Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicolas A. Basbanes


The passion to possess books has never been more widespread than it is today; indeed obsessive book collecting remains the only hobby to have a disease named after it.
From the dust jacket.

The disease is called "A Gentle Madness".  People who obsessively and compulsively collect books are said to be Gently Mad, hence the inspiration for the name of my blog.

I stumbled across this book at the library looking for something else.  For fun I checked it out and enjoyed it so much that I ordered a used copy online.

The book is 533 pages long and divided into fourteen chapters.  Basbanes begins 2200 hundred years ago with the libraries of Alexandria.  He works his way through the Middle Ages and ends with book collectors of America.

His story describes two kinds of book collectors the honest and the devious.  Petrarch and Bocaccio collected and preserved thousands of books and libraries before the printing press.  They found many lost writings, such as Ciceros'.  Petrach hunted all over Europe before finding it "buried in an 'unexpected place'.  Other treasures includes Pliny the Elder's Natural History.

Petrarch was of the honest kind.  Bocaccio, author of Decameron, was less than honest.  In his zeal to rescue ancient documents, he apparently helped himself to several manuscripts from the library at Mont Cassino.  At a visit to a monastery, Boccaccio acquired significant portions of both the Annalas and History by Tacitus.

The Medicis also cultivated what they boasted as the greatest library in Florence.  

From the middle ages Basbanes works his way through to Britain and the different book collectors there and then finally to the Puritans in America who were responsible for preserving many books and cunibula.  

Don't you like that word, cunibula?  It's fun to say it fast over and over again.  It is the term for books that were printed the first fifty years after the printing press.

Benjamin Franklin accumulated a great many books that he left to an illegitimate son in England.  The son didn't want the books and it took a while for Franklin's family in America to acquire it.

Basbanes' book shows how books throughout the ages were preserved and we can thank the American millionaires for most of that.  Basbanes gives biographies of the different people who used their wealth to cultivate great libraries, buy original works  of all the writing masters of history.  The libraries of Harvard, Yale, University of Texas and many other college libraries can thank these millionaires who donated a good portion of their collections to them.

Each collector tended to have a focus.  One was bent on collecting all of Shakespeare's original manuscripts, another Lewis Carroll's still another the works of the Puritans.  Twentieth century collectors focused on genres such as original mysteries or children's books.

Even though I would never go into book collecting, it was interesting to read about the dealers and the auctions they went to, how they competed with and connived and outbid or outraced others to achieve their goals.  Many returned to Europe which seemed to be bent on liquidating their collections perhaps due to economic hardship.  

After reading the book I realized that my blog is misnamed.  The great irony of these book collectors is that they weren't interesting in reading the books, only collecting them.  I, on the other hand, am not interested in collecting books but reading them.  The only books I possess are the ones I wish to read over and over again.

This book is written in an engaging and interesting style and I thoroughly enjoyed learning why we have access to the thousands of books created throughout the annals of time.  We have a lot to thank those millionaires.

Even if they didn't read their books. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

How to Read a Book by Moritimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

My little hermit crab is in the background.

Television, radio and all the sources of amusement and information that surround us in our daily lives are also artificial props.  They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from outside.  But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going has limits.  They are like drugs.  We grow used to them and we continuously need more and more of them.  Eventually, they have little or no effect. Then if we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually.  And when we cease to grow, we begin to die.

Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career  It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.
From the final chapter of How to Read a Book

I recall one evening I was sitting at a table with two fellow teachers and a student who was also one of the teacher's daughter.  Our topic of conversation turned to books.  One of the teachers (not the student's parent) said, "Reading at least thirty books a year is like giving yourself an annual PhD.  Of course the books need to be quality."

The other teacher looked at me and said guiltily, "I just read  for enjoyment." 
Her daughter chimed in with, "Isn't that the point of reading?  To enjoy it?"

 Personally knowing that this woman's taste in literature primarily consisted of Light Romance led me to think: Yes, we should read for enjoyment but we should also cultivate a taste for truly good literature.  If we do that, we will no longer enjoy mediocrity.

In How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren proceed to explain how to go about the task of learning to enjoy quality literature.

This is one of the most valuable books I've read. It is one everyone should read if they want to learn to read with discernment.  Discernment is not parroting what your English Lit professor said about Jane Eyre or Madame Bovary. It's understanding that your professor intends for you to think a certain way about the books you read and understanding whether that way is valid, faithful to the author's intent, or propagandic.

Adler and Van Doren break down into four parts how to approach a book,  read it, analyze it and understand what it is you've just read.

Part One speaks of the dimensions of reading.  There is the elementary level where they explain the different stages of reading and how it should lead to higher levels of reading.  This includes a discussion of how ideally education should cultivate this ability.  

