All posts by Biblio

The Many Faces of Dr. Seuss in The Lorax

Dr. Seuss’s birthday was earlier this month, and I took a closer look at The Lorax. I realized I had a lot of questions about this book. Why, for instance, in a book meant to contain a message about environmental activism, did Dr. Seuss purposely chose to create a Lorax who did not effectively protect the environment for which he was responsible?

Let me give a few examples of his ineffectiveness. He disappears for long periods of time. The landscape is full of stumps when the Lorax finally returns. When he does return, he sends away the Bar-Ba-Loots without certainty that they will find a safe new home. Similarly, he sends off the Swomee-Swans and the Humming-Fish without knowing where they will go. Another problem with the Lorax as advocate is that he, like the Once-ler, is an outsider. For instance, the Lorax isn’t affected by the pollution like the other creatures or the trees. He is able to come and go as he pleases, which suggests that his home is elsewhere. For someone who claims to want to protect the trees, the Lorax actually does very little to protect them; even the Once-ler calls him on this hypocrisy: “I yelled at the Lorax, ‘No listen here, Dad! / All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!”

 

The reason for this is that Dr. Seuss specifically intended for children, not the Once-ler or even the Lorax, to be the heroes and advocates for the environment in this story and who have responsibility to safeguard the future because of the failure of the adults around them. After all, the old Once-ler has held onto the last truffula seed for years; instead of planting it himself, he has waited for “someone like you” to whom to give that responsibility. Clearly, he is speaking to a young boy (or to the readers of the book). Other than this boy, all the characters in the story are adult figures. This includes the “old” Once-ler and the Lorax himself, who is described as “oldish” and “mossy;” his voice is “sharpish and bossy.” The Once-ler refers to him as “Dad.”  Furthermore, the Lorax’s bushy mustache makes him look old, and like an adult parent, the Lorax speaks on behalf of his charges. The problem is although the main characters are the adults, it is up to the child (or children reading) to fix things for the future. This sends a message of hope, but also of gloom: as one writer points out, the book “puts a lot of responsibility on small shoulders” (Marris 149).

The gloomy message of the book was purposeful; Geisel admitted in interviews that the book was “intended to be propaganda” (Miller 27). He also stated that the book “came out of my being angry” and that in the book he was “out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might” (Miller 27). Although the environmental message was a broad one, not directed toward any particular industry or environmental setting, Geisel’s anger might have come from personal experience: in a 1957 interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Geisel revealed his own activism to protect his town, La Jolla, California, from “Creeping Urbanization” (Cahn 46). The article explains that when Geisel and his wife, Helen, moved to La Jolla, it was a quiet place populated by older, wealthy individuals. Then “came the burgeoning growth of Southern California. Soon they found themselves in the landing path of jet planes, while the town below was invaded by big spenders. A pox of garish neon lights began to blight the community”  (Cahn 46). The Geisels, however, remained relatively immune to the encroachment. They lived in a tower in the town’s highest hill, and were screened by shrubs (Cahn 46). The description sounds rather similar to the “urbanization” that occurs in The Lorax, and the character’s separateness from the community that he wants to protect.

Suddenly the Lorax character starts to look a bit like Theodor Geisel himself.

And then there is the other adult figure in the story: the Once-ler. This character is never pictured, other than thin arms reaching out of buildings and vehicles, allowing us to imagine his ambiguous form. The Once-ler lives apart from the nearby town, in a tower-like structure on a hill above the town — much like the home that the Geisels lived in upon the highest hill in La Jolla. The Once-ler advocates for industrialization, calling upon his relatives to join in the expansion of his pollution-causing enterprise. Similarly, we find evidence of Geisel’s connection to industry: he was hired by Standard Oil of New Jersey (today known as Exxon) to create cartoons and advertisements for one of its products, Flit bug spray, for 9 years (Pease 47-48), earning him enough money to afford a spacious apartment in New York City (Pease 48). “Friends who were invited to dine at the Geisels’ residence reported that it was not unusual to find wealthy business executives seated alongside Broadway actors and Peruvian polo players at the couple’s table” (Pease 49).

