Checking out Books and Chocolate

Today was all about trying new things. Specifically, trying new things that related to chocolate. A friend suggested we try a chocolate-themed walking tour in NYC that wove through Chelsea, the Village, and SoHo. I won’t bore you with unnecessary hyperbole so I will just say that I really love chocolate. Considering the topic, I must indulge just a bit: I mean good chocolate, the kind made by chocolatiers with names I can’t pronounce; the kind of chocolate so potent and deep that it requires only small amounts to completely change my mood. So this was the tour for me.

The thing was, the chocolate we tried was good, but really served as a backdrop to discovering new parts of the city (new to me, anyway) and to enjoying what was a near-perfect-weather summer solstice. Everybody in the city seemed to be in a good mood, not least of which were the dozen or so members of our tour group, who dutifully and happily followed our very own Willy Wonka between a series of bakeries and chocolate shops.

Chocolate macaron
Chocolate macaron

Of course,this is a blog that is supposed to relate to books and reading, so let me tie this not-at-all awkwardly to the following: one of the stops on the tour was the endearingly named Milk and Cookies, located in Greenwich Village only a few doors down from the house where Washington Irving lived. According to our guide, Americans were introduced to chocolate only during the mid-1800s. To me, this means that Irving, who died in 1859, may never have tasted the confection that now serves to draw more people into his neighborhood than his own historic home, despite his not insignificant contributions to the patisserie of American literature, like Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle.

I had the double chocolate cookie.

Irving House
Irving House

Today’s chocolate tour also led, indirectly, to the purchase of a new book.  After the tour, we kept walking and found our way into the MoMA Design store.  Everything there is fun to look at and play with, and I found a trim little volume  about how to tie scarves.  I hope it will inspire me to try new ways of wearing the many I have collected over the years. Apart from its utility, it has a lovely cover and will sit prettily in my bedroom.

New ways to tie a scarf
New ways to tie a scarf

Finally, the chocolate tour required travel in and out of the city, and on the train taking me home I put away my Kindle for a bit to strike up a conversation with a woman sitting nearby who was reading on hers. She was 75% through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the meandering, epic-sized novel that inexplicably won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. Personally, I think the 1-star Amazon reviews of this book are more enjoyable to read than the book itself, and they take far less time.

The woman on the train — I never asked her name, so I will call her Anna — agreed that the book tended to go on, but she admitted that she had time on her hands to read as long a book as she wished. Anna had just quit her job — law-related journalism for a news service — and was preparing to move to Denmark to join her husband, who had just started a new job there. Anna asked me what other books I could recommend, and I gave her a couple of titles that have stuck with me with far more force than Goldfinch, though I’d read them earlier: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

I think what struck me about these books was that they both tried something new — new to me, anyway, as a reader. Atkinson, in particular, took my mind into new places with her tale (or tales, I suppose) of rebirth and second (and more) chances. I finished that book wanting so desperately to talk to someone about it — in particular, Atkinson herself, so that I could demand that she walk me through her process and help me unpack the greater message I think her book is meant to contain. Sweet Tooth should be about a chocolate tour, but isn’t; it’s a fictional account of a woman who works for a wing of British intelligence that interacts with artists and writers during the Cold War. The book comes together so brilliantly at the end that McEwan should host a writing workshop and invite Donna Tartt to sit in the front row and take notes.

Anna, like me, had been an English major in college, and we commiserated a bit about our respective careers following the halcyon days of school until the train reached my stop and I wished her well with her move. I wish that I’d asked her for her own book recommendations, but lacking that, I will have to find an English translation of some Danish classic and read it in her honor. In the meantime, I shall unwrap the chocolate macarons that made it home with me and raise them in a chocolatey toast to Anna and her husband, who are trying something entirely new, and creating their own new story in the process.


Spotting a rare and mythical beast: The Adult Reader


I suppose I should have realized how difficult it would be to gather reconnaissance on what people are reading out in the real world, considering that I spend the majority of my week days within the confines of my full time job, where nobody reads for pleasure. What I hadn’t anticipated was that even during those brief interludes when I am released from work, stumbling out the doors and blinking in the bright light, that I would be hunting a rare and mythical beast.  Wandering through the outside world, my book dowsing rod trembling before me,  I’m just not seeing it.  Am I missing something?

