Mixed media

I followed some links this morning to an interesting newsletter post (is that what we’re calling them?) by Lincoln Michel, entitled “Maybe It’s Time to Admit People Just Like Books?“. I’m old enough to remember most of the struggles between physical and digital media, from the rise of Napster to the advent of Netflix and other streaming services. Paper versus electronic books is just another facet of the broader technological skirmishes that the internet age as necessitated. But, as Michel points out, there’s something different about this one:

As recently as 2015 or so, the common wisdom was that physical books were going the way of the VHS tape or CD. Sure, there would always be “snobs” who held onto physical media. But the market would be dominated by digital books in the same way that music, movies, and TV shows have moved almost entirely to streaming. There was no advantages to books except “nostalgia” and “fetish,” the thinking went, and the digital savvy youth would put an end to the outdated physical book. When publishers fought with Amazon to keep ebook prices close to print prices, the online commentariat mocked them for their backwards thinking that was going to doom the industry.

And yet here we are in 2021, fourteen years after the Kindle was first released and many years into an age when music, TV, film, and other media are almost entirely digital. Yet print books are not only strong, they still dominate the market. This is at the same time that pitiful music streaming payouts are crushing the music industry and digital magazines, constantly wrecked by changes in social media algorithms, are perpetually closing and laying off workers.

Maybe, he posits, there’s just something to physical books — something that still appeals, despite the convenience of ebooks, and appeals to a far wider audience than literary snobs, luddites, and fuddy-duddies. The physicality of a paper book is integral to the experience of reading it: the feel of the pages, the weight of it in your hands, perhaps the smell, the dog-eared pages and scribbled marginalia. Among my favourite books, I also have favourite editions. I like Pride and Prejudice the best in the pocket-sized hardback Oxford World’s Classics edition. When I reread The Lord of the Rings, it makes a difference whether I read the movie-tie-in set of three mass-market paperbacks, or the hefty red thousand-pager with its miniscule type and narrow margins.

I think that there is also something about physical books that is fundamentally invitational. Any library, no matter how small, no matter its setting, invites you to browse, to run your fingers along the spines of its collection, to stop and flip through something that caches your eye. A book read in public can spark a knowing glance or a conversation. The colorful pages of board books and picture books invite our children into the mysteries of reading itself — the magical insight that these squiggles and dots carry meaning, a meaning that is always the same but will also tell us different things as we grow and change. The paper itself invites us to read with a pen in hand, joining in conversation with the author, with previous readers, and even with our past selves.

If there are sides to pick here, I’ve always been on the side of physical books. That is probably obvious. But what’s surprised me over the course of the pandemic, as my reading habits have swung wildly between poles, is how much I’ve come to rely on ebooks. And — depending on the day you ask me — they might even be what I prefer.

Is that weird? It feels weird to me, since I’ve been in the paper camp for so long, appreciating ebooks the ease of toting them around on vacations but not much else. A lot of what makes physical books so experiential is entirely missing from the ebook reading experience; no matter what I’m reading, on my phone it’s going to look about the same as anything else. But even with these differences, ebooks have come to fill an important niche in my reading.

During the covid-19 pandemic, especially in the first half of 2020, both what and how I read changed dramatically. There were times I found myself in a sort of paralysis when reading was simply impossible. I’ve sent dozens of books back to the library unread over the past year and change. When I could read, I took a hard bend toward fiction, particularly of the escapist varities: fantasy, science fiction, romance. But what I found was that during those times when picking up and holding a book was somehow too much (in a year that had more than its fair share of too much), ebooks had an approachability that I needed. They felt low-stakes. Checking out and returning them takes three seconds and a few thumb presses. And at least in my library system, the electronic versions of popular books often have far fewer holds on them than their physical counterparts, or sometimes none at all. When I was reading through Louise Penny’s back catalogue last summer, I read about half of her Inspector Gamache novels on my phone, where they were nearly always immediately available. Perhaps most importantly on a personal level, I can read a book on my phone in an otherwise dark room as I wait for my daughters to fall asleep. Over the past year+ ebooks have been, for me, a bit of a lifesaver. I’m still reading physical books, but the ratios are a lot closer to even than they’ve ever been.

