More Than Books

Careers.  A pandemic is no time to think about changing jobs unless you’re forced to, but I often wonder if I got it wrong.  No matter what my job was, I wanted it to be about books.  When I was considering ministry it was largely because of the Good Book, and I did a lot of reading of books about it.  Over time my mindset morphed to that of a professor and the book-lined study was my icon.  I admit I’m fixated at that stage.  Now I’m an editor.  Life would’ve been different if I’d become a librarian.  Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is a volume that opens up the cloistered lives of librarians and shows just how vital libraries remain.  I have to confess that before reading this I don’t recall ever having heard of the central Los Angeles library fire of 1986.  Now I can’t forget it.

More than just an account of the fire—although a suspect was arrested it still isn’t clear that he was guilty—this is a book about libraries.  An account of the fire alone would not have been so interesting.  Orlean tells us about this history of the Los Angeles Public Library and the importance of libraries around the world.  She introduces us to several librarians and gives us insight into why they became such and what it is they do.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot more than re-shelving books.  And there’s the sad tale of an unsolved fire that destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of books.  Having had hundreds of books destroyed by water myself, some parts of this book were difficult to read.  Books are vulnerable, like butterflies they must be treated with care.  The idea of them burning, then being soaked, is distressing.

Like many people, I suspect, I began this book thinking libraries were on the way out.  The internet has changed things.  What I didn’t fully appreciate is that libraries have been evolving to keep up with the times.  And that they provide social services, such as a place out of the weather for the homeless.  I experienced this myself in Montclair, New Jersey.  When accompanying my wife there on Saturdays when she had to work, if I finished with the bookstores early I’d head to the library.  You could sit there for free.  I always have books with me, so I could read.  I could use their wifi for free.  Libraries, you see, are all about giving.  They give so much to the community.  Now that we’re living hermetically sealed lives, it might seem strange to think of libraries as places of social gathering.  And of course they’ll have books.  Orlean’s account makes me think perhaps my career has been off-track.  Perhaps I should’ve been a librarian.

Not Sterling

Only indirectly has the coronavirus pandemic influenced my decision to read books of short stories.  Indirectly because bookstores are closed and I have several such volumes gathered here at home.  This particular collection includes a book “especially written for young people” called Chilling Stories from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  This is a book I had as a young person, discarded, and then regretted discarding.  I have to say that most books I discard I eventually regret.  When you’re young and moving from apartment to apartment, though, you can’t keep all your books.  Anyway, I re-acquired it several years back.  The book doesn’t list an author.  Instead, the title page says “Adapted by Walter B. Gibson.”  Gibson was best known for writing The Shadow series.  The end result is that I don’t know who wrote the stories in this book.  They have the ideas of Rod Serling, but the writing isn’t in his style.

When I buy a book (I got this one used on the internet, back when it was young) I like to know the author.  WorldCat lists Serling as the author, but the book was published pre-ISBN days, back when publishers could be a bit less than transparent about such things.  Other websites put Gibson first under authors, followed by Serling.  The publisher, Tempo Books, was an imprint of Grosset & Dunlap, which eventually came under the Random House/Penguin umbrella.  Originally publishing primarily children’s books, Tempo lists this book for young readers, although as an adult reader I wonder if it could appeal to young people today.  There’s no sex and any violence is really implied rather than explicit, but there’s some adult-level subtlety going on.  Books for young readers are much different these days.

Just recently my daughter introduced me to the increasing sophistication of levels of book genres.  Like most readers and writers I’m encouraged at how young adult books have taken off.  A future generation of readers is cause for hope.  There are now “new adult books.”  These are targeted at those college aged or just over.  Unlike young adult titles they’ll have sex and adult language.  My Twilight Zone book lacks these, and it also lacks the sparkle of Serling’s teleplays.  Serling was a playwright and screenwriter.  These stories clearly contain his ideas but not his ability.  I didn’t know that as a child.  I do know that I never finished the book before now.  One of the reasons, I expect, is that it didn’t really seem like I was reading Serling, even to my young self.  Still, ghost stories during a pandemic have their own appropriate place, and who doesn’t want to be young at heart?

New Habits

We are a family of readers.  Still, during the pandemic things change.  Not only is my wife working from home, my daughter is also here, doing the same.  This seemed to be the most logical thing, given that her housemates weren’t working from home, and who needs pointless potential exposure?  What became clear to all of us is that pandemic normal was actually close to our normal normal.  I mean, I don’t get out as much on weekends now, but other than the panic, Monday through Friday are pretty much the same as always.  Awake obscenely early.  Start work before sunrise.  Finish work, eat supper, go to bed.  The real change has been on my reading habits.

