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I recently acquired five new books (by which I mean, five old books) and they have inspired me to be lazy. Not a contradiction in terms! Here are five quotes, one from each of these books on–what else?–books and reading. They represent several different viewpoints: reader, writer, philosopher, critic; and differing temperaments, from the Great Books approach to the love of reading for its own sake. But they are all nifty in their way, and one of them mentions sandwiches.

 In response to the question What makes a book great?

“Great books are those which contain the best materials on which the human mind can work in order to gain insight, understanding, and wisdom. Each in its own way raises the recurrent basic questions which men must face. Because these questions are never completely solved, these books are the sources and monuments of continuing intellectual tradition.

“Carl Van Doren once referred to great books as ‘the books that never have to be written again.'”

Adler, Mortimer. Great Ideas from the Great Books. Washington Square Press, 1961.

“The ways in which reading fulfills its aims beyond the immediate verbal encounter are necessarily mysterious. In exploring them we explore, though unscientifically, some of the operations of consciousness itself, especially those having to do with perception and memory. We have to ask not only how we translate a symbolic code, but also what is the effect upon us of the translation process and the translated content? How do we make use of our own experience when we engage a novel? To what extent are we present in the content of what we read? How do we store what we’ve read, and how do we draw upon our reading memory over time? For it is one book we close the covers on today, and quite another after some months or years have passed. The words on the page don’t change, but we do, and our ‘reading’–the experience we had over the duration of our encounter with the book–has the plasticity of any memory.”

Birkerts, Sven.The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

“A public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses its cultural memory. Art for art’s sake is a retreat from criticism which ends in an impoverishment of civilized life itself.”

Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957.




“Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are. The writer who can’t distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.”

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage, 1985.

“If once in a while the beginning writer does something interesting with language–shows that he’s actually listening to himself and looking closely at words, spying out their secrets–that is sign enough of the writer’s promise. Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved. Usually. On the other hand, if as readers we begin to suspect that the writer cares about nothing but language, we begin to worry that he may be in for trouble. Normal people, people who haven’t been misled by a faulty college education, do not read novels for words alone. They open a novel with the expectation of finding a story, hopefully with interesting characters in it, possibly an interesting landscape here and there, and, with any luck at all, an idea or two–with real luck a large and interesting cargo of ideas. Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance–at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind–but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”

Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. Harper & Row, 1983.


This is where the picture of the poet Robert Hass would be if I could get it to load correctly.  Good thing words are worth a thousand pictures. Robert Hass said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.” (1)

Don’t quibble with the man just because he writes poetry and you write novels. I believe this is true in any case. It is certainly calming: you can do your life’s work in one short, defined block of time. I call that my lunch break. Any other half hours I manage to scrape together are gravy, at least at this point.

Maybe what it really means is not that you can be a successful author, a brand, a best-seller, in half an hour a day. But those things, I hope, are not your life’s work. That involves the slow accretion of words over years, whether you can put half an hour into it or twenty half-hours.

Can I quote Arnold Bennett again? “The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life!” (2)

So there you have it, from fellows who probably have much more than half an hour a day and for whom, I suspect, time runs a little slower than it does for the rest of us. Arnold Bennett, at least, certainly had someone else to do the washing up (3). But never mind. Inspiration does not only come at the altar of art, but often when one has a dish brush in one’s hand.

1. I don’t know where he said this originally, but I found it on The Writer’s Almanac.

2. From How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, copyright 1910 by George H. Doran Company but owned by me in a lovely yellowy paperback edition by the Cornerstone Library, 1962.

3. I don’t know if one can write 304, 000 words a year (that’s published words, not just scribbly words like the rest of us) and still have time to do the washing up, but this will be the subject of a future post.

arnold bennett

Reading expert, arbiter of all things

November is the month that causes a turkey’s and a librarian’s thoughts to turn to next year’s summer reading program. And October, and September, and maybe even part of August. It never leaves our thoughts, really. But, ah November! The time to order reading logs, stickers, posters, and little bitty plastic things to give away to young readers. Every year, librarians mutter to themselves that this will be the year it gets easier. This year,  we will have simple reading logs with simple instructions, we will be able to account for how much reading was done, no one will lose their reading logs, and even an adult librarian will be able to understand how the whole thing works. (Ooh, cheeky.)
So, in this time of hopeful planning, before the depression associated with reality sets in, let me offer a few words of charity from summer reading expert and library supporter, novelist Arnold Bennett (1):
“Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been ‘presented to the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.” (2)
You see? Tell that to the little children when they ask what the heck it’s all about. Not the plastic compasses and t-shirts. It is so that they may be able to eat their dinner with a certain self-satisfaction, and possibly a summer reading-themed cup.
1. I have no evidence to support this claim, but why should that mean anything?
2. From the excellent Literary Taste and How to Form It, 1909. And if the young ones need more counsel from Uncle Arnold when they have a question such as, “Which should I read first? Silas Marner or Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo? tell them this: “You do not exist in order to honor literature by becoming an encyclopedia of literature. Literature exists for your service. Wherever you happen to be, that, for you, is the centre of literature.” Very apt, sir. Thank you.
The reason why