Many people have speculated over the years that books, like other physical media, will eventually be relegated to the realm of niche collectors’ items. Lincoln Michel argues that the reverse may in fact be true. While Boomers embraced ebooks enthusiastically, Gen Z is not so interested:

…the gen z “digital natives” that were supposed to ensure ebook supremacy are actually the least interested in ebooks. They get plenty of screen time as it is between movies, TikTok, and video games. When it comes time to read a book, they’re ready for a break. (It’s actually aging boomers who are the most attached to ebooks, making one wonder if it won’t be ebooks going the way of the dinosaur soon…)

Here in the messy Millennial middle, I’m not so sure that either of them is going anywhere. I can finally appreciate the distinct advantages that each form brings to the table, and if they maintain their current market equilibrium, then all the better for all of us.

Women’s work

A few months ago I read a fascinating book, Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (that’s right, it’s rigorous enough to need two subtitles!). She traces the history of textile production — perhaps the quintessential women’s work — from the Paleolithic through to the end of the Iron Age, drawing on archaeological evidence as well as written records and even artwork. It’s well worth a read if you have any interest in spinning, sewing, weaving, or their related arts and crafts… or in how to tease out historical accounts from activities like these that are often very marginal to official records, for that matter. It’s a dense read, but an excellent one.

Something that really jumped out at me, however, comes from the introductory chapter, where Wayland Barber asks what it is about these activities that makes them traditionally “women’s work”? She quotes from Judith Brown’s 1969 article, “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” in her explanation:

Twenty years ago Judith Brown wrote a little five-page “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” that holds a simple key to these questions. She was interested in how much women contributed to obtaining the food for a preindustrial community. But in answering that question, she came upon a model of much wider applicability. She found that the issue of whether or not the community relies upon women as the chief providers of a given type of labor depends upon “the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care.” If only because of the exigencies of breast feeding (which until recently was typically continued for two or three years per child), “nowhere in the world is the rearing of children primarily the responsibility of men….” Thus, if the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during the childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen to be “compatible with simultaneous child watching.” From empirical observation Brown gleans that “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptable and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing: repetitive, easy to pick up at any point, reasonably child-safe, and easily done at home. (Contrast the idea of swinging a pick in a dark, cramped, and dusty mine shaft with a baby on one’s back or being interrupted by a child’s crisis while trying to pour molten metal into a set of molds.) The only other occupation that fits the criteria even half so well is that of preparing the daily food. Food and clothing: These are what societies worldwide have come to see as the core of women’s work (although other tasks may be added to the load, depending on the circumstances of the particular society).

Readers of this book live in a different world. The Industrial Revolution has moved basic textile work out of the home and into large (inherently dangerous) factories; we buy our clothing ready-made. It is a rare person in our cities who has ever spun thread or woven cloth, although a quick look into a fabric store will show that many women still sew. As a result, most of us are unaware of how time-consuming the task of making the cloth for a family used to be.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, pp. 29-30

This jumped out at me because it makes an intuitive sense, and accurately reflects my own stage of life. Women bear and birth children; until very recently on the scale of human existence, only women could feed the youngest members of the species. Women have not traditionally been the cooks and gardeners and sewists and spinners because of an inherent aptitude for that work or an inability to perform other tasks, but because of the biological realities and demands of mothering.

Everything I do at home is mediated by those same concerns and responsibilities. I have three children under seven, one of whom is still nursing; all of my daily tasks have to be fit into the day around breastfeeding, diaper changes, naps, home schooling, squabble mediating, disciplining, reading and playing, and of course the constant, unending cycle of making food, serving food, and cleaning up after having food. I spend 14-18 hours a week putting children to bed. My cumulative breastfeeding time is now up to 4.5 years (and counting!). And so it makes sense that my hobbies are things that fit around these things: reading, writing, sewing, embroidery, crochet. They’re the kind of thing that I can pick up and put down as needed, that can be left on top of the piano for a week before being picked up again, that don’t take more thought or attention than I can easily spare.

And they’re slow. Handiwork takes time: even a small baby blanket can easily take a dozen hours or more to crochet, depending on the yarn weight and pattern. It takes many evenings of work to finish a piece. I don’t mind, really. The time it takes to make something sends its own message to the recipient: that I value them enough to spend my time in order that they would be warm, or that their clothes would be mended, or that their house would be beautiful. And while I’m very glad that I don’t have to make all of our family’s clothes by hand, or spin my own thread and yarn before I can use them, I love being able to feel myself a part of this great historical chain of women working with our hands to make, mend, and care. Women’s work is good work; here’s to twenty thousand more years.