Not really.  Adults who read books are, it turns out, a rare thing.  According to a September 2013 poll based on a sample of 1,000 adults in the United States, 28% had read no books during the prior 12 months. And this 28% was the majority of the people polled; the next largest group of 25% had read only between one and five books during the same time period. And I’m guessing that most of those who had read one to five books weren’t reading War and Peace -sized volumes, and that a large percentage of the books were either Harry Potter– or Twilight-affiliated.

So when I finally came across a reader in the wild today, it wasn’t a huge surprise to find out that he is a graduate student at a local university’s English program. But he wasn’t exactly reading for class. Matt, who works as a nanny, was waiting around for his charge to emerge from the same pool where my child was splashing about. He showed me the book he was reading:

How to fill the void while awaiting the next Game of Thrones book
How to fill the void while awaiting the next Game of Thrones book

Future of the Mind, by Michio Kaku, is a book about the potential for connectivity between the human brain and computers. Amazon readers have overwhelmingly praised it with 4.3 out of 5 stars. My target, Matt, seemed quite taken by the concepts proposed by the book, but admitted it was quite a change of pace for him; he explained that he’d reached the end of the Game of Thrones book series, and this account of life imitating science fiction is meant to tide him over while he awaits G.R.R. Martin’s next installment of HBO fodder.

Let me be clear so that we can settle this up front: I am not a Game of Thrones devotee and this post may be the only time I reference it.  I have never read any of the books (though the first book is on my to-read list), and have never watched a full episode, and couldn’t name any of the characters or houses or lands (although I bet could make decent guesses by making modest changes to Nordic or Arthurian names).  I will not be able to comment on last night’s show, or on the latest ingenious methods by which deaths were devised.   Based on what I know about the show, and my preference for kindler, gentler fare, I suspect neither the show nor the books are to my taste.

Thrones, however,takes us back to the earlier concept of the rare and mythical. I would respectfully suggest to Mr. Martin that his next book include  a character even more fantastical than baby dragons imprinting on some blonde woman: a dragon that reads books! Or, if you want to get really carried away, a human that reads books!

Geese imprinting on a bearded fellow
Geese imprinting on a bearded fellow

One thing does give me hope.  The first of G.R.R. Martin’s books in the series was published in 1996 — almost 20 years ago.  I was about to wager a guess that the total universe of Thrones viewers for the most recent episode might be larger than the universe of readers of a book nearly two decades old. Indeed, one of the recent episodes bagged 7.2 million viewers. But I’m happy to report that Throne readers have outnumbered the per-episode viewers: since 1996, over 24 million copies have been sold.  And if we consider time invested as the best measure of book fans versus show fans, then I think the bibliophiles win hands down.  Those are some big books. When the next one comes out, I’m sure it’ll be hard to miss, with or without my dowsing rod.

Artist's rendering of the blogger looking for books in the wild
Artist’s rendering of the blogger looking for books in the wild



Lucy and George check out the book that Cecil Checked out

My last post made me think about another fictional public-reader, who lives in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. In the book, Lucy Honeychurch returns to her home in England from an exhilarating trip to Florence, where she has met the eccentric Mr. Emerson and his equally eccentric but intriguing son George, who knows how to kiss, to become engaged to the prim and proper Cecil, who doesn’t.

To further set the scene, I refer you to the casting in the wonderful 1986 adaptation staring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, her small face quite overwhelmed by her Gibson Girl hair; Julian Sands as George; and the incomparable Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil. In Florence, Lucy has a brief but passionate (read: early 20th century passion means they kissed!) encounter with George that is witnessed by chaperone Miss Bartlett (the Downton Dowager herself, Maggie Smith), who agrees to keep mum about it.

Lucy and George’s inappropriate behavior

No else knows about the encounter.   (Or do they?) Certainly not Cecil. (Or does he?) To Lucy’s dismay (pleasure?), George and his father move to her village.  Mid-way through the book, Forster sets the scene at Lucy’s home, where the characters — Lucy, George, Cecil, and others — have converged:

The garden of Windy Corner was deserted except for a red book, which lay sunning itself upon the gravel path…. The sun rose higher on its journey, guided not by Phaeton, but by Apollo, competent, unswerving divine. Its rays fell … on the red book mentioned previously.

“Lucy! Lucy! What’s that book? Who’s been taking a book out of the shelf an leaving it about to spoil?” [This is Lucy’s mother speaking.]

“It’s only a library book that Cecil’s been reading.”

“But pick it up, and don’t stand idling there like a flamingo.”

