Reading on the Plane: Where to Park Your Books

The demise of the Elizabeth Bowen during travel.

On a recent plane trip, I could not keep track of my books. I had stuffed two paperbacks into a carry-on bag:  Elizabeth Bowen’s Friends and Relations and a mystery.  One of the other would keep me occupied on the trip, I thought.

The bag was a tight fit under the seat.  I had to crouch in the aisle to drag it out.  With much flexing of knees, I managed this triumphantly.  The Elizabeth Bowen, however, was not in a zippered compartment marked BOOKS. It was with meds, toiletries, and a cardigan sweater.  

Once the book was out of the bag, it was out for the rest of the trip. Usually there is an empty seat next to me, and I fling the book down when I don’t want to read.  This time the plane was full.  And during the multiple meals and snacks that keep us from going crazy on planes, the old paperback became more and more brittle. I tried holding it on my knees under the tray. It emerged bent.  During a later snack, I stuffed it into the pocket on the back of the chair.  A corner of the cover tore off.

Turned out this book was no longer meant for reading.  The type was dim against the tan, crackling pages. I alternately had to hold it close to my face or at arm’s length. That’s the beauty of bifocals:  you are both near-sighted and short-sighted at the same time. 

I finally read my mystery, which was perfect for the plane.  I can’t recommend Patricia Moyes’s The Curious Affair of the Third Dog too strongly.  I  am so thankful I didn’t bring Proust, which I had originally considered the ultimate vacation reading.  (Not on this plane.)

The Bowen fell apart completely the next day in a cafe.

Anyone have good travel tips for plane reading (and for keeping books in one piece)?    I’m thinking about buying a tablet case, which would give the books some extra protection.  And it would fit in my bag.

I returned home with some new sturdy paperbacks.  They were unharmed by travel.

Would a tablet case do the trick?

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?

Caffeine, Books, and “Fireflood”

It’s 10 a.m. and I’m back from the coffeehouse. My “I’D RATHER BE READING” mug overflows with cappuccino. And I’m wearing a Charlotte Bronte sweatshirt (for bookish inspiration) with my jeans and reading socks.

The clock is ticking.

The reading clock, not the biological clock.

It’s time.

It’s reading time!

Does anyone ever have enough time to read?   Whether the books on the TBR are ancient classics or 20th-century best-sellers, all are significant, and I do long to read them. And so I’ve given myself  fifteen  extra minutes a day to read.  And I’m quite happy to find time to finish some disappointing new books, which I shall mention no more.

IN THE DAYS when I was an accomplished woman in a traditional workplace,  all I wanted to do was read.  I never wanted to break the glass ceiling or anything.   I’d come home from work, peel off my nylons, and read my book.

If you read a lot, people resent you. Divorced friends are annoyed if you aren’t available to go to a bar on Saturday night and help them pick up men. (There is never anyone suitable anyway.)  Friends in the mothering stage of life cry because they don’t get to read and you do. All you can do is sympathize.  And everybody thinks you’re a nerd if you attend poetry readings.

All my life I’ve been told reading is a “waste of time and talent.” “If only you would read less…” I wonder how many reading women have been told the same.   What activities are we expected to do instead?

As for wasting…  Talent isn’t everything, nor are awards. I’ve won awards  (plaques, certificates, in a couple of instances money). With the exception of a few women friends, no one has congratulated me on my achievements.  In a competitive world, people are not always happy for your success. Many of us duck out of the most intense competition so we can have  better personal lives.  So isn’t reading just as important as foolish competition?

Right now I’m reading a 1979 science fiction book, Vonda N. McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories.   McIntyre, whose work has been compared to that of Ursula K. Le Guin, died on April 5. Most of McIntyre’s work is out-of-print, but I have a copy of Fireflood.

II am most impressed by the story, “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” which was later expanded into a novel, Dreamsnake. McIntyre’s prose is measured and clear, good enough to tell a story, though not elegant. “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” is exceptionally well-plotted, with twists you don’t see coming.  The heroine, Snake, a healer who uses the venom of her snakes to cure illness, must deal with ignorance and fear as she treats a sick child in a remote tribe. The terrified parents kill Grass, the smallest snake, when it wanders out of the tent.  Snake dominates the situation as it spirals out of control.   Even today’s women SF writers aren’t usually this free of gender bias.  There is absolutely nothing feminine about her characters!

Would I be reading this collection of stories if McIntyre hadn’t died?  Well, probably not. She  has excellent ideas, though, and is much lauded by SF writers.  And her background is in biology and genetics.  I’m impressed!

Do You Write Your Name in Books? On Rereading Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”

The other day, while I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an irresistible urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  At 12, I scribbled my name in Jane Eyre.  I also wrote it in  my Latin dictionary.

Then I broke the habit. Some years ago, I was irritated when a librarian wrote my name in a  novel I’d lent her.  It seemed impudent, because it wasn’t her book.

Perhaps I wrote my name in Vanity Fair because I was enjoying it less than I hoped. When I first read it at 17, I  found Becky Sharp hilarious and Dobbins charming, but I was disappointed in the book.   I was a Victorian novel nut, but I  preferred Dickens’s  pyrotechnics and Trollope’s plain style to Thackeray’s pointed wit and stylistic bibelots.  In  the introduction to the Penguin, John Carey compares Vanity Fair to War and Peace.  I do not see the similarities.

I enjoyed Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon and The Newcomes.  So why  does the clever, nimble prose of Vanity Fair not delight me?

I wrote my name in the book, so now I have to like it.

Do you write your name in books?