Sunday, February 28, 2016

Donald Hall: Essays After Eighty

Donald Hall visited my college for a reading when he was in his seventies, just before he became the U.S. Poet Laureate. I didn't take to his poetry, but own the collected poems of his late wife, Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at the age of 47.

Last month, when I was looking for some new essays to read, I came across a skinny book called Essays After Eighty, and bought it. The front cover has a close-up of his hirsute face, wrinkled and pitted. And the essays are great.


He mentions going out without combing his hair (not sure he combed it for the cover photo, either). The essays are full of personal detail, insightful reflections, and the kind of storytelling that makes me read essays in the first place.

The essays are less great when he is talking about all the famous people he's met (I suppose it's unfair of me to see it as bragging - at 87, he can boast impressive accomplishments). His essay on a trip through Greece ("One Road") is dull until the last two paragraphs, and I disliked "A Yeti in the District."

Still, this book proved well worth the cost of purchase. The essay "Out the Window" is one of my favorites in this collection.

The legacy of any poet is an uncertain one, as Hall acknowledges in "On Rejection and Resurrection." It may take centuries for a poet to be acknowledged as great. Poetry is difficult to judge in any era. But I hope that these essays last as part of Hall's legacy, and plan to explore his other works as well.

In June, peonies bloom at the edge of my porch, a column of them, as their buds swell green until they burst into white and feathery soccer balls - and then a thunderstorm shatters the blossoms. ("Out the Window")
In my life I have grown three beards, covering many of my adult faces. My present hairiness is monumental, and I intend to carry it into the grave. ("Three Beards")
If a person lives into old age, there's a moment when he or she becomes eldest in the family, perched on top of a hill as night rises. ("Death")

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Weasley Clock

It's real, everyone.

This is the coolest thing I have seen in a long time. Also, it seems to prove one of Arthur C. Clarke's 3 Laws:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Accio clock! (Damn, that one still doesn't work.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Irresponsible Booking

Ah, the weekend.

Where I can take a break from my job as a librarian and....go to the library.

I haven't been to my local public library in a month or so, and it seemed like a good idea this morning.

My haul:

Anatomy 101: A Crash Course in Anatomy and Physiology - Because I never studied much science, and this looked bite-sized.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club - I ran across a review of this, and I love a good story where good courageously challenges evil.

Lumberjanes (Friendship to the Max and Beware the Kitten Holy) - I've been hearing a lot of buzz about this series focused on female friendships, so I decided to jump on the bandwagon.

Manga Shakespeare: As You Like It -  Because why not? I love Shakespeare, and I like manga.

Reclaiming Conversation - In thinking about friends who don't read, I have also been considering the loss of meaningful conversation in my life. It seemed a timely topic.

The Explorers - Dugard wrote the excellent Into Africa, and I hope this book will be as readable and fascinating. Bonus, it mentions Richard Francis Burton, an amazing man I first learned about through To Your Scattered Bodies Go. He was a larger-than-life character, and I remember the brief mention of his conflict with Speke in Into Africa.

Pirate Hunters - Robert Kurson is another writer of true adventure stories whose previous work I loved. I read Shadow Divers years ago, and still remember the visceral reaction to that story of wreck divers exploring a downed U-Boat.

Furiously Happy - I am also furiously happy to see this follow-up to Let's Pretend This Never Happened. I have been looking forward to picking up this book by The Bloggess.

Finally, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - A brick that I hope to reread this year. Last year I looked for a physical copy in my library and was surprised not to find one. They have corrected that oversight! So I brought it home just to make myself happy.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Not Reading

Recently at work I listened to two women talk proudly about how they don't read books. Another friend told me the same week "I read a lot in high school....until I realized I didn't have to. Then I stopped."

For me, reading is as essential as sleep. Without reading, I feel trapped in my own brain, stuck on a loop. Intense and temporary feelings sometimes overwhelm me, until a book shows me that the world is bigger than my current situation, and that others have faced the same challenges without falling apart.

