A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
It was on this day in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
It was four and a half months after the devastating Battle of Gettysburg. It was a foggy, cold morning and Lincoln arrived at about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield.
A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.
When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words, and only 10 sentences.
It was so brief, in fact, that many of the 15,000 people who attended the ceremony didn’t even realize that the president had spoken, because a photographer setting up his camera had momentarily distracted them.
The next day, Everett wrote to Lincoln:
“Permit me to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
The full title of this book is: The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry – Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. The cooking school in question is, of course, Le Cordon Bleu.
This is a memoir written by a journalist, Kathleen Flinn. It is an account of the time she spent at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, learning to cook.
It was a long held dream and one that she had set aside for years in favour of getting on with life and her career. She had settled into a job that she wasn’t all that passionate about and she stayed… until the day she lost her job.
Instead of looking for another job, she decided to take advantage of her unemployment to follow her dream. She enrolled herself at Le Cordon Bleu, packed her bags and moved to Paris.
This is a record of her time in Paris where she was joined by her (then) boyfriend, Mike Klosar, her experiences at the school, the whole business of learning to cook, dealing with the pressure of the kind of precision that French cooking demands and so on.
Through the course of this book Katheen and Mike got engaged and married. She also met some fascinating people and made a few very good friends.
It is clear that she had an interesting time in Paris and she writes about it all rather well. This is a food memoir, but it is about a lot of things besides food, so there is something for everyone here.
The book comes with a recipe at the end of each chapter. This is a trend in food writing that I don’t particularly care for. I think recipes should be left to cook books, but perhaps there are other readers who will disagree with me.
I like memoirs and this book was no exception. But I did have one complaint. Everyone in the book is is painted vividly, particularly Mike. But Kathleen herself remains a shadow.
She is always the observer. Even when she is taking about times when she is excited or upset about something, the narrative is detached, like she’s observing herself from the outside.
I enjoyed the book, but I wish there had been more of the author in it.
There was a time when I thought I wouldn’t be able to make the shift from physical books to e-books. I was sure I would miss the heft and the feel of a physical book in my hands. I thought I wouldn’t like reading on a screen, even a small, hand-held one.
Turns out I was wrong. I love e-books. I have 800 of them on a single device and I love the fact that I can hoard them in this way without having to worry about shelf space and feeling bad about having piles of books lying around the house.
I don’t think there is such a thing as too many bookshelves, but I have only so much space in my house. And now that my kids are reading, all available space has to be given over to their books.
I know they will make the transition to e-books one day, but not for several years yet, I hope. At eleven and eight, they are at an age where they should experience books in their physical form. It is fortunate that they agree with me on this.
Considering the space constraint, it is a good thing that my husband and I have both switched over to e-books. But I will admit that I miss reading physical books. And there are so many e-books that I have acquired recently that I would love to see on my shelves.
It’s not just about reading for me. I like being surrounded by books. I like to look at them and I love the way they take over a room and give it a personality that it would otherwise not have.
But set against this is the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to afford even half of them if I’d had to pay the paperback or hardcover price. E-books are a lot cheaper. So there are all sorts of reasons to go electronic, but there is such a thing as going too far.
A friend of mine told me recently that he’s given away all of his physical books, because he has no room for them and that all his books are now electronic. He lives in an apartment that is less than 500 sft in size, so I understand the space constraint, but I simply cannot stomach the idea of a living space without a single book shelf.
Perhaps I am romanticizing the whole book shelf thing, but I like the sight of row upon row of books. I find it soothing. An e-book reader simply does not have the same emotional impact. This image at the head of my blog
wouldn’t have quite the power that it does if it was the picture of a nook or a kindle paper white, now would it?
“If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, magic is cool. But a nervous mother singing to her child at night while something moves quietly through the dark outside her house? That’s a story. Handled properly, it’s more dramatic than any apocalypse or goblin army could ever be.”
This was my Wishlist Wednesday book last week. It is a book about books, so I knew that I would like it. But unlike most books of this genre which tend to be non-fiction, it is a novel and it features a very real person, the Queen of England who is the uncommon reader in the title.
