Archive for July 2011
If I am finished with church, because the annoying nonexistence of God makes church seem less fulfilling than it once did, then I have a chunk of free time available, don’t I?
I don’t really know how people who don’t go to church spend their Sunday mornings. But I’m in the habit of spending mine in thoughtful contemplation and the search for wisdom, and that seems like a habit that is worth retaining.
I’m thinking that Sunday morning would be a good time for slow, thoughtful reading of the kinds of books that lend themselves to contemplation and wisdom, the ones that I don’t always make time for. Philosophy. Science. Classics.
I see myself reading slowly, thinking about what I’m reading, pausing for reflection, not worrying about when I’ll finish, putting the book aside to pick up again next Sunday.
I’m already partway through A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, which is a sort of anthology of wisdom writing of the past, so I started there, and spent this morning reading part of the ‘Histories’ section, stories about the wars of the ancient Greeks.
I think that using Sunday mornings for this kind of reading would be a good way to preserve the positive part of a very old habit. It’s miserably hot right now, but on days when the weather is pleasant, I could even take my book to a park to read, which would be, I think, a very nice way to spend a Sunday morning.
My friend bought a charming old house, which looks like this:
I was excited and happy for her, and I made her a housewarming gift, a cross-stitch piece which turned out like this:
I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Yes, I’m aware that a good, ardent, really devoted Cthulhu cultist would be praying to be eaten FIRST when Cthlulhu rises from the ocean. However, this version seemed to make slightly more sense to a casual visitor unfamiliar with the inevitability of the rise of the great old ones, and also, my friend and I aren’t really devoted Cthulhu cultists. We’re more sort of Christmas-and-Easter Cthulhu cultists, you know?
I don’t suppose the charts for this will be very useful to anyone else, since it’s kind of specific to my own friend’s house. But I suppose you could change the colors, move the windows and door around, and turn it into someone else’s house, and it is my personal tradition to share charts when I can, so I’ll publish the chart here for other people to use. Feel free to copy and share it, and to make things from it, but please don’t sell the chart or the things you make from it without asking me. If you change it into something cool, I’d love to see what you do with it. Just click on the charts, and they should blow up to a size you can work with.
May Cthulhu Eat This House First by Heather Murphy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at contentedreader.files.wordpress.com.
Hooray! It’s grocery delivery day! I open my door, and find this
Which contains this
Courtesy of Green Bean Delivery. Just one more reason I love living in Cincinnati.
I dated a woman, for a little while. Things seemed to be going okay. Then I visited her house. She only had one bookshelf- one of those narrow ones. And most of the bookshelf was empty, or housed a few tchotchkes. Only one shelf of the bookshelf actually had books on it. About half of those were clearly left over from her college classes. As we got to know each other more, I discovered that the names ‘Dorothy Parker’ and ‘Terry Pratchett’ were unfamiliar to her. It was clear that there was no possibility of a relationship here. And sure enough, we soon called it quits.
I visited the apartment of a classmate in graduate school, to work together on a class project. She had lots of bookshelves, in every room of her house, and as I examined them, I discovered that she had many of the same books I have, plus a moderately impressive number of books on medieval writers and on serial killers. I knew that we were kindred spirits, and a decade later, we are the best of friends. In fact, we have plans to go see “Cowboys and Aliens” tonight.
When I come to your house, I look for your bookshelves as soon as I can. Sometimes I’ll try to be discreet, and check out your bookshelves while you think I’m in the bathroom. Sometimes I’ll be brazen about it, stopping in my tracks to examine your books. I don’t want you to worry about whether I’m judging you, so I’ll let you know: Yes. I’m judging you.
First, I’m looking for the presence of books. If I can’t find evidence of leisure reading in your house, you have just lost ALL my respect. No, a cookbook, a technical manual for your job, and a Bible don’t cut it. If I can’t see that you read for pleasure, then you are not someone with anything to say that I need to listen to.
Second, I’m looking for the presence of good books. I’d like to see a few classics on your shelf, but not too many. A dogeared copy of Huckleberry Finn, a collected works of Shakespeare or Chaucer, Jane Eyre, these are all good signs that you’re a person of taste. A large, matching set of classics in leather covers makes me think you bought them for decoration or to impress me, and if I can’t see creased spines or blunted corners that persuade me they’ve been read, then yes, I am quietly making fun of you in my head.
Third, I’m looking for chunks of books. What do you have a bunch of? Zombie novels? Poetry? Comic strip collections? Do you have everything by some author, and if so, who? I want to see what you love so much you keep buying it. If you love the same things that I love, then you have not only my respect but my friendship, as well. If you love something that’s different from my own shelves but interesting – origami manuals, Victorian biographies, modernist poetry- then I’ll ask you about it, and be glad to have an interesting conversation and new stuff to learn.
If your collection is in a genre that I have no interest in – Westerns, say, or romances- I’ll be cautious but hopeful. It’s likely that we don’t have anything in common, but we can still be polite to one another, and I won’t assume that you are a bad or stupid person, the way I would if you didn’t have any books at all.
If your books are mostly about angels, Jesus, crystals, or saints, I will be looking for an excuse to leave early. You’re very frightening to me.
I love doing this, looking at someone else’s books and trying to understand something about them. If I had a universal skeleton key, I would use it to let myself into the homes of all my neighbors and look for books. There is no better, quicker way of understanding a person than to spend a few minutes in front of their bookshelves.
Thinner than Thou is part of science fiction’s long and glorious tradition of books about the terrible things that will happen if things go on this way. I haven’t read one of those books in a long time – science fiction as direct social criticism – and this was a good one. It’s gone out of fashion a little bit, hasn’t it? It’s a great use for science fiction, though- as a tool for thinking about ourselves, our world, our priorities.