Also, I'm a librarian passionately committed to literacy and continuing self-education. People, even valued friends, tell me "Oh, I never read books" and I don't know how to react, except with pity and a twinge of contempt (sorry).

Today I read about Kanye West, who said

Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed," West said. "I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. 
"I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life," he said.
from Snopes 
That's great, Kanye. I hope next time you want to learn about history you can find a knowledgeable professor willing to listen to your craziness. Books are the conversation we hold with the dead. They do often contain a lot of words, and are usually about a self that is not you, the reader.

So here is the very dead C.S. Lewis talking:
Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.
An Experiment in Criticism 

Also, can we ponder for a moment the irony of Kanye West accusing novelists of being "wordy and so self-absorbed"? His wife's newest book, after all, is titled Selfish. Though to her credit, she didn't use many words....

Monday, February 15, 2016


This weekend I downloaded a free app called Breathe from Stop, Breathe & Think. I just finished my first 6-minute guided meditation, and was surprised at how relaxing it was.

The last few months have been challenging for me, personally and professionally. I've gone through some big changes and haven't weathered them very well - I've had several rounds of fairly serious stress-related illnesses as a result. Normally I'm very healthy and optimistic. I love my job, have good friends, and a wonderful family.

But into every life a little rain must fall. Blogging regularly again is part of the change I am making. Eating right, exercising regularly, and giving myself time for creativity outside of work are all strategies I'm adopting to de-stress and regain my health (physically and mentally).

Many popular meditation techniques spring from the Buddhist concept of selflessness. I actually disagree with this tenet, and don't think of detachment as a useful mindset for my own life. So the philosophical underpinnings of meditation been a block to cultivating the habit, though I've always been attracted to the idea.

I'm looking forward to progressing with the meditation app, and seeing what increased mindfulness will help me achieve. I have a habit of overlooking stress, and charging ahead until something knocks me back.

If you're going through a big change in your life, I encourage you to take a few minutes to evaluate your mental state and choose a healthy response to the challenges you face. No one else can do this for you.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


“Go ahead then; study, study and meditate well what you study. Life is a very serious thing and only those with intelligence and heart go through it worthily. To live is to be among men and to be among men is to struggle. But this struggle is not a brutal and material struggle with men alone; it is a struggle with them, with one’s self, with their passions and one’s own, with errors and preoccupations. It is an eternal struggle with a smile on the lips and tears in the heart. On this battlefield man has no better weapon than his intelligence, no other force but his heart.”

— José Rizal, in a letter written to Alfredo Hidalgo

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


"Even the very simple act that we call 'seeing a person we know' is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part." - Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Quotable - The Freedom in Fiction

"To read fiction is to do something voluntary and free, to exercise choice over and over." - Jane Smiley, "Fiction is an Exercise in Empathy"


I can talk a lot about this idea in the context of a prison library. So much of the daily business of living is predetermined for men and women who are incarcerated, but no one tells them what fiction to read. It is a freedom I see many take great advantage of, and a freedom I wish others would not take for granted.

What do Smiley's words mean for people like me, who seems to have more freedom than we know what to do with?

"The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive." - James Gleick, "How Google Dominates Us"

Living with purpose is always a challenge. It is easier to binge on Netflix and onion dip. Other things drag my attention from reading and from even the fiction I want to read. But I learned a long time ago that books will always be there later. Other opportunities will pass.

Still, I want to continue to engage with fiction. I currently live in a small town, where my options are limited. To read blogs, keep up with new books, and blog regularly seems like it should be easy here, but in some ways it is more difficult. I'm not surrounded by librarians and college students anymore. There is no intellectual community to speak of - or perhaps I have just not found it!

I don't always take advantage of the freedom of fiction. My goal this year is to read 100 books, not just fiction. I want to reread books that I loved years ago. I want to read new books and learn new things. I want to keep up with my favorite blogs, and write daily posts of my own.

What will you do with your freedom?