Theirs but to do and die

The cover image here was going to be just for fun, because I like the title and (yes, I’ll admit it) I really like Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” (1) partly because it’s got a nice horsey rhythm to it and partly because I always think of them as holding something like a nineteenth-century light saber. I guess that would be a light sabre, really. More to the point, I was going to use the title of this book to make some sort of clever segue. Maybe. But then I realized, as I checked the back to see who did the proud-looking soldiers on the cover, that it’s yet another cover-artist-turned-children’s-book-creator. This one’s by Jim McMullan, best known recently for his series with wife Kate: I’m Big!, I Stink!, I’m Dirty! etc. Brilliant!
The books itself is about the actual charge, which was somewhat less glorious, I am led to believe, that the poetic version. The title comes from the lines, “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die/Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.” I’m going to appropriate that title and apply it to the world of children’s reading. So here, in graphic form, is The Reason Why:
quote from becoming a nation of readers
 This is probably the best-known quote from the 1985 study put out by the National Committee on Reading, Becoming a Nation of Readers (2). You knew it already, didn’t you? It’s something I tell parents often. It’s the reason why we should continue to read aloud to kids long after they are able to read on their own. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and darn it, it works!  Perhaps the best message of the report, along with that pull-out quote, is the idea that we never stop learning to read. There is no point at which we can say, I’m as good a reader as I’ll ever be, or, I’m as good a reader as I need to be, because reading is the act of creating meaning from a text, and we never run out of opportunities to stretch and challenge our ability to do that.
And here it is in bookmark form (click to enlarge; print if you want to):

Some of my favorite read-alouds: Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party; Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck (see if this one doesn’t win the Schneider Family Award); anything by Eva Ibbotson; Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (I do a creditable Sara Crewe and a truly awful Becky); and Charise Mericle Harper’s Just Grace series.


1. Listen to Tennyson himself read it here. Read along because for some reason the recording isn’t exactly high def.

2. Read the full report here. It’s only 155 pages, and you won’t be sorry you took the time.


Why didn't somebody tell me?

In the vein of my last post, here’s another nifty old cover design by a well-known children’s book person (1). This one’s by Emily Arnold McCully, author and illustrator of Mirette on the High Wire (1992), as well as scores of other picture books.  Many of them have historical settings, like Mirette and Little Kit, or the Industrious Flea Circus Girl (1995). If I knew how to talk about art, this is where I would say something about her distinctive use of line and watercolor, used to completely different effect in her recent The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux (2010) and 1985’s evocative and wordless First Snow. But as soon as you say “watercolor” someone who knows better comes along and says, Actually, her medium was something-something-something, and down goes your tail between your legs for trying to talk about something of which you are truly clueless. So I’ll just say her pictures are pretty.


The cover of Crisis in English Poetry, 1880-1940, by Vivian de Sola Pinto and published by Harper & Row in 1958, has a thematic and historical contrast: the full-color drawing of a gentleman in his carriage doffing his hat, and the line sketch in blue of the Tommies charging, one presumes, at the Germans. I would read this book to find out just what that poetic crisis was, but I suffer from a sort of fear that can only be adequately expressed by Arnold Bennett (who will earn himself a post or two shortly):
“There is a word, a ‘name of fear,’ which rouses terror in the heart of the vast educated majority of the English-speaking race. The most valiant will fly at the utterance of that word. The most broadminded will put their backs up against it. The most rash will not dare to affront it. I myself have seen it empty buildings that had been full; and I know that it will scatter a crowd more quickly than a hosepipe, hornets, or the rumour of plague. Even to murmur it is to incur solitude, probably disdain, and possibly starvation, as historical examples show. That word is ‘poetry.'”
-Literary Taste,  Jonathan Cape, 1909 (2)
Slightly hysterical? I think not. But this post was supposed to be about Emily McCully, so let’s end with a quote from her:
“Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t try to emulate. Work from what is inside you, crying out–however softly, however timidly–for expression.” (3)
1. Where do all these great books come from? The Friends of the Library book sale, of course. Obscure and thrilling books at unbeatable prices. Even less than the $1.60 advertised on the cover.
2. This is one of Bennett’s brilliant Pocket Philosophies. I have a weakness for books by over-educated people who presume to tell me how to improve myself. The full title is, Literary Taste and How to Form It, with detailed instructions for collecting a complete library in English literature. If you say so, Mr. Bennett.

