And No, I’m Not Sorry

This is not a thinkpiece about not needing to apologize, excessive apologizing, etc.  There are lots of those.  Google should have your back.  This is about the stages of talking about what you love:  here, specifically, literature.  And, specifically, embracing what books you love, unapologetically.


 

I saw a tweet recently that said the person was so mad that Infinite Jest was trending, she couldn’t even think of something funny to say.  I’m not sure of her specific complaint about the book, but, yes, it has plenty of flaws, and it’s one of the most polarizing novels I can think of.  Is anyone lukewarm about that one?

My response:  I love that a book can make someone have such a charged reaction.  And I love that it’s trending!  Not that I had anything to say about it in 140 characters.


 

The three stages of loving a book that I’ve come up with are:  1)  Exuberant like/dislike, often forged with some sort of specific identity as a factor.  2)  Increased awareness of what it’s “acceptable” to like/dislike, and mumbling over specifics when quizzed about things not en vogue.  3)  Saying forget it and just liking what you like, no apologies.


Which isn’t to say be offensive:  your favorite book will not and cannot be someone else’s favorite.  You really can’t convert everyone to a book or author, and it can get very annoying if you try.  There’s a difference between recommending something (if someone asked, if you know the person and think they’d like it) and beaning people on the head with a particular book.

It also doesn’t mean that you should insult other people’s taste in books (of course, if you know them well and do this facetiously, it can be a great deal of fun . . .).  I had my second conversation with someone I don’t know at all (have only met in passing) who is working his way through all of Sherlock Holmes, which sounds dreadful to me.  I don’t know this guy, but I can tell he’s extremely enthusiastic– extremely unapologetic.

However, I talked to someone Sunday (another stranger) who asked what I was reading (Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?— rereading, and if you have my original proof copy, I want it back).  After some discussion, we arrived at the point that she would be interested in that one, and she took down the title and author.  I was pleased, because I would certainly love to bean people with that book.  (cough, cough, recommendation)


Back to apologizing and Infinite Jest.  The book has to be something to have sprawled one of the most comprehensive sites on the internet.  And a considerable number of venomous sites.  Does the book have a considerable number of problems?  Yes.  Do I like it anyway?  Yep.

I’m reading Artful right now and came across this passage written by Katherine Mansfield, inside Aaron’s Rod by D.H. Lawrence:  “There are certain things in this book I do not like.  But they are not important, or really part of it.  They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a of a leaf– no more,– and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as a kind of silliness.  But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig.  All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.”  (p. 87)

There are certain things in IJ (or any book) I do not like.  They may or may not be important/part of it (I’m suspicious of that particular claim, along with the triviality, frankly).  I do love the idea that the book is the leaf, the tree, that nourishes the reader.  That, for awhile, readers are able to suspend some qualms (in a moment) and be nourished, though I’d argue that engaging the problematic parts of a text is part of the nourishing process.


No text is conceived and born without faults.  There is no Ur-Text with no flaws to critique.  There is also the simple progression of time:  time moves on, and texts very frequently don’t age well (or become encumbered with new critiques).  Frequently, there is a manner of degree involved here, but save that for you and your friends to debate over coffee.  That’s a separate post.

I only want to say that there is no such thing as a perfect text, something inherently polished and perfect.  Some flaws are celebrated, some need to be discussed.  This keeps book reviewers in business, and this makes literature interesting.  It’s also why you can say “A really means a lot to me, because of XYZ,” and agree when someone shrieks (or tweets) in protest.

It also means that you can dislike something but have a civil (if superficial) conversation with a stranger.  I’m venting now, after all.  And things will balance when you have a somewhat deeper conversation with yet another stranger.

If books are a language we can share, don’t shout each other down in that language, and don’t just mumble apologies about what you love and drift into the corner.  Keep talking, keep sharing.


UNNECESSARY APPENDIX 

Redundant?

These are the books that are lying on the sofa that really, really needs cleaning up, because it looks like a bookmobile exploded.  Recommendations?  Things to avoid?  Up to you:

  • Artful, Ali Smith
  • The World Is on Fire, Joni Tevis [recommended to me]
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
  • modern American poetry anthology, because my complete Wallace Stevens is AWOL
  • Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh [recommended to me]

 

 

 

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Mockingbirds, Gödel, and Chopping Broccoli


Caveat:  This one is brought to you by insomnia, after Gödel, Escher, Bach (cheaper than sleeping pills) failed to knock me out.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Title image:  from Empathy by Sarah Schulman.


 

Is this common among introvert-type, bookworm children (now nominally adults): a mockingbird tendency to steal the song of others, rather than using our own voices?

I know I’m guilty, and I know that probably needs some explanation.  When I feel like I’m on stable ground or in familiar/safe territory, I’m more free with my own speech.  When pressured to speak about something that makes me uncomfortable or upset, I’ll back into the pages of a book.  It’s how I retreat.

There’s a certain amount of learning everything and learning nothing involving in reading, which is where this defense mechanism becomes complicated.  You can quote pages of relevant material, but those pages are not lived experience.  If you’re like me, you sometimes use fiction as a stand-in for discussing lived experience, because talking about what is or was is too acutely painful and difficult.

