Observations and arguments.

Bite Meme: Book Thing

1. How many books have you owned?

At least a hunnert.

Ok, a couple thousand.

I’ve got ten boxes full to give away that Green Apple Books wasn’t interested in. Want some?

2. What was the last book you bought?

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, within which I am finding happiness on nearly every page.

3. What was the last book you read?
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Which: you can burn through faster than a copy of the New Yorker, so don’t expect a lot.

4. Name five books that mean a lot to you.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, English translation by Katherine Woods. A gift from my first grade teacher Miss McDonough, who recognized that I had already mastered my 12×12 multiplication tables, and thereby allowed me to pursue an individual math curriculum that introduced me to division. I remember the moment when we parted and she handed me this book. There were too many words in it, and the few illustrations looked alien and French, but she was crying, standing there in the open air concrete hallway between the first and second grade classrooms, and then suddenly I was crying, because not only was I moving up a grade but she was moving away to someplace called Irvine, which my parents told me was on the way to San Diego, and maybe we could visit on our next trip down to Southern California.

That summer we did visit Miss McDonough in Irvine, only now she wasn’t my teacher, she was just some woman, with a house, who was asking to be called “Jill.” All the other grownups I knew were Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms. or Uncle or Aunt. It was confusing, and hot, and we had a long drive ahead of us. As I grew older I had only the fading square snapshot we took there, standing on her driveway. Looking at it now I can’t imagine how a girl her age was placed in charge of a classroom full of children.

I didn’t read the whole of The Little Prince until high school, when it captured my emotional imagination, and it remained an important touchstone for me through college and a bit beyond, enough that I gave copies to dear friends on special occasions.

Woods’ simple, direct translation complements the starkness of the desert and the vacuum of space employed by Exupery to contain his story within a bubble (or is it a glass case?) separate from the messiness and intertwining of human relationships.

One friend I knew in college hated the book bitterly, and its use of the word “tame” to describe the process of interrelating.

I do not know whether Howard or Exupery chose the word, but for someone raised within Catholicism and with a worn copy of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the idea of surrender was for me always going to be a part of loving.

But what meant more to me, I think, was its arbitrariness and lurking dread. The fox gives no reason for leaving, other than that it will help the prince learn a valuable lesson about memory and loss. And the prince, it seems, surrenders to the bite of the snake for no better reason. We have no knowledge that the prince has returned to the rose, nor if he did that the rose is still there waiting. For all we know the prince is merely dead, and the rose is happier for it. The pilot may inject romance into his stargazing, and wish for magic and joy, but even he knows it may all be a fantasy. The consolation of his memories is fleeting and cold.

Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. Volume One in the (First) Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Thought I’d have included C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, et al. in this spot, because I read it dozens of times and grew up to make a movie inspired by it. But the Chronicles of Narnia at its core is a Christian fairy tale for children, one which believes in the inherent goodness of children at that. Edmund’s crime in the first volume is little more than self-indulgence and sulking. Susan’s in the last is choosing adulthood.

From fourth to sixth grade it was Tolkien I was reading over and over and over again (although I never did successfully complete The Silmarillion). Its grand sweep was intoxicating, fleshed out by the menacing evil of Sauron and the dark riders, and by the depth of hopelessness of Frodo’s mission to the lands of Mordor.

I stumbled into Chronicles of Thomas Covenant at the age of twelve, not without some effort, considering the floridity of Donaldson’s prose (this was the first book I recall reading with a dictionary within easy reach) and the hostile ambivalence and self-loathing of his leprotic protagonist.

Here was a prophesied “chosen one” who willfully rejected not only his role as hero but the existence of The Land itself–not from sheer intellectual disbelief, but out of the emotional necessity to deny the responsibility for choices he has made (badly, in many cases) and for the sacrifices an increasing number of his companions make on his behalf.

With each successive chapter in Lord Foul’s Bane it became clear by contrast that Tolkien’s evil had never really developed much beyond a state of intellectual abstraction. While the legend of the One Ring told tales of its corrupting power (manifested in the wasted form of Gollum), it was never clear–beyond the power of invisibility–just why anyone would want the ring in the first place. What was this temptation that was too great for humans or elves or dwarves?

Donaldson answered that question in Thomas Covenant, who time after time is compelled to wield the power of his own ring–to ensure the immediate survival of himself and his companions–at the cost of sacrificing a larger goal. Like Sauron, Lord Foul remains a distant presence, but in practice the true enemy is Covenant’s own self-hatred and despair, as he repeatedly is forced to make a choice between two unacceptable outcomes.

Challenging. Maddening. Adult. It made the rest of my fantasy epic reading just so much fireside storytelling.

Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans by Ronald Takaki. The first time I really got the point of revisiting the history of America through the lens of multiculturalism–and yet so many years later the mass culture discourse is still frozen in a dialogue about Black and White. Takaki’s “habit” of excerpting “short phrases” from “primary texts” makes the book read a bit like a Zagat’s survey, but it does keep the prose lively. (The unfortunate result is that it all too often implies that one individual’s experience is representative of others’, when there is no way to corroborate such a notion.)

Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann. Sure, it’s a commercial for the Adobe Type Foundry, but at the time the book was written Adobe was the only game in town. I’d worked in publishing and marketing for a few years and been witness to a number of discussions of typographic issues. I’d typeset one book using Pagemaker and MacDraw, and had taught myself QuarkXPress, but this book helped illuminate the reasons why Quark was the only typographic tool worth using (and why so many of its typographic features were a waste of programmers’ time). While I may not have evolved into a top-notch designer (never really got a grounding in color theory), the font fetish I developed has bloomed into what I consider one of my more developed talents. I still can’t define typography, but as they say, I know it when I see it.

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. People. Who are going to become parents. Should read this book.


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