Friday, September 28, 2007

A Peep at Library Research

When I was young bibliophagist I was much exercised in my mind by the question of what I should be when I grew up. I was not looking forward to adulthood with much eagerness, for it seemed to me that childhood was a pretty cushy berth. At the cost of a few household chores and some pretty easy schoolwork, one was allowed to occupy one's mind as one wished and to bury one's nose in a book just about all the time.

I didn't think I would be able to follow my mother into the noble profession of housewifery. Though I had not yet read A Very Young Housewife, I realized the absolute neccessity of a husband, a prerequisite which I instinctively sensed I was unlikely to acquire. (I was not a prepossessing child and did not expect my appeal to increase as I grew older.)

I knew I couldn't work in a store because I wouldn't be able to make change. I had never learned my addition and subtraction facts and this was long before idiot-proof cash registers. Being a nurse would be rather icky. And you couldn't be a nun unless you had a vocation. That pretty much covered all the possibilities except being a teacher. I thought I might be able to do that. After all, how hard could it be? They had all the answers at the back of the book.

It is odd, given my love of books and libraries, that I never imagined becoming a librarian. I think I must have considered them to be exalted beings whom the Deity wrought in finished form, suitably annointed, and installed into their positions accompanied by a respectful chorus of angel trumpets. Not the sort of thing to which a mere mortal might aspire.

However, by my senior year in high school I had finally realized that I could join their exalted ranks. I worked in the high school library, in the public library, and at my college library. I majored in British and American literature as an undergraduate and had even finished a post graduate semester of library science when, much to my astonishment, I suddenly found myself in possession of a husband.

Making one of those sudden U-turns in the career path, I devoted myself to building a home library and raising little bibliophagists. It’s been a satisfying life, but I still take an interest in professional librarianship. So I was delighted to discover The Classy Librarian’s blog and especially her post linking to Peep Research: A Study of Small Fluffy Creatures and Library Usage. If you’ve ever wondered about the advanced research skills of Peeps (hasn’t everybody?) or longed to read a serious comparison of the library behavior of Peeps vs. college students, this is the site to visit.

If you are primarily interested in scientific research on Peeps themselves, I recommend Peep Research. (Be sure to click on “Medical Miracle! Quintuplet Peep siblings, conjoined at birth, have been separated through this daring application of modern medicine!” Fillius2 and I were helpless with laughter.)

Monday, September 24, 2007


"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book." --Groucho Marx

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Youthful Indiscretions

I had a fortunate childhood. Unlike some bookworms who grow up in a family of nonreaders, I was never berated for reading too much. As I’ve said before, my parents valued education and were pleased that I could and did read. There was only one time I got in trouble for it.

When I was a kid I used to sometimes sneak books into the bathroom. I’d never do that now, but when I was a kid it didn’t occur to me that the same book I was reading in the bathroom would also be in my hands while I ate lunch. (Maybe I thought germs just didn’t stick to books.)

I suppose that the attraction of taking a book into the bathroom was that privacy was at such a premium in our family. And you were also out of sight of the adults who were sure to interrupt you by assigning you a chore. But the danger of reading in the bathroom (besides your feet going numb) is that it was so easy to lose track of time. We had a very large family, and in those days the average house didn’t have as many bathrooms as they do now.

So one day I came to the surface to hear my mother pounding on the bathroom door and shouting, “Bibliophagist, have you got a book in there?” Somehow I sensed she would not be pleased that my little brothers and sisters were hopping up and down in the hallway just because I was trying to finish a chapter.

“No, mom!” I replied on the Jesuitical grounds that I no longer actually had the book, having just slid it under the clothes hamper. I skipped out of the bathroom lickity-split intending to retrieve my book later. But I didn’t get around to it before my mother decided to do the laundry and discovered my deception.

She said it was the lie I was being punished for more than the location of my bibliophagic behavior. But she made the punishment fit the accident of the crime. I was forbidden to read for a week!

It was the longest week of my life. I couldn’t read anything except my school assignments. The one brief oasis in that howling wilderness was when my mother asked me to look up something in the encyclopedia for her. A sip of cold water to my parched soul!

I don’t think I ever read a book in the bathroom again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fling It!

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
--Dorothy Parker

This morning I was trying to think of which books I’ve read that deserve the Dorothy Parker Flung Award. But since I routinely eschew genre that I know I won’t like and am not required to read books I don’t choose, I can’t think of any candidates right now. I must let this percolate through my hind brain and see if it dredges up anything from the past.

