Tuesday, April 30, 2013

No, It’s Mine: Why You Should Never Loan a Book to Anyone Ever Ever Ever

Everything comes to him who waits, except a loaned book. 
~ McKinney Hubbard

A quandary of ideals is presented to anyone who loves books: such a bibliophile collects and cares for their library, but also wants to share their love of reading with their less literary-minded friends.  Unfortunately to these less literary-minded friends, books are just wads of paper and not prized first editions.

The problem is this: that borrowed books are usually returned in worse condition than when they were first lent out.  (Or, they’re returned in exactly the same condition, but then you find out the borrower didn’t ever get around to reading the book, which is a tragedy meriting its own blog post entirely.)  Personally, the few books I have loaned out to people have only been returned slightly scathed: the hardcovers a little dinged up on the corner, maybe the gilt edging a little worn, but otherwise almost as good as when I lent them. 

Not everyone, however, has been as lucky as I: Edwin Arlington Robinson (whoever that is) once called friends “people who borrow my books and set wet glasses on them.”  As a public library employee, I can tell you that hard as it is to believe that someone would commit such a travesty, but it’s true.  Coffee rings are the most common offenders, but thanks to library-regulation mylar (you know, that plastic layer over the dust jacket?) these rings are for the most part temporary.  For some reason people feel the need to eat and read at the same time.  I have found spaghetti stains INSIDE books.  Ugh.  And other things whose origins I dared not speculate upon. 

However, one could argue that a public library is different because “they knew the risks.”  Lending a personal book to a friend is a completely different matter.  Usually book-borrowing happens in one of two ways:

Scenario One: You are talking about books with a close friend:
  1. The title of a book you own comes up, and
  2. You mention that you own it.  This was the defining mistake of such a scenario, because THEN
  3. Your friend says, “Oh, could I borrow it?”
  4. Now you have a veritable Sophie’s Choice to make.  Do you show generosity to  your friend, or do you protect your books against their sticky mitts?
  5. You lend out the book.  Silly you.

Scenario Two:  You invite a close friend into your home:
  1. As part of the grand tour, you show off your sizeable collection of books.
  2. You smile proudly as your friend inspects the shelves, casually commenting on books (“Ooo, that was a good one!” “Oh good, you have that!”  “I almost got this one for you for Christmas, good thing I didn’t because you have a better copy.”)
  3. Then they mention “Oh, I haven’t read this.”  Or even worse, they get all quiet.
  4. They pull a book from the shelf! ohdearohdearohdear what is going on!?
  5. They ask if they can borrow it.
  6. Now you have to let them borrow it, or risk infringing upon the Host(ess) Rules of Hospitality.

Now you’re in for it.  There are any number of terrible things your friend the human could do to your other friend the book, including but not limited to:
  • As mentioned above, using it as a coaster or eating while reading
  • Propping the book open to their page by setting it open and face-down
  • Propping their door open with it
  • Stabilizing a wobbly table
  • Writing in it.  Or even worse, allowing their toddler to use it as a coloring book.  With Sharpie.
  • Pressing flowers in it
  • Leaving it on the floor of their car.  This is particularly bad in the winter or rainy weather where wet shoes might tread on it (another common desecration at the library is book covers with boot prints).
  • Letting the dog (or teething infant) near it.
  • Or they forget to return it.  Often these people will put your book on their shelves and think it’s theirs!  The horror!  (The only recourse for this situation is wheedling an invite from them and then asking to borrow…your book.)
Hard-covered books break up friendships.  You lend a hard-covered book to a friend and when he doesn’t return it, you get mad at him.  It makes you mean and petty.  But 25-cent books are different. 
~ John Steinbeck

So what can you do?  There are certain steps to either avoid or minimize damage:
  1. Stop having friends.  They’re overrated anyway.

What?  You want to have your cake and eat it, too?  (And by that I mean have friends and books too; hopefully cake is also involved, but I should also hope that you would not be eating it while reading your book).

  1. Choose your friends more carefully.  Have candidates fill out a “book care questionnaire”
  2. Abstain from talking about books that you own and don’t want to lend to them.  I know it's hard.  But hold it in.
  3. Hide your books behind a “Wizard of Oz” style curtain when friends come over.  (Actually, book care manuals suggest this even if you don’t have company because it will protect books from fading in direct sunlight.  But I digress.)
  4. Have a “lending copy” of a book.  As Steinbeck suggests, cheaper books are easier to lend out and forgive the person for all the terrible things they do to it. 
  5. To keep borrowers from the worst crime of forgetting that this book is in fact borrowed and not their personal property, write your name in the book (not in pencil.  Some people might “accidentally” erase pencil and replace it with their own name.) or use book-plates. 
  6. If you write your name in the book, you might also want to include the additional preventative measure of cursing the book, like the curse below:

Curse on Book Thieves

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him.

Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted.

Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to this agony till he sing in dissolution.

Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…and when at last he goeth to his last punishment, let the flames of hell consume him for ever.
~ San Pedro Monastery, Barcelona, Spain

If you ask me, this is only reasonable.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Heads up:

I've been browsing tons of other book-related blogs and see that many of them had the same "bookshelf" background as I, so I am currently attempting to redesign and otherwise spiff up my blog's appearance.  So if there's a weird color, a moved gadget, or something else slightly askew...that's why. 

Sorry for the inconvenience.  Hopefully everything will be looking awesome soon.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The World in one blog post: Thoughts on Katharine Philips' poem, "The World"

The World
by Katharine Philips

We all live by mistake, delight in dreams,

Lost to ourselves, and dwelling in extremes;

Rejecting what we have, though ne’er so good,

And prizing what we never understood.
(lines 23-26)

Katherine Philips’ poem does a very good job of summarizing a theme set out at length in the Bible’s Ecclesiastes: Everything is vanity; there is nothing new under the sun. 

You would think that encapsulating universal human problems in one poem and then entitling it “The World” would be a huge undertaking. But somehow Philips seems to do it, from talking about mortality and human suffering to the problem of understanding why we are here, what is the purpose of life in the stanza quoted above.

“We all live by mistake”: we all, by trial and error in our lives, have to figure out who we are, what we are here for, and what we should do. Usually this trial and error leads to “dwelling in extremes”, and explains how so many worldview are on the opposite spectrum from each other (hedonism vs. stoicism, atheism vs. spirituality, political values of opposing parties, cynicism vs. idealism). 

During this trial and error we “[reject] what we have,” and are right in doing so, since it was “ne’er so good.” But instead of finding something better—or at least, that we know certainly is better—we prize things we “never understood.” We give up what we know is inferior for a dream that might be superior. Sometimes what we prize is merely a case of “the grass is always greener,” and once we have attained our dreams we realize we’ve chosen yet another inferior state of being. If that happens—or when that happens—the trial and error continues, and we move on to yet another dream. The cycle continues.

Although I do think this theme is universal, it seems particularly to resonate with the American culture nowadays. Isn’t the American dream (…we “delight in dreams”…) something we strive to find? Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence claim the right to “pursue happiness”? Life in the United States seems to be comprised of one attempt to find the ultimate form of happiness after another. People hop jobs, hoping for more money, more career satisfaction, better benefits, and higher prestige. People hop marriages, giving up one spouse and trying another that will “love them better” or “understand them better.” All our consumer culture is due, not only because of first-world greed, but also because we hope that owning more objects will make us more content. The more transient our life choices, the less permanent or significant our lives feel. 

Is there a solution to this? Aside from the obvious “don’t quit” moral, there is maybe one more thing: try to understand what you prize. If we “prize what we never understood,” we’ll be trapped in the trial and error cycle. If we consider what we truly prize—what our values, hopes, and true dreams are—and then learn to understand them, we should be able to make better decisions for our future. We won’t be as inclined to give up on things like jobs and family, nor be as fascinated with accumulating possessions, because we will know that, even in the midst of difficulty, the path we are on is the one we are meant to tread.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Read this entry with a glass of water handy

The Poet in the Desert by Charles Erskine Scott Wood (Stanza One):

I have come into the Desert because my soul is athirst as the Desert is athirst;
My soul which is the soul of all; universal, not different.
We are athirst for the waters which make beautiful the path
And entice the grass, the willows and poplars,
So that in the heat of the day we may lie in a cool shadow,
Soothed as by the hands of quiet women, listening to the discourse of running waters as the voices of women, exchanging the confidences of love.

I like this poem—particularly the first few stanzas—because it paints a vivid picture in my mind.  I can see the arid landscape rolling on for as far as the eye can see. Sand is everywhere, uninterrupted by any foliage, animal, or other person. I feel the longing, if not the physical thirst.  

I also like this poem because it reminds me of The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: 

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mud-cracked houses
If there were water

And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

By the way I hope you’re reading this with a cold and therefore prompted to drink lots of fluids.  Because I’m not finished yet.

The Poet in the Desert doesn’t just remind me of another poem that conveniently is my favorite poem. It also reminds me of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, of author and airplane pilot of The Little Prince fame. In the eighth chapter of his book, Wind, Sand, and Stars, Saint-Exupery describes being marooned in the desert after he and his copilot were caught in a sandstorm.  