It’s not quite the same as looking for a 1:1 parallel to your own situation in a novel (though I’d love to see the search algorithm online booksellers would have to devise for that one).  I certainly did that more as a child:  see my requisite Harriet the Spy stage (I also wanted to be Sport; it was very complex).

As characters, often through internal monologue, reveal (only to the reader) what is unsaid, it does feel powerful that someone did not so much find the words (though that’s a feat– but a book review, not for this post) as put them on paper, in the public eye.  When I’m on the spot, I may sputter a bit before commencing my ongoing Jane Goodall-level study of carpet fibers.  It’s not the same creative process, and it’s not nearly as articulate.


 

In case I’ve painted myself as a quoting automaton, that’s not quite the case.  This is what happens when I’m acutely, unusually uncomfortable.  If I can’t (or don’t want to) use my own words, I’ll use someone else’s.

To be clear, it’s not the same thing as posting a mystery, you figure-it-out song lyric on Facebook; I am trying to make myself understood.  It’s a literary defense mechanism.

Of course, a bon mot, well-placed, can be a lot of fun.  Having “a way with words” often involves coopting other people’s.  If I can’t quote Dorothy Parker, I’m taking my toys and going home.

And I just assume that everyone ELSE also sings “Choppin’ Broccoli” (hey, that’s a classic!) while chopping broccoli . . . .


APPENDIX, AND QUITE UNNECESSARY

I didn’t let myself quote anything while writing this one.  That was hard.  This is getting into vaguebooking territory, but I can’t resist tacking on a reading list of books that, at various times, I’ve torn chunks out of for personal use.  Consider them reading recommendations.  Or reasons to avoid me.

My only real (facetious) attempt at vaguebooking to date has been to declare that my mood was “whatever Peter Wolf says at the beginning of ‘Whammer Jammer.'”  I’m working on it.

DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU

A Broken Wall of Books, Imperfectly Shelved

Title:  Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus.  Image:  London, Terry Pratchett BookBench.

“I looked hard at the image of me, at that darkening of the glass, and then my gaze pushed through it, over the cool floor, to a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved.”


Let me begin by saying that, per usual, this post is satire.  I’m going to be joking about libraries, something I actually take seriously.  To balance this post (and because I think it’s a truly wonderful book), I’m going to recommend Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (a memoir), which discusses, eloquently but simply, the crucial importance libraries have had in her life.  I’m also going to mention a truly excellent novel, The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai, which is a perfectly realistic (and very funny) book that still manages to convey the idea that librarians are actually superheroes and that libraries are pretty much magic.

You may read the post when you have completed the reading on the syllabus and finished your 5-7 page essays.  [1]


Ground Rules:  Libraries, an Overview

Sir Pterry:

  1. Silence
  2. Books must be returned no later than the last date shown
  3. Do not meddle with the nature of causality.

Note that The Librarian will break/bend 1 and 3, but never 2.  So, if you know who you are and have had my copy of Readme since 2011/12, you could maybe consider that three years is kind of pushing the due date?

Just had to bring that up.  Again.  This individual knows who he is.

Spotted recently at flea market.

Spotted recently at flea market:  mugshot.  YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE, BOOK THIEF.


LEGOS FTW 

(I only recently found out that “FTW” apparently does NOT mean what it once did.  I’ve probably been sending some confusing text messages.  One site helpfully notes that my previously-intended meaning “has dramatically faded in use in the 21st century.”  THANKS.)

I think I probably had an ideal LEGO childhood:  some nearby neighbors had children somewhat older than us, and that, in the fashion of the time, had resulted in a massive LEGO collection.  This was when it was mostly just loose, random LEGOs, not really sets and kits:  little teeny-tiny colorful bricks.  My brother and I inherited this splendor, and many things were created (and many bricks were embedded in feet and inhaled by the vacuum, but So It Goes).

This is the type of LEGOs I'm trying to describe:  not a set, generic, perfect for building absolutely anything.

This is the type of LEGOs I’m trying to describe: not a set, generic, perfect for building absolutely anything.

I do realize the above ad has been pretty ubiquitous as of late, but rightly so.  At any rate, that IS what they looked like.  For that matter, I also wore overalls a great deal of the time during that period.  I’m kind of suspicious that gender-neutral LEGOs and overalls caused any lasting damage, but I’m willing to volunteer for a scientific study if anyone would like to try to prove it.  And I also played with Micro Machines.  [hushed gasps]

Oh, and Barbies, but, admittedly, mine were kind of twisted.  Twisted pretty much meaning serial killers tending toward sociopathic.

This is an actual artist's work.  Sadly, not mine.

This is an actual artist’s work. Sadly, not mine.

If any of you readers have children who would like to be shown how to make a DIY Barbie body cast using supplies in your own home . . .


I digress.  As usual.


I enjoy the LEGO ideas site, where people get to propose potential LEGO sets.  If you’re not familiar with it, the design is posted, along with detailed pictures and (usually) a lengthy description.  If it attains the necessary number of backers, it will be reviewed to become an actual sold-in-stores LEGO set.  It’s sort of an imaginary toy store.

I’ve been eying the “Modular Library” submission, a 1920s Baroque building intended to fit with other modular building sets.