It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library. She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but most of it was required of her, so she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of what it means to be a reader.
It is a premise that is going to appeal to any serious reader and Alan Bennett does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Queen Elizabeth II feels very real and she comes across as such a charming person, intelligent, interesting, witty and sometimes snarky. As one reader said, we end up hoping that this is the person that she really is. No one knows, of course, but it is nice to think that this portrait of hers might be close to the truth.
She’s eighty years old and she’s never been interested in reading or had any other hobbies because, “hobbies tend to exclude. It is her job to take an interest, but not to be interested herself.”
She borrows that first book out of a feeling of obligation. It is a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett. She finds it hard going, but she reads it all the way through because,
“…That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato—one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”
When she goes back to return it, she feels obliged to borrow another book. This time she picks up Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which turns out to be a fortunate choice, because she enjoys it thoroughly.
Then she reads the sequel and she picks up a couple of other books and she quickly discovers how one book leads to another and then another, opening doors to all sorts of interesting ideas.
She is accompanied in her reading by Norman Seakins a young man who works in the palace kitchens. She meets him in the mobile library on that first day and she befriends him. She has him promoted to serve on her own floor much to the chagrin of the rest of her staff who think he’s not “dolly” enough to be in that position.
The Queen thinks that Norman is quite the find because unlike most people he is not intimidated by her and he doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion. He finds books for her, on the internet, in the London Library and so on and they read and they talk about the books they are reading.
There is one particular scene when the Queen is up in Balmoral for the summer and she and Norman are reading Proust…
“It was a foul summer, cold, wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.”
It is such an evocative scene.
Not everyone is pleased by the Queen’s reading, though. Her absorption in books makes her less willing to bear with the tedium of all the events and ceremonies that she’s supposed to preside over. It makes her less particular about her clothes and her jewelry. It renders her perpetually late. But worst of all, she begins to ask all her visitors what they are reading and as one of her equerries puts it, “most people aren’t reading anything, the poor dears.”
The more she reads the more the Queen realises how little she knows of literature and how much catching up she needs to do. She regrets all those times when she’d met writers like T S Eliott, E M Foster and Walter de la mare and had nothing to say to them because she hadn’t read anything that they had written…
This is a charming book. It is a novella, a mere 120 pages long. But Alan Bennett has packed an astonishing amount of story, character and detail into those 120 pages. The writing is beautiful. It is witty, sharp and very engaging.
This is one of those rare books that drew me in so completely that the world disappeared for a bit. I would have read it in a single setting, if I’d had the time. As it is, I read it in two. And when I finished, I wanted to start over.
The first Terry Pratchett book that I read was Interesting Times. That was nearly 17 years ago. I had read a lot of science fiction by then, but I hadn’t read any fantasy or speculative fiction and this book (which is by no means Terry Pratchett’s best) pretty much blew my mind.
It was sharp and clever and funny and it had such wonderful characters. I feel in love with the Discworld and all it’s madness and I wanted more of it. So I went back to the library and I found a long list of titles. I read Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Small Gods, Soul Music and so many others.
I liked all of them, but Wyrd Sisters is one of my favourites. In fact I love all of Terry Pratchett’s books featuring the three witches. So this was a re-read but it’s been so long since I read it first that I had forgotten most of it and it read like a fresh book.
It kept me engrossed all through and I was taken again, but how clever the book is. This is Pratchett’s take on Shakespeare, complete with a theatre called the Dysk and a performance of Macbeth featuring three very real witches, a murderous Duke and his scheeming wife.
There is a fool who is sick of being one, the ghost of a King who has been murdered and a play that is put up to prove the innocence of the Duke who murdered the King, but ends up exposing him instead. So it is a bit like a performance of Macbeth, in the middle of Hamlet.
Through all this there are the three witches who save the dead King’s son and meddle with time and everything else to get the Duke off the throne and crown the real King.
It is such an engrossing book, an absolute romp from start to finish. If you like Terry Pratchett, you will love this book. And if you haven’t read him before, this book is a great place to start.
