28
Jul
09

Emerson’s Three Practical Book Rules

The three practical rules, then, which I have to offer, are — (1) Never read any book that is not a year old. (2) Never read any but famed books. (3) Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.” Montaigne says, “Books are a languid pleasure,” but I find certain books vital and spermatic, not leaving the reader what he was; he shuts the book a richer man. I would never willingly read any other than such. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Books”, qtd. in Reading in Bed)

Far be it from me to question the wisdom of the sage of Concord, but this practical rules for reading is 60% nonsense. By all means, do read what you find pleasurable; but dare I suggest — notwithstanding Mr Emerson’s advice — that you do consider reading books younger than a year if they take your fancy, and that you indulge yourself in in authors of lesser fame every now and then? Who knows, perchance they’ll join the pantheon of famed scribblers thanks to your discovery!

I’m being unfair to Ralph Waldo, of course. After all, He was faced with the prospect of having to choose among library books whose number in his day “may easily exceed a million.” A tough call indeed! Wait a minute. 1 million? That’s actually less than a hundreth of the available items at the Library of Congress! So what remains is, once more, Shakespeare: “No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

12
Apr
09

Elements of Style

I am rather busy as of late, and so blog updates are sparse. Thus I recommend you other reading material, such as this interesting and important article by Geoffrey Pullum on the shortcomings of Strunk & White’s classic prescriptive grammar, The Elements of Style.

15
Mar
09

Orlando’s Bookshop

Orlando by Virginia Woolf is a fictional biography of a young Elizabethan nobleman who one day wakes up a woman and in that guise lives through another four centuries. At one point, Orlando finds herself in a 20th century bookshop:

And so, leaving the post office, she turned to beguile herself into the next shop, which was a shop so common in our day that it needs no description, yet, to her eyes, strange in the extreme; a shop where they sold books. All her life long Orlando had known manuscripts; she had held in her hands the rough brown sheets on which Spenser had written in his little crabbed hand; she had seen Shakespeare’s script and Milton’s. She owned, indeed, a fair number of quartos and folios, often with a sonnet in her praise in them and sometimes a lock of hair. But these innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. One could hardly read them, indeed, the print was so small, but it was a marvel, none the less. ‘Works’ — the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. (216)

The passage is set in the year 1927, and I am led to wonder how much research went into it. For starters, I am not convinced that Orlando would have been that astonished by being surrounded by cheap books; after all, published manuscripts had more or less disappeared by the end of the 16th century, and since she experienced the days of Dryden, Pope, Addison and Johnson, she would have witnessed the rise of newspapers, Drury Lane and other cheap book venues.  And rather than complaining about the small unreadable script, she ought to be surprised at the quality of these new shiny cardboard books compared to Elizabethan chapbooks with their small print and messy typefaces. Nevertheless, the scene’s a delightful thought-experiment; throwing a 16th century reader into Barnes & Noble, or even sit the poor chap down in front of a computer screen — how fascinating!

13
Mar
09

Watcha Readin’ For?

The immortal Bill Hicks on reading (0:40):

12
Mar
09

Links of the Day

Reading comics: Acephalous discusses Watchmen and Zack Snyder’s film adaptation, part I and part II.

Reading to dogs:  So Many Books tells us about the awesomeness of therapy dogs.

Reading silently: Classical Bookworm explores the origins of silent reading.

Reading experiences: The Reading Experience comments on point of view in Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides.

11
Mar
09

Delights of Reading

Otto Bettmann’s The Delights of Reading quotes Boswell’s Life of Johnson about the Doctor”s remarkable gift for reading:

He read, as he did most things, violently; he had a peculiar facility for seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from the beginning to end. He got at the substance of a book directly, tearing out the heart of it. At times he kept a book in readiness for when he should finish the other, resembling a dog who holds a bone in his paws in reserve, while he eats something else which has been thrown to him.

Samuel Johnson

The Life is one of the books on my surprisingly small to-read shelf. In another passage, Boswell tells us about the apparent haste with which Johnson read, saying that “[h]e had, from the irritability of his constitution, at all times, an impatience and hurry when he either read or wrote.” I, too, am an impatient reader — alas, I lack Johnson’s legendary mnemonic prowess!

04
Mar
09

It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

Today, a poem! This is part of a series on “poetry of reading”, a feature I intend to use as a regular update here on this blog. Your poetry suggestions are, of course, most welcome!

It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses

and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.

Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
how
can I stop myself

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

(by Margaret Atwood, 1939-)

Published in 1968, “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” portrays a reader haunted by the atrocities reported in the news. Literate, the reader not only cannot escape the news, but likely experiences a responsibility to read them, to inform herself, and even attempts to reach her own readers so that she may make the world a better place. Yet all her attempts are futile. She cannot shake of the sense of responsibility and guilt, and although we may find it difficult to relate to her uncompromising verdict, “I am the cause”, we can certainly understand that the mere act of reading the news — of just sitting there, “quietly as a fuse”, witnessing the horrors of the world from our living rooms — has a touch of the absurd, the more so in this day an age when news has become an entertainment commodity and each war comes with its own jingle.




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