Percy Jackson and the Sûreté du Québec

A quick glance through my reading log — yes, I started keeping one again, albeit in a considerably simplified form — shows that my covidtide reading has taken a hard turn toward fiction. In more regular years, I usually read pretty close to 50:50 fiction/non-fiction. Over the past few months, it’s been closer to 80:20. There are good reasons for this, of course; well-written fiction offers an unparalleled retreat from These Uncertain Times ™. And if the general pandemic stuff wasn’t enough, we’re also still well in the midst of our un-planned renovations (oh ho ho ho ho, what could be more fun).

Even more than the general state of the world and the unfinished state of our house, however, I place the blame for my de-balanced reading squarely at the feet of two people: Rick Riordan and Louise Penny. I doubt they’ve ever met each other but they have one giant trait in common: I absolutely can’t put their books down.

Rick Riordan is the author of the Percy Jackson series. Beginning in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Riordan crafts an alternate earth where the Greek pantheon, relocated to the current heart of Western civilization in New York City, is still around — still meddling in human affairs, still pursuing their own eternal goals, and still bearing and begetting demigod children. These children, raised by their human parents, can go incognito until they reach puberty, when their powers manifest to the extent that monsters (also still around) can sense them. Refuge awaits them at Camp Half-Blood, a secluded New York summer camp watched over by the centaur Chiron — if they can make it there alive.

For those counting along at home, I’ve read fourteen Riordan books since July: all of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, all of the Heroes of Olympus series, and 4/5 of The Trials of Apollo. I just collected the fifth book in the latter series, The Tower of Nero, from the library yesterday and I can’t wait to dive in.

Also on my “can’t wait to dive in” list are the Inspector Gamache mystery novels by Louise Penny. I’ve gotten through fewer of them, in part because they are considerably longer, but also because they are perpetually checked out or on hold! The series follows Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police force), his team, and a strong cast of secondary characters mostly located in the Anglo village called Three Pines, just south of Montreal. The mysteries themselves are innovative and engrossing — I really do love a good fictional murder — but where Penny really shines is in her deft handling of red herrings, her insights into the human psyche, and her long character development arcs.

They are, without question, the best mysteries I have read in a long while, and Louise Penny has shot to the top ranks of my ‘favourite authors’ list. I just finished the sixth book, Bury Your Dead, and have the next two waiting in my to-read pile. I will note that each book builds on the last and highly recommend reading them in order; the first is Still Life.

Rick Riordan has two more (shorter) series… serieses… well, you know, that are waiting for me when I finish The Tower of Nero. There are still ten Gamache books I haven’t read. And after that? Well, after that I simply don’t know what I’ll do.

Everything loose is traveling

This is an enigmatic and compelling little book. I love it.

 

You may be familiar with the genre of “found poetry”, where a poet takes something like, say, a newspaper article and removes all the words she deems extraneous, leaving a poem behind. Aug 9 — Fog, I think, belongs to that tradition as well, only this time it’s not found poetry but found prose. Here is Kathryn Scanlan’s account of how it came to be, starting with the purchase of a stranger’s diary from a public estate auction:

The diary was a Christmas present to the author from her daughter and son-in-law. The author wrote her full name and address on the front page. She resided in a small Illinois town. She was eighty-six years old when she began recording in it. […]

At first I loved only the physicality of the diary — the author’s cramped hand, the awkward, artful way she filled the page. I liked its miserable condition. Its position was tenuous — yet here it was. I didn’t try to read it. I kept it in a drawer. I assumed it illegible.

But then I did read it — compulsively. I hunched over it, straining my neck. I read it front to back — perhaps a dozen times by now.

As I read, I typed out sentences that caught my attention. Then, for ten years, off and on, I played with the sentences I’d pulled. I edited, arranged, and rearranged them into the composition you find here. (vi-vii)

The result of all this editing, arranging, and rearranging is very beautiful and strange. There are recurring characters (Vern, D., Mildred, Maude) as well as others who make only single appearances; since the diarist was writing for herself we are left to make educated guesses about their relationships. I thought “Vern” was almost certainly the diarist’s husband, but then I found an entry referring to “D. & Vern’s anniversary”, so perhaps they are the daughter and son-in-law. But I don’t know. It’s a little off-balancing.

The writing is spare; the diarist uses many short forms (“nite”) and omits most of her “to be” verbs. The pages are spare, too; Scanlan has set the text for each day in a sea of white space:

“I painting. Clouding at noon.” Indeed.

