Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

With Bilbo, I saw the peaks of the Misty Mountains. Mirkwood surrounded me, the forest of fairy tales in particularly gnarled, glimmering, spider-infested form. When Bilbo climbed a tree in Mirkwood to spy out the land, I burst through the canopy of the forest after days in the green gloom, and found the sea of bright breeze-ruffled leaves where velvet-black butterflies played. Not — I find now, re-reading The Hobbit — that Tolkien described any of these things in the detail I remember. His was a speedy, storyteller’s art. It made a few precise suggestions, supplied a few nodal adjectives from which the webwork of an imagined world could grow in a child’s mind, and didn’t linger. I made the pictures. I was lucky that my first book put me in the hands of a writer with such a conscious and decided idea of what a reader’s imagination needed. Tolkien had trained himself on the hard nugget-like specifics of Anglo-Saxon and Viking poetry, with its names for things that were almost spells, and its metaphors that were almost riddles. At six I had no idea that the sea had once been the whale-path, or that Tolkien had any predecessors when he had Bilbo boast to Smaug that he was ‘the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly’. He made bread, blood and diamonds, and the bees as big as thumbs at Bjorn’s house, seem as fresh and vividly discovered as if they had just been thought of, for the first time in the world. What I did know explicitly was that while’Tolkien’s words were authoritative, his occasional black-and-white drawings in the text only counted as hints I was free to accept or refuse. What Middle-Earth looked like was my business. Illustrations — I decided — were limitations.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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Stealing novels

I’m thirty-two years old as I do my little performance in the bookshop, which means I’ve been reading for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years since the furze of black marks between the covers of The Hobbit grew lucid, and released a dragon. Twenty-six years therefore since the primary ‘discovery that the dragon remained internal to me. Inside my head, Smaug hurtled, lava gold, scaly green. And nothing showed. Wars, jokes, torrents of faces would fill me from other books, as I read on, and none of that would show either. It made a kind of intangible shoplifting possible, I realised when I was eleven or so. If your memory was OK you could descend on a bookshop — a big enough one so that the staff wouldn’t’ hassle a browser — and steal the contents of books by reading them. I drank down 1984 while loitering in the 0 section of the giant Heffers store in Cambridge. When I was full I carried the slopping vessel of my attention carefully out of the shop. Nobody at the cash desks could tell that I now contained Winston Smith’s telescreen chanting its victories, O’Brien’s voice admitting that the Thought Police got him a long time ago. It took me three successive Saturdays to steal the whole novel. But I have not ceased to be amazed at the invisibility I depend on.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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Capon on playing recorded music (or probably audiobooks) in the home (what he calls the “liturgy of listening”):

I must watch that it doesn’t destroy the local liturgy of singing, playing, and telling my own stories. When I go to a man’s house, I should hear his children, not the Kingston Trio; his jokes, not Shelley Berman’s

— Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board

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“Don’t Go Into the Library” by Alberto Ríos


The library is dangerous—

Don’t go in. If you do


You know what will happen.

It’s like a pet store or a bakery—


Every single time you’ll come out of there

Holding something in your arms.


Those novels with their big eyes.

And those no-nonsense, all muscle


Greyhounds and Dobermans,

All non-fiction and business,


Cuddly when they’re young,

But then the first page is turned.


The doughnut scent of it all, knowledge,

The aroma of coffee being made


In all those books, something for everyone,

The deli offerings of civilization itself.


The library is the book of books,

Its concrete and wood and glass covers


Keeping within them the very big,

Very long story of everything.


The library is dangerous, full

Of answers. If you go inside,


You may not come out

The same person who went in.


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Here’s a passage from an essay in the Guardian about the decline of e-books and the revival of the book’s fortunes:

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback…. “The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” [James] Daunt [of Waterstone’s] says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”

And that something interesting is likely to gain traction on #bookstagram, a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.
Got that? Now look at this:

Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.

The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.

When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500.

As John Overholt commented on Twitter, “It’s very dramatic but I’m not sure that’s the most effective use of 100,000 books.”

What both stories illustrate is a curious recent movement to transform books into fetishes. They are to be touched, smelled, lovingly photographed, made into art, laden with immense and complex symbolic value. Is there anything that people don’t do with them? I can think of one thing.

I wonder if we could be headed for a division — or an intensification of a division that already exists — between people who love books and people who love reading. I imagine a house filled with beautiful books, books lining walls, books displayed with apparently careless elegance on tables, in which the only actual reading is being done by a child with a beat-up discarded Kindle who has learned how to download from Project Gutenberg.

Alan Jacobs

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I recently finished Teaching a Stone to Talk, my introduction to Annie Dillard. It was a fascinating excursion. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has now moved higher up on my “To Read” list. If you’re unfamiliar with Dillard, here’s a good description from Sam Anderson’s review of The Abundance:

It’s unclear what to call Annie Dillard, where to shelve her. Over more than 40 years, she has been, sometimes all at once, a poet, essayist, novelist, humorist, naturalist, critic, theologian, collagist and full-throated singer of mystic incantations. Instead of being any particular kind of writer, she is, flagrantly, a consciousness — an abstract, all-encompassing energy field that inhabits a given piece of writing the way sunlight clings to a rock: delicately but with absolute force, always leaving a shadow behind. This is an essential part of what it means to be human, this shifting between the transcendent self and the contingent world, the ecstasy and the dental bill. We all do some version of it, all the time. But Dillard does it more insistently.

Dillard began publishing books in 1974. ‘‘Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,’’ a small collection of poems, was followed immediately by ‘‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ a long nonfictional account of her experience embedding, Thoreau-style, for a year of close observation of the titular waterway in Virginia. ‘‘Pilgrim’’ won the Pulitzer Prize and unleashed upon the world Dillard’s radical style: prose right on the border of poetry, dense with dazzling effects — strong metaphors, heavy rhythms, bold verbs, sudden parables, outlandish facts harvested from the darkest corners of the library. From the start, this has been Dillard’s mission: to crowbar surprise, sentence by sentence, into all the tiny gaps of our ordinary experience.

Above all, Dillard refuses to fall into traditional expository rhythms, to calm down, to be normal, to proceed with caution. She feels driven, always, to summon revelations out of nothing — to ‘‘call for fireworks, with only a ballpoint pen.’’

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Of course, we cannot really talk about The Lord of the Rings anymore without talking about the movies and why they should be avoided. If someone is introduced to the books because he saw the movies first, this is simply one more testimony as to how God in his sovereignty can bring good out of evil. But I do not think any traffic should go the other direction, from the books to the movies.

— Doug Wilson, Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong on Your Bookshelf 

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