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15 December 2006

Find Miss Florence Painter

“We read to know we are not alone.” – C.S. Lewis

VortexThe Bermuda Triangle that has sucked up into its awful vortex my favorite fountain pen, my copy of Getting Things Done (ironic, isn’t it?), and my beautiful Canon Elph PowerShot SD600 digital camera has continued to grow in scope and intensity and greediness and sheer audacity. My winter coat, the right shoe to my favorite Merrell clogs from the Old North State Clothing Company, and the TV remote control are now gone. I haven’t seen my special highlighter in a week, the recipe for Gay’s mother’s pimento cheese is AWOL, and there have been no sightings of my button collection in quite some time. I lost my right stem yesterday, but found it this morning in a place even I couldn’t have imagined, which made me feel really terrible and small for secretly believing that the UPS man had stolen it from the front porch. I’ve hidden my favorite Moleskine and Zebra .7mm Cadoozles Fun Pencil to save them from the Centrifugal Fury.

My friend Rosemary insists that the camera and remote are in our family room; if they are, they are hiding quite assiduously. Losing the camera was devastating. I might have mentioned that once or twice or twelve times. But losing that remote control is the best thing that has ever happened to us. Except for missing “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and all those lovely animated Burl Ives-induced Frosty the Snowman movies, that tremendously cute if ornery Dr. House, the wonderful animated kids’ show, Charlie and Lola, and Kyra Sedgewick’s glorious Southern accent in “The Closer,” we are happier without it. Oh sure, at first we sat pecking at the cable box like barnyard chickens on crack, desperately trying to change channels without a knob, but then we realized we could just turn the TV off and move on to other things, like recreating the penultimate scene in Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” in macaroni, or, something more low-carb, like reading books.

Mrs_piggle_wiggleWhen I was a child, I begged to be allowed to read in bed and was told that I could, until time for lights out. Then, to thwart my parents’ wishes that I be well-rested rather than well-read, I would sneak and read under my covers, sitting up so my head formed the apex of a blankie tent, illuminated from within like a brilliant blaze was consuming the covers, using a flashlight to continue romping through Mrs Piggle Wiggle’s latest adventure—perhaps the one on the farm!—until all hours of the night. I’m sure it fooled them when they peered in and could see only the miraculous glowing bed tent; finally, the Long Arm of the Law caught up with me.

“You’ll ruin your eyes,” my mother would wail. “You’ll ruin your eyes.” Given that I was already practically legally blind and wearing really ugly bifocals by the time I was 9, I reasoned with her: “I wouldn’t have to risk their further ruin if you would listen to logic and let me read until I weep with exhaustion.” My initial attempts at lawyerly reasoning were futile. No go. Lights out.

I had learned to read at four, well before starting school because my brother was in first grade and already reading; I refused to be left behind. I was also desperate to learn how to write my name—theEncyclopedia_brown only thing standing between me and my own library card was being able to write my whole name myself. Having scaled that hurdle, finally, there were years of Pippi and Encyclopedia Brown and all those little biographies of famous people to look forward to!

Mama took me to the library every week without fail, holding like the Holy Grail my little orange library card with the metal ID number on it, tucking and retucking it intently inside its beautiful little green paper slipcase. I still have that card. I even have my original application for it, written in a gorgeous 5-year-old handwriting, crooked and exaggerated, those two “t’s” towering above the “a” like redwood overlords, a large donut for a dot over the “i.” I’m sure the card and application are here somewhere. Perhaps they’re with my clog.

When I got old enough to work, I finally got a job there. Just imagine the absolute thrill of riding that Bookmobile, taking books to the unwashed masses!

The tallest three humans in this house are Big Readers, Emma most of all. She reads so much—in daylight, under a blankie tent with a flashlight—that she puts me and Mr Brilliant to shame. Tess is making efforts, but at three years old, isn’t quite there yet; she can do a pretty convincing rendition of her book about Gus the Troll who has a beautiful voice and isn’t especially good looking, but I think she’s faking it.

Alex_brychtajpEmma learned to read in the first grade under the graceful tutelage of Miss Jones, a wonderful young woman from South Africa who was her first teacher at the Washington International School.

The reading primers they used were British, the Oxford Reading Tree series illustrated by a man named Alex Brychta, complete with main characters named Biff and Kipper. Emma was so enamored of reading and of the small spectacles that appeared in each of Brychta’s illustrations, tucked into a corner, but there in each picture. “Why does he have those eyeglasses in every picture?” she would ask. “I don’t know, Buddy,” John replied. “Why don’t we call the man who painted the pictures and ask?”