Lucy picked up the book and glanced at the title listlessly, Under a Loggia.

Later, Lucy is playing tennis with George and two others, while Cecil — who is a bit of a dandy, and has refused to play — reads from the book mentioned previously. He identifies the author, whom Lucy realizes with amusement is Miss Lavish, one of the women (Dame Judy Dench!) that was part of their tour in Florence and who was friendly with Miss Bartlett. Cecil reads on, poking fun at the story, but because everybody –in particular, Lucy and George — is ignoring him, he’s growing agitated. Lucy tries to placate him, and picks up the book to open it to the passage he has been trying to describe to them.

 “Chapter two,” said Cecil, yawning. “Find me chapter two, if it isn’tbothering you.”

Chapter two was found, and she glanced at its opening sentences. She thought she had gone mad.

“Here–hand me the book.”

She heard her voice saying: “It isn’t worth reading–it’s too sillyto read–I never saw such rubbish–it oughtn’t to be allowed to beprinted.”

He took the book from her. “‘Leonora,'” he read, “‘sat pensive and alone. Before her lay the richchampaign of Tuscany, dotted over with many a smiling village. Theseason was spring.'” Miss Lavish knew, somehow, and had printed the past in draggled prose,for Cecil to read and for George to hear. “‘A golden haze,'” he read. He read: “‘Afar off the towers of Florence,while the bank on which she sat was carpeted with violets. All unobserved Antonio stole up behind her–‘”

Lest Cecil should see her face she turned to George and saw his face. He read: “‘There came from his lips no wordy protestation such as formallovers use. No eloquence was his, nor did he suffer from the lack of it.He simply enfolded her in his manly arms.'” “This isn’t the passage I wanted,” he informed them, “there is anothermuch funnier, further on.” He turned over the leaves.

“Should we go in to tea?” said Lucy, whose voice remained steady.

Cecil reads to George and Lucy, and it gets uncomfortable.
Cecil reads to George and Lucy, and it gets uncomfortable.


Do you see what’s happened? Cecil has chosen this book from the library; he’s decided to bring this book to his fiancé’s home; his intent is to read from this book as Lucy and George oppose each other in a vigorous game of tennis; and he manages to, supposedly, misdirect his fiancé to the very passage depicting her encounter with the very same young man that sits near her now. Coincidence?  Or does Cecil know, and is he trying to tell Lucy to know that he knows? And look what happens next, because of Cecil’s library book:

 She led the way up the garden, Cecil following her, George last. She thought a disaster was averted. But when they entered the shrubbery it came. The book, as if it had not worked mischief enough, had been forgotten, and Cecil must go back for it; and George, who loved passionately, must blunder against her in the narrow path. “No–” she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him. As if no more was possible, he slipped back; Cecil rejoined her; they reached the upper lawn alone.

Seriously??!! Cecil could very well have his suspicions — and bear with me, as this requires a bit of speculation:  he knows that Lucy and George were in Florence at the same time, at the same small hotel; maybe he already has some familiarity with Miss Lavish and her connection to the Florentine tour; he knows that George and his father have eagerly moved to Lucy’s town; and the breathlessness of the pair during the tennis match probably further prompts his uneasy Victorian sensibilities . Even if unconsciously, Cecil’s public reading sends a message. His disdain for the writing and the events depicted is a commentary on the current running between Lucy and George, which Cecil can’t help recognize and which makes him jealous and uncomfortable. And perhaps to test them, or himself, he leaves them for a few critical moments to retrieve the very book that tells their story, so that it can continue.

On the other hand, if I’m wrong, and Cecil is blissfully unaware of the romance and this all comes down to the mere chance of checking out a book of romance from the library …. Well, good on you, E.M. Forster. It’s one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.

Take a look at Rory Gilmore’s books

rory g

Recently buzzfeed posted an article that caught my BV-inspired eye: a writer (and presumably a book lover, considering the effort) had compiled a list of all the books that nerdily adorable Rory Gilmore had read or referenced during The Gilmore Girls. I do get a bit of a charge when I see fictional characters reading on screen, and it seems that Rory might be one of the best-read fictional characters in TV history. The 339 books are listed in alphabetical order, but it would have been even more engaging — and I tried to find this, without success — if the books were listed in the order in which Rory had read them, to tell the story of her character’s development through books, which was likely part of the story that the show was trying to tell. (I remember the show — and it wasn’t terrible.) Scanning through the list, it seems like Rory wasn’t too painfully meta-aware that she was being observed. That is, you have a lot of high brow classics, but then a lot of fluff: DaVinci Code is on the list, along with Judy Blume and Harry Potter. (Just to be clear, I do not want to besmirch the name of Judy Blume by putting her in the same category as either of the other two; I’m just pointing out that Rory dipped into what might be considered lighter, popular fare now and then.) For the most part, however, Rory’s list is just so healthy, like a shopping basket full of kale and quinoa, while I load up on box after box of Entenmann’s: I took the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge and scored a paltry 74 books read from her list. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go to Yale.

