We’ve Heard the Book Is Dead: Leah Price Says Otherwise

The book is dead.  Portable electronic devices have killed it.

But Leah Price’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, reassures those of us with an apocalyptic point of view that the book will survive.   Price, a Harvard professor and a book historian, says people through the ages have worried about the future of reading.

She writes,

It’s true enough that print experienced a golden age between the rise of mass audiences in the eighteenth century to the Cold War–era triumph of the paperback, by way of public school systems, cheap wood-pulp paper, browsable bookstores, and taxpayer-funded libraries. Parts of this story, though, began to strike me as unhelpful or even untrue. One is what I’ll call the myth of exceptionalism—that is, twenty-first-century readers’ sense of living through an unprecedented change. The more I tried to figure out how much time different societies had actually carved out for reading, the more the data confirmed that successive audiovisual media did indeed chip away at the dead time once filled by books. I was surprised, though, to find that the strongest proof of print’s vulnerability to competition wasn’t the smartphone. The best-documented such competitor turned out to be TV, whose arrival in the Netherlands in the 1950s, for instance, coincided with a dramatic and elegantly charted drop in rates of pleasure reading.

This smart, well-written history is almost as diverting as a 19th-century penny dreadful.  Fingerprints on pages, coffee stains,  marginalia, and the texture of the much-read or little-read page provide clues about a reader’s preferences.  Price chronicles the history of books from papyrus scrolls to paperbacks, e-books and smart phones, libraries and bookstores.  And did you know that  19th-century servants often read aloud to ladies who were having their hair done?  And the ladies themselves didn’t always read the books straight through:  they skipped around.

This book is lots of fun!

Should You Follow Your Spouse? Statius Ask His Wife to Leave Rome

Could This Be Statius and Claudia, reconciled?

Everyone has celebratory limits.

Wine is the drink of the gods, sacred to Bacchus, but Diet Coke is sacred to women, especially to self-conscious dieters and consumers of cocktails of prescription drugs.   Over the holiday weekend we quaffed Diet Coke and perused movie listings.  We smuggled cans of Diet Coke into a theater, so as not to pay $5 for a drink.  

The holiday celebration was mellow, but Labor Day is the end of summer.  Reading poetry, sacred to Apollo, seemed the best way to bridge the seasons.  And so I perused a Latin poem by Statius (ca. 45-96 A.D.) written to his wife Claudia.  I was startled by the resonance and the relevance of the married couple’s struggle.  

The Romans are alien in many ways—all those weird rituals, praying to the Lares and Penates (household gods), consulting sacred chickens…  But men and women had the usual problems in marriage.  Where should they live? Must the woman follow the man to a different city? In this particular poem (Silvae, III.5), Statius tries to persuade his wife Claudia to leave Rome and retire with him to Naples, his hometown. I had never considered that Romans  faced this issue, except in cases of exile. (See my post, “The Cost of Banishment:  Cicero, Ovid, and Aeneas in Exile.”)

Of course one cannot take a poem literally, but Statius paints a vivid picture of his wife’s resistance.  Claudia has no desire to leave Rome.  She loves Roman culture, the theaters, the temples, the architecture, and hanging out with their unmarried daughter, who needs to find a suitable husband.

Statius is charming and seductively concerned.  “Why are you sad by day, my wife, why during our companionable nights  do you sigh anxiously with the care of insomnia?”

He charmingly compares her to heroines of myths.  He says Penelope would have happily followed Odysseus to Troy during the Trojan War if he had allowed it.  Statius reminds Claudia that it was the sight of her beautiful eyes that brought him back from the brink of death during an illness. 

He also shamelessly uses PR psychology.  Naples is as good as Rome: two theaters, many temples, walks among elegant columns, athletic games every five years, and nearby Baiae, a famous resort in Campania. 

“But this is enough, wife, I’ve said enough,  Naples made me for you; she bound us as allies for long years.  Is not the mother and nurturer of both of us worthy to be seen?  But I am ungrateful to add more arguments and cast doubt on your character:  you will come, dearest wife,  you will even come ahead of me; without me, the river Tiber, leader of waters, and the houses of arms-bearing Romulus (Rome) will appear worthless.”

We are sure there is a happy ending, though one wonders what Claudia had to say.    I imagine a celebration of  their amores et conubia (love and marriage) followed.