And so they did, big John and little six-year-old Emma looked up Alex Brychta, found his phone number in London, and gave him a little ringy-dingy.

He was shocked. When he regained his composure, he very nicely told Emma all about the eyeglasses. It was to be the first of many such interactions for Emma. In fact, she assumed as a result that one was intended to correspond with all authors and artists, and her next conquest was an extended and delightful correspondence with a writer named Twig George. In the second grade, Emma was assigned to do a report on George’s A Dolphin Named Bob, so she, of course, expected that she would interview the author. Don’t we all?

In that way, she is truly Mr Brilliant’s daughter, a man who called the White House Pastry Chef to find out how to make a gingerbread castle, who called Clyde Barrow’s sister, Kurt Gödel’s psychiatrist, the janitor who cleaned up the Rosenberg’s execution chamber, and countless others. He called Hans Bethe once, who – at age 95 – answered his own phone.

Patti_and_her_best_friend_carlos_fuentes_1“Everybody talks,” he told me, “if you come up with an interesting enough question.” I was going to have lunch with Carlos Fuentes once and John learned through transcripts of past interviews that Fuentes had a beloved second grade teacher who was formative in his life. Her name was Miss Florence Painter. Many of us mortals might have stopped there, but not Mr Brilliant. No, he tracked down that teacher. She had died, but we talked to her relatives, a series of calls and conversations about Carlos as a child that led me to an extraordinary welcome from Fuentes and his own fascinating stories of his childhood. He was thrilled to hear his teacher’s name, all these years later.

We are a family of seekers, it turns out, empowered by Mr Brilliant to call anyone and everyone. 

Last week, in the glorious wake of the Missing Remote, Emma and I devised a plan to read a book each week in 2007. John wanted in on the action, so the three of us are now compiling our lists. Even though it is true, as the crotchety but generally correct Edmund Wilson once said, that “no two persons ever read the same book,” every other week the three of us will read one book together and on alternate weeks, we’ll read books of our own choosing. Some of mine will be re-reads because, as Cliff Fadiman said: “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”

We will no doubt be putting some authors on four-way conference calls.

Couple_reading_under_tree“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said. And so it is that when we moved from Washington, 7,000 pounds of books moved with us, and this after pruning our shelves.

They are ordered in a way that would cause any librarian to shudder: here, this shelf has books with one-word titles (my favorites!): Regret, Boredom, Crying. Jump, for example. The shelf below has unusual histories: the history of vacations, the history of old age, the history of the housewife, the history of reading, laughter as subversive history, a history of walking, the history of stupidity, the history of hosiery (that’s for you, Rosemary!). There’s a whole section on forgeries that was inspired by William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. Two cases over are some of the favorites from Mr Brilliant’s ephemera collection of 90,000 obtuse pamphlets, a veritable history of the United States in paper, those naïve surreal pamphlets of bizarre histories of double weight twine, the use of luggage, school lunches, shelled nuts, the United Brethren of Pullman Porters, and tin stamping.

Two shelves over to the left are the death books, a not insignificant grouping, then – of course – there’s the solitude section, which is near the section dedicated to Anne Lamott, the one focused on Jonathan Spence, Charles Hampden-Turner's shelf, and the shelf memorializing Carol Shields. There’s a section of poetry by an obscure American poet named Billy Collins—perhaps you’ve heard of him? And here’s the Tortured-French-Fiction-About-Art-and-Artists-Section, adjacent to the encyclopedias of hell, of heaven, and of everything in between those two points.

Amidst this Dewey Decimal nightmare, we’re creating a list of 52 books to read in 2007, 26 of which we all agree on and 26 wild cards to suit our own mood. To create my list, I’m looking at my own Massive Library of Unread Books and also at other people’s book lists. Ralph Waldo Emerson has written, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.” And ask I shall: what 3 books do you suggest I add to my reading challenge list for 2007?

I’m an avid Jorge Luis Borges reader; he is a man who spent a lot of time in libraries in his career. "Like all men of the library,” he wrote, “I have traveled in my youth, I have wandered in search of a book." Borges worked as a cataloguer at the Miguel Cane branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. The job didn’t interest him and he usually disappeared into the basement to read, write, and translate. The never-ending process of cataloguing inspired one of Borges's most famous short stories, “The Library of Babel” (1941), in which the faithful catalog of the Library is supplemented with "thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog."