Gates of Excellence

“If you must call me a didactic writer, go ahead. I do believe that those of us who have grown up have something of value to offer the young. And if that is didacticism, well, I have to live with it. But when I write a story, it is not an attempt to make children good or wise–nobody but God can do that, and even God doesn’t do it without the child’s cooperation. I am trying in a book simply to give children a place where they may find rest  for their weary souls.”

“A Song of Innocence and Experience.” Gates of Excellence.

Dead Indeed

Still available through interlibrary loan!

One of my favorite book blogs, listed over there in the blogroll, is Peter Sieruta’s Collecting Children’s Books (1). He posts about once a week, and it’s always worth reading. If it’s related to children’s books, especially older books, he’ll find it and blog about it. So I owe it to him that I learned about and was able to request through interlibrary loan (2) Dead Indeed by Marion Rouse Hodgkin (1956). It’s a mid-twentieth century mystery set in the high-profile, high-stakes world of children’s publishing, and written by someone I am vaguely related to in the bargain.
Other people have clever things to say about the milieu of this book and its representations of actual publishing figures(3). All I want to do is quote a passage that struck me as particularly interesting. Emily, the young editorial assistant, is meeting with a couple of nuns to discuss the upcoming children’s list, in order for the nuns to decide which books they will recommend in their Catholic book review.
“‘We are sometimes shocked at the apparent indifference of editors to the responsibilities imposed by growing minds. People speak scornfully of children’s literature in the last century, and by present-day standards much of it was sentimental, and even morbid. But its intent was noble. Writers for children, and the reputable publishers, were always aware of their moral responsibility: to make better men and women of the children who read their books. It was looked upon as a serious obligation. We may not approve of the particular means they thought suitable for achieving that end, but they always kept the end clearly in sight. Somtimes I think today that writers and editors have lost sight of that end altogether.'”
And that was in 1956. The Newbery winner (4) that year was Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, a slightly fictionalized biography of sailor and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch. I haven’t read it. Does it fulfill its moral obligations?
What I think this quote shows is the vast difference between what “moral obligation” meant in the nineteenth century, 1956, and today. I doubt that today’s editors are greatly immoral creatures, but their moral concerns have more to do with allowing children to explore choices and consequences through the relatively safe medium of literature than providing one clear path of instruction.
But before you think that this is solely a problem in children’s literature, consider the following quotations from John Gardner:
“Moral fiction improves or elevates humanity rather than debasing it.” —On Moral Fiction (1979)
“Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction.”–The Art of Fiction (1991)
Contrast that with our good friend Northrop Frye: “There’s no such thing as a morally bad novel: its moral effect depends entirely on the moral quality of its reader, and no one can predict what that will be.”–The Educated Imagination (1964)
The lesson? Readers learn their morals from books, but books are not responsible for readers’ morals. I think I see a chicken and an egg in the distance.
1. I can’t wait for the book on the hidden stories of children’s literature he’s writing with Elizabeth Bird of  A Fuse #8 Production and Jules Danielson of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
2. Use this service at your local library! Do you want a book they don’t have? ILL is like magic.
4. One of the honor books that year was The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Interestingly enough, it was reissued this year with new illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon. Will it get modern Caldecott recognition, too?
the educated imagination

Mirror, mirror

“The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place.”  -Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

Frye isn’t just talking about poets here. His subject is all of literature, and he’s especially concerned with the question he asks on the first page: “What good is the study of literature?”

It’s worth asking, as it’s worth asking what the good of any sort of study is, and I won’t pretend to have the answer. I will, however, post other people’s ideas on the subject from time to time, as well as other quotations about reading and writing, many of them from nice old books like this one (Indiana University Press, 1964, although my copy is from 1971). There is something about the glue in the binding of these old paperbacks that makes you feel confident that they, at least, will last when the e-hordes have overrun every available copy of your favorite Scholastic Book Club titles.

Another quotation from Frye, because after all I can open this book as many times as I like and it will never fall apart: “Writers don’t seem to benefit much from the advance of science, although they thrive on superstitions of all kinds. And you certainly wouldn’t go to contemporary poets for guidance or leadership in the twentieth-century world.” Of course, he was thinking of Ezra Pound.

So which poets can we go to for guidance in the twenty-first-century world? I know a lot of teen readers who would go to Ellen Hopkins.