Posts Tagged ‘Books

25
Feb
09

D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Aesthetic Bliss

An Italian edition. I recently read Lolita and found myself unable to describe its impact on me –  making my heart spin, my brain fog up, and my mouth hang open in rapturous disbelief – until I came to Nabokov’s supplement at the end of the book and found that he’d done it for me.

He offers a few notes on his reason for writing what would become his masterpiece; he called it a “throbbing” that grew in him over a number of years until he plainly needed to just get the thing out of himself (with mixed reception, to put it simply). Without restraint, Nabokov criticizes those who cannot read a piece of fiction without asking “Why?” Why did he write it? Why should it be read? What does it have to teach us? Of course we’ve all been instructed to ask these questions by simple-minded English teachers who were instructed to ask us these questions by their simple-minded superiors, but in the end, do we (should we)  always need a reason, a lesson, to glean from fiction? Nabokov writes,

There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.

So why read something that doesn’t teach us anything? Is it worth the hours spent squinting over page after page, sentence after sentence, word after word in hopes that we might find something that can briefly give us the sense of another state of being? Three important reasons come to mind when I think of Lolita (none of them seeking the didactic):

-1- To better understand language in itself as an artistic medium and discover the surprising, unique and beautiful things that can be done with it (by a non-native speaker, nonetheless).

-2- To think things and feel things that you may not have known possible.

And -3-  To taste for even a fleeting moment – like those waiting and writhing on the trembling pages of Nabokov’s book – pure and complicated and shining aesthetic bliss.

21
Nov
08

D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: The Whole World and Your Life

it tolls for thee.

I’ve been exceptionally homesick these last few days. Perhaps it’s just another familiar wave of culture shock that pushes you inexplicably down, perhaps it’s hormones, or perhaps the cold weather is already getting to me. The cause could be anything; what I’m trying my best to ignore is the possibility that the homesickness is caused by something real, something in me that truly believes I was happier in California and should not have given that up.

But I did, and I’m here, que sera, sera, and I’m sure soon I’ll be experiencing another blissful moment – the kind of distinct happiness you can only get when you’re far away from what you know, and you’re proud for knowing you’ve begun to fit in.

Though, regardless of whether I’m floating in elation or sinking in loneliness, what I have to do is be present. Wherever I am, that is where I should be. Not back in my freshman year of college, sitting on the cafeteria patio with french fries on plastic trays, new friends at my side, and the warm Orange County evening settling over me. Not in the backyard of my childhood home, swinging on the hammock with a fudgesicle dripping down my tie-dyed cotton dress, and a sleepy plane lulling overhead in the California summer sky.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s masterpiece about 4 long days in the Spanish Civil War and my most recent selection from the Boekenmarkt in the Spui, delivered to me a sharp reminder of this. I was going to say that of course Robert Jordan had greater reason to live in the moment than I do, as his life was in constant danger as a guerilla bridge-blower behind fascist lines, but I won’t say that. If we all waited until our survival was in obvious danger to really pay attention, then we’d miss a hell of a lot.

“And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it. Now, ahora, maintenant, heute [and, might I add, the Dutch nu]. Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.”

A whole world and your life. It does sound funny, but of course that is what it is. Every minute of our lives – every memory and every single forgotten moment – fits together like a puzzle, a painting, a great galaxy. They are now a whole. And that whole exists in its only possible form, with each successive moment adding one piece, one brush stroke, one star. They are fixed. Permanent. And the only thing to do is to fully absorb each new thing that comes along, because only what happens now, and now, and now can change the way the whole turns out. And that, of course, is what matters. Living in the nu.

29
Oct
08

D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Flat Worms

I made it a goal this year abroad to read as many classics or important books as I can. Majoring in English, I somehow still did not manage to get them all done in 4 years – a fact that actually surprises a lot of people. No, I have many, many more to go; the hard part is deciding where to start.