Another significant and striking similarity between Geisel and the characters of The Lorax arises out of Geisel’s family relationships. Only a few years before he wrote the book, Geisel’s first wife, Helen, committed suicide; less than a year later, Geisel was married again, to a much younger woman, Audrey Dimond, who had sought a divorce soon after  Helen’s death. Audrey had two young daughters with her first husband. She admitted in a 2000 interview that soon after her new marriage, she sent away her daughters to boarding school (Walder). The destruction of the Dimond family, and the sending away of the innocent children of that marriage, calls to mind the Lorax who sends away the creatures who are in his charge, and his limited interest in their well-being.

At the end of The Lorax, the only one left to suffer the wasteland is the Once-ler himself. It is not clear why he, too, does not “lift himself” way. Instead, he remains and “worries away” with all of his heart. Like the Once-ler, Theodor Seuss Geisel remained behind after the death of his first wife, after the destruction of a marriage, and the sending away of the children of that marriage. Seen in this light, The Lorax becomes less of a tale of environmental activism and more of a tale of apology to the young people to whom the book is literally dedicated: Lark and Lea, Geisel’s new stepdaughters and the only children to whom he would ever serve as a father.

At the end of the book, it is only when the boy shows up that the Once-ler understands the single word, “unless,” left behind by the Lorax: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.” Considered in light of Geisel’s personal life, this message to his stepdaughters might be a message of hope: that the rocky beginning to their lives together might get better someday.

thelorax2

Works Cited

Cahn, Robert. “The Wonderful World of Dr. Seuss.” The Saturday Evening Post 230.1 (1957): 17. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Miller, John J. “Friends Of The Lorax.” National Review 64.5 (2012): 25-27. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Morgan, Judith and Neil Morgan. Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.

Pease, Donald E. Theodor Seuss Geisel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Walder, Joyce. “Public Lives; Mrs. Seuss Hears a Who, and Tells About it.” The New York Times 20 Nov. 2000. Web. 1 March 2016.

A Fine Hour at the Pool

Memorial Day weekend prompts not only sober reflection, but also the (completely unrelated) opening of pools for the summer. And with community pools come strangers spraying themselves nearby with sunblock, flying beachballs, ice cream bars melting on lounge chair cushions, and of course, occasional poolside reading. I took the kiddies to our pool last weekend and found a decent second row chair near the water where I could observe my little fish and make some progress through my own book. (I’m learning about geopolitics. Still sorting that one out.)

My first-row neighbor had a hard-bound, red-covered tome in his hands that sparked my interest; it’s not the kind of book that one ordinarily would spot at the pool. I lacked the necessary motivation to ask my lounge chair neighbor about his book or why he was reading it. So, instead, after enough covert observation, I caught a glimpse of the spine — Their Finest Hour — and eventually the cover, which bore Winston Churchill’s signature. It turns out that this reader may actually have been combining his poolside relaxation with sober reflection.

2015-05-24 14.41.30I investigated, and the book pictured above was the book-of-the month edition published by Houghton Mifflin in 1949, the second in a six-volume series, The Second World War, written by Churchill  between 1948 and 1954. Setting aside the history of war and political intrigue that it tells, the story of the books’ creation is itself fascinating.

Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953 as a result of his efforts; those efforts were not without controversy. It seems that Churchill began contemplating, and perhaps even composing (in the form of personal notes and memoranda), what came to be the book series even while the war still raged, and he certainly took advantage of his political position (including access to state records) to work on the book after the war ended. The whole thing has a bothersome self-serving circularity to it. Churchill, one of the most significant historical figures of World War II, was simultaneously a subject of the history that he was planning on writing. What does it mean when a subject is in control of the narrative of which he is a part?  And what does it mean when he later has the opportunity to tell (or re-tell) the story? How reliable is it? This could apply to any significant political figure or leader; can’t you picture President Obama or Hillary Clinton  or John McCain making mental notes about their decisions and thinking, “Yep, today definitely belongs in Chapter 42; at least worth a footnote”?

Because Churchill was busy serving as prime minister during part of this creative period, much of the writing was done by others. According to a NY Times book review, Churchill relied “heavily on a bevy”  of researchers and first-draft writers known by a rather Bondesqe, British-secret-government-agency type of name: “The Syndicate” (which included  two retired generals, a former naval officer and an Oxford historian).

Churchill was the author, however, who made a fortune — relying on dodgy dealings:

Under Britain’s confiscatory tax regime, Churchill would have owed 97.5 percent of his royalties to the state. . . .  To get around this obstacle, his lawyers came up with a dodge worthy of Enron: Churchill would donate his papers to a trust run by his friends and family, which would sell them to publishers for a handsome sum without any tax liability and provide the proceeds for Churchill to live on.

