Starting last year I began keeping track of all the books I’ve bought. Every year I think I’ve curbed my book buying, but each year I realize I’ve bought around the same amount.
It’s an addiction that I’ve learned to live with. I avoid book browsing for months at a time but once I walk into a bookshop, I take a deep breath and smell the fresh books. It’s both welcoming and comforting.
Every year I try to outread myself. This year I read less books than expected. I suffer from the reader’s constant stress over not reading enough, buying too much, and being overly optimistic in my reading.
I spend almost as much time thinking about reading as I do actually reading. I like to browse bookstores, poke around online, and chat with friends. Numerous notes are made throughout the year to pick up another book recommended by a friend.
Years ago the Huntington Library hosted an exhibition about Bukowski. I flew to Los Angeles, as a friend promised to take me. Fast forward to that Saturday night, 2am, and drinks are still flowing. Then to 4am, when we get back to her place. Around 4:30, I fall asleep, and I know, there will be no Bukowski exhibit for me. I wake up, early, anxious, excited, hopeful even though I know how the day will play out. My friend and her boyfriend, late risers, a late brunch, joined by her friends that I don’t know. And no Bukowski for me.
This last week, I was visiting another friend in Glendale, California. She is another fellow bibliophile, also with her MA in English Literature. We had only two and a half hours to explore the Library, the American Art Collection, the European Art Collection, the Japanese gardens, the Chinese gardens, the desert gardens, and the rose gardens. We ended up spending the bulk of our time in front of famous books. Those books that you read about, the ones that are always featured in crime thrillers, where the shady book dealer brokers a deal with the devil to get the crooked rich buyer a folio that no one’s ever heard of because it’s the only one in existence because no one will allow it to be mass produced.
Sada and I stared in awe. We quietly shouted to one another, hitting one another, gesturing, exclaiming, “LOOK, LOOK at THIS!!! It is here, it is AMAZING!!!” Over and over. We gestured, whispered, and exclaimed.
There was a First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, printed 7 years after his death. This is the primary source for his text. When academics argue, this is the source they go to. Sada and I both had to write a thesis (hers on Bret Easton Ellis, mine on Salman Rushdie), and we both were thinking about what it would be like to access similar resources available for our research. Again, Sada and I stood and stared. Stared and stared some more.
There is also an early manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately they had to put it in storage so there was an exact facsimile, written on vellum. And yet still, we were in awe.
Some notes by one of America’s most celebrated writers, Mark Twain. Everyone loves Twain, and he’s one of those writers that seems to belong to everyone, so I never considered I would see his writing. I imagine his stuff is spread out all over, and locked away from the public; available to only the most serious academic.
Some notes by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I saw the Keats-Shelley apartment in Rome. And once again, to see his handwritten notes was beyond words. To see his art in human touch, not just printed in mass produced books. To see his heavy stroke, the deep depths of his ink, and his passionate scratching out was incredible.
And finally, poor Jack London. He was worried about his manuscript The Sea-Wolf burning in his home, so he placed it in a fire-proof box, which sadly was destroyed in the San Francisco fires of 1906.
Museums generally offer art for the public to view. I love looking at paintings, sculptures, digital art, etc, but my favorite art of all by far, is the written word. I love that it can be mass produced and shared with the public. I love that it is the simplest form of art and also the very hardest. To transform someone’s thoughts, to be able to influence a person’s perspective, and get into their mind, well, to me, that’s the most amazing art of all. There is a noble beauty in a story that remains the same over and over and over, regardless of publisher, nevermind the book cover, forget the passage of time. The story remains and lives on forever. No one need worry that the single piece will be destroyed. There are other copies. Someone can reprint it. But then, to be able to see the writer’s form, their penmanship, or typing, or organization, that is part of their craft as well. I want to see what their process was, I want to explore more, and most often, their old manuscripts are kept locked away, for posterity, for future academics. I understand, but part of me wants to say, what about the current readers? Don’t we get to see these early drafts of art?
The Huntington Library fulfilled all those desires. I saw things I never thought possible. And the room itself that they are all stored in was magnificent. Dark panelling; an old safe that was open, empty, and visible; leather benches, long, long, heavy, dark drapes all set the tone for the perfect literary experience.
Sada and I walked the gardens, and sat briefly on this bench. A couple walked by and offered to take our photo. It was a quiet moment after such a glorious day.
