I remember the day Evan and I packed up our books.
We were recently married, moving to the New York City suburbs, and in the middle of a purge-induced adrenaline rush. We parted ways with dollar store kitchen utensils, tossed all 90s fashion, and left our yellowed white couch on the sidewalk for bulk trash. We saved the books for last, because there were hundreds, and needed to clear the floors to make space for the task.
It took longer than expected, because what began as packing with the occasional pause to reminisce about a favorite author, evolved into frantic searches for favorite passages and lengthy readings. I’d recite something from Philip K. Dick’s Valis, and Evan would offer something from Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. From there it escalated into some kind of Shakespearian Jeopardy:
“I’ll take ‘Princes Who Dodged the Bullet’ for $1000, Alex.”
Of course, Evan kicked my ass. While I had merely read Shakespeare in college, he had spent a lot of time playing princes at Juilliard. But though his knowledge and handle on the text was greater than mine, we were an equal match when it came to the passion we felt for literature.
It was midnight when we hoisted the last box onto the moving truck, and we still had to drive 30 minutes to Montclair, unpack, and return our crummy U-Haul by 8am. When we arrived, essentials were taken to the appropriate rooms, and non-essentials, like books, were stacked in storage.
We intended to purchase shelves and turn our guest room (oh yes! a guest room!), into a library. But before that happened, a baby happened, and the guest room became a nursery. And once our son arrived, I had no time to think about 17th century literature or shelves.
A few years later while packing for a move to Paris, we shuffled the books from our basement to a rented storage space. As we stood surveying the 10×10 room that would safeguard everything we still owned while we moved overseas, we laughed. The books we hadn’t seen in years took up more than half of the room. We had spent weeks ruthlessly editing our possessions, yet here were these 20 boxes of books. They were like one big middle finger to feng shui.
One year later, we moved the books again. We were back from Paris and settling in to our new home in Glen Ridge. For another year they collected dust in a closet on our top floor. During breakfast one day, I tried to recall a line from Matthew Arnold’s Sweetness and Light, and decided it was time to stop depriving myself of my favorite Norton Anthology. While Google is always good for a quick, cheap fix, I wanted more. I wanted my notes in the margins, I wanted all of my favorite words together in a beautifully bound book, I wanted to reconnect with the people who connected me to the person I wanted to be back then.
I went upstairs and edged my way into the back of our storage closet where we stored the books. What began as a focused expedition to find my Norton Anthology turned into a lengthy reunion and a great unpacking. I called Evan upstairs and we spent the afternoon reconnecting with favorite authors. We were shocked that it had been six years, that we had two kids, that we had built careers and started a business in the time we had last held those books in our hands. But what struck me more was that I had spent six years filling my thoughts with the banal logistics of daily life, preachy advice in parenting tomes, obtuse investing how-tos or social media noise. In figuring out and living my adult life, I had had little time to question what Simone de Beauvoir saw in Jean Paul Sartre or why Wordsworth was able to so eloquently convey the flapping of a bird’s wings.
While we unpacked our books, our two sons played in the adjacent room. I overheard bits and pieces of conversations about Egyptian kings, dinosaurs and a magic tree house. I had the sudden urge to go back downstairs and collect the parenting books. I tossed them all into a box, sealed it shut, walked back upstairs and put it in the back of the closet to collect dust.
We ended the day with fourteen piles of books divided by genre or period. We agreed our favorite pile was the books we planned to someday read with our kids.
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Updated for Medium, originally published June 7, 2010.
Our friend Ann Mah tipped me off that The Painted Girls by Cathy Buchanan hits shelves today. I wasted no time downloading it for weekend reading. I suspect I’ll spend as much time peeking at the gorgeous cover as I do reading the text.
Set in belle époque Paris, the novel was inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s “Little Dancer Aged 14″ and by the era’s most famous criminal trials.
NPR interviewed Cathy Buchanan on weekend edition. You can listen here.
From the publisher:
“1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.
Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.
Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.”
At the turn of the century, Harvard President, Dr. Charles Eliot proposed that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that would fit on a five-foot shelf.
He was challenged to compile the collection, which resulted in a 51-volume anthology entitled The Harvard Classics published by P.F Collier and Son (1909).
It’s still possible to purchase the anthologies, but Project Gutenberg assembled links to free digital versions of the texts. In addition, they’ve compiled links to the The Harvard Classics of Shelf Fiction.