According to the New York Times book review quoted above (reviewing a 2005 book about Churchill’s writing process), Churchill would have cleared about $18 million in today’s money under this scheme. A lucrative way of remembering the fallen. Today, this edition is available on Amazon for as little as $.03.

Carrying on with the Memorial Day theme, I separately came across a bit of history intersecting with literature when I read that Harry Truman carried around in his wallet a Tennyson poem, written in 1835, called “Locksley Hall.” This is the poem that contains the popular phrase, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” but it also contains a vision of a military future that captured the imaginations of both Truman and Churchill:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

 

Seen at Lunch

My son and I headed to Maplewood today with Words bookstore as our main destination. First, however, we had to have lunch down the street (grilled cheese and the “basic Panini”), where the woman behind us in line (“Just a mocha, please”) had rested her paperback on the counter in front of us. She was happy to tell me about the book:

Gods of Gotham

“It’s  about Irish immigrants in New York, set in the 1800s around the time of the potato famine. They went through a lot,” she explained solemnly. She also told me that she is a big fan of anything about New York City. She grew up, however, in South Dakota, which might explain why she was so nice.

On Amazon, the book has excellent user ratings: 4 1/2 stars out of 5. Based on the description of the book, however, it’s rather grim and gruesome: it follows a bartender who joins the newly-formed NYPD and encounters violence inspired by anti-Irish sentiment. Based on the reviews, the book is well-researched but this also weighs it down with too much unnecessary detail (as a two-star reviewer put it, “ham-fisted use of excellent research”).

An interesting tidbit I picked up from the reviews: popular among certain (lower class) circles in New York during the mid-19th century was a slang called “flash.” Melville described the dialect in his novel Pierre as “the foulest of all human lingos, the dialect of sin and death.”  In case you’re curious to see if any of the foul lingo survived, the 1859 Vocabulum of the NYPD’s chief of police is also available on Google books; it’s a gapeseed worth a tout. Here are some examples:

ace of spades = a widow

alamort = struck dumb, unable to say anything

bingo-boy = a drunk man

bingo-mort = a drunk woman

birthday suit = naked

dimber mort = a pretty girl

flimp = to wrestle

Little Free Library

Spotted in Flemington, New Jersey:

Little free library

I had heard of The Little Free Library but had never seen one in person. According to the LFL’s website,

By January of 2015, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries in the world was conservatively estimated to be nearly 25,000, with thousands more being built.

The website has a map that allows you to search for LFL’s nearby, but nothing is quite within reach — yet. I want one near me! Perhaps this will be my project for the summer. I would happily keep it stocked with worthy volumes. It’s a wonderful way to connect with other readers, even if you never meet them in person. Kind of like a blog.

The goals of the LFLs are:

  • To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.
  • To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.

Mission accomplished: At the Flemington LFL, my small daughter was happy to find a paperback copy of “Arthur’s Eyes” and has read it to herself and to an even smaller friend several times already since we found the LFL yesterday.

The same goals could be implemented on an even smaller scale: maybe it’s as simple as starting a LFL-like book exchange at my workplace. We sure need a bit of fun there. I have seen similar free book depositories at the local post office, the train station, and Starbucks. Do you have anything similar in your world? Are they worth perusing?

 

 

Biblio Is Back

It has been a while. A shamefully long while, but other intellectual and career-related pursuits have kept me busy since August, and frankly, I haven’t been out much to try to catch people reading books.

Fortunately for the world, the Instagram account Hot Dudes Reading takes checking out other people’s books to another level. It collects images of “hot dudes” reading books — actual books, not electronic devices — in public spaces, mostly subway trains.  The account is a good bit of fun.

Capture

(Let’s be clear that Bibliovoyeur was never intended to catch “hot dudes” in the act of reading. If that were the case, I would have cheerfully posted a steady stream of pictures of my hubby with his books.)

Let’s face it: Hot Dudes Reading is more about the dudes than the reading. The core question for bibliovoyeurs, thus, remains unanswered: What are they reading? Why? Hot Dudes Reading only hints at that spark of interest generated when a book is in the hands of a stranger — the spark triggered by what is essentially a romance between the reader and the book: How did they come to be together? How long have they been together? Are they together for the right reasons? Will they make it [to the end of the book]?

