All posts by Biblio

Dostoevsky and Dead to Me

I recently finished watching the last four episodes of the new Netflix series, Dead to Me. The night I finished, my husband had to listen patiently as I provided a high-level summary of the show, my voice a bit high and over-excited. “Jen’s husband gets killed in a hit and run,” I began. “And then she meets Judy.”

It took me a while to fall asleep; the last episode wound through my head like an argument. When I  woke up, I was still thinking about the show: it occurred to me that it had some basic plot similarities with Crime & Punishment, which I’d read this past year with my students. The novel’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, is a poverty-stricken former law student who murders a local pawnbroker. His motives are ambiguous, and his response to his crime and to his guilt are also confused, especially when he begins to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with police (or perhaps it’s the police who engage in the game); and when he puts his own interests and affairs second to those of other poverty-stricken people around him; and when he challenges the engagement between his sister and the awful, egotistical, appearances-obsessed Luzhin; and when he permits himself friendships, of a kind, with the warm-hearted Razumikin and the saint-prostitute Sonya.

Like Dead to Me, the novel’s centerpiece is not the murder (or, as Judy would point out quickly, in her case, the manslaughter). The audience becomes aware of the precise nature of the acts early on, and neither the book nor the show are murder-mysteries. Instead, what drives the stories are the key characters’ responses to the crime. In the novel, Raskolnikov’s emotions are laid bare over and over again and Dostoevsky offers little respite from R’s internal debates: both the emotional ones that seem to be about guilt, and the intellectual ones that concern avoiding discovery, and the debates that fall in between that concern, mostly about poverty — his own and others’. In the show, Judy tries to find the right way to account for her crime, other than confession and punishment; Jen finds that her grief is bound together with guilt.  

The Dead to Me Characters get to grapple with these questions without the annoyance of the poverty that plagues the characters in Crime & Punishment. Poverty barely plays role in Dead to Me. It’s hard to worry about the poor as we watch well-dressed characters interact poolside, or in sparkling white kitchens, or in front of the gorgeous backdrop of the Pacific. But the show is interested in an emotional poverty — grief and loss of many kinds — and almost all the characters suffer from it. We witness this most with Jen Harding and Judy Hale (despite their names, they are not hale and not hardy/hearty), but they aren’t alone. It’s present in Lorna Harding’s medications and cold attitude toward her struggling daughter-in-law; in Steve’s house, where every room but one is steely, stark, gray; in the kind but impotent participation of Nick, the detective, in Jen and Judy’s lives; and even in the grief support group, which, paradoxically, is depicted primarily as a location of confrontation and setbacks. In Crime & Punishment, the characters’ economic poverty drives their decisions, their desperation, their madness. In Dead to Me, the characters are driven by their internal emptiness, and a desire for connections with others.  

Judy most exemplifies that desire: she’s been with Steve for years, even though he’s clearly wrong for her; by the end of the season, her greatest joy comes when Jen describes her as a member of Jen’s family. We cannot hate Judy, or Raskolnikov; their illegal actions aside, they are too much like us — they are amplified versions of our desires and fears. The nastier side of Raskolnikov is still us, too. This is the side that is egotistical and narcissistic — it’s kind of Judy, who barrels through life single-mindedly and often without much regard for the feelings of others. This is the cool part of Dead to Me: to the extent I can make the connections between it and Dostoevsky’s most famous novel, the argument relies on the idea that Jen and Judy together serve as Raskolnikov’s literary genetic offspring. In Russian, raskol means split, or schism, and the character’s dual personality has been noted.  

Several characters from Dead to Me split up Raskolnikov. Judy is Raskolnikov insofar as they both fear discovery and punishment. Raskolnikov’s fear, however, is laced with disdain for the police, and his bizarre horror-pleasure to engage with them is mirrored in Judy’s sexual relationship with Nick. But  Nick is part Raskolnikov, too. Like R, he’s left his job and put others’ interests before his own: as Judy’s sexual partner, he satisfies her needs but, it appears, never his own; as Jen’s volunteer-detective, he offers time and resources to help find her husband’s hit-and-run driver despite the odds. And Jen is part Raskolnikov: her isolation from others, especially women, and especially from those who want to help her, is manifested in Christina Applegate’s face as she engages with them: impatience, distaste, sheer anger (the same emotions that we see over and over in Raskolnikov’s interaction with others). And when Judy begins to cut through Jen’s isolation, she is also Sonya and Razumikin, the friends who worry, who recognize Raskolnikov’s potential for love and friendship.

The show is interested in female friendship. Jen doesn’t play well with others, especially women. She’s not your typical woman: she worked while her husband took care of the kids. Her personality and anger with the world (like Raskolnikov’s), as well as her grief, however, are beginning to impact her work as a real estate agent. It’s entirely possible that if Judy hadn’t been motivated by guilt, she wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with Jen. The two are very different, from the colors they wear to their responses to others, and Jen often observes Judy’s kumbaya spirituality with disdain. (Jen is also disdainful of organized religion, as is Raskolnikov through much of the novel.) But they both enjoy wine, speak the common language of grief, and come to rely on each other in their new world without men.

Dead to Me is a smart soap opera. It realizes that the best characters — the ones that captivate us the most, that keep us talking and thinking for generations, like Raskolnikov, Hamlet, Hedda Gabler, Jane Eyre — act in ambiguous ways, inconsistently, incoherently, just like the rest of us. The guilt in Dead to Me draws natural lines from Crime and Punishment; but really, it’s merely a starting point. Crime and Punishment isn’t a story about guilt, or at least it’s not only about guilt. Both texts seem to want to examine the nature of guilt in context, and its relationship to the other things that matter in our lives: poverty, loneliness, isolation, grief, friendship, and love.