(“People with no upper-body strength, who read poetry. These are my people.”  —How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran)

But would I be me if I didn’t have two (plus) cents to add?  Of course not!  I’m pretty sure these are not the sort of suggestions they’re soliciting on the site, so . . .


Exterior

Modular Library-- exterior

Modular Library– exterior

I could talk about the mix of styles popular in that era, compare and contrast with the six common Carnegie library plans, etc., but who’s here for library school?

Not me, sailor.

Let’s dissect. I’ll start with the bike.  I don’t see a chain there.  That sucker is going to get stolen as soon as white-shirt dude blinks.  Ideally, there should be a lurker around the corner watching out for unattended bikes.  [2]

The skateboard person should be causing a disruption.  And why is (s)he even outside?  Is there a hard surface hall in that building?  That’s where they should be.  Right in front of the “NO SKATEBOARDS” sign would be perfect.  Don’t forget to scuff the floor!

I’m not sure how to covey this idea, but it should be clear that the person with the briefcase intends to run a business out of the library (needless to say, in violation of policy).  Suggestions for locating this guy:  at circ desk, demanding to use phone, or in a study carrel, with cell phone (generating multiple complaints and exceeding time limits for said carrel).  Bonus if you can figure out a way to indicate that he’s complaining about the wi-fi speed and/or Internet restrictions.

The woman carrying a satchel has stolen books.  At least one of the following should be peeking out:  anything by Zane, Confessions of a Video Vixen, something about the occult, or The Heroin Diaries.

Wimborne Minster: the chained library (1686):  no doubt contains then-current equivalents of the above

Wimborne Minster: the chained library (1686): no doubt contains then-current equivalents of the above

Apply graffiti and disrupt removable/breakable fixtures as necessary.  Oh, and that other guy should feel free to fall and threaten a lawsuit.

Taken at a remote gas station several years ago,

Taken at a remote gas station several years ago,  I posted it on Twitter some time later; within minutes, someone (a person? an entity? It wasn’t clear) attacked me with “informative” 140-character capsules intended to educate me about objectivism.  Then the questions got really weird:  what type of pen was used to write this?  (I didn’t write it.)  John Galt is on Twitter, and he is watching.


Some Exterior Details

1447811-lower_zoom-thumbnail

Front door detail

There’s the thief again.  But on to front doors.  These should really be papered with signage in mega-fonts about Really, Seriously Important Stuff You Need to Know.  Say, hours.  The printer is broken, no, seriously, we’re not kidding, and we can’t print whatever it is, because, like we said, the printer is broken.  Internet is down, and no, there is no Internet, because it’s down.  Etc.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign . . .

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign . . .

Signs are actually decorative.  No one reads them.  They are beneficial for employees, however, as they are easy to point at while banging one’s head repeatedly on the desk.

See:  9 Very Specific Rules from Real Libraries (signs).  Fact:  no one ever read these signs before they appeared in this Mental Floss article.

Skylight detail

Skylight detail

Okay, not much to say here.  I was briefly in a library buildings-related course (until I figured out that a) I needed to drop one course that semester and b) oops, I was actually taking one more course than was required for the degree in the first place), but I’m pretty sure that the thesis was if you design a library with a skylight, you get what you deserve.


Computers?

1448329-book_cases-thumbnail

Just no.

It is at this point where I do question whether or not the designer has been in a library.  I see a lone user with a computer and what may be a book.

I do not see:  porn, YouTube, the hand-waving thing directed at the circ staff, any attempt to shield the screen, contraband beverages, the general appearance of attempting to colonize the space, seriously questionable images that are debatably porn, or a screen full of error messages.

I’m not sure why a book would be involved.  Or why the computer appears to be a Apple II (possibly a Commodore?).  Or why the computer is located in close proximity to the shelves.

1448427-second_level-thumbnail

Is this a joke?

Admittedly, at first the confusion here was my fault:  I thought this was supposed to represent a second computer user.  After looking again, I’m thinking maybe it’s a reference desk?

So:  why is the reference guy old and balding?  I call stereotype.  Old, decrepit librarian alert!  (“. . . when I returned from my summer vacation I would be put in charge of the Reference Room, a position that had been empty ever since that morning when Martha Winney had fallen off a high stool in the Encyclopedia Room and shattered all those frail bones . . . .”  —okay, if this is actually some sort of Roth homage, I’m way too tired/dull-minded to figure it out.)

Nancy Perl Action Figure (Deluxe).  All libraries are required to have one.  Please note that nothing, including acts of God, will keep any component of this set standing upright.

Nancy Pearl Action Figure (Deluxe). All libraries are required to have one. Please note that nothing, including acts of God, will keep any component of this set standing upright.

But I do notice he gets a decidedly Mac-looking laptop, whereas the patron has the Commodore.  Not sure what’s up with that (but somebody, probably the lady with the green book, will be remarking about where her tax dollars are going).

“My tax dollars pay your salary!” (via librarianproblems)

The green book appears to have a bottle of ketchup on it.  I’m therefore titling this reference volume Presidential Fact Book 1980-1988, V. 3:  Ketchup and Other Vegetables.  [3]

The brown thing center-right– stool?  chair?  I’m not really sure.  I think maybe it’s a luxe brown leather Pottery Barn kiddie chair (I feel sure they make those).

If that is indeed a reference section, that’s where employees go to weed ruthlessly and talk about the cost of electronic databases.