Still, Hot Dudes Reading is a lot of fun, fueled by the creativity of its author(s) and the brief but vividly-imagined and hilarious captions accompanying the photos — which occasionally incorporate references to the actual book. Consider it a bit of a candy snack to keep you sated between nutritious and filling posts by this  beleaguered Biblio.

A hot dude reading.
A hot dude reading. You can rest your stovepipe hat on my bookshelf anytime.

 

Bookshelf real estate

I was waiting in line at the check-out at a woman’s clothing store, and the woman in front of me placed not only her dainty, silky purchase on the counter but also the four books she was carrying with her, all by mystery-thriller writer John D. MacDonald:

Spotted at the ladies' clothing store
Spotted at the ladies’ clothing store

Rather an incongruous assembly of items from a day’s shopping. I suspect she had probably purchased the books at the local independent bookstore only a couple blocks away.  Perhaps she was planning a slinky night of reading to in bed.

I had to do some research on MacDonald, having never read him.  He was a prolific author.  In addition to five works of non-fiction and five collections of his short stories, he wrote 43 novels, PLUS another 21 novels devoted to a character named Travis McGee, all between 1950 and 1987.   This means he was churning out almost two and a half books a year. If you look at his wikipedia entry, sometimes he was indeed publishing three or four books per year, especially in his early career.

Of course, MacDonald doesn’t even come close to squeezing out the amount of creative juice that truly prolific authors have managed. I poked around and found this list of the most prolific writers in literature, each of whom had authored at least hundreds of titles. (Interestingly, many of the top authors were romance writers. Does that say something about romance novels? Or about romance novelists?  Or about romance?) How do these authors find space for their own books on their shelves?

I used to shelve books at the small public library in my town, and as I recall the following authors seemed to take up the most space, both because of the number of books and the number of copies that the library felt it needed to stock: Danielle Steele; Andrew Greeley; Barbara Cartland; Tom Clancy; John Grisham; James Michener. (Michener was in a class by himself; his books were just enormous.)

At least as far as my own bookshelves are concerned, I think the author with the most physical space in my life has been L.M. Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon series.  She also wrote some stand-alone novels that I absolutely had to own, too.  I think these are still lined up on the same shelf in my parents’ house where they have sat since I last read them in the early 1990s.  If I recall, I received the entire series of Anne books from a family friend, and I tore through them, and then needed to own the Emily trilogy, and when I was finished with those, I found a few more of Montgomery’s smaller works, which I also adored.  I think that the draw with her work was that it was always familiar: the main character always lived on Prince Edward Island, always had a Dickensian childhood, always had a special bosom friend with a contrasting personality but who remained a steadfast companion, and there was always that boy who grew up with her and became her true love.  And I somehow I remember their names to this day: Gilbert; Teddy.  (And the bosom friends?  Diana; Ilse.  These memories are taking up valuable real estate in my brain!)

The tendency to read everything that an author generates probably comes from the same place as our habit of turning to the same brand of product, or same clothing store, in dependence on the familiar.  Our brains are wired to to recognize and rely on patterns, and let’s face it:  authors tend to use cookie cutters for their books, filling them with slightly different ingredients but leaving the basic shape the same.  Even the titles of their books convey this as an assurance (or obvious marketing ploy), like the alphabet mysteries of Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi) or the Fifty Shades series (or so I’ve heard).  And that is pretty comforting: once you like one book, the likelihood is that you will like other books by the same author too.  It’s a lovely feeling to discover a new author, and even lovelier to find out that there’s a shelf full of his or her work available to me.

I asked friends to reveal the authors taking up the most space on their bookshelves, and its hard to come up with a theory or pattern based on the range of genres and writers, except that most of the names are awfully familiar to bibliophiles:

  • Dana Stabenow
  • Stephen King
  • Mark Twain
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Isaac Asimov
  • John Grisham
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Diana Gabaldon
  • Shelby Foote
  • Rick Riordan

I’d love to hear more about reader’s real estate — please add to the comments below!