What’s fascinating is that every book in Rory’s hands, or mentioned during the show, is meant to be seen and selected for that purpose. I can’t help wondering, when I see a TV or movie character with a book, what kind of hidden message the director, actor, or producer is trying to send via that volume in that character’s hands. Rory’s books send a message with as many layers as an Entenmann’s coffee cake: internal to the story, between Rory and the other characters; internal to the story, as a means of reinforcing Rory’s own character to the viewer; and external to the story, between the show’s creators and the TV audience. Because Rory’s list contains more range than Axel Rose and Mariah Carey (Beowulf, Charlotte’s Web, Dante, Spinoza, fairy tales pretty much all of Jane Austen, a lot of Stephen King, most of Dickens; no Danielle Steel, for which I will commend her) the external message behind Rory’s reading list must be only, “It’s okay to gather some of your nourishment for existence from books,” or, maybe more practically, “This girl is getting into Yale!”

This is a good message to send. TV characters spend a lot of time expressing themselves: entering, exiting, getting on the phone, getting off the phone, and of course talking to each other or to the screen. It’s rare that we see a character at rest, or engaged in some inherently internal activity, like reading or sleeping or going to the bathroom, that cannot be shared with anybody else (unless of course it serves a comedic purpose). Frankly, it’s becoming rare to see anybody –in TV or in real life — just sitting around and reading a book anymore while between places — smartphones bind us to a constant state of entering or exiting, always on display, internally and externally. Thankfully, Rory lived in a time that preceded the e-book era, which has made public reading more private again; if Rory had owned an e-reader, a part of her personality would have been hidden, along with the cover of her book.

This is what makes public-readers so interesting. Every-day readers aren’t like the produced character Rory Gilmore, with a background consciousness of the intentionally public nature of her book selection. Granted, for common readers like us, there’s a certain consciousness about the book we’ve chosen for public consumption. Some of us will avoid reading in public the books we read in private to avoid sending one message (Shades of Gray). Some of us will only read certain books in public to send another message (Shades of Gray, again). But it’s the crowd in between, the people who tote the same book, back and forth — between home, commutes, work, gym, DMV, coffee shop, poolside — that I’m interested in identifying, to find out their stories and see what they’re trying to tell us about their books and what their books tell us about them. And, like the Rory Gilmore syndicate of actor, writers, producers, and directors, I’d like to remind people that it’s okay to love books, to steep in them, to be seen with them.


A peek at what I’m reading right now

A couple weeks ago I scrolled through my Kindle to find Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which I had already read some time ago after volunteering along with a woman who happened to be an English teacher and who had written a dissertation about masculinity in Victorian literature — including the oh-so-manly John Thornton of North and South. (Look out, Mr. Darcy.) The book is tedious at times. It was published in serial form in the 1850s and I suppose Mrs. Gaskell was paid by the page because she enthusiastically wrings out of her characters so much uninterrupted dialogue on such dry topics (primarily, labor relations during the industrial revolution) that in real life, the characters would have put each other to sleep during the lengthy conversations. But there are so many good moments that would cause even Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy to have romantic palpatations.

Plus, the book was made into a well-cast, excellent BBC mini-series in 2004, which I have also watched more than once. When the book gets tiresome, I can flip on the Netflix or the Amazon Prime and get a dose of the to-the-point dialogue and action of the movie.

Check out what they’re reading at the pool

Today was a lovely day to be at the pool, perfect for letting my winter-white body soak up some the sunshine, and getting lost in a good book.  Having just loaded “Middlemarch” to my Kindle, I had no time to lose if I wanted to finish that thing before I retire.