Borges2In 1955 Borges became Director of the National Library. "I speak of God's splendid irony in granting me at once 800,000 books and darkness," Borges noted alluding to his now almost complete blindness. As he wrote in “The Secret Miracle”: "A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: 'What are you looking for?' Hladik answered: 'I am looking for God.' The librarian said to him: 'God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have searched for this letter; I have grown blind seeking it.'"

Still, he imagined that "Paradise will be a kind of library.” In an odd and Populist way (back to TV!), and to connect alpha and omega dots that rarely, if ever, are connected, Borges is like a character played by actor Burgess Meredith in a 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode called “Time Enough at Last.” In it, Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a bank teller thoroughly obsessed with reading, much to the dismay of his boss at work and his wife at home. Bemis suddenly finds himself the last man on Earth after surviving a nuclear attack (like Borges sneaking into the library basement, Bemis had snuck into the bank vault to read over his lunch break and emerged to find himself alone in a destroyed world.)

When he sits in a pile of rubble that used to be the library, (somehow the books have survived the vast conflagration), he is distraught until he realizes that now he can read all the time! Overjoyed, he makes piles and piles of books to read for the years to come—until he drops his significantly thick eyeglasses and they shatter, smashing his only lenses and leaving him unable to read.

If Paradise is a library, hell is a library with shattered eyeglasses—or, in Borges’ case, being in an infinite library while blind.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

PippilWhen I first traveled to Stockholm on a business trip, I had one thing in mind: ditch the fascinating and no doubt life-altering conference on modern human resources measurement systems and find the Holy Grail. Go to the place where Astrid Lundgren lives and stand in front of her house. Lundgren was, of course, the creator of my childhood she-ro, Pippi Longstocking. By the time I was in Stockholm, she was very old and not to be bothered. And so I just stood there, looking at her house.

Throw your TV remote away and be a book fool. Read, write in the margins, talk to people about the books you read. Create interesting questions. Find Miss Florence Painter, your favorite writer’s second grade teacher. Talk to her.

Call writers. Support the book publishing industry and independent bookstores. Renew your library card. If you have children or access to children, create traditions for them that center on your public library.  Always carry a book, a pen, and an index card. Always.

And tell me: what 3 books do you suggest I add to my reading challenge list for 2007?

Victor Hugo said that “to learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” There are so desperately many people in the U.S. who cannot read. Can we help spark a fire for them?

Teach someone to read. Give them a whole world.

Related posts: Don’t sell your red books, Always carry a pencil, Save face for someone else

Just one short year ago, here’s what I was pondering: Listen to fishies


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This is one of my favorite flavors from Patti's Word Confectionary--43 links, 27 (linked) references to writers and books, and a long, nicely banked and leisurely drive that takes us from a little girl reading under her bedcovers to Astrid Lindren's house to Paolo Uccello to a delightful story about Carlos Fuentes, a story about a missing stem and notebook, obsessive references to a missing camera and someone (god-only-knows-if-he's-real) named Billy Collins or something, and then all drawn together by the glorious Borges with a Twilight Zone cherry on top. Really now! Borges and Burgess Meredith--and it works hearing the indomitable Rufus Thomas rhyme the impossible (like "Baltimore" and "Sidewalk", together, and it works). Pretty good piece of writing, I must say, even if I do have a certain prejudice...or sumpin'. Sorry, gotta include this bit for Mr. Thomas: (He also performed quite a bit with his daughter Carla, so he's pretty good in my book.)

Will you adopt me? I can do laundry and general yardwork...

(Ah, the metal embossing strip on those old cards. Such memories...)

John (aka Mr Brilliant) visits 37days again! I'm sure yours is a completely unbiased view... Will you marry me? Hey, on second thought, what do you mean, "obsessive references"? ;-)

Dan - add doing the dishes and you're in! ;-)

What a wonderful idea! Now I'm thinking of a list of my own....

May I humbly submit:

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare (if a play can count)

(I just saw a production of that last on Tuesday and I'm completely enamored of it. It's as if Shakespeare took a bet to put every plot device from every other play all into one glorious mess of a play.)

Love, love, love thinking about books!