Water Fountains

1448429-fountain-thumbnail

That looks like a bidet, says the potty-minded one.

Before I start rambling about the bidet/fountain, is that Princess Leia?  Hair + white top.  Compare:

Leia_1204530c

Just looking for a water fountain. Or bidet. No preference, really.

The official description calls it a water fountain, so we’ll go with that.  So, first things first:  there’s no gum in it.  It is a Major Library Rule that all fountains must be inoperative for some reason, and gum is a chief culprit.

Does anybody else remember this?  I don't remember the official Ghostbusters one, but there was definitely a knockoff.  Anyone?

Does anybody else remember this? I don’t remember the official Ghostbusters one, but there was definitely a knockoff. Anyone?

Another little-known fact is that water fountains are only available to public libraries through practical-joke companies.  This is why they’re ideal for a cold shower (of course, you could just bathe in the bathroom like most people, but that’s another story).  Getting blasted directly in the face with subfreezing water is another favorite trick, with is sort of a Gwyneth Paltrow GOOP-sounding tip, come to think of it.  [4]

Please stay tuned for my upcoming bestseller:  The Public Library Water Fountain Cleanse.

There are also books next to the water fountain.  I have no clue.


Bond.  James Bond.

notherenotherenotherenothere

notherenotherenotherenothere

This image actually has no label or explanation.

What you’re seeing here is the elusive library employee sneaking in the back door.  I believe it is a cataloguser bibliotheca (gimme a break; I never had Latin; ataloger-cay?).

Seldom spotted, this creature often remains huddled at a desk, whose principal features are the following:

  • caffeine potables
  • all-purpose cardigan, perhaps made of Kevlar– actually a cape!
  • cat hair.  duh.
  • various reference manuals, probably tear stained (particularly applicable post-RDA)
  • backlog
  • shattered pieces of sanity
Real World, Library

Real World, Library

Diet Coke cans highly underrepresented here; must have been post-recycling haul.  Post–Its causing twitching.  Time sheet is most definitely not filled out correctly/entirely (shout out to the business office).  Two Dewey manuals = 2x the power.

You can only see the cataloger if you are Pure of Spirit.

You can only see the cataloger if you are Pure of Spirit.  Verily, she is a unicorn.

Patient warnings:  Muttering and cursing to be expected (again, particularly post-RDA).  The twitching eyelid thing is probably actually a tribute to the Coca-Cola company, Flying Spaghetti Monster bless it.  Either that or the label printer is doing THAT THING.  Should cataloger suffer mental collapse, it’s not you or the library– it’s her.  And if any of you are reading this, she still thinks you’re all pretty great.


Other Suggested Additions

This is for any workplace, really.  Picture circa 1950s.

Apparently from Time?  America, why is your emotional life run by Time Magazine?  Why are your libraries full of tears?  ANSWER:  whiskey shortage.

Apparently from Time? Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?  Why are your libraries full of tears? [here] ANSWER: whiskey shortage.

C’est tout.

Almost.


The Meta Portion  [5]

[1]  Times New Roman, double-spaced, MLA.  Do not, as a student once did, call during SVU to ask for an extension.

[2]  

I’m told operetta is low-class.  Well . . . I like it.  QED?

[3]  Technically, the actual 1981 FNS cited pickle relish (as one example of a vegetable substitute), not ketchup; ketchup was the catchphrase.  In the end, the entire part of that portion of the FNS (that said condiments– which presumably did include ketchup) got cut.  The revised policy never got accepted in the end (more due to reduction in school meal size quantity and exclusion of large numbers of previously-eligible schoolchildren from free- and reduced price lunches).  And that was your virtual visit to the reference desk!  I’m so sneaky!  And easily sidetracked!

[4]  Given the current popularity of live tweeting, I plan to try no fewer than five GOOP-recommened cleanses– at once— and share (I love that word– #sarcasm)– the experience.  Given my own experiences with, um, “dieting,” I sort of think that’s probably not medically recommended.

April, this brief appearance of Donna in no way indicates that you are being replaced as my role model.  FYI.

April, this appearance of Donna in no way indicates that you are being replaced as my role model. FYI.

[5]  “I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it it.'”  Sorry.  That felt obligatory.  Also just had to get it out of my system.  [5a]

     [5a]  And now you can follow up with:  “What in God’s name are those . . . . those sounds?”  Which is probably pretty much how you feel about this blog in general.  [5b]

           [5b]  And now can say “I am not what you see and hear,” which is generally how I feel, anyway.  I hope this footnote series has given you the warm metafuzzies.

(snicker)

(snicker)


Don’t Mourn (?), Organize!  Or at Least Read Some Stuff . . .

So . . .

Keep up with federal legislation regarding libraries.  People kinda like to try to yank funds.

You may have (ahem) heard me mention this, but the Patriot Act . . . yeah.

Federal funding matters.  You can probably also find out what your state is up to.

Know about your privacy.

Diversity is a thing.

“There is less in this than meets the eye.”

(post title credit:  Talullah Bankhead again; main post image, no reason other than love for The Muppet Show)


First Things First:  Progress, Ho!

