Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached … I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.
—Bertrand Russell, “In Defense of Idleness,” Harper’s Magazine (October 1932)
Most people who read as children have fond memories of the bookmobile. One had normally thoroughly ransacked the age-appropriate shelves at the local public library and the thin offerings in the school itself. So having an RV pull up with an appropriately stern librarian with some new offerings (or at least the old offerings newly presented) was manna from heaven.
In Portland, Oregon, a phenomenal little nonprofit group is taking that idea in an entirely different direction. Street Books is a small band of dedicated booklovers who spend a few hours each week bicycling books around to the city’s homeless population. From the Times writeup:
The Street Books project is nothing if not messy. The librarians — the three salaried employees, including Ms. Moulton, are paid $60 a week for a three-hour shift — fill their carts based on their tastes and their patrons’ tastes.
Diana Rempe, 48, a community psychologist who recently completed her Ph.D. and pedals the bike one afternoon a week, stops at a day-labor assembly site on the city’s east side, where many Mexican and Latin American men gather, waiting to be hired. So she loads up on books in Spanish. (Her proudest book coup, she said, was getting a hard-to-find book on chess moves in Spanish for two Cuban players.)
We’re a week late on this, but in case you hadn’t heard, Sept. 21–27 was Banned Books Week. Below is the current list of the 10 most frequently challenged books in school libraries. Some of them make a certain sense (50 Shades of Grey, for instance), but Bone?
- Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
- The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
- A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
- Looking for Alaska, by John Green
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
- Bone (series), by Jeff Smith
Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence
Hey, wanna run a bookstore? If you can get yourself over to Wigtown in beautiful, not-independent Scotland, they’re giving away the chance to learn all the ins and outs of the trade. According to The Bookseller:
The Open Book project will invite interested parties to apply to live in and run a local bookshop, renamed The Open Book, for a period of up to six weeks. Anyone is invited to apply, with preference given to artists, writers, thinkers, and “bibliophiles”. Participants will be given a crash course in bookselling and will be asked to contribute to a blog outlining their experiences, as well as keeping the shop open for a set number of hours a week.
Check it out. Wigtown (it’s Scotland’s National Book Town, don’t you know) is on the western shore, looks remote and positively gorgeous. You’ll get a lot of reading done and perhaps learn why booksellers are both frequently grumpy and at the same time highly content with their lives.
Does this list say something about who’s using Facebook? In yet another of the listicles that they’re famous for, BuzzFeed shows the Top 20 books most beloved by Facebook users. With the exception of the number one pick (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?), it’s pretty much what you would expect:
- Great Modern Novels I Had To Read In School But Actually Liked (1984, The Great Gatsby)
- Books That I Read 50 Million Times As A Child And Whisked Me Away Somewhere Magical Each Time (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, The Lord of the Rings)
- Actual Classics That Tend Not To Be Assigned In School Anymore (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice)
- Self-Help Creed Masked As Literature (The Alchemist)
- The Only Book I Read In The Past Few Years (The Hunger Games)
- Outlier (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Bible)
When you dig into the full dataset that Facebook made available, particularly the full Top 100 list, a few more surprises pop up. There’s a heavier sprinkling of modern YA, plus the occasional religious text (The Book of Mormon). But what’s fascinating is just how overwhelmingly genre the list is, compared to what it might have been a few years ago. Even though many mainstream readers barely know who they are, Terry Pratchett, Orson Scott Card, Alan Moore, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Jordan all make appearances here.
This begs the question: Are Facebook users geekier than the population at large, or as the percentage of adults who actually read books falls every year, are genre fans just the ones more likely to keep reading books as opposed to tweets?
Also: is it a problem that the number-one book is Harry Potter? After all, according to Scientific American, children who were read to from those books acted more compassionately afterwards.
Since summer is nearly on its way out and everybody is trying to finish up their beach reading—note to self: bring lighter books, both in weight and subject time, next time—it’s time to get on with what’s going to be hitting bookstore display tables in the next few months. Here’s a glance at five September titles that look the most promising:
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House, $30)
After the historical misfire of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell might be getting back to what he does best: spinning vast, pointillist sagas that cross space, time, and dimensions without ever being less than precise. This one spans decades and involves a runaway teenager who might be psychic and a secret cabal of “dangerous mystics.” There’s an excerpt of the book here.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Random House, $25)
Ian McEwan’s last book was 2012’s superb spy story Sweet Tooth. Now he looks to be getting back to the topical territory of novels like Saturday. The Children Act follows a family court judge who has to decide whether or not to overrule a teenager’s religious decision to forego medical treatment that could save his life.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, $27.99)
Apparently to tide us over until the third volume in her Thomas Cromwell series (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Mantel provides this in-the-meantime collection of stories about “dislocation and family fracture, of whimsical infidelities and sudden deaths with sinister causes, [which] brilliantly unsettle the reader in that unmistakably Mantel way.”
As one of the twentieth century’s more celebrated and mutinous rebel authors, Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) didn’t seem to keep much back. After all, she made money for a time in the 1940s by knocking out ornately gilded pornography at a buck a page for an anonymous, wealthy collector. The stories were later prettied up under the label “erotica” and published posthumously in collections like Delta of Venus.
Although she wanted to be remembered for her knotty and abstract avant-garde fictions like Cities of the Interior, Nin gained true notoriety for her multi-volume diary. The first iterations were high-toned smutty gossip for the literary set, liberally threaded with luminous poetic musings. They detailed her lavishly busy and experimental love life—including a 12-year affair with fellow literary rule-breaker Henry Miller—but were later outdone by the release (starting last year) of the completely unexpurgated diaries. This revised series includes everything cut out earlier by request of some of her then-living lovers.
Nin’s career-long back and forth between taboo-busting and rectitude makes this piece of writerly advice even more fascinating:
The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.