Holden Caulfield: A New Twist on an Old Tale

A few months ago. I re-read The Catcher in the Rye. Reading it this time, I fixated on that red hat of his and started asking questions of the text: Why a hat? Why a red hat? Why does he wear it sometimes and sometimes take it off? When does he wear it the correct way, and when does he turn it backward, in the way he prefers? Is there a pattern? And what does it all mean?

Holden's Little Red Cap
Holden’s Little Red Cap

I went through the book again, and collected each hat reference.

I  now have to pause and insert a Holden-style hyperbole; it would take me a million years to sort through the patterns and meanings of that hat, and how he wears it, and when he takes it off, and why he gives it to Phoebe, and what it means when she wears it …. You get the picture. While I was trying to sort through all that information, I started to think about another famous literary character  associated with a red hat.

You know her as Little Red Riding Hood, but in some versions of her story she is known more simply as Little Red Cap. In literature, a hat is never just a hat, so I needed to find out the significance of those stories — the plots vary, in addition to her ensemble — and found Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, a wonderful Freudian analysis of several fairy tales, including Little Red’s. Bettelheim deconstructs it as a story of violent sexual awakening. No real surprise there. But as I read, I couldn’t resist taking  Bettelheim’s ideas about  Little Red’s impulses, conflicts, and horrors and applying them to Holden. It’s hard not to; think about each of the following ideas from Bettelheim:

All through “Little Red Cap,” in the title as in the girl’s name, the emphasis is on the color red, which she openly wears. Red is the color symbolizing violent emotions, very much including sexual ones. . . . She is too little, not for wearing the cap, but for managing what this red cap symbolizes, and what her wearing it invites (173).

This is Holden. He struggles with his transition from childhood (being “too little”) into the adult, sexual world.

And what about this:

Little Red Cap and her grandmother do not really die, but they are certainly reborn. If there is a central theme to the wide variety of fairy tales, it is that of a rebirth to a higher plane (179).

This is Holden, too. Some illness consumes him through much of the book, and causes him to faint while he’s at the museum. When he emerges a short while later and watches his sister at the carousel, he seems transported into a different place, a different plane that allows him to see things differently, perhaps more maturely.

Maybe  Holden’s journey into New York City is comparable to Little Red’s journey into the woods, and into the wolf’s belly. She encounters two  kinds of men in this journey:

the dangerous seducer who, if given in to, turns into the destroyer of the good grandmother and the girl; and the hunter, the responsible, strong, and rescuing father figure (Bettelheim 172).

And Holden encounters these two types of men, as well. The dangerous seducers are there: Stradlater, who Holden fears will seduce his gentle Jane; Maurice, the elevator-operator-turned-pimp; Carl Luce. The father figures are there, too: the ill history teacher, Mr. Spencer (and a bed-ridden grandmother figure?); Mr. Antolini, the former English teacher (and possible seducer?). We never actually meet Holden’s father.

Bettelheim also suggests that the “wolf is not just the male seducer;”

he also represents all the asocial, animalistic tendencies within ourselves. By giving up the school-age child’s virtues of ‘walking singlemindedly,’ as your task demands, Little Red Cap reverts to the pleasure-seeking oedipal child” (Bettelheim 172).

Bettelheim is referring to a version of the Little Red story in which she is persuaded by the cunning wolf to stray from the path and gather flowers, instead of heading straight to grandmother’s  house as instructed. Isn’t this exactly what Holden does in his story, and perhaps has been doing ever since his younger brother died? Failing out of schools, avoiding going directly home, and roaming around New York City are Holden’s versions of gathering flowers, although his pleasure-seeking seems far more desperate and full of grief.

In the last chapter of Catcher, Holden is  in some sort of hospital setting; its unclear whether his condition is physical, or mental, or both. Is he still in the belly of the beast? Is he still stopping to gather flowers? Or is he finally on the path he’s supposed to be on in the first place, and becoming an adult — whatever that means?  I mean, I’m an adult and I’m still considering adult literature in terms of children’s fairy tales. Maybe that means there’s not much of a difference between them.

If you’re interested in yet another version of Little Red’s story, and like a feminist twist added, check out Angela Carter’s fantastic The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.

All the drinks in The Sun Also Rises

I finished reading  Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises today and by the end of the book was really distracted by the number of alcoholic beverages that Jake was consuming. It’s understandable — war veteran, likely impotent,  repeatedly heartbroken by Lady Ashley …. it might take a few bottles of this or that to serve as a buffer between him and his disappointments. He drinks 3 martinis and orders 5 bottles of wine (and drinks at least 3 of those) in the last 2 pages of the book.

The following are the types of drinks that Jake ordered, poured, drank, or finished during the several weeks of travel between Paris and Spain:

  • fine a l’eau (brandy with water)
  • whiskey and soda
  • pernod
  • various unidentified wines
  • “the liqueurs”
  • beer
  • congac
  • brandy and soda
  • Jack Rose
  • port
  • brandy
  • champagne
  • “a drink,” unidentified
  • Chablis
  • wine from leather bottles
  • hot rum punch
  • vermouth
  • sherry
  • Fundador (brandy)
  • absinthe
  • vieux marc
  • martinis
  • rioja alta


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.


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.


(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!