When things are “normal” (if that word can ever apply to me), during the time my wife drives home from work, I read.  I also read in the morning and before going to bed, but that latter doesn’t last long if I’m tired.  Now, however, we’re all here and after work is over family time begins.  I don’t begrudge this for a nanosecond, but it does affect my reading habits.  You see, self-isolation has been a way of life for me long before the pandemic began.  Not necessarily because I wanted it this way, but I have always tried to preserve time for books.  I don’t have the reading time of a professor, so I have to carve it out of personal time.  In situations like this even bibliophiles have to admit that people are more important than books.  Still, with only essential businesses open, and Amazon delivering only essential items, books have fallen between the cracks.  Some of us consider them essential.

My daughter said the other day that not being able to buy books was worrying.  Indeed it is.  We’re pretty well stocked here for reading material.  I’ve got plenty of books I want to read, but I lack the time.  Also, one of my reading challenges specifies the particular types of books I need to target, including recent ones.  How am I to get them?  Our local library is closed.  As are the bookstores.  It’s beginning to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone—being isolated but not having access to new books.  At work they’re suggesting which television shows to binge watch during the long hours of enforced alone time.  Me, I standing in front of my bookshelves staring in wonder and indecision.  Pandemic or no pandemic, it is time to read.

Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.

For Illustration Purposes

With the non-essential stores closed, my daughter asked me the other day “does that mean bookstores?”  Sadly, yes.  More weekends than not I spend some time in a bookstore.  Fortunately we are well stocked for an apocalypse, book wise.  Lately I’ve been on a kick of reading short stories.  I’ve certainly written enough of them to fill a book or two, and it’s nice to start something you can finish in one sitting.  I just finished reading, or perhaps re-reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.  I say “perhaps re-reading” because I know I read many of the stories in the edition of the book I bought as a tween.  Some of the tales I didn’t recall at all, making me think I was reading selectively in those days.  That’s the nice thing about story collections: you don’t have to worry about continuity.

That having been said, the conceit of the illustrated man himself is that of a framing device.  His tattooed body is the canvas on which all of these tales are painted.  A surprising number of them are religious in theme.  Many of them take place on Mars.  Rockets are ubiquitous.  As a child I hadn’t realized that many of Bradbury’s stories were published in the late forties and in the fifties.  They still felt futuristic to me, having grown up in a small town with very little exposure to technological developments.  Reading many of the tales as an adult, I was surprised at how much they influenced my own fiction writing style.  I must’ve read a lot more of them when I was younger than I recall.

My tweenage years were long enough ago now that memories slip into one another.  I can’t remember when this or that happened, especially as regards reading.  When did I first read about the incessant rain on Venus?  Or about the writers living on Mars dying out as their books are destroyed?  Looking back over my own fictional work I see Bradbury’s fingerprints everywhere.  Bradbury couldn’t afford to attend college, so he did what he knew—he wrote.  Of course, back in those days publishers and agents weren’t dealing with the volume they face these days.  The internet has made writers of us all.  And I have to admit that some of the stories in The Illustrated Man disappointed me.  They didn’t reach the level of either depth or insight that I had recalled.  Overall, however, the impression was good, if nostalgic.  As the days become a long series of interconnected hours of sitting in the house, it’s a real gift to have short stories to punctuate the days.

Remarkably Green

Fame is something most of us never experience.  In a world of billions we imagine what it would be like to have others pay attention to us.  Care what we think.  Admire us.  I can’t help but suppose that a large part of our political crisis is based on this concept.  It’s one of the reasons Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is such a timely novel.  I’ve read a couple of Hank’s brother John’s novels, mostly in the Young Adult category, and I’ve been curious about this one for some time.  April May, the protagonist, isn’t seeking fame.  In an almost parable-like way it happens to her and she becomes addicted to it.  Safety and human relationships fall aside as she follows what seems to be the next logical step in order to secure more fans, more followers.  (There may be some spoilers below.)

There’s more than that, however, going on in the story.  Tales of “first contact” with alien intelligence often pose the question of humanity’s readiness for such an encounter.  The Defenders, a group that looks an awful lot like the right wing, are afraid.  They’re afraid of what humans might face once a superior power arrives.  Their response is to attack April, who, for some reason has been chosen as the first contactee.  Her fame isn’t accidental.  I’ve watched enough of Hank Green’s excellent YouTube videos to suspect he’s not exactly looking for a Christian parallel here, but April is a kind of messiah.  The book, in many ways, could be read as a recasting of Christianity’s foundation myth.  This isn’t a book with which most Sunday School teachers would be happy—there are adult situations and adult language.  They don’t cancel out the message of the book, however; I’ve known evangelists to use these techniques as well.  They help capture attention.

With all the books I read I have to admit that many are forgettable.  I sometimes read an old post on this blog, or a review on Goodreads, and find myself having forgotten a novel completely.  Something Hank shares with his novelist brother is the ability to make an impression.  It’s too soon to tell for sure right now, but this has all the marks of a story that’s going to be my mental companion from now on.  There’s wisdom and humor in it.  There’s a touch of Qohelet as well.  Whether intentional or not, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing follows the line of a classical story arc.  And the reason that stories have become classics is that they make us think.  I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.  Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with fame—that would only be a distraction.

Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.