Something to fill your reader with perhaps?
As evidenced by the above photo of our living room, Evan believes in the pleasing effects of combining several liberal pursuits at once.
UPDATE! Random.org selected #247, Mandie of Moxie Mandie. Congrats, Mandie!
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A few weeks ago, my publisher Chronicle Books approached me about participating in their holiday Give Books campaign and giveaway. Since I love books, give books and love the feel and smell of paper (doesn’t everyone?), it was a no brainer. Plus I figured one of you would love to win all ten books I selected.
Ten? Yes ten!
One winner will receive the same ten books I chose to keep or give this holiday season. I have to admit, receiving a huge, heavy box full of books was pretty nice. Here are the giveaway details:
The Cheesemonger’s Kitchen
The Country Cooking of France
Chicken and Egg, Ten Beautiful Prints
Over and Under the Snow
A Long Piece of String
Pantone: The Twentieth Century in Color
HOW TO ENTER TO WIN THEM
There are three ways to win:
1. Leave a comment on this post for one entry.
2. Click here and share the Little Brown Pen contest post on Facebook for a second entry.
3. Pin the contest on Pinterest (my pin is here) for a third entry.
You may enter three times, but be sure to leave a separate comment for each entry. The contest runs from today through Friday, November 3o. A winner will be selected at random, using random.org.
Now through December 31, enjoy 30% off + free ground shipping on all holiday orders at ChronicleBooks.com. Enter discount code GIVEBOOKS at checkout.
And be sure to check out the other participants on the Chronicle Blog. More books and more chances to win.
The Give Books graphic was designed by the talented Julia Rothman.
“Of course, it had long been manifest that De Beauvoir’s own account of her life had been ruthlessly censored, pruned and sanitized to present the public facade she deemed fitting.” – Introduction to Simone De Beauvoir’s letters to John-Paul Sartre by Quintin Hoare, 1991
If you’ve read the letters, you know they are raw, sappy (my dear little being!) and reveal jealousies, passions and insecurities De Beauvoir never intended to be public. What’s interesting as I’m re-reading the letters is thinking about our modern correspondence – carefully considered tweets, status updates and instagram photos. When our histories are written, and all our children and grandchildren have are our social media streams, how much of us–the real us–will they reveal? Will they look at our digital words as our public lives (sanitized) or our private lives (raw, honest)? Or some other semi-private, third space?
I always admired a college friend’s choice to hike the Appalachian Trail after graduation.
While I considered what I was doing post-graduation in New York as roughing it – broke, crappy roach-infested apartment in Queens, sleeping on a mattress on the floor – he was really roughing it. For over 2000 miles.
He didn’t blog, or share much of his journey at the time (this was pre-social media for the most part), but when we did reconnect about a year ago, I enjoyed looking through his photos on Facebook. I even thought about hiking the trail in pieces.
So when a friend recommended Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to me, I knew I would love it. And I did. I read the whole book, which details a young woman’s brave Pacific Crest Trail hike, last Saturday at my parents house. And of course, my hiking fantasies are once again fueled.
Have you read it?
We visit my family in Lancaster, PA at least once a month. While there, I almost always fantasize about leaving the chaos of New York and client work behind and buying a quaint stone cottage with a little farmland. I blame it on the green rolling hills, breezy corn fields and windmills that line Route 222 from Reading to Lancaster. The idyllic scene gets me every time.
These idealistic fantasies used to induce a playful eye roll from my husband, but lately, he’s entertained them for a bit longer than usual. It’s a curious silence. Certainly he can’t be thinking about it too. Can he?
I should be careful. The last time we aligned on a crazy idea, we ended up moving to Paris.
I finished reading Wolf Hall last night, and was cruising my list of “to-reads” on Goodreads. I was about three sentences into a review of Jim Minick’s, The Blueberry Years, before downloading it to my iPad. Jim and his wife Sarah bought a 90-acre farm in Virginia with no farming experience. His memoir chronicles their dream of running a pick-your-own blueberry farm and pursuit of a simpler life.
I finished a third of the book last night, and I can’t decide if it will add fuel to my fantasy fire or slap me in the face with the realities of farm life.
I’ve been alternating one new-ish title with a classic this summer, and this week I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I see things so differently as an older adult. It’s wild to re-read something that affected me in one way in my late teens and early twenties, and another in my late 30s.
Do you re-read books?