The second level is inspectional:  how to first skim through a book, read superficially, how fast should one read and the problem of comprehension. The authors encourage writing in all your books, something I am loathe to do, at least with my finer literature editions.  However I am trying to write more in my non fiction books.  I feel guilty, though.  Writing in a book impedes others from reading the book without interference, hence I am torn about it.

Part two is analyzing a book.  What are the plots and plans?  What are the author's intentions?  How does one determine the author's message?  This section delves into how to fairly criticize a book, whether you agree or disagree with an author, how to determine the author's soundness of judgment, recognizing his or her prejudices as well as your own and also judging the author's completeness.  A list of questions the reader should ask is:

How is the author informed?
How is he misinformed?
Wherein is the author illogical?
Show where the author's analysis or account is incomplete.

Part three describes the unique approaches to different types of books:  How to read literature as opposed to a history book or a book on science or math.

The last section caps everything off with what should be our ultimate goals for reading.  He lists the five steps in syn-topical reading which is the practice of reading several books on a single subject.  Finally they discuss how reading grows the mind.

Adler and Van Doren list about a 137 books that everyone should read but also the type of book that one should continue to read.  They assert that 99% of the books in existence aren't worth reading at all but that still leaves thousands of books that are worth reading and about one hundred books that one should have if he was left on a desert island.

One of their criteria for reading books is that it will improve your skill in reading.  Not merely the ability to decode symbols to form meaning, but to gain greater understanding.  A truly good book will pull you out of your current cognitive zone level into the next higher one.  There should be about a hundred books in everyone's life that they can read over and over again and still learn something new.  Those books will be different from person to person but we all should find those books and keep them on our shelves.

The book includes two appendices.  A is the recommended reading list and B has exercises and tests at the four levels of reading.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard

Anatole Broyard came from a French Creole family that moved to Brooklyn while he was a child.  After serving in the Army he moved to Greenwich Village in 1947 to forge an identity for himself with the avante-garde sub culture of artists, writers and musicians, otherwise known as the "Beat Generation".

This was a time when Kafka was the rage, as were the Abstract Expressionists and revisionism in psychoanalysis. (pg.3)

Broyard's book is a memoir of his early years there before he went on to become a critic and essayist for the New York Times.

He writes mostly of his sex life.  First it's with an artist named Sheri who was a protege of the artist Anais Nin.  Broyard moves in with Sheri and they live in her filthy, dingy apartment.  Sheri comes across as someone who never cleans or bathes.  When Anatole asks for the key to the hall bathroom she tells him to use the sink.  When he tells her there are dishes in the sink she responds that they have to be cleaned anyway.  Months later when he moves out he notes that the same dishes were still in the sink.  Ew.

There are other women but it would get monotonous to describe them all.  What I suppose Broyard was trying to present as Bohemian and fascinating comes across as rather boring and not very hygenic.  It's strange because  he seemingly wants to present his life in the Village as one of freedom of sexual repression and intellectual stimulation.  

It's hard to know how intellectually stimulating it was because, while he mentions the bookshop he opened and that he and all his friends discussed Kafka, Hemingway, Mailer etc.. that he attended several classes on pyschoanalysis taught mostly by German Jews who had fled Germany, he never involves the reader in those discussions.  Personally I would have found that a lot more interesting than hearing about how strange and deviant his lovers were.

That begs the question.  He talks of how the forties was a time of unleashing the desires that had been bound by uptight cultural norms.  He is arrogant in his belief that they had so much more freedom than people who limited themselves to monogamy and family.  

Yet none of his relationships sound free.  He is interested in these women for their sex.  He describes nothing else about them except how strange they are.  He portrays himself as a naive inexperienced kid who is used and manipulated by these women. 

Sometime after breaking off his relationship with Sheri,  he visits his parents in Brooklyn to find Sheri there looking at old family albums, sitting on his mother's lap.  His mother doesn't want her there but doesn't know how to extricate herself from underneath her.  Then Sheri pushes the button on the recliner causing both her and his mother to flip backward.  This view of Sheri allowed Broyard's parents to see that she never wore underwear.

It seems to me it is Broyard that is being manipulative.  He wants us to find these women disgusting because he wants to justify abandoning them.  He uses the same strategy in describing the other women in the book.  

He manipulates the reader by what he fails to mention as well.  First of all, he wasn't some kid fresh out of high school.  He was a 26 year old coming out of the army.  Secondly, by the time he moved in with Sheri, he had abandoned a wife and daughter.

I think that freedom, in Broyard's sense, is another word for selfishness.  He waxes eloquent for several pages at how inhibited and repressed the American culture was back then about sex.  He found it impossible to believe anyone could be happy being married with children.