If you read the Outpost, you’ll see in the comment to the latest post that there’s a promised post forthcoming.  Believe it or not, it’s in the works:  there’s an actual (incomplete) draft.  Progress slowed down a bit when I did something highly mysterious that led to shutting down every window and program on my computer, thus losing all the resources I had gathered (they also somehow vanished from my browser history).  Whatever I did there, don’t do that.

I’m bouncing two additional ideas around for shorter posts (Outpost again).  Not sure if they’ll pan out.

Notice Anything Different?

Yeah, thought not.

I’m working on adding links (right sidebar), which has been on my to-do for this blog since day one.  I started last night and will continue to add sporadically.  Last night, as you can see currently, was mostly humor stuff (which, somehow, devolved into being mainly webcomics– I’m not entirely sure what happened there).  For the record, this is stuff I do actually read, though obviously, I don’t visit them all every last day.

Words with . . . Families?  An Actual Sort-Of Personal Story

I think it’s at least fairly common that immediate families have a few (sometimes a lot) of made-up words or codewords unique to them.  From what I’ve seen and heard, these tend to involve words with sexual connotations or that relate to bodily functions.  I did Google it, and some families get a little more creative:  see here and here for short lists of examples (reader-submitted).  [1]  

I’m not sure these technically qualify as neologisms (“bae,” etc.), since they never enter the popular vernacular.  Someone else would have to clarify that; I’m really not clear on that one.  [2]

What’s I’m coming around to is one my family uses.  Something to know first is that, if you dropped all four of us in a bookstore, we separate to such far extremes that reuniting is a monumental task; our tastes vary in the extreme.  We all agree, though, that My Life and Hard Times (James Thurber) is a singularly hilarious book.  [3]  

In the chapter “Other Alarms at Night,” Thurber lies awake all night, trying in vain to come up with the name of the New Jersey town Perth Amboy.  In the dead of night, he wakes up his (already-nervous) father and demands, without explanation, that he begin naming towns in New Jersey, getting more and more insistent– and leading his father to believe he’s lost his mind.

When someone in my family has a nagging, insistent, can’t-remember-something-trivial problem that is actively bothering them, this is a Perth Amboy situation.  It’s also a Perth Amboy situation when the answer springs to your mind at 3 AM, when you’ve invariably been lying awake to that point trying to pinpoint whatever meaningless thing won’t leave you alone.

This happened last night, after I’d gone to bed.  I have no idea on this earth how Don Johnson appeared in my mind, but there he was.  I thought of Miami Vice. . . but what was that TV show he was on in the 90s?  Cop?  PI?  Yellow car.  Right.  Yellow car.  Barracuda.  [4]  The end result was a nocturnal visit to imdb:  Nash Bridges.  (here is the Wikipedia summary— I chose it because it shows how like, totally, seriously deep a show it was)  But:  Perth Amboy!

In Conclusion

No, I haven’t seen 50 Shades.  I started the first book (at the library) but quickly delivered a hard “no” to all involved.  [5]  With all the cumulative press dating from the publication of the books to the movie’s release, it’s not at all hard to have a pretty concrete idea of the finer plot details, though.  So I present you with my two favorite articles thus far:  a review of the movie plus a soundtrack review.  (these are funny, not analytical/deep– you’re thinking of the auxiliary blog)

“No Pain, No Gain”  (New Yorker)

“Breaking Down the 50 Shades of Grey Soundtrack, One Track at a Time” (Esquire)  [6]


Before You Go

Thurber was also pretty famous for his bizarre cartoons (they illustrated his books and often appeared in the New Yorker).  You often have to project your own narrative onto them to some extent to interpret them; it’s hard to explain.  You’ll probably notice that he has a distinctive drawing style; he lost sight in one eye (result of an accident) as a child and rapidly began to lose all sight as an adult.  There’s only one dog here, but his dog drawings may be the things that are most famous now (the dog shown here is from My Life and Hard Times).  If you want to see more, there are many more images available via Google image search.

ThurberMyPistol ThurberInsurrection ThurberBrynMawr 8213932 thurber-wrong-number


[1]  As with pretty much anything, there’s more out there.  The two links I’ve chosen are not euphemism-type lists; they’re more the out-in-left-field variety.

[2]  Also, do these South Park contributions count?

[3]  My favorite from the volume, “The Night the Bed Fell,” is in the New Yorker archive (1933) here.  If reading Project Gutenberg doesn’t make you cross-eyed, the whole book is here.

[4]  Entirely typical for every single detail but the vehicle involved to evade me.  Someday, my children, I’ll gather you ’round me and tell you my El Camino theory (TM).

[5]  I read the first Twilight while hospitalized; I had access to all three of those and Trainspotting.  I read Trainspotting, then Twilight.  I considered the second volume of Twilight, then read Trainspotting twice more while waiting for further reading material.  Reading that book three times in less than a week is . . . interesting.

[6]  Not my usual reading material.  Caitlin Moran (formerly a music journalist) tweeted the link.

Literary Characters who Died and Took Me with Them

Announcement:  I READ A LOT.

Now that that little-known fact is out of the way, I’ll begin.  I think about this a lot (morbid much?), moments in books that really devastated me (readers, you understand).  Of course, the #1 Devastating Moment is when an adored character dies.  This is a highly incomplete list, since you probably don’t have all day.  Needless to say, here be spoilers. I’m putting the title of the book in bold before I talk about it, so if you haven’t read it and plan to, you can skip to the next book.  If there’s a good story of my acute emotional trauma that goes along with that death, I’ll throw it in there.