May I suggest one of those books I was caught reading with a flashlight under the blankets(how many of us late night childhood readers are out there--still reading?):
And this classic--which my partner and I read aloud--he reads in his lovely deep mahagony bass voice, and I knit or do beadwork---(this is our antidote to TV); we found ourselves dieing to get to this book each night to find out what happened next:
THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Stienbeck
And for nonfiction:
THE ISLAND WITHIN by Richard Nelson

My Mom (and husband for that matter) like to joke that if you let my father or I near a bookstore or library you won't see either of us for hours. Some of my favorite memories growing up are wandering the library shelves wondering what mysteries, adventure, and knowledge each book held as I passed by it. I would stop at a random book (everything from children's fiction to math books) and pull it from the shelves and sit down on the floor and read until it was time for my parents to pick me up. I've stopped reading as much these past few years with all of my other interests but I do believe I'll make 2007 the year I pick the habit back up!

1.From the history shelves I'd recommend Parachute Infantry by David Kenyon Webster.

2. From the fiction novel arena I'd suggest Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

3.From my childhood I'd advise you delve into the world of Charles & Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L`Engle

A book a week, ah, luxury! I recommend one of your choices be Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, if you haven't already encountered it. Lots of fun, interesting perspective and twists. Wish I had been able to visit their Fleet Street Wine Bar for a bottle of the Funeral Wine last year. Then, for pure beauty, you can't go wrong immersing yourself in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. I hear he's a spiritual cousin of Billy Collins...

I loved every word of this. The library has become my favorite place again after too many years away, thinking a purchased book was somehow better than a borrowed book. I love the smell of the library, that mix of paper, ink, glue, and old, musty carpet. Your memories of childhood reading are precious. Thanks for sharing them and firing up mine too. Right now I'm reading a book that was recommended by a client. Places Left Unfinished at the Creation of Time by John Phillip Santos. Loving it. I hope you'll post of list of recommended books. I'm ready to curl up after the holidays.

I really must read this post to my mother, who once shipped 9,000 books to Kauai...only to return to the mainland 6 months later. ;) She's legally blind now and has given (and thrown) away hundreds and hundreds of books over the past few years, but still retains a good-sized library, so she would greatly appreciate what you've written. I adore libraries and bookstores and even though I'm a quick reader, I'm not a voracious one, primarily because I haven't often struck gold. I haven't often had that experience of feeling completely transported and transformed by an author's work. I can enjoy many books, but I want to be MOVED by them. So I'll be hoping that you post your book lists so I can possibly investigate some of your choices. Although I've read my share of books (no classics though), the only book that's coming to mind right now to recommend is Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible." I love her writing in general, but that book moved and haunted me in a way that few have. I think I read it three times before giving away my copy when we moved. (Love to read, but I'm not a good book-recommender, because I cannot for the life of me critique a book beyond the uber-lame "Um...I liked it?") I'm with John re reaching out to contact people. We tend to think that authors are somehow out of reach but they're right there, just waiting to be contacted--at least that's been my experience. Lastly, how much do I love John's comment? Much. Any man who even knows who Rufus and Carla Thomas are is more than okay in my book. ;)

I have only one suggestion - "Into The Forest" by Jean Hegland. There is a scene in this book that caused this fellow bibliophile to burst into waves of tears. You will know it when you read it.

Since I am already a "book fool," I will endeavor to be as brave and wise as Emma and Mr. Brilliant - and you.

Only 3 suggestions are allowed, huh? Okay. Here goes. My top three, my desert island reading list. Normally it would include something (everything?) by Anne Lamott but I take it you have read those.

1. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. Simply beautiful. Read the first page, and you will know.

2. Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster (this might suit all three of you). An epistolary novel about a young orphan girl in the early 20th century whose way through college is paid by an anonymous benefactor, whom she dubs "Daddy Long-Legs." His only request is that she write to him through her years at school. I inherited the hardcover from my grandmother (it was a gift from her father) and I have read it a thousand times. There is something lovely about a coming-of-age story set so long ago.

3. A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle (this also might suit all three of you). The original food-and-travel book, full of charming characters from the crazy plumber to the gruff, German-hating next door neighbor, all paysans of the French countryside where Englishman Mayle has made his new home. An entertaining romp that will make you hungry besides. (Hint: best read under a tree in full summer's bloom with a picnic of salami, cheese, bread and chocolate.)

We are hearty readers, and come from a long line of book fools. (And that's why I've belonged to since 2001.) I learned to read at three, as did my daughter, and little Logan, who is not yet three, is started to read now. Hooray for books! (You have me remembering Mrs. Steinbrenner, our librarian, who let me check out any book in the library, even in the so-called "adult" section, which didn't mean then what it does now. And how every summer, I would earn multiple certificates, awarded for every 25 books you read and wrote a small report about. Halcyon days.)