Yesterday I published my 200th post on this blog. I know that is not a particularly big number, but it is a milestone. I’ve been writing here for eight months now and I am surprised by the extent to which I enjoy it. Writing is one of the few things in my life that absorbs me so completely that the world and it’s noise disappear for a bit.
I think that when you have read enough books, you find yourself wanting to write, to express yourself in the words that you have come to love.
For some people that desire takes the form of a book and for other, perhaps less ambitious people like me, it takes the form of a blog. I’m not suggesting that every blogger is a reader, but I am saying that every serious reader has at one time or the other felt the urge to write.
A book blog isn’t much by way of writing, but it is a start. By it’s very nature it involves a lot of book reviews. A review may seem like a writing exercise at best, but it does teach you to think clearly and to try and understand exactly what you liked or didn’t like about a particular book and why.
And then you have to put all of that in words. You have to talk about the book while being careful not to give too much away. And yet you have to say enough to let the reader get the feel of the book…It is a fairly exacting task and it takes time and effort to get it right.
I like writing book reviews. I enjoy taking a book apart in my head and trying to decide how best to convey what it felt like to read it. This is particularly enjoyable when I find a book that I love. Every time I finish a book like that I have the urge to grab everyone I know and say, “You have to read this! It’s wonderful.”
This blog is perhaps an excuse to do that. I don’t know if any of you have noticed it, but nearly all of my reviews on this blog are positive. That is not because I like all the books that I read, but because I don’t read books that I don’t like.
If a book hasn’t grabbed me by page fifty, I abandon it. Sometimes, I get stuck in the middle of a book and I put it aside. I may pick it up again or I may not. The point is, I don’t force myself to finish a book that I am not enjoying and I do not review books that I don’t finish. So, in a sense, all my book reviews are book recommendations as well.
I often mention the books that I am reading in my journal, but I have never kept such a complete record of my books as I have here on my blog. While I’m not particularly concerned about the number of books I read in a particular year and things like that, it is nice to be able to look back and see the variety of books that have engaged me this past couple of months.
We book bloggers are a weird bunch. While other people are recording their lives, we record our books, almost as if the most important things that happen to us, happen inside our heads while we have them firmly buried inside a book…I don’t know if these are the most important things, but they are certainly the most interesting.
In the words of Bill Watterson,
“Calvin is named for a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination. Most people assume that Calvin is based on a son of mine, or based on detailed memories of my own childhood.
In fact, I don’t have children, and I was a fairly quiet, obedient kid—almost Calvin’s opposite. One of the reasons that Calvin’s character is fun to write is that I often don’t agree with him.
Calvin is autobiographical in the sense that he thinks about the same issues that I do, but in this, Calvin reflects my adulthood more than my childhood. Many of Calvin’s struggles are metaphors for my own. I suspect that most of us get old without growing up, and that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way.
I use Calvin as an outlet for my immaturity, as a way to keep myself curious about the natural world, as a way to ridicule my own obsessions, and as a way to comment on human nature. I wouldn’t want Calvin in my house, but on paper, he helps me sort through my life and understand it.”
“Named after a seventeenth-century philosopher with a dim view of human nature, Hobbes has the patient dignity and common sense of most animals I’ve met.
Hobbes was very much inspired by one of our cats, a gray tabby named Sprite. Sprite not only provided the long body and facial characteristics for Hobbes, she also was the model for his personality.
With most cartoon animals, the humor comes from their human-like behavior. Hobbes stands upright and talks of course, but I try to preserve his feline side, both in his physical demeanor and his attitude.
His reserve and tact seem very catlike to me, along with his barely contained pride in not being human. Like Calvin, I often prefer the company of animals to people, and Hobbes is my idea of an ideal friend.”
Calvin and Hobbes is set in the contemporary United States in an unspecified suburban area. Calvin is six years old and he has some strong opinions. Hobbes is his best friend, someone that he shares everything with. Hobbes can often see the absurdity of Calvin’s opinions and his behavior, but he puts up with it anyway.