At least, that’s what I kept thinking as I splashed around in the pool with my offspring, laser-focused on preventing both drowning and, more importantly, bathing suit malfunctions.   (Specifically, my  bathing suit, which tends to be a convenient thing for my barnacle-child to clutch as she flails in the water.)  It’s a family-friendly pool, full of young families and tiny humans with adorable bathing suits and bulging swim diapers.  Waist-deep in water with barnacle-children clinging to us, we parents look longingly at the poolside grown-ups lounging carefree and quiet, focused on nothing more than perfecting their tans and examining their smartphones.

I had my eye out for poolside book lovers but located surprisingly few.  Far more people were reading magazines and even more — at least those who were fortunate enough to be barnacle-free — were simply staring off into space or face-down into their chair cushions or, I suppose, dozing.

Don’t get me wrong — staring off into space sounds pretty darn good to me about 90% of the time but my to-read list just keeps getting bigger and summer is my time to catch up!  At least some others at the pool were getting caught up on their own to-be-reads, so I removed my barnacle for a few minutes and stopped to chat with a young woman, probably in her 20s, who had been immersed in a book for the entirety of my visit to the pool.  Kate was happy to show me what she was reading:

Kate's poolside reading
Kate’s poolside reading

She’d picked up this book at the airport some time ago was finally getting around to reading it, and praised one of Raymond Khoury’s earlier works.  She briefly described The Sanctuary in a way that made it sound kind of like The DaVinci Code — but when I suggested this, she assured me that this was better than the Code.  What??  I suppose it’s possible.  [Note, my excessive use of italics may indicate sarcasm, especially where Dan Brown is involved. ]  According to Amazon reviews, The Sanctuary has earned 3.7 out of 5 stars.  (Not all the reviews are glowing.  My favorite line from one of the negative reviews: “In the first section … Khoury uses ‘menacingly’ four times in as many paragraphs.   Amateurish.”)

But I don’t want to dwell on the book too much.  My intent for this blog is also to learn about readers, how they read, and why they read.  Unfortunately, this being my first BV interview, it’s only hours later that I realize there’s more questions I should ask my BV target, such as 1) age range; 2) general reading habits; 3) work/career; 4) etc. But who am I to interrupt the day-in-the-sun-good-book experience of some innocent reader?  And anyway, this effort was leaps and bounds better than my first tentative attempt at a BV investigation, at the same pool only a short while earlier:

Mystery book at the pool leads to intriguing potential
Mystery book at the pool requires further investigation

Having caught a brief glimpse at the front cover before I snapped this surreptitious and completely unhelpful shot once the unwitting owner stepped away, here’s what I knew: The author is Brian Weiss, and the title was not in English, but included the word “amor”.  Some investigation on Amazon leads to the conclusion that my poolside neighbor was reading Lazos de Amor / Only Love Is Real, a non-fiction, new-age account by a psychiatrist of the realization that two of his patients were lovers in a past life.   Sounds like a Reese Witherspoon movie I saw years ago … or perhaps one that I’ll see in the future ….



Happy birthday, Walt Whitman, and happy birthday,


Last weekend I was riding in a subway car, discretely and somewhat desperately trying to catch a glimpse at the book being read by one of my fellow strap-hangers.  I never got a glimpse of the book, and I never managed to work up the courage to ask the reader about his hefty paperback (it was NY City, after all), but I did get rather excited about the prospect of coining a new word — biblioyeur — to describe the mild obsession that I (and I’m sure others … right?) have in trying to identify what is being read by others in public spaces.  And then, I got rather more excited about the prospect of collecting this information in some way, and sharing it with others.  And then I realized I had no idea how to pronounce “biblioyeur.”  And then a friend used “blog” and “literary” in the same sentence, and a few feverish hours later this new blog entered the world.

It’s brand new, and still covered with the goo associated with the birthing process.  So bear with me while I clean it up and put on a fresh nappy.  In the meantime, bear in mind that this blog’s birthday shares an auspicious date — Walt Whitman was born on this date in 1819.   So on this date, almost two centuries ago, Whitman entered the world, covered in goo, and then went on (after many years and presumably several nappies) to create poetry that influenced American literature forever after.

At least this is what I’ve heard; Leaves of Grass has been sitting on my nightstand untouched for a couple months now — sorry, Walt.  According to The Writer’s Almanac, Leaves of Grass  received many excellent reviews — many of which Whitman wrote himself, anonymously.  I suppose he, being as familiar as he was with the work, was in the best position to judge his poetry.   I should also note that Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass on his own dime, binding volumes as his finances permitted.  Had he been born only a couple hundred years later, he could have just blogged it.