into a chapter, and moreover each of these sentences scattered like diamonds on the ground sparked off new thoughts in my own mind.
So that was my mad orgy of reading. I also wanted to mention an observation casually made by a friend about language.
Like de Grazia, my friend Andrew is also brilliant. Every time we have dinner with him, he tosses off something wise and insightful that amazes me, and I'm always left with the sneaking suspicion that I've made a fool of myself in his presence. [Luckily, he likes me anyway, I think!]
Andrew, like his brother, tutors teens for the SAT and such tests. Last time he observed that the tendency of "these kids today" to live their whole lives online, tweeting and Facebooking every thought (even such thoughts as "I'm about to throw up" and "I really like anal," as proven by the hilarious Failbook) has created a generation that may not value privacy much, but has got to be the most honest and least prejudiced generation he has ever seen. As he noted, when every thought is public and can be checked and pulled up from archives, there is no upside in lying. And when you are raised knowing that certain thoughts are racist or bigoted and are viewed with disgust by most people, and you are of the generation that has zero sense of privacy, you simply don't have those thoughts. Since they would open you to ridicule, and since you don't even know how to keep them to yourself, you simply can't create the kind of compartmentalization necessary to have them and not reveal them. So you just reject those thoughts.
The most recent dinner we had with Andrew, we were discussing how the web is changing English. I don't like to be a grammar cop, so I overlook the tendency of people to confuse "there," "their," and "they're," or "its" and "it's." But then one day I realized, I can't even make those mistakes by accident. Even when I find myself starting to type the wrong word, my pinky is tapping the backspace key before my brain has even consciously registered the mistake. What I said to Andrew was this: the meaning of each word is so different that they are not the same word at all to me. They're three totally unrelated words. I could no more confuse them than I could type "ham sandwich" when what I meant was "hacksaw."
Ah, said the wise Andrew G., that's because for you they are visual words. Your experience of language and grammar comes largely via the printed page. [Certainly true.] And printed, they are totally unrelated words, as well as by meaning. But most people now relate to language only as it's spoken, not as it's written. And aurally, they are the same word. And since rules of grammar are invisible aurally, the words, their meanings, and the rules for using them correctly get mashed together into one undifferentiated blob.
Being such a reader by nature, I had never thought about it that way before, but of course he's right. So when you want to be a grammar cop, just remind yourself that the person who made the mistake knows the words aurally rather than visually. It doesn't make them any less wrong, but it does make the error slightly less annoying.
I've already said that precision in language and thought are deeply important to me. I can bring this all around in a big circle by adding that this is not only a philosophy of language that I share with George Orwell, but one that I also share with the Buddha. Two of the greatest qualities in a practicing Buddhist are extreme honesty with oneself and others, and incisive precision in viewing oneself and the world. These are elements of Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right Speech, three elements of the Eightfold Path that is the foundation of Buddhist practice. For me, good writing is inseparable from Buddhism. To lie, to make mistakes, and to be logically fuzzy are all obviously off that path. In making such mistakes, I betray not only my intellect, but my spirit as well. Maybe that's why I've found nearly all Buddhist writing to be above the average, because whether they articulate it or not, other Buddhist writers feel the same way.
In that vein, and with credit given to Yoel Hoffmann's fine book Japanese Death Poems, I will leave you with several poems from that volume. Namaste!
Those who are dead
increase from day to day --
in such a world
how could I think
that when it came to me ...
I thought to live
two centuries or even three --
Yet here comes death
to me, a child
just eighty-five years old!
Empty-handed I entered the world
barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
two simple happenings
that got entangled.
in the cicada's song
that it will soon be gone.
clears up reality
and dream alike.
Raizan has died
to pay for the mistake
of being born:
for this he blames no one
and bears no grudge.
Moon in a barrel:
You never know just when
the bottom will fall out.
I cast the brush aside --
from here on I'll speak to the moon
face to face.