Hobbes’ dual nature is a defining motif for the strip: to Calvin, Hobbes is a live tiger; all the other characters see him as an inanimate stuffed toy.
Bill Watterson explains this as follows:
“The so-called “gimmick” of my strip—the two versions of Hobbes—is sometimes misunderstood. I don’t think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin’s around.
Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin’s imagination. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that’s how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.“
Calvin and Hobbes was conceived when Bill Watterson was working in advertising. It was a job that he detested and he wanted a way out. So he began devoting his spare time to cartooning, his true love. He explored various strip ideas but all of them were rejected by the syndicates.
United Media finally responded positively to one strip, which featured a side character (the main character’s little brother) who had a stuffed tiger. Told that these characters were the strongest, Watterson began a new strip centered on them.
Though United Feature rejected the new strip, Universal Press Syndicate eventually took it. Here is the first strip that was published on November 18, 1985.
The series was an instant hit and within a year of syndication, it was being published in roughly 250 newspapers. At the height of its popularity, Calvin and Hobbes was featured in over 2,400 newspapers worldwide. Nearly 45 million copies of the Calvin and Hobbes books have been sold and reruns still appear in more than 50 countries.
Like many artists, Watterson incorporated elements of his life, interests, beliefs and values into his work—for example, his hobby as a cyclist, memories of his own father’s speeches about “building character”, and his views on merchandising and corporations.
From the outset, Watterson found himself at odds with the syndicate, which urged him to begin merchandising the characters and touring the country to promote the first collections of comic strips. Watterson refused. He believed that the integrity of the strip and its artist would be undermined by commercialisation which he saw as a major negative influence in the world of cartoon art.
He also grew increasingly frustrated by the gradual shrinking of available space for comics in the newspapers. He lamented that without space for anything more than simple dialogue or sparse artwork, comics as an art form were becoming dilute, bland, and unoriginal.
Watterson announced the end of Calvin and Hobbes on November 9, 1995, saying that he had achieved what he could within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. He said that he was eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises. Here is the last strip of Calvin and Hobbes that was published on December 31, 1995.
Since then Watterson has taken up painting and he has kept away from the public eye. He has given no indication of resuming the strip, creating new works based on the characters, or embarking on other projects, though he has published several anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes.
Wishlist Wednesday is a meme hosted by Pen to Paper, where bloggers get the chance to show which books they’ve added to their wishlist this week. My book for this week is:
This has been described as a deliciously funny novella which celebrates the pleasure of reading. It features the queen of England, Queen Elizabeth the second, who is the uncommon reader in the title. It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library.
She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but so much of it was required of her that she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of that experience.
I heard about this book on A Good Read on BBC Radio 4. The description of the book was enough to make me want to read it, but the conversation that followed was so interesting that by the end of it, I was absolutely panting to get my hands on this book.
I love books about books and reading. These tend to be non fiction, but here is a novel about reading and it features the Queen and her slow discovery of the pleasures of literature. That is such a wonderful premise.
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It is a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person. […] Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. Books are proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
“I wanted to be a scientist from the moment I first caught on that stars are mighty suns, [and] it dawned on me how staggeringly far away they must be to appear to us as mere points of light.”
That is Carl Sagan who was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934. He was interested in science from the very beginning and he was particularly fascinated by the stars.
He spent many nights of his childhood in a field, situating himself so he couldn’t see any buildings, trees, or anything else and he would sit there and watch the sky.
He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was only 16. He then went on to become a professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
At a time when most other astronomers were focusing on distant stars, other galaxies, and the history of the universe, Sagan focused his research on the planets in our own solar system. He was particularly interested in the possibility that there might be life beyond the planet Earth.
Because he had done extensive research on nearby planets, NASA hired him as an advisor for a mission to send remote-controlled spacecrafts to Venus. Sagan said: “It was just a dream come true. We were actually going to go to the planets!”
In preparation for the mission, Sagan was shocked to learn that there would be no cameras on the robotic spacecrafts, called Mariner I and Mariner II.