N.B. The prose translation is mine.

Ann Cleeves’s New Mystery, “The Long Call”

Ann Cleeves’s new police procedural, The Long Call, set in North Devon, is brooding and suspenseful.  I raced through it on Labor Day, and found it nearly unputdownable.  Cleeves is a quiet but compelling writer:  plotting is her main strength, but I also believed in her characters. The gay hero, Detective Inspector Matthew Venn, is tough and brooding, not at ease with his past:  his parents, members of a fundamentalist quasi-cult, disowned him when he lost his faith and rejected him doubly when he married the love of his life, Jonathan. The novel starts at Matthew”s father’s funeral, at which Matthew is not welcome.  A phone call about a murder on the beach draws him away, into a sinister present.  

Though there are no identification papers on the corpse, there is an albatross tattoo on the man’s neck.  Soon Matthew and Jen, his sergeant, a wild divorcee and guilt-ridden single mother, discover the man was Simon Walden, a homeless alcoholic who volunteered at The Woodyard, a day center which offers services to the disabled, adult education, counseling, and a cafe.  And he was living temporarily with Caroline, a social worker at The Woodyard, and Gaby, the artist-in-residence.  To complicate matters, Matthew’s husband is the director of The Woodyard.

 Simon’s past is convoluted (he fell out of the middle class after he ran over and killed a child), and it takes a long time to unravel his secrets. Somehow he was involved  with Lucy, a young woman with Down syndrome who attends the Centre and works at the cafe.  Was he altruistic, or a predator?

Since I don’t read many police procedurals, I can only say Cleeves reminds me a bit of Elizabeth George, though she is less complex and perhaps not quite as insightful psychologically.  She introduces the missing girl trope, which, from what I’ve heard, is too much done in contemporary mysteries.   Near the end, The Long Call gets a little busy:  so many villains! But she manages to tie everything neatly together.  A thoroughly suspenseful read.

What We’d Like to Read in September and What We’d Prefer Not to

I am not quite sure how many books we own.  One thousand?   Two thousand?  We have a lot of books.

Naturally, we could not have accumulated this quantity if we had not traded our gypsy mode of life for a house with bookshelves.  “Are you professors?” the movers asked as they lugged in the boxes of books.

It’s only when you have a mudroom, a study, an attic, and an extra bedroom that you can finally hoard books.  I stopped weeding our books this weekend when I realized, “We have all this stuff because we’re adults!”

No, we haven’t read them all, but we get around to them eventually. In August, I finally read the Spanish novel Nada, by Carmen Laforet, which was published in 1944 and reissued in 2007 by Modern Library in Edith Grossman’s translation.  This coming-of-age novel, set in  post-Civil War Spain, is narrated by a college student who moves into her grandmother’s apartment in Barcelona.  The household also includes the narrator’s controlling Catholic aunt, two uncles, both painters, and one of their wives, a gambler, all slowly starving in poverty.   My husband asked me where I got this book:  I laughed because I gave it to him for Christmas in 2007, after Jonathan Yardley praised it in the Washington Post.  

What should I read in September? Since I managed to read 11 new books this summer  (only one stinker in the lot), I’m thinking I should continue to mix new books with classics and old books.  But do I have room for any more on the shelves?

Here are two very short lists:  What I’d Like to Read in September, and What I’d Prefer Not to.

What I’d Like to Read in September

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves. Marily Stasio recommended this gripping mystery in her column in The New York Times.  I picked up a copy and, honestly, I can hardly put it down.  More later.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, by Leah Price. This sounds like my kind of book:  Leah Price, a professor of literature, explores the history of books, the future of reading, and even examines the marginalia in old library books.

Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie.  Longlisted for the Booker Prize, this modern-day Don Quixote is set in America.  I loved Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, and I  have a vague notion I should read Quichotte along with Cervantes’ classic, which I read half of decades ago.

What I’d Prefer Not to Read in September

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.  Atwood is a brilliant writer (on the Nobel list perhaps) but I’m not a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is her most popular novel because of the Hulu TV series. My personal favorite is Life Before Man.  Is that because I prefer reality to dystopia?.

