We were visiting the Seattle Public Library recently and walking down its amazing Spiral of Books, and it made me try to think deeper about what our society is doing to our children and grandchildren. If you are a parent, are you raising your children to read and write primarily on paper? Are you limiting their use of electronic devices, making such implements secondary to books and handwriting? Every year and every time a new thought-controlling device is unloaded upon the public, it gets harder for old-schoolers like me to sit back and not start ranting about Big Brother and Fahrenheit 451.
I don’t want to get overly schmaltzy, but books have dignity, identity. That book sits or, more correctly, stands on your shelf. It stands for something. The voice of its author is undying, and is ready and waiting to tell its story to a new audience. How many other readers have touched that book? How many times has that book returned the favor?
A book can lie on your desk, open to an important page. You can write your name in it and pass it along to family, friends. Give it as a gift. You can run your finger down a page. Feel the paper. Books and paper might be our most noble invention. And one of our highest art forms. A book is a permanent record, an original document. It is evidence. It cannot be clicked away, can’t be deleted, cannot be powered-off.
Toddlers everywhere are delighted when picture or story books are put in their little hands. They also delight in anything electronic, with buttons to push. That’s what worries me.
I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.
It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!
If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.
I’m finding, more and more often, that the books I’m reading lead me to other books, by the power of suggestion. For example, I read Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman, the biography of Mickey Marcus. Mickey’s favorite book was The Green Hat (Michael Arlen), which by coincidence was already on my future reading list because I had come across it while browsing at the library. So I knew I had to read it, and I have to agree with Mickey that it is indeed a literary gem.
If you need suggestions for late 19th century or early 20th century fiction, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. The book is very autobiographical, and the young protagonist and other characters spend a fair amount of time mentioning the books they read. They were quite prolific. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell’s persona works in English book “sellers”, and he expresses a great many opinions about the particular books, both good and bad, that customers ask for. Some of the “good” ones I’ve added to my future reading list. OK, a few of the “bad” ones, too.
Right now I’m reading The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos (a pretty amazing book). One of his main characters read Romola, by George Eliot. She’s one of my favorite authors, so Romola has moved way up on my reading list.
If anyone has any other examples of books leading to other books by the power of suggestion, I would love to hear about them. Thanks!