Books About Books

Recently, I coaxed a couple of vegetarian co-workers out to lunch at a deli-type place near our office. I had enthusiastically described to them the deli’s black bean patty, which I was hoping to sample again that day. As luck would have it, only two patties were left, and due to my unselfish nature I ordered something else so that the patties could go to my veggie friends. (Happily, they both really enjoyed their patties. This may mean that I will have more competition for the black bean patty. Perhaps I should have thought that through a bit more.) I was rewarded on the way out of the deli by a sneaking glance at the book being read by a lunch guest at an outdoor table . Because I was with co-workers and had to keep up a facade of professionalism, I did not have an opportunity to snap a photo. But I did discretely glance at the pages and spotted the title on the right side: Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown.

The Amazon summary of this book sounds weirdly enticing to a book lover:

Three sisters have returned to their childhood home, reuniting the eccentric Andreas family. Here, books are a passion (there is no problem a library card can’t solve) and TV is something other people watch. Their father-a professor of Shakespeare who speaks almost exclusively in verse-named them after the Bard’s heroines. It’s a lot to live up to.

The sisters have a hard time communicating with their parents and their lovers, but especially with one another…. and now, faced with their parents’ frailty and their own personal disappointments, not even a book can solve what ails them…

I’ve noticed that a lot of books that I read are centered around female characters who are bookish, or well-read (often, depending on the setting of the book, too well-read for her family and potential suitors). Typically, the focus on these characters’ bookishness works only to help establish the personalities of the characters and the people around them. Authors love their main characters, and want to give them attributes that they think are appealing, or that they think are most appealing about themselves. Authors tend to be a bookish crowd. They tend to think that bookishness is appealing. I tend to agree. But I’m getting a bit bored with running into the same personalities over and over in my books. It’s like finding each Dan Brown book beginning with Robert Langdon getting a call late at night while he’s visiting some European city. (I swear, I’m pretty sure that’s how most of his books begin.)

So isn’t creating a character who is self-professed book-lover a bit … lazy? We all know what a bibliophile’s personality means. Introverted, contemplative, open to new ideas, smart. But bookishness rarely drives the plot. An example is a great page-turner, The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. The main character’s father runs a bookstore, and the main character — Margaret — is a bibliophile herself. But … who cares? She didn’t need to be. I suppose the book wouldn’t have been improved by her being a podiatrist or dental technician or a pole dancer, but those options certainly would have been more unexpected and interesting.

On the other hand, a plot that is driven by books, or by bookishness, requires a bit more commitment, thoughtfulness, and strategy by the author. Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote a book like this, a terrific read, called The Shadow of the Wind. Here’s Amazon’s summary:

Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.

Now in a book like that, the book is the thing. The book cannot survive without the book and the reader behind the book. Ruiz Zafon keeps the theme going in two other books that are part of “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series. Plus, in looking up Shadow on Amazon, I discovered books by other authors that seem to be driven by readers and by, of course, books. Arturo Perez-Reverte’s (is there a trend here with Spanish-language authors?) The Club Dumas is about a book detective named Lucas Corso, a “middle-aged mercenary hired to hunt down rare editions for wealthy and unscrupulous clients.” (Now, that sounds like a great job!) Here’s the plot:

When a well-known bibliophile is found dead, leaving behind part of the original manuscript of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, Corso is brought in to authenticate the fragment. He is soon drawn into a swirling plot involving devil worship, occult practices, and swashbuckling derring-do among a cast of characters bearing a suspicious resemblance to those of Dumas’s masterpiece.

Returning to where I started, I might need to give Weird Sisters a chance. The reviews are good, and I’d be curious to see how far the author takes this book concept. But my musings about Weird Sisters may inspire me to look up The Club Dumas first. You never know where a bilbliovoyeuristic moment (or a black bean patty run) will lead you.

Any readers who can think of any other book-driven tales, please add in the comments below!

A peek at this weekend

There’s a good indpendent bookstore, Words, only a few towns away from me and it’s worth a visit each time I’m in the area.  It’s near a couple of great restaurants so following brunch with book browsing just seems right.   I follow the store on Facebook, because they often post about book events they are hosting and they also share information about goings-on in Maplewood.

Which is how I found out this weekend about Maplewoodstock, an annual event with live music, food vendors, arts and crafts, and strategically-placed ice cream trucks and  port-a-johns.  I convinced the family that this would be an ideal place to find lunch, so the four of us packed up and headed to the train station.  Parking in Maplewood is a challenge even without the presence of a large-scale festival, so we decided we’d prefer a 19 minute air conditioned train ride to trolling around residential areas for distant parking.

