Archive for the ‘novels’ Category


If You Wish to Become Weak-headed, Nervous and Good for Nothing, Read Novels.*

January 10, 2010

She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.
• Jane Austen

I am too fond of books, perhaps, and I am dismayed that there are those who suggest the book is dead, that it can be replaced entirely by the cold comfort of a reading device—please note however, that I would love to have one of these myself for my “disposable” reading!—or by the millions of on-line enticements that capture our attention. And we are busy too. Too busy to pick up an actual book that we don’t have to read. Besides, it looks so long. So many pages. So many sentences. So many words. And when we are in school, reading is linked to passing tests, writing papers, answering questions, a chore to be completed not for fun, but for duty. Who has the time or inclination to read anything for fun?

Everyone probably thinks that I’m a raving nymphomaniac, that I have an insatiable sexual appetite, when the truth is, I’d rather read a book.
• Madonna

I do, and while I know that everyone does not enjoy reading, I also know that many people have not discovered what they might enjoy reading. If the only books you read are those assigned to you, it’s difficult to sort out your personal preferences. I teach a research course and one of the first assignments I give students is to complete an autobibliography, an exploration of what they like—or might like—to read and what they dislike reading. This assignment is not limited to books, although that is a primary focus, and students are required to visit a library and a bookstore to locate books that interest them.

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
• Malcolm X

Creating an autobibliography of books (and other reading) that appeals to you is not an exercise in listing books you have to read for school or books that someone else has told you would be good to read unless you found those things fascinating. It is not an exercise in identifying books that will impress others who read your list. It does not have to be focused. It does not have to have a theme. The books can be random, disparate, difficult or easy. The uniting thread of an autobibliographical list is that the books appeal to the person creating the list.

I think you should basically teach a kid to read. A little arithmetic, a little writing, but if you can read, that’s the big thing. That’s the biggest thing my education gave me.
• Christopher Walken, September 1997,
Playboy interview

The list of books that appeal to me is pretty much endless. One that I just bought is Jack B. Creamer’s (1949) Handy Household Manual. Creamer, according to the cover is “famous to radio listeners as ‘The Handy Man.’” I’ve never heard of him, but the cover of his book promises to teach me how to oil an egg beater, prevent shoes from squeaking, and salvage a cracked dish. I am a sucker for old books that provide a glimpse into what seem to be very different worlds. I only paid a dime for this book and just looking at it again and word processing the following makes me feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Here’s some of Creamer’s advice from page 136:

“Dead flashlight batteries (or dry cells which operate your doorbell) can be revived to some extent by keeping them in a warm oven overnight. Or, to do it the hard way and get better results, remove the paper cover from the batteries, punch a few small holes in the base of the batteries with a nail; then put them in a strong salt water solution for three or four hours. When you take them out, dry them and dip them in melted wax, and put the paper covers back when they’re cool.”

I have carefully put this advice into quotation marks because I DO NOT ADVISE YOU TO TRY THIS. Go to the Dollar Store nearest you and purchase some new batteries. Otherwise you will need salt and nails and wax and considerable time and energy to follow Creamer’s method which might not work with today’s batteries anyway. Still, isn’t it interesting to imagine a time when this might have seemed like useful advice?

Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.
• Herman Hesse

I collect lots of genres, including advice books of many kinds. My family knows this and my sister just sent me Ruth Pepper Summers (Ed., 2004), A Book of Curious Advice from Days of Yore. I love these compilations of wisdom. I have many old books myself, but this kind of book combines two of my favorite genres: quotations and advice! Here’s something from pages 137-138 that’s related to today’s topic:

“Novel reading produces a morbid appetite for excitement. The object of the novelist, generally, is to produce the highest possible degree of excitement, both of the mind and of the passions. The object is very similar to that of intoxicating liquors on the body; hence, the confirmed novel-reader becomes a kind of literary inebriate, to whom the things of entity have no attractions and whose thirst cannot be slaked.”

There is more of this kind of stuff from The Ladies Vase or Polite Manual for Young Ladies from 1847. The excerpt ends with these words: “If you wish to become weak-headed, nervous and good for nothing, read novels.” Oh, dear. Perhaps this is what’s wrong with me, although I do have a distinct preference for non-fiction, so perhaps I am not completely lost.

Welcome to my library! Ever since my high school days, books and magazines have been to my mind what friends are in the flesh. Each and every one of these books and articles—a fraction of the 12,000 volumes I share my house with—has contributed to expanding my dream.
• Patch Adams, introduction to the bibliography in his book,
Gesundheit! (1993), p. 194)

If you had to choose five books to take with you on a trip where you would have nothing else to entertain you—no technology, no games, no paper or pen, no one to talk with—what five books would you choose? Why? (There’s no school to worry about when you get back, so you don’t have to take your textbooks!)

For now, we’re reading one non-school book a week. Mine is Fit or Fat.
• Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless

* from The Ladies Vase or Polite Manual for Young Ladies, published in 1847, and excerpted in Summers’ book noted above