Roxane Gay‘s Bad Feminist demands to be read. A demure white cover with the words Bad Feminist in the traditional feminine color pink and in much smaller font, essays. Followed, in equal proportion to the title Bad Feminist, is her name. Roxane Gay is putting herself out there. She is declaring who she is and accepting the space between being a feminist and being a bad one.
Gay is an intellectual who doesn’t apologize for liking young adult fiction, she enjoys misogynistic rap songs. She enters scrabble tournaments. She watches and analyzes crap tv shows and books. Gay goes on the record to say she not only indulges in these things, she revels in them while celebrating them in print. She reveals a lot of who she is in these essays. And she’s the kind of person I wish I could be besties with. She writes, “I’ve struggled to make friends because I can be socially awkward, because I’m weird, because I live in my head. . . I should not be this way but I am. (Gay, 141). Don’t worry Roxane, I’ll be your friend: I’m just as socially awkward.
Like Gay, I’ve had to explore my relationship with the term feminist. I’ve made the statement, “as a feminist. . . ” to qualify my feelings about something, or sometimes to point out the irony of what I am about to say. I dislike that feminist has to have a definition. I hate that at the age of 17, I questioned what the term meant when I was in a sociology class and no one raised their hands when our teacher asked who was a feminist, including me. I elected not to because I thought I must not know what this word means if everyone else doesn’t raise their hands. I had thought, correctly, that it meant, equal rights for women. And yet, not one person in my class was a feminist except my teacher, and me, the girl who couldn’t define the word.
Why didn’t I know what the word meant? It certainly wasn’t from lack of strong women in life. Perhaps the problem lay in education. The women in my life were too busy taking care of themselves and their siblings to become familiar with the term. My mom constantly worried that I would give up my life for a dude. As I grew, I became aware of the choices I made. What I cared about was going to school, learning, reading, bettering myself. These are all things I did because of my mother, the unaware feminist.
My mom worked hard her whole life, she started work as a young teen picking fruit in fields. But my mom didn’t want the life she had. She wanted out. She borrowed money and attended a key-punching school, then moved to San Francisco. She was happy. Then married the wrong man. She divorced him. Later on, met my dad, a Vietnam veteran turned hippy. They got married, bought a house, and then she went back to school to become a preschool teacher.
What I learned from her is that when you make a mistake, admit it, and fix it. She got divorced at a time when not too many women were. She could have kept that life. But it wasn’t good enough and she realized that. Unwilling to settle, she changed it. Yes, language is important. And knowing what words mean is important. But sometimes, actions really are the only thing you can learn from. My mom doesn’t call herself a feminist. But she is a strong woman.
A linguistic aficionado, Gay dissects the careless language of sexual violence. She argues “That is not simply the careless language of sexual violence. It is the criminal language of sexual violence” laying blame on the shoddy journalists who cannot write objectively. (Gay, 136) Aware that she is making some bold statements, acknowledging that she sounds angry, she writes, “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly. . . These are just songs. They are just jokes. It’s just a hug. They’re just breasts. Smile, you’re beautiful. Can’t a man pay you a compliment?” (Gay, 189). And her words, while not mine, feel like they’re mine. I know what she’s feeling so well. I’m frustrated by unintentional language, casual racism, sloppy writing because it all invades and infects how we see and interact with one another. Perception is just as much language as vision. And I’m tired of my tight lipped grin, the one I give to people when they say something that makes me uncomfortable, especially when it’s intended as a compliment. I just want to shout and instead, my face freezes into that false smile, and mentally step away from the person, before I physically do.
If Gay defines herself as a Bad Feminist, perhaps that’s what I am too. I’m not sure if I need the qualifier bad, but I do laugh at inappropriate jokes, I do enjoy music that encourages violence, and many of my favorite writers are dead alcoholic womanizing and sometimes abusive men. I highly recommend this book of essays because they are brilliant, make you think, and make you laugh.
Amara Lakhous‘ Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio takes its title from a movie that one of the characters, Johan Van Marten, wants to make about tenants living in the same building, what the elevator represents to them, and how they interact with one another as a result of the shared space. A long-time tenant is found dead in the elevator. One man, Amedeo, is accused of the crime, but none of the tenants believe he is the murderer, so they each give their suspicions, opinions, and prejudices.