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This one is for the history buffs: a Civil War vet’s tombstone in Charleston, SC.

A disclaimer before I begin:  this is going to look like I read mostly male authors, which is actually not true.  BUT.  I actually started Googling dead female literary characters, sans success.  I turned the search to just literary heroines, etc.– surely I was forgetting somebody big?  I mean, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, sure, but they’re not top 10 material.  And you know what I learned?  Most female characters either A)  kick butt, take names, and live, B) are as invisible as the curtains, and if they die, they didn’t make an impression in the first place– and die the same way.  Most actually fit A.  So it’s the menfolk who are dropping left and right.  Make of that what you will.

LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL– Thomas Wolfe

First, I love the Charlie Parker murder mystery series by John Connolly.  [1]  His gay hitmen Angel and Louis (not the central characters) alone make them worth reading.  In the most recent novel, Angel is hanging out in a (real!) Asheville used bookstore, spying on a contract killer.  He’s reading the Max Perkins bio (put that on your reading list) and grumbling to himself about how Perkins (who shortened Wolfe’s novel tremendously) could have done everybody a favor by chopping more out of Angel.  I beg to differ, but people do seem to have polarized reactions to this one.

However, if you do read it and do not fall into a heap when Ben dies, then you’re not human.  PERIOD.  I read this novel for the first time when I was in college.  I was sitting on the library steps, reading at lunchtime.  I got to the death scene and folded over in tears.  A professor (from the English department) I knew well walked up to me and asked, with some concern, what was wrong.  I waved the book limply in the air and said, “Ben.”  A shadow crossed his face, and he simply said, “Oh.  I understand,” patted my shoulder, and let me be.

We can believe in the nothingness of life, we can believe in the nothingness of death and of life after death– but who can believe in the nothingness of Ben?

Much later, I toured Old Country Home in Asheville, the actual boarding house that is the (fictionalized– loosely) setting for Angel.  I was with a fellow Wolfe-fanatic, and with us on the tour were, well, I have to say it:  two Yankees (who hadn’t read the book).  When we got to Ben’s bedroom (i.e., the bedroom where Wolfe’s actual brother died), the two of us shed some tears.  The guide looked at us sympathetically and remarked that this was “a difficult room for many people.”  The two of Northern extraction asked if there were any good restaurants.  I’ll just leave that there.  [2]

Front door to Old Country Home, Wolfe's childhood home.  Perhaps a "forgotten door."

Front door to Old Country Home, Wolfe’s childhood home. Perhaps a “forgotten door.”

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Exterior view of the bedroom where Ben died (in real life, the bedroom where Wolfe’s brother died).

One final Wolfe story:  this is my favorite teaching story, the moment I felt best about teaching.  I had a C-range student who spoke up sometimes, not often, and mostly just did the work: a nice guy, but definitely not at all interested in novels.  I was filling in some spare time at the end of the semester with short stories and such, and I photocopied the opening (Part One: 1) of Angel, which is sort of a historical meditation about how Southern-ness evolved.  He stopped me after class that day and told me that, in his whole life, he’d never read anything that meant that much to him or that he felt really helped him understood who he was.

MY AWESOME PLACE:  THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF CHERYL B– CHERYL BURKE

So this one isn’t exactly famous, but thanks to the über-wonderful Topside Press, it has been published.  Cheryl B was an explosive character with a destructive side, but she was a brilliant spoken word artist (best know in New York City’s East Village in the 1990s).  She eventually disentangled herself from the substance abuse that had marked her life and met fellow queer artist Kelli Dunham in 2004.  In 2010, she learned she had terminal cancer, and she died in 2011.  It’s really hard to summarize this autobiography:  all I can really say is you need to read it.  Needless to say, she doesn’t write her own death scene; that’s in the afterword, written by Kelli Dunham, who prefaces it with Cheryl’s own jottings on her forthcoming death (surprisingly accepting and witty).  Dunham (a standup comic) doesn’t do dirges; she writes of the death as it happened, but she doesn’t bog down and dwell.  Overall, it’s like watching a bright light flicker out unexpectedly.

“A PERFECT DAY FOR BANANAFISH”– J.D. SALINGER

Yes, I read the new Salinger bio.  I knew he was creepy-pervey before, and now I know he was ultra-pervey.  I choose to separate works from authors.  And I also don’t believe this particular story has anything to do with pedophile tendencies.  Discuss in comments.

Anyway.  Like any good super-angsty teenager who believes she is 100% alienated, I read tons of Salinger and idealized the Glass family (actually, I still do idolize them).  Seymour was a great hero, a sage.  I wasn’t a big short story fan at the time, so I blew through the novels first and saved Nine Stories until last.  Of course, the novels allude to Seymour’s death, but it’s not really “real” until it happens in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

HEDDA GABLER– HENRIK IBSEN

I just really, really like Hedda (please refrain from armchair psychoanalysis).  When you see the play performed, and she fires the pistol out toward the audience, that’s the best.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS– ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Catherine, Catherine.  This is another one I read as a teenager, one I located a battered copy of in my parents’ house.  As a disclaimer, it had no dust jacket, and I was young enough really not to know that she dies.  So, surprise!