This is a library copy but I think I may buy one of my own. It feels like the kind of book I’ll go back to, maybe precisely because it’s so… I’m not even sure how to describe it. Because it’s so the way it is. A few of my favourite pages:

The wind:

Terrible windy     everything loose is traveling. (33)

It come so nice:

A grand rain, it come so nice. Sun looks good. Fire feels good. D. & Vern out on their bicycles. (47)

The roads:

All kinds of roads. Dead end roads, roads under construction, cow paths & etc but had good time, a grand day. (51)

Decline of Vern:

Vern confused. Vern awful confused. Vern confused one of the girls with D. Vern bad nite. Vern bad. (95)

This is a quick read, only 110 pages and most of them white space. You can easily get through it in a sitting, or in bed before sleep. And when the wind blows, maybe you too will note that everything loose is traveling.

The libraries are open! Sort of.

Big news on the home front: our local libraries (kind of) opened for business this past week. In the before-times, we had a weekly routine of hitting up our local branch on Tuesday afternoons, after lunch and before Anselm’s piano lesson. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, me or the kids, but it’s one of the features of our pre-pandemic life that we have perhaps missed the most. We got in one last visit when Tertia was about a week old, and then: boom. Closed. No more libraries for us.

Now, I will say that our library system has been great in terms of offering other means of engagement with their services. They’ve done storytimes via Facebook live, upped their borrowing limits on Hoopla and CloudLibrary, and even offered a service where you can call a librarian just to chat, if that’s something you need. And amazingly, we could still check physical books out via phone or email. You gave the librarians some ideas as to what you like to read, and a few days later, a bag full of books would show up on your doorstep. I gave some broad topics for Anselm and Perpetua, and I have to say, they absolutely nailed it with their selections.

However, this left us with a bit of a problem. When the libraries closed, we had around twenty-five to thirty books checked out — not hard to do when you’re reading picture books and flying through Geronimo Stilton and Captain Underpants. Then we got our book delivery and ended up with around fifty-five books out at once, a family record, and one that quickly highlighted a problem: when our capacity gets stretched, we actually run pretty low on shelf space. I have a special bin next to the kids’ bookshelf where library books go, in an effort to make them at least a little easier to collect on return days, but it was full and overflowing. Around this time Perpetua discovered the box of baby board books I had stashed in the basement playroom and brought them up as well. I never thought I would be the one to complain about having too many books, but, well, here we are.

Or I should say: here we were. Because the libraries have started accepting returns! This is almost more exciting to me — ok, I lie, this is more exciting to me — than the fact that we can now make appointments to come and collect our sanitized holds. Which, don’t get me wrong, is also great. But it was a joy indeed when I got my pick-up appointment on Thursday and was able to drop off a large bag of books. The first to go were the ones that I found annoying to read — and after that, I just stuffed whatever I could fit in the bag. We still have a lot of books checked out, and our shelves are still crammed, but I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. In a few weeks, they tell us, they’re going to trial letting people set foot in the library to browse, a few at a time. I hope I can bring the kids.

The libraries are open! The libraries are open!

The Other Bennet Sister

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite books in all the world; I’m not sure how many times I’ve read it, but certainly more than ten. I’ve seen the BBC miniseries with Colin First and Jennifer Ehle five or six times, the Keira Kneightly movie version twice (I think), and even once watched the bizarro 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier. I’ve spent a lot of time in Austen’s created world, and one of the fun things about that is also experiencing how other people interact with the text in companion books and films, whether serious or parodies. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Longbourn, and Jane Austen Ruined my Life, and the miniseries Lost in Austen once sustained me through a long day of colonoscopy prep. I loved the Bollywood retelling Bride and Prejudice, which I chiefly remember for the song “No Life Without Wife“. Besides being eminently re-readable in its own right, Pride and Prejudice has proved itself a very fertile ground for other creators to till, which I think is something really special.

Now, into this imaginative space comes Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister, which looks to answer the question of what about Mary Bennet? Austen does not give us much insight into Mary: she serves as a plain and prosaic foil for Jane’s sweet beauty, Lizzy’s wit, and Lydia and Kitty’s careless energy. Beyond that, she is nearly a non-entity. Her fate at the end of the novel is a mere sentence to the effect that her life became more tolerable once her beauty was no longer constantly compared to that of her sisters. But what can it have been like for her to grow up as the outsider between the tightknit twosomes of Jane and Lizzy, and Kitty and Lydia? What motivates her speeches and actions within the confines of the story, and what is her fate after it ends?

https://jackiekcooper.com/file/2020/03/otherbennetsister.jpg

Hadlow gives us a very moving and satisfactory account of all these things, in a way that is completely congruous with Austen’s novel, and even managing to enrich it, especially in the first section of the novel which covers the time period between Mary’s childhood and the events of Pride and Prejudice up to the engagement between Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins. The narrative fleshes out a number of minor P&P characters: Mary is chief among them, of course, but Hadlow also gives us sympathetic and plausible portraits of Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Hill, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and others. The conniving Caroline Bingley returns as a romantic adversary to Mary in the latter parts of the novel — which seems ridiculous when I just write it like that, but makes narratival sense, I promise.

