Instruments of Self-Exploration

IMG_1120Over the past few days my wife and I have been painting my book room and boxing up books. A lot of books! Anyway, my wife, having superior organizing skills, and an app for that, scanned bar codes and marked boxes so it would be far easier to find a particular book later on. Of course, I slowed the progress. I would go along handing her book after book and then suddenly stop mid stream. I’d stare wistfully at a book and begin to thumb through it, rereading underlined passages, remembering the thoughts and feelings I’d had when I had first read it. I know, just pathetic. Looking at all these books I started wondering, just for a moment, what my love for books and reading over all these years had really done for me.

As I stood there wondering, of course, I reached for a book I’d read (about books and reading) that just happen—naturally—to be right in front of me. I opened it and the first passage I’d underlined in pencil read:

We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences. Let me say, right off, that I believe a work of art is primarily concerned with the creation of beauty, whether through words, colors, shapes, sounds, or movements. But it is impossible to read serious novels, poetry, essays, and biographies without also growing convinced that they gradually enlarge our minds, refine our spirits, make us more sensitive and understanding. In this way, the humanities encourage the development of our own humanity. They are instruments of self-exploration.

— Michael Dirda, Book by Book

I like the way Dirda worded the above passage. At best, all a love for books and reading can do is encourage the development of our own humanity. It’s up to each of us to allow that to happen. And that, my dear reader, is the project of a lifetime.

The Hardcover Book is Holding Its Own

804379812-612x612Now here is some good news. In this age of digital dominance, it’s good to see that printed book sales are holding their own. That’s what PWC Global is reporting.

Initially, books downloaded and read on an Amazon Kindle or some other electronic device, when they became popular, seem to put a dent in printed book sales. This had some sad consequences for bookish store types like me. I think of Borders books. It closed down nationwide in 2011 and that really hurt because, at least in my area, Borders was the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble Booksellers. I actually liked Borders a little better—because it always seemed to have a better selection on hand, and a better coffee shop to boot. Of course now B&N is really the only bookish place, besides maybe a public library, I can go to enjoy browsing and indulging in a little bookish culture and being around my fellow bibilophiliacts.

I don’t currently have an Amazon Kindle or B&N Nook or any other digital book e-reader device (though I do have the Kindle app on my iPhone that I’ve never used). My wife actually bought me a Nook e-reader about 5 years ago but I never used it, so, being the professional ebayer she is, she sold it. Initially, I thought I could use an e-reader, but the allure of a physical book has a strong hold on me. I love the smell of a new hardcover book—preferably with deckled edges—and the tactile feel of the book, of turning the pages, and having the physical book on my bookshelf. For now, I’m an incurable preferrer of printed books. And so I book on, born back ceaselessly upon the bookstore aisles, browsing for another book.

Good Literature Makes the Reader “Move With” the Characters

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book I pause for a moment to think over a very insightful passage or section I’ve just completed. Something I’m sure all serious readers do. For me, the writer has connected a number of ideas and has set my mind to work reflecting on its larger significance. This, for me, is what true education is about. From time to time, I write my reflections in a journal or jot a note on a piece of paper and insert it in the back of the book. Recently, while going through some books in my bookroom, I found a piece of paper, a reflection, folded in the back of a biography I’d read years ago with the following written on it:

It is human personality that most interest us. All through the great writings of classical authors we are most moved by greatly drawn characters. The results of character bumping up against circumstance and how individuals respond, this is what makes literature so powerful and meaningful. Think of Plutarch, Dickens, and Twain, these authors bring characters to life on the page. They live in our mind, if only briefly, sharing, in some sense giving us the experience of, their emotions, their hopes, and their tragedies. We move with them. We learn through a process of association and empathy. Feeling—empathically—what has happened to others allows us to connect with people across time and space. We share in their humanity. We learn. It is through this process that we can hold hands with the past.

A Bookshop Education

Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself. — Edward Gibbon

 

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Riverby Books on Capitol Hill

John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once wrote: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” And that about captures it. It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it seems to get confirmed almost every day. Of course I’ve learned—and re-learned—a lot of other lessons along the way. And so while humility is one of the core lessons of life, I recently got to thinking about where, and by what means, I learned all the other stuff that’s served to confirm just how important humility plays in the scheme of one’s life.

If I had to list the main sources of my education, I would put them as follows: 1) bookstores, 2) periodicals, & 3) schools. (Note: Libraries are the archives of civilization and very important, but for me, my primary experience with them was at school.)

Starting from the end of the list, let me be candid and say I was a lousy student growing up. After getting the basics in reading, writing, and math in primary school (God has a special place for Elementary school teachers), I pretty much checked out mentally during my secondary school years. Socialization is an important part of any education, and I feel confident my scores were rather high in that area, but unfortunately that proficiency wasn’t part of my grade point average. So, after a less than stellar showing, pathetic really, in High School, I decided my best option was to enlist in the military move on to college. Even if I wasn’t exactly college material at the time, it just seemed the best alternative over getting a full time job.

It was a community college luckily, so they pretty much had to take me. I can’t say I made the honor roll, but I was in the running—a close, razor thin 50 point margin—so at least I was improving. Sloooowly but surely, however, I was discovering what truly interested me—if only I could making a living with it! The history, literature, and philosophy classes confirmed my intrinsic interest in the humanities. Great! So poverty would be my lot! Okay, so I actually did fairly well in those classes. In others words, I liked the subjects that caused the typical tuition paying parent to say: “And what are you going to do with a degree in…”.

