My Bookshelf

bookshelf

Books are complicated things.  They are like perfect lovers, hiding in plain view, keeping their secrets carefully between the covers.  When we speak of them, they hold our gaze with memories, but we never tell the whole story – do we?  We cautiously avoid those delicate evenings, getting to know each other; the stolen afternoons; the nights, together alone in the darkness, page after page until, exhausted, we sleep.  And those tiny lies and excuses we make to shut the world out when we simply can’t resist one more intimate embrace.  Our books are the sly smile we have when we think no one is looking, and they belong to us, just as we belong to them — sworn sacred to be faithful.

Last week my eBuddy CJ Hartwell went to her bookshelf and ….  She tells a better tale than I do, and you can read it here: Hartwell’s Books.  But she showed us her books and told us more than who they are.  It’s a fascinating idea to look through a few reflections to see ourselves because the truth is nothing reveals who we are quite as clearly as revealing the things we love.  So I went to my bookshelf and discovered — it was mostly ex-lovers — long kept and long remembered – from a time so young and strong I may never leave it.

Glory Road – Robert A Heinlein
I found this book in a used bookstore when the world and I still had a use for such things.  This is a love story, thinly disguised as science fiction.  I confess it took me a few years and few readings before I could appreciate that.

A World Lit Only By Fire – William Manchester
The history of medieval Europe without the hard-sleighing of scholarship.  I take this with me every time I go to Europe.  It’s not the Europe I see — but the one I imagine, cleverly peeking out of the stones and the streets.  Lost footsteps, echoing across the centuries.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I grew up a prisoner of the vast North American prairie.  Ivan and I know what it’s like to be lost and alone in the inescapable wilderness, and we also understand that sometimes there is no glorious, indomitable human spirit.  Sometimes there is only survival.

History of England for Public Schools
My father’s textbook, circa 1930.  I still use it to keep those pesky Stuarts kings in line.

Tai Pan – James Clavell
This was a best-seller when I was a kid, so I read it.  Then I read King Rat; then I read Shogun; then I read Noble House, etc., etc.  I keep Tai Pan because it’s a better adventure than King Rat and not so long and involved as Shogun or Noble House.  Plus, back when I had visions of being a scholar, I thought “The Duality of Character in the Novels of James Clavell” would be a marvelous dissertation.

Shibumi – Trevanian
Nicholai Hel is a skilled assassin who has spent half a lifetime isolating himself from the madness of the modern world, but … it intrudes – it always intrudes.  So, the question remains: can we ever truly separate ourselves from the faceless somebodies who think they have a better idea for the world?  Probably not, but we can become such a badass nobody messes with us.

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
A wise person once said, “To believe in the heroic makes heroes.”  This is the third, fourth or even fifth copy of a book I won as a prize in grade school.  I keep it because I might be too old to believe in Tarzan, Treasure Island or Sanders of the River (Not!!!) but Bilbo Baggins is a good place to hide my hopeless belief in heroics.

Cabbage Town – Hugh Garner
This is a novel so out of print and out of fashion that you have to fight with Google to even find it.  It’s Canadian literature from before CanLit became a closed shop and people like me didn’t have to go to America and Great Britain to get published – but I’m not bitter.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve spent my life doing what I do.

And two extras:

Dutch-English/ English-Dutch Dictionary
I keep this handy for when Google Translate runs amok.

The Woman in the Window – WD Fyfe
Of course, I have my own book on my bookshelf.  D’uh!

 

Stuff I’ve Learned From Literature

read

People don’t read much anymore.  The once glorious novel has been left to gather dust while we play videogames and watch Netflix.  I’m as guilty as the next person so I’m not pointing fingers, but I still think it’s a shame.  After all, most of what I know about the world comes from reading fiction.  Here is just some of the stuff I’ve learned from literature.

Never, under any circumstances, give pigs any power.
Animal Farm

Never volunteer for anything.
The Hunger Games

If you think your lover has committed suicide get a qualified second opinion before you proceed.
Romeo and Juliet

If you’re going to invade Russia make sure you bring back-up.
War and Peace

Don’t be fooled by contemporary propaganda, children are savages.
Lord of the Flies

Contrary to popular belief, family isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
Kidnapped

If you live in Wessex, England you’re pretty much screwed.
Anything by Thomas Hardy

It’s not a good idea to party with aristocrats from Transylvania – especially after dark.
Dracula