The great strength of The Other Bennet Sister is Hadlow’s pitch-perfect ventriloquist act. Her narration blends seamlessly with the pieces of dialogue she lifts wholesale form Pride and Prejudice, and in respects of vocabulary and sentence structure, The Other Bennet Sister reads very much as if it was contemporary to P&P, and not following it some 200+ years later. She gives many little nods to Austen’s text without ever feeling like a parody of it, and I knew once I hit the first few paragraphs that I absolutely had to finish the whole thing:

It is a sad fact of life that if a young woman is unlucky enough to come into the world without expectations, she had better do all she can to ensure she is born beautiful. To be poor and handsome is misfortune enough; but to be penniless and plain is a hard fate indeed.

Four of the five Bennet sisters of Meryton in Hertfordshire had sensibly provided themselves with good luck enough to be accounted beauties in the limited circles in which they moved. Jane, the eldest, was the most striking, the charms of her face and figure enhanced by the unassuming modesty of her character. Elizabeth, the second sister, made up in wit and liveliness for any small deficiencies in her appearance; whilst Catherine and Lydia, the two youngest, exhibited all the freshness of youth, accompanied by a taste for laughter and flirtation, which recommended them greatly to young men of equally loud and undiscriminating inclinations. Only Mary, middle daughter, possessed neither beauty, wit, nor charm; but her sisters shone so brightly that they seemed to cancel out her failure and, indeed, eclipse her presence altogether, so that by the time they were grown, the Bennet family was regarded as one of the most pleasing in the neighbourhood.

It was common knowledge, however, that the Bennet girls’ prospects were to be envied a great deal less than their beauty. At first sight, the family appeared prosperous enough. They were the principal inhabitants of the village of Longbourn; and their house, solid and unremarkable as it was, made up in comfort what it lacked in pretension. There were servants to wait at table, a cook in the kitchen, and a man to tend the gardens; and though Mr. Bennet’s possessions were not extensive, they were quite enough to sustain his credit as a private gentleman. Few of the families with whom they were intimate were sufficiently rich or genteel to condescend to them with confidence, and the Bennets were regarded, in public at least, as eminently respectable ornaments to Hertfordshire society.

But in the country, no family’s business is ever truly its own, and everyone knew that the outward prosperity of the Bennets rested on very uncertain foundations. Their property was subject to an entail which restricted inheritance to male heirs; if no Bennet son was produced, the estate would pass eventually into the hands of Mr. Bennet’s cousin. At first, this had seemed of little significance. As baby after baby arrived at Longbourn with promising regularity, surely, it was only a matter of time before the much-anticipated Bennet boy put in his overdue appearance. But when the tally of girls reached five, and it was clear no more children could be expected, the entail cast a deepening shadow over the family’s happiness. On Mr. Bennet’s death, his widow and daughters would be left with nothing but five thousand pounds in the four per cents, and a humiliating dependence on the uncertain charity of a distant and unknown relative. Their friends were not without sympathy for the Bennets’ plight, but that did nothing to dampen their curiosity about what was to come, for what could be more compelling than to watch at first hand the probable wreck and dissolution of an entire family’s fortune? (9-10)

Mary’s journey throughout the novel is one of self-knowledge, as she seeks the happiness that Aristotle offers as most lasting. As a very young woman, she decides that feelings are unreliable and that it must be the life of the mind that sustains her; particularly in the latter half of the novel she grapples with the idea of opening up to feeling — helped along by the poetry of William Wordsworth, who of course was a living poet at the time — and seeks to find the correct balance between head and heart, propriety and boldness. The impetus for this journey initially comes from a surprising source; Mary bonds with Mr. Collins during a long visit to Longbourn, where he and Charlotte reside after the death of Mr. Bennet. Finding Mary altogether more sympathetic than his wife, Mr. Collins invites her into a course of academic study, where she encounters both some of the great thinkers and the pleasure of having her thoughts taken seriously for perhaps the first time in her life.