I’m sure it’s vastly politically incorrect to like this one.  Deal.  Gore Vidal (how I love him:  find him being snarky on YouTube for hours of entertainment for, er, odd people) said:  “… a work of ambition, in which can be seen the beginning of the careful, artful, immaculate idiocy of tone that since has marked … [Hemingway’s] prose.”  Burn.

And if you’ve ever wondered the source of the famous “alone, in the rain” quotations, it’s this novel:  “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

Also:

“And you’ll always love me won’t you?”
“Yes.”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?” 
“No.”— that’s your Valentine’s Day gift

Tangentially related story:  My brother is probably the only person demanding Hemingway be abridged.  He read For whom the Bell Tolls in high school, and his succinct remark was to point out the novel could have been really short if they had just blown up the bridge and quit talking about it.  That Hemingway, always wordy.

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFÉ– FANNIE FLAGG

(book, not movie– I haven’t seen it because I heard how they twisted the plot around so much)

When Ruth died and Idgie was left alone– seriously, how is that not heartbreaking?  And yes, the decline of the café that then occurs is not very subtle symbolism.  I don’t care.  It’s still heartbreaking.  Angel and Ireland, Ruth and Idgie– love is not forever, people.  Happy miserable Valentine’s Day.

THE DANISH GIRL– DAVID EBERSHOFF

Well, it’s based on a true story; if you can get your hands on the original (out-of-print) biography Man into Woman, it’s equally heartbreaking.  Ebershoff’s prose is beautiful, and the multiple “transitions” (including the ultimate one towards death) are engrossing, mesmerizing, and, in the end, tragic.

ALL THE KING’S MEN– ROBERT PENN WARREN

Two-for-one here, because I love me an existential hero TM.

The obvious one is Willie Stark.  Even once he sheds his idealism, I continue to admire him for his struggles with authentic/inauthentic existence.  He sounds like a down-at-the-heels Camus.  When he gets shot, it’s because of a final failure to take responsibility; we in philosophy would term this an “existential smackdown.”  When Sugar Boy leans over the mortally wounded Boss and asks him if it “hurts much,” it just rips at you:  it’s all the pain of existence.

#2 is Cass Mastern (that’s my favorite chapter of the book).  Cass Mastern is the true existential hero of the novel, and for that reason I regard that chapter as the novel’s centerpiece (interestingly, when someone I know taught it, she told students that if they had to skip one chapter, to skip that one– I disagree violently and contend this is cutting out the heart of the novel).

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide.  It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things.  Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.

Jack, of course, does not understand this until the novel’s end.  And I’m going to quote that, too, because it is so damn beautiful.

We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the driving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the football so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

There are significant odds you’ve heard me mention the awful responsibility of time.

INFINITE JEST– DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

Another polarizing author here.  I saw somewhere– somewhere I’d never be able to track down– someone commenting that they hated both Brent Easton Ellis and DFW on principle because they both had three names.  Well then.  (and maybe we should take an honorary pause here to pour one out for all the dead of American Psycho, even though I don’t care for that novel)

This is going to be a weird one, anyway, because it’s about Don Gately:  technically, at the “end” (how many sets of scare quotes would do the word “end” justice here?), he’s (maybe?) comatose in a hospital, having vivid hallucinations.  Wallace himself said that the end of the novel isn’t actually in the novel; it’s “somewhere beyond the right frame.”  I interpret this to mean that what I say, goes.  Nyah.

Many of the (many) characters of Infinite Jest aren’t lovable and cuddly; Gately pretty much comes closest.    And there he is, dreaming of Linda McCarthy singing.

My hell will feature Taylor Swift.

My hell will feature Taylor Swift.

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE–  MURIEL SPARK

Screw you, Sandy.

THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG– NORMAN MAILER

Another politically incorrect one, yep.  I didn’t promise you a rose garden.  You get Gary Gilmore instead.

This will be used at my commitment hearing, but:  this is the novel I often reread when I’m at a very black point.  See again:  existential hero.

“Well, Vern, Gary said, “I want to show you.  I’ve already shown you how I live”– he gave his most mocking smile– “and I’d like to show you how I can die.”

Then the Warden said, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, “Let’s do it.”  That was it.  The most pronounced amount of courage, Vern decided, he’d ever seen, no quaver, no throatiness, right down the line.  

(Those are technically Gilmore’s next-to-last words; Mailer does accurately record his final ones, but he buries them– a nice literary trick)

At any rate, in spite of being a spree killer etc., in Mailer’s depiction, Gilmore’s homespun existential philosophy (and being-unto-death) actually inspires me.

You, too, can advertise your weirdness with the help of long books with depressing titles and many page tabs!

You, too, can advertise your weirdness with the help of long books with depressing titles and many page tabs!

THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE– PAT CONROY

I read this at home. I was sitting in a chair, and my mother was also in the room.  So I’m reading quietly . . . reading quietly . . . and suddenly I shoot bolt upright and yell, “PIG!”  My mother said, “Now I know exactly where you are.”  [3]  

He was ruled by the tyranny of instinct, by passion and the instant legislation of a simple heart.

