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.)
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.
Readers of genre fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy—have a special place in their hearts for bookstores, libraries, and other (preferably dark and quiet) repositories of the written word. While librarians would seem to most like a prickly breed, they tend to show up in works of the fantastic as heroes, or at least very valuable allies.
Thanks to the smart folks at Tor, here’s a look at some of the more awesome fantasy/sci-fi librarians, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Sandman comics.
It’s a solid list, all in all (even if it does miss out on the omnisciently Jeeves-ian Librarian from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash), though they do pale in comparison to Barbara Gordon, the occasional librarian otherwise known as Batgirl.
Ernest Hemingway had no problem with expounding on his talent, courage, or general manliness. To nobody’s surprise, this didn’t arise from a well of confidence but rather one of rabid insecurity. Just see his rivalry with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and all those petty little put-downs in A Moveable Feast.
Papa Hemingway also scrapped (albeit in a mildly literary way) with the other big prize-winning author of his time, William Faulkner. They respected each other, but found time to lob critiques back and forth.
When the literary magazine Shenandoah prevailed upon Faulkner to review The Old Man and the Sea, he found room to list Hemingway’s faults but, interestingly, in the context of praising the novel. Here’s an excerpt of that review from Open Culture (emphasis added):
Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.
Makes you want to go back and hunt down all the glories of the novel which too many English teachers have managed to hide.
Point / counterpoint in the latest round of hand-wringing over the long rumored death of the novel.
First, Will Self in The Guardian, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)“:
I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.
Granted, Self is taken the opinions of his teenaged son (his “canary” in the cultural coal mine, as it were) perhaps too seriously. Also, he seems to be arguing for the death of something that was already long dead. The novel as the primary cultural artifact was supplanted decades hence by movies, television, what have you. And today, yes, all the cultural elites reading The Goldfinch at the same time as all their friends are often just waiting to start nattering on about Game of Thrones.
David Ulin had a brief riposte to Self’s critique in The Los Angeles Times, that was notable for its lack of patience:
I’m tired of reading about the death of the book. It’s not true, in the first place, and in the second, it’s a lazy signifier, a way of addressing cultural import (or risk) that’s not really justified.
In other words, when people stop reading completely, then we have something to worry about. Nearly 200,000 copies of The Goldfinch have been sold so far this year. Say what you will about it, that’s a book that clocks in at nearly 800 pages and goes for $30 a pop in hardcover. Somebody is still reading out there.