Luckily, it turns out that Amsterdam will decide for me. There is some sort of tax on books here from what I’ve heard, so the merchandise in the many English book stores is a bit out of my price range for regular purchases. They’re great stores, particularly the American Book Center, so I have to be careful not to get carried away and spend an entire week’s pay in one visit – maybe I’ll just treat myself on special occasions.

Fortunately, one Friday afternoon last month after spending a couple of wistful hours in the ABC, I stumbled upon the outdoor Boekenmarkt in the Spui, a weekly used and antique book market in one of the city’s squares that apparently only plays hooky during gale-force winds. It isn’t a huge market, but being full of books I could spend hours there even if I went every week – and most of the books aren’t even in English. There is one booth, to my delight, with a small but sufficient assortment of books that I can both read and afford to buy often.

The selection of classics is limited, which is perfect because it greatly reduces the decision-making process. It’s just an added bonus that most of them are cool old editions under 5 euros, and I get to spend the afternoon surrounded by books and people who love them.

My first choice was Cannery Row, a Steinbeck favorite that I’ve had on my list for some time. It’s a short, easy read and the setting and characters are instantly appealing. I’d suggest that anyone who struggled with The Grapes of Wrath at the age of 16 give this one a try. It draws you in immediately and won’t disappoint.

It’s one of those books that I knew I would enjoy with the first sentence: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Such a random assortment of things that it somehow makes clear and perfect sense. Especially as the book goes on.

What I really love and feel can be applied to life and literature in many ways is what he offers at the end of his short opening:

“How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

To see the capturing of flat worms, a small and obscure project to say the least, as this great metaphor for the way stories are told and lives are lived – this is why we should read his books. And why I’m glad the Boekenmarkt placed this one front of me.

The flat worms remind me somewhat of my time in Amsterdam thus far. It’s certainly different than my last experience abroad – a shorter length of time in which I had a built-in social network of students and I did nothing but sight-see and travel and learn about the culture the entire time. Here I am mostly alone aside from the family and scattered random social engagements, I work 35 hours a week, and I have less money to spend on travel. I struggle with the fact that I am living here, that I can’t be doing and seeing and going to museums every second because I have some serious assimilating to do.

It’s like the window in the corner of my bedroom that leaks when it rains. I can’t hear any drips, but when I wake up in the morning or come upstairs at the end of the day – having battled the rain outside or listened to it falling on the rooftop as I fell asleep – there is always a little puddle there.

I don’t realize how much I’m doing or learning or adjusting to here until I step back and really look at it. Without noticing I’ve situated myself over the last 2 months into this city and into a new life abroad. I showed up on September 5, and since then the experiences and transformations just started to ooze, crawl and leak into my life on their own.

09
Aug
08

D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: In the Heart of New York

Exhibit by Jeff Koons on the roof of the Met with Central Park and Manhattan skyline in the background.

Exhibit by Jeff Koons on the roof of the Met with Central Park and Manhattan skyline in the background.

In June I saw New York City for the first time. I suppose I haven’t written about it yet because I’m afraid to, afraid I won’t be able to say anything meaningful about a place so full of meaning that I think my heart beat faster than normal during my entire stay. This is similar to the way I never write about my mother; I believe I subconsciously assume that my love and gratitude for her simply reject words or description, and I leave it at that. And New York, New York – what can I say when there is so much to say? I find myself stammering and returning again and again to certain words: life, energy, movement, color, diversity, layers, depth. Depth.

When people ask why I like it so much, I feel my lungs expand and my eyes close and my head move slowly from side to side and all I can say is, “There is so much there.” And apparently, there’s so much that I’ll just have to return someday for a longer stay – perhaps a year, perhaps ten, perhaps a lifetime (if I can handle the snow) – so that I am able to write, able to focus for a little while on one color, one layer, one life. For now, though, I will lean on a passage from E.B. White’s graceful and honest essay written in 1948, Here is New York.