The other scientists thought cameras would be a waste of valuable space and equipment. They wanted to measure things like temperature and magnetism. Sagan couldn’t believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He said, “Cameras are important precisely because they could answer questions we are too stupid to ask.”
Sagan lost the argument that time, but he won over NASA eventually. The Mariners were the last exploratory spacecraft ever launched by NASA without cameras.
He contributed to the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo planetary exploration missions, and his insistence on the use of cameras helped us get the first close-up photographs of the outer planets and their moons.
Sagan understood that in order to get the public to care about science and be willing to give tax dollars to science, he would have to appeal to their sense of wonder.
He created the TV show Cosmos, which attracted an audience of more than half a billion people in 60 countries. It was the most popular scientific television program ever produced. The book, also called Cosmos, that Sagan wrote alongside the TV series spent more than 70 weeks on the bestseller list.
He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden (1977), about the evolution of human intelligence, and he was also the author of the best-selling novel Contact (1985), which was later made into a movie.
Sagan wrote 20 popular books and hundreds of scientific studies. Nevertheless, his fame brought him criticism from other scientists and a snub from the National Academy of Scientists, when he was nominated for membership but not accepted.
Carl Sagan was the most well known American scientist of the 80’s and 90’s, but he was more than a just a TV presenter, author and celebrity. He was a serious scientist who wanted to make the wonder and mystery of science available to everyone. His work has inspired many a young scientist and this is perhaps his greatest legacy.
Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
Reading has defined me all my life. So when I come across a book titled How Reading Changed my Life, I know that I will probably like it. After all there is little that is more interesting to me than talking about books.
This is a charming book. It is small in that it is a mere 96 pages long, but the author manages to use that space discuss a wide variety of topics. It is divided into five chapters over which Anna Quindlen explores everything from childhood reading to a brief history of printing to worries that the internet will put an end to physical books to literary snobbery, reading habits and reading lists
She begins by talking about her childhood, hours and days spent in a cozy chair as she devoured book after book while other kids ran around and played outside. She says,
“The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life. That was where the real people were, the trees that moved in the wind, the still, dark waters.”
“There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger.”
I felt an instant kinship with her at this point, because this is the way my childhood went as well.
Her parents weren’t avid readers, so she didn’t have many books at home. She describes vividly how it felt the first time she walked into a house that was filled with books. She talks at some length about all the books she has loved over the years. While I have read and loved very few of the books that she mentions, that it no way diminished my interest in her discussion of them.
No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.
I often hear people saying that they don’t re-read books, either because they don’t see the point or because they don’t want to waste time on a book that they’ve read already when there are so many other books to read.
Like any serious reader, I too wonder how I am ever going to find the time to read all the books I want to read. I know that I could read so much more if I didn’t keep going back to the books I love. But then I like going back to them.
I fall in love with a book every once in a while and it feels like such a tragedy when the book ends. I can’t bear the idea of putting it aside and never looking at it again. I have to read it and relive it a few times before I feel like I have experienced it properly.
I have been re-reading books ever since I was a kid. Whether it was Little Women , Anne of Green Gables, King Solomon’s Mines or Around the World in Eighty Days…Each of these books was a world that I enjoyed tramping about in and I was always game for a return trip.
The list of books on my ‘to be re-read’ list has morphed and changed over the years but the list itself is a constant. At the moment, it includes books like Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and several of his other books, Aldous Huxley’s Island, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment and so on…
And then there are writers like James Herriot, P G Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff, all of whose books I will happily read again and again.
I go into a familiar book knowing exactly what happens and that is the very thing that makes it so much fun the second time around. I enjoy the book more because I don’t have to worry about what happens next. I can focus on the characters and the dialogue and enjoy the words and the world that they help create.
Perhaps I should admit here that people and characters matter more to me than plot and action. Maybe that is why I like memoirs so much. And my favourite kind of novel is one that has characters with depth and substance, characters that I can truly care about.
While I loved a lot of the books that I read as a child, the first character that I fell in love with is Elizabeth Bennett with Mr Darcy being a close second. I must have been around fifteen years old when my great-grandmother gave me her copy of Pride and Prejudice and told me that it was her favourite book.