Sitting right in front of me and my pink child was a young fellow reading a small paperback.  I snuck a quick photo:

Sneaking a peek on the train

It’s hard to tell from the photo above, but he was reading Love, by Leo Buscaglia.  The book didn’t look like it was new, and the slightly yellowed pages had passages underlined with green pen.   Shortly before he reached his stop, he closed the book, and then looked at the cover for a moment, before he packed it away.  Then he went on his way.

I don’t know anything about Buscaglia, but the name was familiar to me from my high school days when I worked at — where else — my local library.  Some research revealed that Buscaglia was a teacher at the Department of Special Education at the University of Southern California when the suicide of a student inspired him to offer a class called Love 1A.  More information about his background and influence is available on his this website, but briefly stated, the class, and the response to it and its eventual televising on PBS led to Buscaglia becoming known as an motivational speaker who offered hugs after his lectures to anybody who wanted one.  It also led to his first book, the aforementioned Love.  He died in 1998.

Having not read anything by Buscaglia, I took the shortcut of googling his name along with “quotes.”  Prepare yourself for some frame-worthy ones:

Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.

The easiest thing to be in the world is you.  The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be.  Don’t let them put you in that position.

This is good stuff.  In fact, it’s so good, I feel like I’ve heard versions of each of these statements many times before, and likely we all have: they are life lessons that we repeat to ourselves during tough patches, and repeat to our children when they come home after a tough day at school.  It seems like a lot of the greatest advice and best quotables are in response to the negative elements of our lives.  But I guess that’s just evidence of the basic goodness of humans, that even in dark hours we are able to respond with something positive.  And this was precisely how Buscaglia responded after his student’s suicide.

Speaking of children, and love,  our trip to Maplewood included a quick side trip to Words, the bookstore that inspired the trip in the first place.  The boys (my husband and our 9-year old) were left to their own devices for a brief period of time and emerged with a new Star Wars-related book containing storyboards for the movies.  As you can see, it kept them quite occupied during the ride home on the train:

Luke, I am your father.
Luke, I am your father. Now, turn the page.

Contrary to popular opinion in our house, I have seen the Star Wars movies — the ones worth seeing, anyway — and of course the movies repeat the stories as old as time:  love, war, death, good evil.  A few paragraphs ago I mentioned that Buscaglia’s quotes sounded familiar, but that I’d heard them in other contexts.   And maybe one of those contexts was the Star Wars franchise.  Throw the syntax out of whack on any of those quotes and you have something that Yoda easily could have come up with.

I’m going to go so far as to say that each ofthe quotes above from the love-inspired Buscaglia could be framed along with a scene from one of the Star Wars movies.   Let’s give it a try:

Onlly the weak are cruel.
Onlly the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.

 

sometimes a small act
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.

 

Easiest thing to be is you
The easiest thing to be in the world is you.  The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be.  Don’t let them put you in that position.

 

I might get some push back for having made any reference to the most loathed SW character, Jar Jar Binks, but if I recall he was one of the most loving characters in the Star Wars franchise, full of acceptance of others.  Perhaps at least Leo Buscaglia would have approved.

Art in Books; Books in Art

Imagine this is me.
The blogger, at rest.

I’ve mentioned The Goldfinch a few times in this blog. For a book that I didn’t like very much, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. The book is about (among many, many other things) the events that follow the narrator’s visit to the gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the book’s namesake, a painting called The Goldfinch, supposedly hung.

The painting that inspired this 800-plus page book is indeed called The Goldfinch, but it did not hang in the Met. Its home is in the Netherlands, but around the time of the release of Tartt’s novel, it was on loan to the Frick Museum as part of a larger exhibit, where throngs of people came to admire it. The small painting probably had more visitors during that space of time than it ever had since Carl Fabrituis created it in 1654.

I’ll give Tartt credit: she chose a relatively obscure book to serve as the centerpiece of a museum of a book, ignoring the temptation of already-famous paintings to which other authors have previously succumbed. Case in point: Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier), which also happened to be part of the same exhibit as The Goldfinch. (Any aspiring author may want to consider the other pieces that were in that exhibit for inspiration.)