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellman.  This book is longlisted for the Booker Prize.  Although I loved Ellman’s earlier short quirky novels, among them Dot in the Universe, I have decided to pass on this 1,000-page novel about an Ohio housewife.  Maybe an Idaho housewife, or an Oregon housewife would be less cliched.

Of course it will be a miracle if I  find time to read Price, Rushdie. and Cervantes, along with all the other books on my TBR, because we know I’ll revert to Mrs. Humphry Ward.

Any September recommendations?  Or any new projects in September?

Straight to Hollywood? Cathleen Schine’s “The Grammarians”

Two of Cathleen Schine’s slight comic novels have been filmed (The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece.).   Her frothy new novel, The Grammarians, also seems destined for Hollywood.  As light as a helium balloon, it flies up, up, and away before falling to the earth, sans gas.  The mood is reminiscent of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, only with identical twin grammarians instead of a disillusioned architect.

Twins in novels and films are freaky, and the twins  in The Grammarians are no exception.  Daphne and Laurel, named after  Daphne, the daughter of a river god, and the laurel tree she turns into, speak their own baby language.  Later, they delight in reading the dictionary. Their obsession with words frightens their uncle Don, a psychiatrist whom they tease.  He keeps expecting (or hoping for) a rift between these cute wordy geniuses. When  the quarrel finally happens, it is a desperate battle to the death over grammar. True, I’ve seen fiercer arguments, but grammar angst dominates the psyches of upper-class New Yorkers.

Don’t we all secretly wish we were Patty and Cathy, identical cousins in The Patty Duke Show? After graduation from Pomona, Schine’s twins live happily in a slum apartment in New York:  Daphne is a receptionist for an alternative paper, Laurel an intimidated kindergarten teacher at a private school.  After they pull a  “switcheroo” for a day and do each other’s jobs, they fix each other’s errors.  I expected them to trade jobs permanently.  

As time goes by, the two separate, as Uncle Don once predicted. Daphne, the sarcastic sister, becomes a grammar columnist (think The Comma Queen at The New Yorker, or the late William Safire at The New York Times), while  Laurel, the “nice” twin, stays  home with her baby.  But the good twin turns into the evil twin:  desperately jealous of Daphne’s writing,  she adopts a contrarian “descriptive” theory of grammar (spoken language is correct and literary rules are needless ) and writes poems and stories based on ungrammatical letters written during World War I.  Daphne is furious because she thinks Laurel has stolen her identity.  Daphne, however, remains the most famous of the two.

 But Schine’s intellectual twins are caricatures, and they are not quite as smart as Schine thinks they are. They remember their high school Latin teacher’s reading “to them from Plutarch—the story of Romulus and Remus—in Latin.” That would be difficult, if not impossible, since  Plutarch wrote in Greek:  Schine was thinking of Livy.   She also informs us that the girls laughed  over the names Romulus and Remus:  suckled by wolves,  they were named for the Latin word, ruma, “teat”(actually,  the standard form is rumis; the Latin word ruma usually means “throat, or gullet”).  Actually, Livy writes of  Rumana, the goddess of nursing mothers, because Romulus is born under ficus Rumanalis, the fig tree of Rumana.  He does not use the word ruma, or the preferred form, rumis.  

The Grammarians is a fluffy beach book, and should do well in the women’s fiction market, because there is no style to interfere with story.   Schine writes like a copy-editor, with short sentences, simple vocabulary, and few adjectives and adverbs.

This is not to say you won’t enjoy it. Everybody likes to be entertained.  I look forward to seeing the responses of my grammarian friends.

Reading Latin in an Industrial City & the Kissing Poem of Catullus

Many years ago, I lived and read Latin poetry in an industrial city on the shores of one of the lesser Great Lakes.  You will not have heard of this provincial city because it is tucked away in flyover country.  You would never visit because it is intensely ugly, completely flat, and usually overcast.  As we approached the outskirts in our rented Ryder truck, I was startled by the flames rising from the stacks of steel plants and factories.  It was as though they proclaimed, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

“Is this the Inferno?”  I asked my husband.

We all have to live somewhere.  We follow our spouses, we go where there are jobs, we adapt to inclement weather and pollution.  In summer there were compensations:  you could picnic on the scrubby beach and watch the the waves; in winter you were awed by the frozen waves. In summer the light was wan, while the dark winters lasted five or six months.  When it snowed in May, we took day trips to nearby city where spring began at the normal time.  