“Indeed. And how does Aristotle suggest such happiness is to be achieved?”

“Well, it is hard to sum up his thoughts succinctly without losing the subtlety of their perceptions–”

“But if I press you to do so, Miss Bennet?”

“Then I should say he tells us it is only through self-knowledge that genuine happiness is to be had. Only when we know ourselves — when we have examined and understood our strengths and weaknesses, when we have been honest enough to admit what we really desire from life — only then do we have  any chance at all of attaining it.” (223)

It is this examination that eventually brings Mary to happiness (and, of course, to marriage; some conventions must be maintained!). This was truly a delightful read. And for those of you who may miss Austen’s sparkling introduction to Pride and Prejudice, don’t worry: Mrs. Bennet makes sure that we get it in the end.

“Even you, Mary, must surely see,” her mother continued, “that if Mr. Ryder has made no offer to this other lady — who appears to have a better grasp of her position than you — it must be because he likes you.”

“He may not wish to marry either of us, Mama. Have you thought of that?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mary. A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (477)

Un-logged reading

Sometime last fall, without really meaning to do it, I quit a six-year habit cold turkey. Ever since January 2013, I had faithfully written down all of the books I read, separated by month, and then collated statistics at the end of each year: number of books read, average number of books read per month, fiction / non-fiction split, ratio of new reads to re-reads, etc. It let me see the patterns in my reading habit, and of course, provided considerable content for all the posts I label “reading notes“. And then all of a sudden… it just became too much. So I stopped. And six-ish months later, I still haven’t started again.

What changed? It was a lot of things. I was in the middle of a difficult pregnancy that sapped my mental energy as much or more than my physical strength, which didn’t help anything. I read, or nearly read, two books in a row that I couldn’t bring myself to finish — and I never wrote down books I didn’t finish, so it felt like all of the time I spent on reading them was wasted. (I do this, though; I think my record is reading over 800 pages of The Strand before finally throwing in the trowel. 800 pages! Why didn’t I just push through the last 400? It’s a mystery.) But at the same time, and this is probably the most important part, I found that the numbers and statistics that I was keeping track of were turning into something other than they were meant to be: not interesting information, but something that I used to pressure myself in weird ways.

Keeping track of the numbers slowly morphed into being all about the numbers. I felt pressured to keep the number of books I was reading high, so that I was increasing the amount I read every year. This felt like progress, although “progress towards what?” is not a question I can (or could) answer. And if my numbers dipped in a month, I felt bad about it — even though reading fewer books might very well have meant reading more than usual, if I was reading longer books. And since I only wrote down a book in the month in which it was finished, I was always rushing to finish things before the month turned, and feeling weird about ‘skewing’ my stats if I didn’t make it. It felt wrong to mark a book as complete in April, if I read 95% of it in March. And so, gradually, I became accountable to the numbers and the system I’d created, instead of the other way around.

Blogging soon became part of the problem, since I started posting monthly round-up posts that would talk about the books I had read. I do enjoy talking about books that I’ve enjoyed, or that made me think — but doing a monthly post that touched on every book, month after month, meant I had to think of something to say about each book (ideally, of course, something clever or funny or both). The need to have something to say actually changed the way I read; it was difficult to turn off that extra layer of awareness and simply enjoy what I was reading, without worrying about coming up with anything insightful at the end of it all.

This is not to say that things were all bad, or that I regret having formed this habit in the first place. It wasn’t, and I don’t. I enjoy being able to flick through the pages of my reading log and remember where and when I read certain things. Some of those dips in my reading pace were for wonderful reasons, like when Anselm and Perpetua were newly born. I can see where I got on particular reading trains, like when I decided to read through as much of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s back catalogue as I could get my hands on. And it helped me to form some good habits: for example, for a long time, I read fiction pretty well exclusively. When I noticed that in my log, I made a resolution to read at least three nonfiction books every month, and writing down everything I read kept me accountable to that goal. The more I read, the more I liked, and now my fiction/nonfiction split is pretty close to 50/50.  I doubt it would be if I hadn’t been keeping track of things.

But now? Now I’m not keeping track of things at all. What have I been reading lately? I have a vague idea. What have I read since dropping my logging habit? Mostly I can’t tell you — or if I can remember what, I certainly can’t remember when. I do know that when I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession this past November, an annual tradition, it was with much more enjoyment than it had been for the last few years. For the second year in a row I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings in December, which I had previously done every December since 2003. That felt ok, though; after all, I’ve read it fifteen times. I know how the story goes, and the next time I pick it up (maybe in the summer — what a shocking idea!) I’m sure I will relish it all the more.

