Living in the library

the ones that got away: apr.
Stacks at Davis Library, UNC-Chapel Hill (research for my thesis, circa 2009).

Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.

We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)

I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.

Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.

I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”

We know we are very special

Rijksmuseum
The library in the Rijksmuseum.

One of the few things that makes me look forward to child-rearing is reading to my (hypothetical) children. I am going to read them everything. I think about my beloved Great Aunt Lib, who was my pen pal for many years. She raised these two brilliant children, and family lore holds that she spent a year reading aloud to them from War and Peace when they were still small.

I hope to have children who want to read so much that I cannot keep up with them. That I have to turn them loose in the library, as my mother did, and say, “Good luck, Godspeed, see you in a few hours.”

How many of you have parents who are voting for Trump? Or, how many of you have parents who are not voting at all? How scared should we all be right now?

It’s taking just about all of my willpower to resist the urge to turn this into a political screed. But I am tired. The election is on my mind all day, every day. Before I fall asleep, I turn to Guion and say often, “Guion, fix it,” à la Zuzu to George Bailey. As if he could somehow harness that white maleness, wave a wand, and make it all go away. We are just about a month away from the election, and I feel a plain sense of terror. Mixed also with sadness. How did things get this bad?

At least we still have Lydia Davis. And Goodreads. And Solange Knowles. And dogs.

We know we are very special. Yet we keep trying to find out in what way: not this way, not that way, then what way?

— Lydia Davis, “Special”

Habits of a habitual reader

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Routines, habits, tics of an obsessive reader:*

*Noted not as recommendations for anyone else but rather for personal reflection on the cherished idiosyncrasies of my gravely, gravely Type-A self…

  • To mark passages worth remembering and writing down: In books I own, I make small brackets with a pen and note the page number on the last page of the book, often with a one- or two-word description of the passage. In library books, I use sticky plastic flags with a clear tab to mark a passage. The clear sticky tab is somehow very important to me; a normal sticky note won’t do.
  • I am in the library weekly and am on a first-name basis with the front-desk librarians. I always put books on hold; I never browse. I have never had an overdue book in the five years that I have lived here.
  • As soon as I add a new book to our library, I stamp the colophon with a rubber stamp that I had made, of my handwriting, that says “EX LIBRIS / Abby and Guion.” Eden has decided that this stamp is hers, and she has tried to eat it twice. Guion glued it back together, but it isn’t the same.
  • I am a bit precious with books as physical objects. I will yell at anyone who breaks a spine, bends a cover, or creases a page.
  • Books I am planning to read soon live in my nightstand; everything else is appropriately filed on the shelves (alphabetized by author surname within proper genre).
  • For the past two years, I have kept a running Google doc with reading notes, complemented by my physical notebook. I start a new doc for each year.
  • I have about two dozen reading lists (e.g., Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award, Book Critics Circle, Nobel laureates, Francine Prose and Mary Karr’s lists of books to be read immediately, etc.) on Google Drive, which I revisit from time to time.
  • One book perpetually lives on my nightstand and and two or three reside in the kitchen, for meal-time reading.
the ones that got away: oct.
The little independent bookstore I worked at in high school.

What are some of your habits while reading?

Monday Snax

Mama and baby
A perfect dinner out at Blue Mountain Brewery. Baby Leah is trying to decide what kind of beer she wants.
MB!
The tenacious Mary Boyce saved us from a perilously grumpy waitress.
Guion and baby Leah
Guion is undeniably good with babies.

We had a beautiful weekend in Charlottesville; the weather was exquisite, as the humidity had fairly retreated and we were left with idyllic warmth. Paul and Christie invited us on their Friday date night and a small group of us went to Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton (a few photos above; more on Flickr). We went to a church potluck and then we hosted a potluck of our own last night. It was all very wonderful.

Win and Tracy were visiting with the purpose of scouting out a place for Win to live in a few weeks. By the grace of God, Win is living in probably the coolest house we’ve ever seen in town: the Massie-Wills historical home, built in 1830. It’s amazing. He is one lucky dude.

Potlucked Snax:

Pratt’s Ex Libris Collection. Well, of course I’m posting this (if I haven’t already…) The Pratt Library’s collection of gorgeous book plates. I wish people still used these things. I know I would. (Where the Lovely Things Are)

Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors. I enjoyed reading about the habitual quirks of some of my all-time favorite writers, including Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, and T.S. Eliot. (Flavorwire)

Other People’s Houses. A collection of dreamy photographs from the domestic lives of some of today’s most beloved bloggers and photographers. Who doesn’t love a dash of beautiful voyeurism? (Other People’s Houses)

Jennifer Egan Fever. It’s worth catching. (The Paris Review)

South Sudan: The Newest Nation in the World. A series of powerful photographs from the birth of South Sudan. Welcome, South Sudan; we wish you great peace. (The Atlantic: In Focus)

Iceland, Part 10: Blue Lagoon. I know I just keep posting Kris Atomic’s photos of Iceland, but I can’t help it! This place looks so otherworldly. I must go. (Kris Atomic)

Kimono. A collection of gorgeous, modern-looking kimonos from 1920s-1930s Japan. (Anne Louise Likes)

Wasabi Wonder. More from Japan: Ever wanted to know what wasabi looks like in real life, i.e., coming straight out of the ground? Take a look! It’s such a fascinating and weird plant. I bet that friendly-looking farmer just reeks of wasabi all day long. But what a gorgeous place to farm! (Tokyo Photojournalist)