Weather is surprisingly important.  People who grew up in that city didn’t mind the sunless days. It was more difficult for those of us from sunnier places.  There were three solutions to the so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder, as I saw it: antidepressants, alcohol, or a hobby.

I opted for the hobby:  I immersed myself in Latin, the language and literature I taught for years and read for decades.  I lounged with my Catullus, Ovid, and Apuleius, surrounded by pillows, dictionaries, and endless cups of tea.  For a while, I forgot the gray skies.

Reading dead languages is a dying art.  Classical literature spans several centuries, and there is no easy “Hemingway-esque” starting point:  you begin with the complicated and sophisticated, in  a world without  Dr. Seuss or Little Women.  It’s as though you learned the basics of English and jumped into Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.   Vocabulary, dialect, style genre:  all completely different with each author.

Latin is no longer spoken, except at wacky conventions organized by the equivalent of WorldCon’s SF fans, but the literature is fun and various and more than 60% of English words are derived from Latin.  If you love dictionaries, this is the language for you.

A good Roman poet to start with is the slangy Catullus, whose charming love poems are universal.   Here is my translation of his famous kissing poem, (No. 5).   He addresses Lesbia, his girlfriend, who is sometimes thought to be the Roman adulteress, Clodia Metelli.  (Some of us think Lesbia is a fictional character.)

Here’s the poem:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,

Let us count the rumors of old men meaningless.

Suns can rise and set;

For us, when the brief light sets,

one perpetual night must be slept.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

Then another thousand, then a second hundred,

Then straight on to another thousand, then a hundred,

And when we have made thousands of kisses,

we will mix them up, so that we don’t  know the count,

and so no enemy can cast the evil eye,

because he knows the number of our kisses.

Now I live in a sunny city where I continue to read my Latin. But I admit, there are times when I’d love to see the Great Lakes again.

Cake for Peter Fonda: “Easy Rider” in 2019

Easy Rider, with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

We made two cakes this weekend. 

“Get a white or yellow cake mix.  A yellow cake tastes just like a white cake,” I said.

Cake mixes are better than homemade cake, at least in my kitchen. My cakes are giant flat biscuits.  It would be different if I had a Mixmaster, I always think.  The Mixmaster would make the batter fluffy.

 We decided to make a cake in honor of Peter Fonda, who died last week.  We would offer crumbs to the gods.

But there was a cake problem.  My husband did buy a yellow cake, in a sense.  It was lemon cake.  Let me say that lemon cake mixes are a regrettable invention. 

He gallantly went back  for a white cake mix. 

Peter Fonda

And then we sat in the living room and watched Easy Rider (1969), an independent film written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern.  The heroes, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), are drug dealers on an American road trip.  Wyatt is the cool, taciturn guy and Billy is the wild man.  An American flag is ironically painted on Wyatt’s helmet, but the small-town Americans do not appreciate this.

Not much happens.  Wyatt gets a flat tire.   They pick up a hitchhiking hippie philosopher and visit his commune.  There is a mime troupe at the commune and at least one goat (or was it a llama?)  in the house.  Everybody is stoned:  how else could they stand it?

The film has a slightly embarrassing ‘60s vibe, but if you watch it to the end it is poignant.  Wyatt and Billy are traveling on their motorcycles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  Things become intense in the South.  No small-town restaurants will serve them and no motel will rent them a room because of their long hair.  (I had forgotten all about that aspect of the ’60s.)

The tempo of the film picks up when they meet George (Jack Nicholson), a witty lawyer with a drinking problem. He decides to go to New Orleans with them, hilariously wearing a gold football helmet for a motorcycle helmet. 

Wyatt introduces George to marijuana.

But “Do you have to be high every minute?”  I prudishly asked the actors during several scenes.

When they finally get to New Orleans, I was relieved to see the actress Karen Black.  I knew, however, that any woman in the film would be there only for sexual reasons.  And, yes, she plays a whore.

The LSD scene is graphic.  Karen Black has a very bad trip.  

“That drug has ruined more people’s lives,” my husband said.

Altered states are not good for everyone.

The ending of this movie is shattering.  I had forgotten how divided America was back then. 

The Peter Fonda movie I really love is Ulee’s Gold,  but it wasn’t available from Netflix.