Here, the focus is on our obsession with having perfect bodies – and our simultaneous obsession with eating huge amounts of crap food. Reed describes a future in which the social pressure has become a social mandate : you must be beautiful. The main characters are on a cross-country search for their sister, Anna, shipped off by their parents to a treatment center for anorexia that is a little like a hospital and a little like a prison camp. There’s also Jeremy, who gives his fortune to get into an exclusive weight-loss center that turns out to be considerably more horrifying than he bargained for, and the dazzlingly awful Reverend Earl, presiding over the religion of Afterfat with an iron fist and a lot of twists and disturbances in his awful mind.
I enjoyed reading it. It was very funny in parts, and horrifying enough to make me really uncomfortable in parts. It also made me think about my own ways of dealing with food and with my body… though it also made me think, “Yeah, I really do need to lose some weight” at absolutely the worst possible moments in the narrative.
Food is complicated, isn’t it? Huge sections of our economy are devoted to food and to weight loss. First, one side persuades us to spend money on fatty, salty food, not at all nourishing, and not even tasting all that good, more of it than we need or even want. Then the other side invites us to spend money to lose weight- but not too much weight, and not permanently. Join the club, buy the diet book, and you’ll lose about ten pounds, maybe fifteen, enough to make you feel you’re doing well, enough to make you feel that it’s your own fault when that’s as far as you go. The diet plans always leave you ready to spend money on the next diet plan, in six months or a year. And of course there’s also money to be spent on the doctors and hospitals and drugs, when the rest of it wrecks your health.
Come to think of it, this book is hardly science fiction at all. It’s very nearly realism.
Del Rey Books
China Miéville. I have no idea how to pronounce his name. I can’t even spell it on my keyboard, without special characters. And I’d been avoiding him, because I heard that his writing was highly literary, complex, dense, and hard to read.
And it is, sort of. Not as difficult as I expected- Miéville is literary, but he isn’t James Joyce, just a writer whose prose is more highly stylized than many people writing science fiction and fantasy. I want to call this book ‘urban fantasy,’ since it’s fantastic and its urban setting is central to the book, but I can’t use the phrase ‘urban fantasy’ without loudly clarifying, ‘but I don’t mean it’s anything like Jim Butcher.’
The city, New Crobuzon, is the point of the book. Yes, the plot is exciting, and the characters are interesting, and yes, I did want to know what would happen next with the bug-lady’s spit sculpture and the giant mysterious caterpillar and the crisis engine. But the reason to read Perdido Street Station is to explore the amazingly rich environs of New Crobuzon. I don’t think I’ve read a book since The Lord of the Rings that was as much about its setting as this one is. This city seems more real to me right now, closing this book, than Paris does. What an astonishing thing this book is. Miéville somehow imagined a city that is almost wholly different from any real city, and yet has elements that are strangely familiar. It’s a little like Victorian London, and a little like Bangkok, and a little like the Mos Eisley Cantina. The city is populated by people and creatures (and many of the creatures are people) that we can only glimpse and wonder about, and others that are brought vividly to life. Miéville guides us around New Crobuzon like a knowledgeable tour guide, but one who isn’t overconcerned with our safety. Reading this book, I felt that there was a real danger that I might be mugged. And that I’d be lucky if that was the worst thing that happened.
So. Literary? Definitely. Dense? Complex? Absolutely. But the city of New Crobuzon is dense and complex, and it wouldn’t be describable in any other kind of language. Hard to read? No. Not hard. I had to take my time, and let Miéville teach me how to read this book, but doing that, I had no trouble understanding.
Worth the effort? Oh hell yes.
I know, all the rest of you discovered this book when it came out in 2000, and now you’re chuckling at me for being so tardy in discovering it. Yes, yes, you’re all smarter and more well-read than I am. Good for you.
Go to your favorite bookstore. Look at the ‘new books’ section. That’s a lot of books. Look at the number that look really good, entertaining or well-written or just appealing to an area you’re especially interested in. That’s still a lot of books. And that section doesn’t even include all the good books you’d love if you saw, which didn’t happen to be chosen by that bookstore’s purchaser.
And that doesn’t include the books that were new last month, either. The ones you still haven’t read because you’re still working on the best books of last year.
It’s a hard thing to accept, but accept it I must: there are more good books than I can possibly hope to read in my lifetime. I will die with the list of really good books I have not read still much, much longer than the list of really good books I have read. And that will happen even if I really dedicate myself to reading full-time.
And it breaks. my. heart.
My instinct is to try to keep up. Read more, read faster, check the book reviews and the new books lists for good books that are out now, so I don’t miss any. Make lists, so I can catch up when I finish the pile of unread books I have now. My instinct tells me, ‘Read faster! They’re gaining on you!’
Of course, my instinct is stupid. I have to consciously remind myself that I can’t keep up, and I never will. Relax. Read slower. Enjoy the process. Get the enjoyment from the books I choose, including the enjoyment of taking time to reread the best of them, and let the rest of the river of good books flow by.
Totally true conversation I had in a store selling interior decor, while wearing a wrist brace:
Shopkeep: Hi, welcome.
Shopkeep: Oh, how did you hurt your hand?
Me: Well, I don’t think I should admit that I sprained my wrist by reading too much. So instead, I’ll tell you that I hurt it while I was fighting ninjas. You see, the ninjas had kidnapped a basket full of kittens, and I had to rescue them…
Shopkeep: Oh, what kind of kittens?
Me: Um. Siamese.
Shopkeep: Oh, how cute! I like kittens. I’d like to get one.
Me: Um. I didn’t really hurt myself fighting ninjas. There weren’t really any kittens. I just sprained it.
Shopkeep: Huh? (Looks confused, backs away nervously.)
Me: (backs away nervously also)