Be nice to the French.  They tend to hold a grudge.
The Count of Monte Cristo

Don’t drink and drive.
The Great Gatsby

Whatever you do, stay away from Southwest Texas.
No Country for Old Men

Female teachers with Scottish accents are dangerous.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Sometimes, finding Nemo is not necessarily a good thing.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea

Expect the unexpected.
The Collected Works of O. Henry

On closer examination the meat packing industry is not as glamorous as one would think.
The Jungle

Never hunt whales.  It will always end badly.
Moby Dick

If you find yourself in the woods with a talking rabbit … go home, you’re stoned.
Alice in Wonderland

And finally:

Make digital copies of your books just in case we all go crazy in the next couple of years.
Fahrenheit 451

100 Influential Stories?

bbc books

The folks at the Beeb (BBC) have come out with the Top 100 Stories that have influenced the world.  “Good on ya!”  I love lists: by definition, they’re always controversial.  It’s true that scholars very seldom throw punches (I’d pay money to see that!) but normally a list such as this would generate more than a few white wine arguments over which book is where and why.  Unfortunately, this particular list does not fulfill that basic requirement because, at first glance, it’s obviously total bullshit.

Yeah, yeah, yeah! All lists are subjective; however, there are some things in this world that are just dead wrong.  Let’s take an objective look at what the Beeb is trying to pawn off on us.

The Odyssey (#1) — No problem.  (You’ll probably get a fight from the Shakespearians, but they’re always pissed off about something.)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (#2) — We can all agree on Simon Legree.  This book may very well have caused the American Civil War, which not only changed the social structure of Western civilization but also gave us the first glimpse of the military-industrial complex.
Frankenstein (#3) — This is where things start to get a little weird.  It’s true everybody knows who Frankenstein is — although most people get him confused with the monster.  But I’m pretty sure Frankenstein is not as big an influence on young lovers (anybody who ever lived) as Romeo and Juliet which doesn’t show up ’til #13.  And from there, everything just goes sideways.  According to the list, Beloved (#11) is a bigger influence on the world than Animal Farm (#18); Ulysses (#17) — which no living person actually understands — is ahead of To Kill A Mocking Bird (#27) and On The Road is nowhere to be found!

And what about the other sins of omission? — OMG!  There’s no The Great Gatsby, no Grapes of Wrath, no Fahrenheit 451, no Brave New World, nothing by Hemingway, nothing by Hardy and nothing by Kipling who sent two generations of imperial Brits out to change the world.  Paradise Lost and Le Morte D’Arthur are conspicuous by their absence, and where the hell is Dr. Seuss?

However, it’s not what’s missing from the list that’s burning my bacon: it’s a couple of titles that the Beeb included.

JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter series (#15) — Yes, we all read these books (or saw the movies.) Yes, we all thought Harry (and eventually Hermione) were hot; and yes, Quidditch is now the national sport of Nerdovia — but #15?  That’s ahead of Aesop’s Fables (#29) and Cinderella (#52.)  I don’t think so!  If nothing else, Aesop and Cindy have about a 1,000 year head start on that little wizard.  They were bedtime stories for millions and millions of children, long before Millennials decided that they were the only generation that mattered.  And besides, everybody knows Rowlings didn’t write seven Harry Potter books; she wrote two Harry Potter books — three and a half times.

But, my biggest bitch is The Handmaid’s Tale (#16)  WTF?  This little ditty is ahead of King Lear (#33), The Canterbury Tales (#58) and A Christmas Carol (#73)?  Basically, the BBC is telling us Margaret Atwood has a bigger influence on the world than William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and Christmas!  Not bad for a book one reviewer called “paranoid poppycock.”  You want some serious grins?  Walk down any street in the English-speaking world and ask people if they’ve read the book — the book!  Chances are good you’ll get an overwhelming NO.  Why?  ‘Cause the vast majority of people who have even heard of The Handmaid’s Tale have only seen the TV series.  For the first 30 years of its existence (before Hulu pick up the option) The Handmaid’s Tale was about as influential as Pinocchio — probably less.  And here’s the kicker: the TV series isn’t even written by Margaret Atwood!  It’s written by Bruce Miller, whose last outing was The 100; Leila Gerstein, who wrote for Gossip Girl and a bunch of other people who don’t even have Wikipedia entries.  So much for spreading Margaret Atwood’s influence around like marmalade on cold toast!

The bottom line is this list does serve one purpose, and one purpose only: it clearly confirms we’re living in the shallow end of intellectual history, dominated by cultural illiteracy.  Harry Potter, my ass!