Reading without logging is very strange for me. I feel freed; I feel uneasy. Maybe I’ll get the itch and start keeping track again — perhaps in a different, numberless, format. Or not. Maybe I’ll start breaking all my habits. Maybe I’ll start new ones. And maybe I should end this post before my rambling gets completely out of control. The end.

Apocalypse (S)now

A few nights ago, I had put the kids to bed and thought I’d read for a little while, so I picked up Moon of the Crusted Snow. Two hours later, I looked up and I had both finished the book and stayed up well past my bedtime. So if I’ve been a little extra sleepy lately, you may perhaps at least partly blame Waubgeshig Rice.

Moon of the Crusted Snow is a gripping post-apocalyptic novel — admittedly not a genre I turn to often — set in Ontario’s far North on an Anishinaabe reserve. It’s late fall; Evan Whitesky returns home after bagging a moose to find that the satellite television service is out. The next morning, there’s no cell reception. Soon the power goes out. Then the landlines. Then the snow starts, as the band council tries to navigate keeping their community together with no food left in the grocery store, no contact with the south, and the emergency diesel generator tanks only half full. Oh, and people suddenly are having disturbing prophetic (?) dreams.

There is a major contrast between Rice’s novel and the last post-apocalyptic novel I read, which was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (which also has a Canadian setting). In Station Eleven, you know exactly what happened: the world is devastated by a global swine flu pandemic. In Moon of the Crusted Snow, there’s no explanation of the disaster that has apparently befallen — the province? the country? the world? Is it war? Disease? Nuclear accident? There has clearly been some sort of widespread technological collapse, but the reason behind it remains unknown, and only accentuates the sense of this small community’s absolute isolation. Frankly, it’s downright eerie.

A major theme of the novel is indigenous resilience in the face of tragedy, as exemplified in a conversation between Evan and Aileen, the community’s chief elder:

“You know, when young people come over, sometimes some of them talk about the end of the world,” Aileen said, breaking the silence and snapping Evan out of his woolgathering. He looked up from the plaid pattern on the vinyl tablecloth to the old woman’s face.

“They say that this is the end of the world. The power’s out and we’ve run out of gas and no one’s come up from down south. They say that the food is running out and that we’re in danger There’s a word they say too — ah . . . pock . . . ah . . .”

“Apocalypse?”

“Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway.”

Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.

“The world isn’t ending,” she went on. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world. When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended. They made us come all the way up here. This is not our homeland! But we had to adapt and luckily we already knew how to hunt and live on the land. We learned to live here.”

She became more animated as she went on. Her small hands swayed as she emphasized the words she wanted to highlight. “But then they followed us up here and started taking our children away from us! That’s when our world ended again. And that wasn’t the last time. We’ve seen what this . . . what’s the word again?”

“Apocalypse.”

“Yes, apocalypse. We’ve had that over and over. But we always survived. We’re still here. And we’ll see be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on and we never see any white people ever again.” (149-50)

Of course, this is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and not everyone is resilient, and not everyone survives. Throughout the novel there are tensions between those who have maintained or learned traditional skills and ways of life, and those who haven’t — among them, Evan’s younger brother Cam, who has neither the inclination nor the ability to provide for his family by hunting and trapping, like Evan and their parents do. The divide between Evan and Cam typifies the greater divide in their community between those who cherish traditional Anishinaabe skills and values and those who don’t, between those who rely on themselves and those who rely on others, between those who provide and those who take. These differences are exacerbated with the midwinter arrival of Justin Scott, a polarizing white man seeking shelter with the band. (Though the tensions are ever-present throughout the narrative, Rice is able to make his point without feeling preachy.) 

The blurb on the front cover calls Moon of the Crusted Snow “chilling in the best way possible,” a sentiment with which I have to agree. I stayed up to finish the book in part because I was afraid of it invading my dreams if I didn’t — but also because as it went on I had to know what happened next. I’ll be visiting Waubgeshig Rice’s worlds again.

On abandoning books

If you’ve been a reader here for longer than a month or so, you will know that I read a lot of books. It’s my main hobby, I guess, although sometimes crochet crowds it out a bit. But every month there are books that don’t make it onto my round-up list, because I’ve either abandoned them halfway through, or sent them back to the library unread. This is actually good for me, I think; I used to compulsively finish books, even when I hated them. I think I’ve gotten better at not starting books in the first place that I’m likely to hate, but I’ve also been able to let myself stop reading things without too much fuss.