It didn’t take me long to understand why. I have read it many times since and yet each time I am caught by the characters and their world and I read feverishly until I stop myself and try to go slow in an effort to make the book last a little bit longer.
The next book that I fell that crazy in love with was 84 Charing Cross Road.. The author, Helene Hanff used to re-read books all the time. She says in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another beloved book, that,
“While other people are reading fifty books, I’m reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”
I’ve had to put 84 Charing Cross Road away for that very reason. But I enjoyed living in that book. It was my first encounter with someone outside my family who was as crazy about books as we were.
Reading a book is more than just entertainment or a way to pass the time. It is an experience and some books are so good that I have to go into them again and again just to live in that world for a bit.
But it is true that all books are not as good the second time, even the well-loved ones. Some books hold a magic for us because of a particular time or place in our lives when we read them, a magic that cannot be recreated a second time.
I think this is particularly true of the books we read as children. I discovered this recently, when I tried to read King Solomon’s Mines. I have such fond memories of this book and I was sure I would enjoy reading it again…I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the book. And it made me feel awful, like I’d gone and messed up a wonderful memory.
And then there are books that suffer from over-exposure like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. I love these books and I have read them both a couple of times.
But I’ve seen the movies so many times, thanks to my kids who were obsessed with both of these series and would watch nothing else for months on end that it is going to be several years before I can go back to them and find them fresh again. But I know I will go back to them someday and that I will enjoy them thoroughly.
If I love a book, I will read it again. I have to read it again. Not doing so is like throwing away a treasure after holding it just once. Or to quote Anne Fadiman who put together a whole book called Re-readings,
“…the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”
In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the ‘shalt nots’ of the Ten Commandments. I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong.
One of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, described that evil, that wrong, existing in a different dimension from our own. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping.
And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.
This is a book that is hard to describe. It is a bit genre defying or genre busting as one critic called it. It is obviously a book about food and cooking, but it is a lot more than that.
Pollan begins the book by saying that he has spent years writing about the industrial food system, nutrition and health. He’s explored the production end of it and the consumer end of it but he has somehow never focused on the the process in the middle: cooking.
That is what he tries to do in this book. He explores the different processes of cooking by apprenticing himself to experts…barbecue pit masters, chefs, bakers, cheese mongers, brewers and fermentos.
So the book is a memoir of sorts, a record of his experiences in the process of learning to cook. It is clear that he’s had a lot of fun and that he’s worked hard and learned a lot of new skills. That in itself would have made interesting reading.
But the book is more than a memoir. There is the history of barbecue, the science of sourdough bread, the mechanics of sauerkraut and the social and political implications of handing over the business of cooking to corporations.
Through the book he stresses the importance of cooking for yourself. “Cooking is a political act,” he says. By buying fresh, local ingredients and cooking for yourself you are choosing against food companies and industrial farms.
These are themes that he has explored before, but he weaves these ideas rather deftly into his exploration of cooking and makes the discussion more nuanced than it would otherwise have been.
The book begins with a trip to Aiden, North Carolina to sample authentic whole hog barbecue. Then Pollan chronicles his experience learning to cook with barbecue pit master Ed Mitchell.
The next section is about cooking with water, in covered pots the way women have done for centuries. Here Pollan apprentices himself to a chef, Samin Nosrat, a woman who was once his student.
Then comes baking and learning to bake bread. For this he goes to Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery. He learns to bake bread but is then forced to face the fact that his beautiful loaf of white bread is nutritionally empty. This leads to the exploration of whole grain flour and the challenge of baking with it.
Then there are all the intricacies of fermentation from yoghurt to sauerkraut to beer to kimchi to cheese. And the whole science of gut bacteria.
The book has a very broad range and it is fascinating. It is well researched and extremely well written. And despite the history and science and philosophy of the different kinds of food and cooking that Pollan includes here, he manages to keep it interesting.
This is not easy reading by any means. It is information heavy and I found it easier to read in bits and pieces than straight through.
Cooked is a good book. It is an important book and one that will make you think whether you are interested in food or not.
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.