Paper & Kyoto: Shops to Visit. Even more from Japan: Uuugh. This post just confirms what I already ardently believe: That I have to get to Kyoto soon and that the Japanese create the world’s most beautiful stationery and paper products. (Upon a Fold)

Intricate Pattern Notecards from Wild Ink Press. So beautiful! I always feel like I need more stationery, even though it’s almost never true. I also love the “literal” cards at the bottom of the post. (Oh So Beautiful Paper)

The Supermom Myth + Follow Up on Breadwinners. An additional post from Jenna of Sweet Fine Day, just because I always like what she writes and I think she’s a wise, judicious woman. (Sweet Fine Day)

Five Women Who Changed the Face of Ballet. I loved reading about these dancers, mainly because I’m gearing up to read Jennifer Homans’ widely acclaimed Apollo’s Angels. (Behind Ballet)

Sarah Palin for Newsweek. Noted photographer Emily Shur talks about her casual cover shoot of Sarah Palin for Newsweek. Shur really humanized Palin for me in a way that the “liberal media” have not. It’s an interesting little vignette, at least. (Emily Shur)

Dear Mom. Catching bunnies snuggling together? The best thing ever. Guion, I think you should know that even though I’m obsessed with getting a dog, I’m also still obsessed with getting a bunny. Or three. (Maura Grace)

How Handwriting Builds Character. If this is true, I must have really well-built character. Kidding! (The Atlantic)

Megegan: Un an plus tard. What a beautiful woman. And I’m so very interested in the things that she happens to be carrying around with her. (Au coin de ma rue)

On the Street: Via Fogazzaro, Milan. This looks like a still from a film I’d really want to watch. (The Sartorialist)

Women’s Magazines Are Obviously Horrible. This is true and hilarious, but I still really love reading In Style and People on the beach… (The Hairpin)

Instant Cat Pants! Why do kittens do the things they do? We may never know. (Pawesome)

The Lost Roles of “Arrested Development.” Rainn Wilson as Gob Bluth?? Can you imagine it? I certainly can’t. I love Rainn, but let us all say thanks that we were gifted by the glorious presence of Will Arnett. (The Bluth Company)

Tell me something I don’t already know

Source: Content in a Cottage

Like most people, I love reading things that tell me what I want to hear. I love blabbing to people about “this great article I just read” that bolsters what I already believe about politics, food, religion, or dog training. It’s obnoxious. But, simply, it’s gratifying to see someone else espouse your deeply held convictions out on the great plains of cyberspace. This is why I loved reading the hilarious memoir-like piece about a nightmarish trip to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine last week, “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” One of my principal beliefs is that Disney World is a materialistic swamp of America’s lowest common denominators and one of my top life goals is to never go there. Sullivan’s article simply reinforced this conviction.

As enjoyable as it was to read that essay and others like it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not good for my brain–or my spirit–to read only things that I already believe. Sue Halpern’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Mind Control and the Internet,” helped bring me around to this moment of enlightenment. Halpern’s article is a terrifying one. In it, she explains how, right now, Google and Amazon are creating a detailed profile of you and figuring out just what it is that you want to hear, read, and buy. Through complex algorithms, which I do not understand, Google also tailors your search results and your e-mail ads to your interests, a fact which most people now recognize. As soon as you start telling your friends that you’re engaged via e-mail, you start seeing all of these weird “discount wedding jewelry” ads pop up.

We’ve come to placidly accept the fact that Google is watching us. While this Big Brother factor is creepy enough on its own, Halpern’s article posits that the more insidious consequence of being profiled by Google is the fact that we are sheltering ourselves from the marketplace of ideas. The Internet is becoming less democratic. Google figures out what you want to hear and it keeps telling you those things. As Halpern suggests,

a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican. (One need not declare a party affiliation per se—the algorithm will prise this out.) In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.

This is scary to me. It is also scary for the American public sphere as a whole, which seems to get more polarized every day. FOX News is proof enough that we can no longer bear to listen to opinions that differ from our own. I think that’s a very dangerous state for any supposedly democratic nation to be in.

I think back to my mom and the free-spirited way in which she gave us kids access to information. She turned me loose in the library as soon as I could read. Unlike most of her conservative, homeschooling peers, she never censored my reading habits. She even taught us about evolution, God forbid! I read everything I could get my hands on. I will always remember my mom’s quiet and humble defense to the other moms who were appalled at what she was letting her innocent daughters read. “If we think we know the truth,” she would say, “why are we so afraid of untruth?”

Her defense is more applicable to those Christians who were afraid that their children would lose faith in God if they saw proof that seven-day creationism wasn’t true. And yet I think I see it in myself today. What am I so afraid of? It is far more fun to read things that tell me what I already believe. But it is better for me, as a thinking, developing human, to encounter some disagreement, some divergent opinions. To understand why, for instance, some people actually and sincerely love Disney World.  I’ll never know unless I start reading.

This is a roundabout and self-important way to tell you that I’m trying to read more nonfiction. Courtney asked me about what nonfiction I was reading lately and I realized that I’d only been reading dog books. It’s time to challenge the brain, AFP. So I just started The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, in which Wright argues that God has been evolving with the human race and is only getting nicer over time. It’s interesting, for sure. I also write to ask you for nonfiction recommendations to add to my already burgeoning list. Anything important I should read that I also might fundamentally disagree with? And no, Twilight does not count.