“When we had struggled up to the top of the black hump we sat down and looked at each other.  At our feet lay our valley of sand, opening into a desert of sand whose dazzling brightness seared out eyes.  As far as the eye could see lay empty space.” 

Even if you don’t read the entire book* you should definitely read “Prisoner of the Sand” as he and his copilot try to walk an entire desert, without water, in search of shelter and human help. 
Huh. For some reason my mouth is really dry. Excuse me as I dunk my head in the bathtub.

*Which I don’t suggest, although personally I thought the other chapters paled in comparison with this one, which was brilliantly crafted. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In which words fail me

Alright. I tried. I really did. I tried to think of some angle from which to approach this poem. But I couldn't. Anything I could say would be self-evident in the poem. Unless I said something inappropriate (which is not unprecedented, now that I think about it...).
There are some things in life that words are inadequate to describe.
And there are some WORDS in life that are inadequate to discuss.
At least at this moment, that's how I feel about this poem.
The Broken Oar by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

Once upon Iceland's solitary strand

A poet wandered with his book and pen,

Seeking some final word, some sweet Amen,

Wherewith to close the volume in his hand.

The billows rolled and plunged upon the sand,

The circling sea–gulls swept beyond his ken,

And from the parting cloud–rack now and then

Flashed the red sunset over sea and land.

Then by the billows at his feet was tossed

A broken oar; and carved thereon he read,

"Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee";

And like a man, who findeth what was lost,

He wrote the words, then lifted up his head,

And flung his useless pen into the sea.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

O'er the starlit sea with Matthew Arnold


Self-Dependence by Matthew Arnold

Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel's prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o'er the starlit sea.

And a look of passionate desire
O'er the sea and to the stars I send:
'Ye who from my childhood up have calm'd me,
Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!

'Ah, once more,' I cried, 'ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!'

From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea's unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:
'Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.

'Unaffrighted by the silence round them,
Undistracted by the sights they see,
These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.

'And with joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silver'd roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.

'Bounded by themselves, and unregardful
In what state God's other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the mighty life you see.'

O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear:
'Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!'
I’m not going to delve into the deeper meanings of this poem, for two reasons:
1) I think any “moral” I might impose upon you would not be nearly as affective as the meaning you interpret for yourself, and
2) I don’t want to.

Instead, I want to talk about a pattern I’ve found while going through my favorite poems.  As I think I mentioned when I began this series on poetry, I’ve kept a “copy-book” of my favorite poetry selections throughout my school years, so as I found a passage that resonated with me I would simply copy it out “for safe-keeping.”

Now, as I review them, I see how many poems I saved that have a nautical theme.  I’m not surprised about this, since I have long been interested in seafaring stories, collected paintings of sailing ships, and have held a general fascination with oceans and such.  But I hadn’t realized this interest had bled into my taste of poetry. 

What does it mean?  I’m no psychologist, so I don’t really know what this love of the sea means about me.  Seafaring to me signifies a journey: the journey of life, but also as a reader the journey through a story.  In both life and reading, the present is uncertain and the destination unknown.

Monday, April 22, 2013

An Essay on Alexander Pope

An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope  

l. 566:

Be silent always when you doubt your sense;

And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:

Some positive persisting fops we know,

Who, if once wrong, will needs always be so;

But you, with pleasure own your errors past,

And make each day a critic on the past.

Recently I’ve been reading Alexander Pope: Selected Poetry and Prose for my daily dose of poetry.  It was hard connecting to his poetry at first.  For one thing, he uses a lot of couplets.  After awhile I started feeling I had been demoted back to Dr. Seuss.  It didn’t help that the volume I’m reading out of a second-hand paperback and the previous owner decided to voice all of her (the handwriting is too “loopy” to be a man’s) opinions on the overall quality of each poem by means of a Bic ballpoint pen, as well as self-evident comments on what certain phrases mean:

“To shoot” is underlined, with “hunting metaphor” scrawled next to it.  “Really?” I scoff, “I wouldn’t have figured that out, otherwise.  How helpful of you.”

Anyway, once I got past the couplets and the unnecessary running commentary, I began to appreciate Pope more.  First, I think it’s odd that he’s not more well known for his philosophy.  Much of his poetry attempts to get at the origin of some problem or to understand the source of a certain aspect of human nature.  And many of his poem are named essays, as he’s discussing a nonfiction topic in the attempt to persuade his audience of the truth of a certain point.
“This I might have done in prose,” he explains in his introduction to Essay on Man I, “but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons.  The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: The other may seem odd, but is true, I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions, depends on their conciseness.”