Retro-chic Gifts for the Common Reader

Common readers are chic.

If you’ve been to a reader’s fashion show, you know what I mean.

On the runway you will see a bespectacled model dressed in a Jane Austen sweatshirt and composition-book print yoga pants. She holds a copy of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and sips from a mug that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

But, dear reader, you can have a chic Christmas without the latest fashions! JUST TREAT YOURSELF (OR FRIENDS) TO ONE  ITEM BELOW.

A reference book.  A good reference book has the advantage of being written by experts and researchers. Wikipedia is fun, but there are mistakes.  I recommend an old set of encyclopedias (cheap at used bookstores), James Audubon’s Birds of America, or anything else that interests you.

A dictionary (the biggest you can afford).  You will enjoy the detailed entries, love the etymology, and when you look up “ineffable,” you will see  pages and page of words beginning with “i.”  (On the internet you see only what you look up.)

A thesaurus.  So many synonyms!

4.  A slim volume of poetry.  Everyone should have one.  You might read A. E. Stalling’s new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin, 33 pages) but you will never open that huge anthology of classical poetry.

5.  A used copy of a novel by Balzac (preferably a Penguin).  “This old thing? I’ve read it, like, 100 times.”  Pere Goriot…Cousin Bette…  You’ll  be late for work  BECAUSE YOU WERE READING but who can fire you for that?

6.  A new book journal.  Forget the spreadsheet and return to paper when you write your book journal.

7.  Reading socks (Barnes and Noble).  They’re just socks, but you want them!  You can also write your own label, Reading Socks, on an ordinary pair of socks and give them as a gift.

8.  An old-fashioned Rolodex to keep track of characters in Proust.  Experience the 20th century! It’s fun to write the information on cards!

9.  A mug with a bookish slogan. They’re frivolous, but we all like a Jane Austen mug.

10.  A totebag  doesn’t need a literary slogan, but everyone needs a totebag!

DO LET ME KNOW YOUR FAVORITE RETRO-CHIC BOOK GIFT IDEAS!

How Menopause Made Me a Better Reader

In movies, menopausal women sweat during hot flashes and remove their clothes as they make the most important presentation of the year.  Ha, ha!   I assure you, nothing of the kind happened to me. It’s like the menstruation myths.  You don’t turn into an emotional witch.  And once your reproductive system doesn’t define you,  you can change your life.

READ BETTER BOOKS, I wrote in my journal.

I went back to the classics.  And since the canon has expanded to include women, there are even MORE great books to read.

The women’s canon is in flux, though.  Mind you,  I have a distorted idea of literary taste because of Anglophilia, cute blogs, internet forums, and all those English publications I read. There is a tendency today to throw everything together, the literary and pop culture.  Virginia Woolf is in the canon, but can Elizabeth Gaskell,  Viragos and Persephones possibly compete?

It would seem so, judging from enthusiastic posts on the internet.

Mind you, I love Gaskell to bits.  North and South is a delightful read, but it is no Middlemarch .  And Gaskell is not quite in the class of the other George, either:   George Gissing, who is not, I fear, quite in the  canon, though he wrote New Woman novels.

I don’t mean to start a riot when I say that Viragos and Persephones are overrated.  I have read a lot of Viragos, the A list and the B list.   Virago publishes the brilliant Elizabeth Taylor, Molly Keane, and Margaret Oliphant.  But nothing would compel me to return to the plodding Sheila Kaye-Smith or Winifred Holtby.  And though I enjoy Persephones, I do not remember a single  Persephone title.  What does that say about  wonderful middlebrow reads?

Being an American, I have a clearer idea of the American women’s canon:   Susanna Rowson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Jean Stafford, Katherine Anne Porter, Susan Sontag, Louise Erdfich…

But people quarrel constantly about the canon.  Harper Lee and Laura Ingalls Wilder are now in question.  The ALA demoted Wilder’s Little House books and took her name off an award, apparently because Pa was insensitive about Native Americans and blacks in the 19th century…   Lee’s use of the “n” word in historical context has also caused a crisis.

Is censorship on the rise? Book-banning is always popular.  The unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t published until 1960.   Not long ago, an upper-class white woman chided me because “Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin make black people feel bad.” Suburban white women don’t have the final say, though.  Several African-American writers on the PBS show, The Great American Read, praised Huckleberry Finn and  To Kill a Mockingbird, which was voted the most popular American read.

In 2015, in a  New York Times dialogue about who should be kicked out of the canon, Francine Prose wrote,

One problem with trying to decide who should be kicked out of the canon is that I’m never exactly sure who is in it. I’ve always felt that the canon was like the guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts at some undisclosed location. I know that Harold Bloom wrote a book in which he ruled, quite definitively, on which writers do and don’t belong. But not having read his book, I have only some vague memory of the brief controversy that erupted when someone noted how few women Bloom included.

Before menopause, I would have been indignant about Bloom’s list.  Fortunately, I read The Western Canon after menopause.  My list has more women, but I like the traditional canon, too.  Viva the hormone change!