Speaking as a member of the monogamous club, I can attest that his belief is based on a faulty premise.  He proves this himself by showing in his book how empty and self-absorbed he and his social circle was.

He apparently came to this same conclusion because this memoir, which was left unfinished, was published by his wife of 29 years after his death. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Treasury of the Great Children's Book Illustrators by Susan E. Meyer

Any of us who have had children have collected at least a superficial amount of books illustrating fairy tales and other fantastical stories written for children. This wonderful book  devotes a chapter each to twelve illustrators whose careers span from the Civil War to post WWII.

The author uses a formula for each biography:  where the illustrator was born, how they were raised, where they got their education, how their careers got launched and their unique style of illustrating.  Most of them are British but a few are from other countries.  Also described is the special relationship that some of them had with the authors.
 E.H. Shepard (1879-1976)

Such is the case with E.H. Shepherd and A.A. Milne.  Shepherd is best known for his Winnie the Pooh illustrations which made him hugely popular in America more so than in England.  He patterned Winnie the Pooh after a beloved bear of his own rather than the original.  This is obvious to anyone who has seen the original Winnie in the Children's branch of the New York City library.  Shepherd also illustrated The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.  Shepherd developed close friendships with both authors which may indicate why his illustrations are so endearing.
 John Tenniel (1820-1914)

Not all illustrators and authors got along, however.  This is true for Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel.  At first Carroll wanted nothing to do with Tenniel's illustrations but the success of Alice in Wonderland forced him to admit that Tenniel's illustrations contributed to the book's popularity.  It took some persuading for Tenniel to illustrate the "abrasive" Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass

 Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)
Rackham's Mad Hatter bears a remarkable resemble to himself.
While Tenniel's illustrations for the Alice books are the most famous they are not the only ones, nor the most beautiful.  That award would go to Arthur Rackham.  At least the female characters are lovely.  His other characters are surreal and grotesque.  However, Rackham is most famous for his fairy tale illustrations with which he adorned many books, Grimm's, Aesop's, not to mention international collections.  He enjoyed inserting himself in the pictures as a goblin or some other creature.  In the above illustration for Alice in Wonderland, Rackham has drawn himself as the Mad Hatter.
The King's son demands the giant's youngest daughter to wed from The Battle of the Birds
The Tale of Jeremy Fisher
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)
Some of the illustrators wrote their own stories.  Beatrix Potter did this.  She wrote stories in letters to a young boy who was sick in bed for a period of time.  Years later, she asked for the stories back and luckily (!) the boy and his siblings had kept the letters and were able to give them to her.  She published these stories along with her own illustrations.  Thanks to a family that didn't throw letters away, Peter Rabbit and company were saved from oblivion.
Edward Lear (1812-1888)

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea

   In a beautiful pea-green boat,

They took some honey, and plenty of money,

   Wrapped up in a five-pound note. 

Edward Lear didn't illustrate his own stories but he did illustrate poems he made up.  His limericks are probably more famous than the drawings he created to accompany them.  The book of limericks that I own aren't even illustrated by him but by another famous illustrator, Edmund Dulac.
Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)  from The Firebird

Dulac, a Frenchman, was a contemporary of Rackham.  He was influenced by middle eastern and oriental art and illustrated Arabian Nights, Russian Fairy Tales as well as traditional western fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson.  The colors he uses in all his illustrations are filled with rich, vibrant color.
 Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)

 Another female illustrator is Kate Greenaway.  Her illustrations are a little dated looking now, but were loved for their idyllic settings filled with charming children.  Although, it has been remarked that "for all their playfulness and charm, Greenaway's girls are actually melancholy, dispirited, and strangely detached from period or place."

  Kate never married but she held a fairly intense relationship with her "lover in writing" John Ruskin.  He was her closest confidant and- even though they rarely met in person- her most faithful critic and biggest influence on her painting.
Kay Nielson (1886-1957)

My favorite illustrator after Rackham is someone I had not known about before, Kay (pronounced "Kye") Nielson.  Nielson was a Dane who unfortunately died in obscurity but whose art has since made a comeback.  His illustrations reflect his Nordic background and are, in my opinion, exquisite.
Howard Pyle (1853-1911)

The last three illustrators in the book are American:  Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and W.W. Denslow.

Pyle, a strict Puritan, relegated himself to historical legends and adventure novels about pirates, Indians, cowboys, Robin Hood and Arthurian legends by authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, and James Fenimore Cooper- as did his pupil N.C. Wyeth.  Denslow is famous for his Wizard of Oz paintings.
 W.W. Denslow (1856-1915)

I found this book in the library but shortly after diving into it I ordered a good used copy online.  Of course what money I saved from buying the book for a couple of dollars has probably been countermanded by all the collections of fairy tales and the like that I've bought filled with the illustrations of these wonderful artists.