Recommendations: I am a great fan of quirky, first person tales, and also books that make me laugh and cry. Herewith, I submit two for you:

1. A Girl Named Zippy. Impossible to describe, but this is a book I could have written if I just knew how to put the spin on the ball as she did. There are little miracles everywhere, and this book is one of them.

2. Miles from Nowhere, which Barbara Savage wrote in the Seventies, about the two-year bicycle journey she and her husband, Larry, took around the world. She was killed (on her bike) right when the book went to press, so I know that will get extra points with you. (Heh.) I first heard it read by Dick Estell on "On the Bookshelf" on NPR, way back in the Eighties. It was fabulous, and a recent re-read proves that it has aged well. It is in its tenth printing, which says something.

Lastly, the Steinbeck I would recommend is his nonfiction book, Travels with Charley, which was written in 1960. Much of what he writes is relevant today, and you have the additional window into the cresting wave of social changes that were just starting then. It is an eloquent, funny, serious book, and it is what made me a Steinbeck fan for life.

Your post brought back fond memories of weekly visits to the library. Thanks!

I have only one suggestion not already covered. Your mention of the history of hosiery reminded me of "Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years" by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. (The subtitle is "Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times," but I love the title unadorned.) Barber is an archeologist who's also a spinner and weaver. The book is a lively read, looking at the hard -- but ephemeral -- work women do, producing the consumables that leave so little historic trace.

Three books for you

Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Precious Bane by Mary Webb

Persuasion by Jane Austin

And one for your daughter:

A Kingdom Lost for a Drop of Honey by Maung Htin Aung and Helen G. Trager (my favourite book as a child)

This brought back so many memories - my first time in the library at the age of four, the sight and scent of all those books made me sure that I was in heaven. I still feel the same way every time I enter a library or a book store. So much more satisfying than anything on TV could be :)

My favorite book of the year gone by - The Whole World Over, by Julia Glass. I read it twice and listened to the audio version as well. Loved it.

Dear Patti,

Love the picture of you and your family reading together. Fireplace? Wingback chairs?

Favorite books:
The New Testament. Stories, history, intrigue, mystery, and lessons for living no matter what religion we profess (or don't).

A Fine Balance. Author-- Rohinton Mistry. I came to care deeply about the main characters in this novel about untouchables in India.

Drinking the Rain. Author--Alix Kates Shulman. A woman in her fifties leaves her busy life to live for a period alone on an island off the the coast of Maine. For any of us who have ever wanted to run away.

as you can see, i am a little behind in my reading here. your plan for 2007 sounds wonderfully luxurious. my new resolution is to get back to reading more books-- thanks for the inspiration! only 3 ? OK, here goes : 1. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (i read it twice the first summer it came out and every summer after for 5 years) 2. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (for you and emma) 3. Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen (also for you and emma) really, anything by anna quindlen or barbara kingsolver are worth a look. another of my favorite authors is jodi picoult (definitely check out My Sister's Keeper and Vanishing Acts) and also jacqueline mitchard (The Breakdown Lane or Cage of Stars). sorry, i couldn't possibly keep it to just 3. good luck! and as stated above, please share your list with us. i would also like to second the vote for Where the Heart is, and thanks to Kim, who reminded me that i still need to read Into the Forest. thanks again for this inspiring post and to everyone who commented for reminding me of what i really love to do! i also have very fond memories of reading and going to the library my entire life.

My mother was our local librarian for 30 years. When I was little, I napped on the shelves... Now, I surround myself with books. We once were reading together on her big bed and I started to laugh. She asked what was so funny. I said, "It's impossible!" "What's impossible?" she asked. "We'll never read all the books we want to before we die," I said. We shared a moment, then, thinking about how fun it would be to try.

She was reading "Something Rising (Light and Swift)" by Haven Kimmel when she died, a book I had already enjoyed, although I would suggest "The Solace of Leaving Early" as the better book.

As for classics, I am reading Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the moment -- what an incredible voice she gave to Scout.

Have fun under the reading light!

I am late to this. This posting must have gone missing like the Canon SD60. If I may, I would offer a trilogy by Philip Pullman; His Dark Materials. The three books are The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass.

This set would be enjoyed by the family. The lead character is a female. The whole is wonderfully written. It can be read on many levels. It reportedly will be made into a movie.

How good is it? In the ten plus years commuting to Boston, only one book has ever had me so engrossed that I almost missed the Franklin stop. That book is The Golden Compass. The other two are very close behind.

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