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

The full meaning contained within the city remains elusive to me, but I was lucky enough to walk amidst its vibrant rhythmic energy for a few dizzying days and perhaps begin to understand what makes the noises seem louder, the smells stronger, the colors brighter, and the people more complex than any other place I’d been; what, in other words, quickens the city’s pulse.

31
Jul
08

D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Tralfamadorian Novels

I finally read Slaughterhouse-Five. Anyone who has harassed me about it can now get off my back. I do see what all the fuss is about, though, and in retrospect I’m glad to have been pestered.

Billy Pilgrim learns a lot of great things from the aliens who abduct him, perhaps the greatest being the circular, seamless and holistic nature of time that we fatalistic humans will never understand (myself especially, though I wish to). This temporal reality in which they live is reflected in the many layered novels they enjoy – far more complex than our simple words-on-a-page storybooks; a Tralfamadorian novel is a thoughtful collection of messages.

There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

I like to think of one of their novels as the collective of one person’s reading choices over a lifetime. Do we not, after all, read one book to see the marvelous moments crafted therein? An image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep? We may not be able to see all these moments at once, but instead maintain the patience and interest to see one moment at a time, one word, one page, one chapter, one book, until everything has been stored away in our mental catalog, waiting there to serve that relentless human need for meaning, purpose and connections. After a lifetime of reading, surviving and watching the world spin and tumble around us, we can look on the many marvelous moments that have become our consciousness and take a sigh of solemn gratitude because it is – it will be – beautiful and surprising and deep.

22
Jul
08

D’Il Mio Libro Piccolo: Dickens’ Venice

When I was in Venice in October, wandering the rainy streets aimlessly as though trapped – and with no desire to escape – in a very beautiful and perfectly unique maze, my travel companions and I came across a truly delicious book shop called Charta Venezia. Their merchandise is comprised of incredible works of art: old editions of classic texts bound, in the “art of new Venetian bookbinding,” in the most ornate and gorgeous covers I have ever seen. They run anywhere from 200 euros to 5,000, so all I did was drool (doing my best not to get that or the rain from my jacket sleeves onto any of those antique, leafy, full-of-wonder pages).

I did find a little handmade journal that had been marked down, so I decided to buy it and use it to record all of my favorite passages from the books that I read. My own personal collection of beautiful literary treasures to be admired and enjoyed on a smaller scale. I thought it fitting to start it with a chilling description of the city of Venezia from Charles Dickens’ 1846 Pictures from Italy:

“But close about the quays and churches, palaces and prisons: sucking at their walls, and welling up into the secret places of the town: crept the water always. Noiseless and watchful: coiled round and round it, in its many folds, like an old serpent: waiting for the time, I thought, when people should look down into its depths for any stone of the old city that had claimed to be its mistress.

Thus it floated me away, until I awoke in the old market-palace at Verona. I have, many and many a time, thought since, of this strange Dream upon the water: half-wondering if it lie there yet, and if its name be VENICE.”

A magical little passage that, when I read it still, makes me feel like I’m back in that mysterious, almost unreal place, standing over a canal on a little bridge under my umbrella watching the gray water dance and swirl about the ancient sinking bricks.

Since purchasing il mio libro piccolo, and writing down the Dickens passage, I haven’t been the best about keeping a faithful record of all of my favorite lines as I find them. I have this problem when I read that I get too excited and don’t want to stop reading to get up, find a pen and my little book and write anything down. As a result, there are many sparkling and colorful and deeply, personally affecting bits of writing that I will never see again and will doubtfully ever remember.

So, I will begin sharing here some of what I find, in part to motivate myself to continue recording them, but mostly because I love to bring attention to these little gems. Those moments when you come across a collection of words that makes your breath stop for just a second, and you have no choice but to read it a few times over and let it cover you, become you, change you and brighten the colors in which you see the world – these are why I read.

And it’s nice to keep those moments in one very beautiful and perfectly unique little book.




"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
June 2017
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