More importantly, at community college I adopted strategic patience, which entailed taking my sweet ass time getting through community college…i.e. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and was drifting between an extension of my teenage years, rotating between part-time and full-time school attendance, and searching for a career while working on-and-off at my dad’s company. It goes almost without saying, but I will, my community college years went well beyond the typical 2 year period. It was truly a time of drifting, hoping for something to come along.

But there was a bright ray of sunshine that pierced those cloudy, horizonless, years. My professional community college years would lead to the chance meeting of my future wife, Melissa, in Doctor Jones’s history class. Of course I ended up doing lousy in that class—odd for a guy who loves history I realize—because I spent most of the class time passing notes (we didn’t have cellphones) with Melissa. For this reason alone, I wouldn’t change anything from my community college years. Nothing. I’ve failed at many things in life, but meeting my future wife as a result of my foolishness turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Well eventually I took a job—before completing college—and got married to my soulmate. Of course, like so many people who don’t complete their degree and enter the work force, I told myself I would like to finish what I’d started and so I spent years looking into various programs hoping to complete my BS degree. No one in my immediate family had gotten their college degree, so there was the added desire of being the first—it was also about pleasing my wonderful parents who’d done so much for me. Eventually, about 9 years (yeah, it took me awhile) into my career, I went back to college. It’s amazing how much more focused you are when you’re married and already have a career—I think it’s called the maturing process actually. I completed my BS degree (with honors) and ultimately went on to get a graduate degree (MS) from Johns Hopkins University. Considering how my college career had begun, it was a real high point in my life to walk in a commencement for my graduate degree from such a prestigious institution.

With all this said, while I enjoyed my later college years, and enjoyed learning “how to think,” and loved the colleges I attended, if I’d had to rely on just my formal schooling I’d be in poor shape educationally speaking. In large part, my education has come from the writers of essays, quality magazines, and books. My love for reading is mostly responsible for the expansion of my mental world—and continues to be. Continue reading “A Bookshop Education”

What Our Book Collections Can Tell Us About Ourselves

In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them. — Mark Twain

 

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From my Collection

I have a small study in my house. Well, it would be better to say I have a room in my house with books on shelves, books in boxes, and books stacked on a French Avignon desk that I don’t use. We moved into this house over a decade ago and I told my wife then, patient and tolerant woman that she is, that “You go ahead and decorate and finish all the other rooms first and then we’ll do my study last.” Well, as with various other projects around the house, I never followed through. I had grandiose ideas about my new study and what it would mean when we moved into our new house. “I would,” as Michael Dirda quipped “of course, wear a velvet jacket at my desk, take breakfast in the conservatory, and in the late afternoon go for long walks on graveled paths.” I know, that’s pathetic.

Anyway, the truth is I’m either sitting at the kitchen table or in a chair in our bedroom when I write (or read) at home. Oh, and I don’t have any graveled paths to walk on either. My study, or “bookroom” really, is just storage space for me to wander through (or trip), while searching for a book or just casually picking up books and dipping into them to get a taste of the author’s prose or find some inspiration. My bookroom ramblings remind me of a fine quote by Churchill, that nicely captures my state of mind:

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” — Winston Churchill

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Part of my Biography Collection

Recently I decided to organize my books a little better. Instead of strictly by author, I organized them into large categories like history, philosophy, economics, etc, etc. A novel idea, I know. Of course this process, as I sifted through the boxes and shelves, forced me to see (by stack size, and word count) exactly what category had won my interests and taxed our budget over the years. In my case the winner, by sheer numbers and thickness of books, is biography. I’ve definitely read a lot of them over the decades.

Maybe it’s partially in the blood. My mother loves biographies and has a small collection herself. For me, I don’t know exactly when biography became my favorite genre, but I can remember two books that probably had the biggest influence on me early on in my reading life. Many years ago I read James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. Yes, I read the entire unabridged 1402 pages of the Oxford World Classic edition. I’m a slow reader, so believe me that took a while! But it was a great reading experience. Boswell’s biography was full of wit—which Johnson excelled at—and wisdom and fascinating details about 18th century English culture and art. It’s definitely a classic. I came away totally fascinated by Johnson’s unique life and powerfully quick, creative, and intelligent mind.

Boswell’s biography led me to Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson. This was an absolutely absorbing book and a captivating literary experience. I had no idea, at that point in my reading life, that biography could be so compelling, instructive, and psychologically insightful. I completed Bate’s biography of Johnson feeling my perspective on life and the dynamics of human potential had changed. It was, properly speaking, literature that inspired a reverence for the power of literature to alter how we see the world. The book, by the way, won all 3 of the major American literary prizes, something that rarely happens.

The next biggest book category in my study appeared to be classical history, followed by literature (mostly essay collections), general history, leadership, psychology, civil war, and economics. And of course I have a large collection of what can be called general non-fiction. Books by, say, Malcolm Gladwell would fall into the category. My collection of novels is not what it use to be. I actually don’t read that many novels anymore I’m sad to admit. My time is limited, as you can tell by the rather spare postings on this blog (hoping to change that), and so I need to prioritize my reading to make room for writing.

If there is anything I’m reminded of from reorganizing my bookroom, it’s that the books we collect don’t just represent what we like to read, but also through what discipline (or category) we enjoy discovery. For me, I’m attracted to biography, the story of people’s lives. It’s this form of literature that’s had the biggest influence in shaping how I’ve learned about the world. “I esteem biography,” Samuel Johnson said, “as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” I for one have always loved this quote and, as my bookshelves can attest, taken it to heart.