I went to a school that was an arch-rival of [the school Conroy is thinly veiling].  When my school played against them in sports, our side chanted:  “West Point rejects!”  [4]

THE SOUND AND THE FURY– WILLIAM FAULKNER

Quentin, Quentin, Quentin.  If loving your sister is wrong, he doesn’t want to be right.  I feel like there’s a song in there somewhere.

Honeysuckle was the saddest odor of all, I think.

I now always think of that when I think of honeysuckle.

And screw you, Jason.  I’m making a list here.

GIOVANNI’S ROOM– JAMES BALDWIN

More existential fun!  But seriously, this is one helluva sad novel.  No happiness for anyone, ever, ever, amen.  This is what happens when you hide behind straight white American male privilege.  #takenote

LITTLE WOMEN– LOUISA MAY ALCOTT

Straight-up lie there.  This, I distinctly remember, was the first book I ever didn’t finish.  I felt horribly guilty and actually asked my mother if it was okay not to finish a book.  I loathed it.  I thought it was amazingly drippy.

That said, I knew (maybe the back of the book said something about it?  I don’t remember) that Beth died.  I flipped ahead to find the scene where that happened, hoping for something good ‘n’ gory.  If memory serves, her sewing needle gets heavy, and she “passes into the valley of the shadow of death” or something similar.  Gag.  I do remember I was very disappointed.  Children are bloodthirsty little monsters.

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON– RANDY SHILTS

Everybody.  Just:  everybody.  [5]

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD– ZORA NEALE HURSTON

Joe.  This is also a super-disturbing death– the circumstances of this death are hard to forget.  Janie’s triumph makes this novel a winner, especially since she manages to make her life a success within a specific socio-economic circumstance (not the same one that Joe brought her up to, though “rising” is certainly contextual here).  Her autobiography (as she chose to tell it) is actually my favorite work of hers.

They sat in company with the others . . . They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN– MARGUERITE YOURCENAR

Not the world’s easiest, breeziest read, but so good.  The whole thing is a letter from the dying Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius.  It’s brilliant beyond words, a stunning blend of fiction and philosophy.

BONJOUR, TRISTESSE– FRANÇOISE SAGAN

Well, it’s called “Hello, Sadness,” so what are you expecting?  The depths of scheming in a very short novel are painfully human; it’s more or less about a sacrifice.  Oh, and she wrote this when she was 19.  No pressure.

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY– JOHN IRVING

Oh, man.  I almost forgot this one, novel of so much uncontrolled sobbing.  [7]  And at least with this one, I know I’m not alone.  “O God—please bring him back! I shall keep asking You.”  This is probably one of my favorite so-called spiritual novels.

If you care about something you have to protect it – If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.

My life is a reading list.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.  [8]

This is one of the few instances in fiction where someone can declare “I am a Christian” and not gain any corniness points:  not that it’s corny to profess faith, but that it’s hard to do so in a manner that’s relatable and doesn’t sound saccharine.  This novel pulls that off.  [9]

I could go on (and on), but I’m calling it quits.  I’d love to hear your favorites (or intense dislikes).

IN CLOSING, A VIDEO:

So why read depressing stuff where people die left and right?  This week’s Dear A.E. column has the answer!  Specifically, I’m referring to A.E. Housman’s poem “Terence, this is stupid stuff” (LXII), from A Shropshire Lad (1896).  It’s a comic poem with multitudes of memorable lines; Housman contends that exposing yourself to the ills of the world will prepare you for them when they really do strike.

Here’s my reading of it:

[1]  See also his incredibly smart and funny Samuel Johnson books.  They’re YA, but very adult-friendly.

[2]  Actually, no, I won’t.  To quote another novel in this post, The Lords of Discipline:  “It’s impossible to explain to a Yankee what `tacky’ is. They simply have no word for it up north, but my God, do they ever need one.”

[3]  This is NOT the same in the movie.  Pig’s end is changed completely (a lot of things are).  If you’re reading this and thinking of the movie, I understand your confusion.

[4]  Of course, the other popular cheer was as follows:  “F-U one time!  F-U two times!  F-U all the time!”  Um.

[5]  Honorary mention to The Mayor of Castro Street, also by Shilts.  Honestly, though, it’s not all that well-written.  [6]

[6]  Another note here re:  that time period/AIDS activism:  I feel like I need to mention Sarah Schulman, because she’s incredible and has written (and produced other media) extensively about that time period, even if she doesn’t exactly fit in the actual subject of this post.  See:  My American History:  Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush YearsStagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay AmericaPeople in Trouble (which, as many, many, many people have pointed out, is the novel that Rent was plagiarized from– except Rent notably sticks with the heterosexual plot elements, which is probably why you’ve heard of it and not Schulman’s novel), and United in Anger:  A History of ACT UP (documentary).

[7]  I don’t cry all the time, at every book.  Much of this crying refers to reading books as a high-strung teenager with mega-angst.  I’m still high-strung with mega-angst, but I’ve refined the emotional outburst bit.

[8]  Owen Meany’s name is clearly a reference to The Tin Drum and to Father Time’s murder-suicide note in Tess.  Father Time would have made this list, but I was trying to keep things to the 20th century for the sake of containment.

[9]  For the record, I also think that Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian is a bit juvenile.