Here’s a peek at some of the books I haven’t read recently:

Right book, wrong time: I tried reading Alan Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis while we were in the middle of our move. I like Jacobs and I’m interested in his subject, but it was absolutely the wrong kind of book for my life at that time. This is one I’ll try again later.

Authorial overdose: Sometimes I get on a reading jag and start hitting a lot of books by the same author. And then sometimes I’ll look at a book by that author and think, “if I read another one of these I’ll scream.” Sophie Kinsella’s Surprise Me and Twenties Girl both went back to the library for that reason. I’ll try them again when I’ve had a bit of a break.

I’m just not that into you: A while ago I started Elena Ferranti’s My Brilliant Friend, because I had heard good things about it. I read about half of it before I realized that I didn’t care about any of the characters. Sorry, Elena.

My disbelief suspenders snapped: I spotted Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson on the shelves at our new library and snapped it up, remembering that I enjoyed it very much as a child. In retrospect, the version I read then must have been heavily abridged — or perhaps I didn’t realize how simultaneously preposterous and dull the whole thing was. Back to the library it went!

This isn’t the droid I’m looking for: As it turns out, Kevin Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend is a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians and does not stand on its own. It’s extremely confusing on its own. I’m going to read the first one first.

My intentions were good: I always take a peek at the display shelves at the library, which is where I found Richard Cohen’s Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life. Well, I intended to read it enough to renew it once or twice, but not enough to actually read it.

Slow and steady lost the race: The policy of our new library system is that if you take out a book upon which someone else has placed a hold, you can only keep it for a week instead of the usual three. I checked out Louise Penny’s Still Life, put it in my pile, and then got a “coming due” notice four days later. It went back to the library before I had even cracked the cover.

What have you stopped reading lately?

Kilmeny of the Orchard

What a delight it was to me to realise that when you move to an author’s home country, you can find more of their books — and so here begins a mini-resumption of my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project (the first six posts of which are linked here). Over the summer of 2017 I read as many of Montgomery’s books as I could easily get my hands on — which ended up being nineteen of them — as well as a biography. Now I have just finished LMM number twenty, Kilmeny of the Orchard.

It is a sweet love story, unusual in the Montgomery canon in that its protagonist is a man rather than a girl or a woman — actually, of the twenty, it is the only one set up this way (although I believe a few of her short stories take a male point of view). Eric Gordon is a fresh university graduate intent on joining his father in the family business — but not before he spends a few weeks on Prince Edward Island, substitute teaching in place of a friend who is taken ill. Wandering down through an abandoned orchard one night, he is suddenly arrested by the sound of beautiful music being played on the violin. The player is the beautiful Kilmeny Gordon — a young woman with a sad family history and a puzzling case of muteness.

Naturally Eric and Kilmeny’s love grows and triumphs in the end — it’s hardly giving anything away to say so! I will leave you to discover how on your own, if you are so inclined. The reader will want to pay attention to the theme of emotional pain and how it transforms one’s character and relationships, for better or for worse. I was particularly struck by this short passage near the end of the novel:

As he crossed the pasture field before the spruce wood he came upon Neil Gordon, building a longer fence. Neil did not look up as Eric passed, but sullenly went on driving poles. Before this Eric had pitied Neil; now he was conscious of feeling sympathy with him. Had Neil suffered as he was suffering? Eric had entered into a new fellowship whereof the passport was pain. (p. 235)

It seems to me that, fundamentally, we have two options when confronted with pain and sorrow: to turn inward upon ourselves in self-pity, as Neil does, or to allow it to turn us outward towards others in compassion, as Eric is here able to do. Kilmeny of the Orchard is, in part, concerned with the question of what we are to do with our pain — and how those choices affect those around us, innocent and guilty alike.

I also learned a little bit more about PEI history, because I had to look up a reference to the “harvest excursion train”. In the earlier half of the twentieth century, trains would take Maritimers west each year to work the grain harvests in the prairie provinces, as well as for other industries like logging and school-teaching. You can read more about the harvest excursion in this CBC piece.

Kilmeny of the Orchard was a lovely read, and quick — despite the high page count on the quotation above, there is not that much to it (my copy had largeish print and extraordinarily wide margins). It was a nice way to pick up my LMM project again. Twenty books down… five more to go!