Thinking about art in books really is a means to introduce the theme of this post: books in art. (Bet you didn’t see that coming!) Paintings of people reading in paintings are not hard to find. in fact, I found this Pinterest site of people reading in paintings. I need to suggest one more to that collection: Frangonard’s Young Girl Reading. I have a print hanging in my home. (Frangonard is the artist who created The Swing, which is depicted in Frozen, in case you need a better point of reference.) Young Girl Reading, as well as most of the images on the Pinterest site, are portraits, which are a different sort of public-reading. The subject is aware of the fact she or he is being captured on a canvas, and has consented to it. She or he, or the painter, or both, have decided that the book will be part of the portrait. There’s no great story, no mystery behind it. Nobody’s going to make a movie about the portrait of some girl who’s pretending to read a book while sitting for a portrait. In this situation, we don’t even care what the book might be.

But what I was looking for were famous paintings in which readers were depicted in public spaces. And when it comes to people in public spaces, the first thing that comes to mind is George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, which hangs in the Art Institute in Chicago. This is the painting that every art class uses as an example of Pointillism — tiny little dots up close, but step back, and you have recognizable shapes, people, things.

The Art Institute’s website has the image of the painting available and allows you to zoom in for a closer look at Seurat’s dots. I was looking for any collection of dots that suggested that somebody in the painting was reading a book. I found this lady, seated just behind the lounging fellow:

Seurat's bookish lady
Seurat’s bookish lady

Whatever is in her hands isn’t a book. It looks like fabric on which she’s pretending to do work as she busily ignores both the handsome lout whose thrown himself down to her left, and the well-dressed gentleman who’s settled himself an equal distance to her right. So she’s not reading, but check out the area to her left:

 

A hint of bookishness
A hint of bookishness

I see two books stacked on top of each other, lying close to her side. Bingo! Now we have a story, we have a mystery. We want to know more. What books would she be willing to bring to the park? Why do the books look identical to each other? Why isn’t she reading either of them?

Let us consider. Clearly, they belong to her, and not to the lout. Next, I can imagine that our lady arrived early to the park, on her own. She must have gotten there first. If either of the men had been there first, she wouldn’t have chosen a spot sandwiched so closely between them — not a woman on her own, unless she’s a woman of ill repute, but I can’t allow that. She has two books with her! She is blameless! So instead she’s there first, and she’s reading, until the gentleman comes along. She hastily puts the books away. Maybe these particular books were inappropriate for a lady; or maybe she didn’t want the gentleman to see her doing anything as intellectual as reading a book; whatever the reason, the books are tucked out of his sight.

She doesn’t care so much, on the other hand, about the good opinion of the man on her left. He looks out of place there, a working-class guy among the gentry who are trying to preserve this prim and proper park for the “right sort” of people. But he doesn’t care what they think. He’s there for a break from his work day at the docks, and picked the spot near this woman, perhaps to intentionally make her uncomfortable; or to frustrate her silent, passive flirtation with the gentleman; or maybe he plopped down near her so he could check out her books.

Or maybe, as a result of her books, he recognized a person as out of place as he was in this setting. Nobody else at La Grande Jatte is reading. One comes to La Grande Jatte to see and be seen in this world, not to get lost in an imaginary one. Seurat has already created this imaginary world, and his characters are all examining things in his world, not in any other. This includes the bookish lady. Still, she is a suggestion, a hint, that an artist cannot control all of his subjects, that he cannot posses them completely, that he could lose her to some other story not of his own imagination.

I tried to call up other famous paintings of large groups of people at public events, and kept turning to Edouard Manet: Music in the Tuileries Gardens, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. His characters are always partying, and a person quietly reading in the middle of a big party would have been a topic for discussion indeed. But I was on the right track: I found his Woman Reading. According to one text, it is thought that the woman may be spending her afternoon with an illustrated journal at an outdoor brasserie. Although she’s dressed as though she’s out in public, no one else is depicted in the painting, giving it more of a feel of a portrait. Close, but not really what I was looking for.

Otherwise, my less-than-scientific and less-than-comprehensive survey came up empty. (I’m going to ignore medieval and Renaissance paintings where saints are reading the Bible or prayerbooks in highly staged and unlikely scenes.)  As far as I can tell, painters creating scenes of people in public don’t want to depict their subjects doing anything as distracting as reading a book. The artists jealously make sure that everybody in their paintings is appreciating what is in the painting.

Fair enough.  After all, I just made you read a lengthy blog post about my imagination, when you could be enjoying a good book.