Certainly I've stumbled into novels I didn’t like. But since I don’t feel obliged to finish them, I usually don’t feel the need to fling them. Sometimes I’ve finished a novel I wasn’t enjoying because I kept thinking that sooner or later there was going to be a payoff that would turn the whole thing around and make it all worthwhile. The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies was one of those. I’ve liked other books by this author, but this one just left me feeling soiled.

Some books are so badly written that you end up finishing them simply from a sense of appalled fascination. Like catching sight of a road accident that makes you turn your head and keeps your eyes helplessly glued until it's out of sight.

But bad enough to be “thrown with great force”?

Okay, guys: nominate some titles. I promise not to read them.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Book That Started a Battle

Maureen left a comment on my post about St. Columba which I'm bumping up here because of the really cool picture:

"Here's a picture of the little book that started the big war. The Cathach (Battler) of St. Columba."

Besides being the oldest extant Irish manuscript of the Psalter, the Cathach is also the earliest example of Irish writing. It is traditionally thought to have been the one which St. Columba secretly transcribed from a book owned by St. Finnian. (Would that make Columba the patron saint of software and DVD pirates?) Their dispute over the rightful ownership of Columba’s illegitimate copy ultimately led to the Battle of Cul Dremne in 561. The manuscript can be dated late 6th to early 7th century from its script, but modern historical scholarship has cast doubt on the dating and whether Columba actually wrote it. (Phooey on them!)

I love the large initial letters at the beginning of each psalm. Do you notice the way that the letters next to the initial start out large and then gradually shrink back down to the size of the regular text?

There are more pictures here at the Royal Irish Academy where you can also download a longer description of the manuscript which includes an account of the manuscript's original condition when it was discovered and the various kinds of restoration that it has undergone:

"Pieces of degreased fish skin were used for joining butted edges in the vellum mounts." (Besides a voracious love of reading I am fascinated by bookbinding.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Childhood Bibliophagy

"When my son was eight months old, it could truthfully be said that he devoured literature. Presented with a book, he chewed it. A bit of Henry's DNA has been permanently incorporated into the warped pages of Goodnight Moon, and the missing corners of pages 3 and 8 suggest that a bit of Goodnight Moon has been permanently incorporated into Henry. He was, of course, not the first child to indulge in bibliophagy. The great Philadelphia bookdealer A.S.W. Rosenbach deduced that one reason first editions of Alice in Wonderland were so scarce was that so many of them had been eaten."
--Anne Fadiman, "The Literary Glutton" in Ex Libris

Monday, September 10, 2007

Beautiful Places to Read

Starting with the library of the Strahov Monastery in Prague, Curious Expeditions has assembled a compendium of beautiful libraries here. If you scroll all the way down through all the libraries, your mouse finger will go numb and your brain will go into visual overload!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Rereading Classics

“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.”
--Clifton Fadiman

Hmmm. This is clever and basically true, but aren't these two items simply the same thing stated in different words? I think that in rereading you see more in the book because there is more in you. Since your original reading you now have more experience, more perspective and more background, so things that previously flew over your head (or were just off your radar screen) are now apparent. But that "something more" which you've now discovered in the book was really already there.

Here's a different process than the one Fadiman describes: having a new bit of insight in response to rereading a book. Insight is a conclusion triggered by what you've read, but it's not necessarily the author's conclusion and it's not something that was in the book already. Insight comes from inside you, a flash of truth ignited by the Holy Spirit, though whether or not it bursts into flame or weakly flickers out is dependent on our will and whether or not we've gathered enough good tinder for it.

I still like the quote though.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Catholic Fiction

I was taking pictures of the library to email to my oldest son when I noticed this interesting juxtaposition, Our Lady of Vladimir right next to the novels of Tim Powers. Some people might think think they make strange shelf-fellows. After all, Wikipedia's article on Tim Powers summarizes Declare (my favorite of his novels) thusly: "...a Cold War espionage thriller which evokes Lovecraftian horror and the Epic of Gilgamesh, involving Kim Philby, djinn and the Ark on Mount Ararat." That probably doesn't fit most people's notion of Catholic fiction, but in this case it certainly fits mine.

Is there such a thing as Catholic fiction, and if so, what is it? This was a frequent topic around our family dinner table, and I think the consensus we finally reached was that Catholic fiction is fiction which takes place in a universe in which Catholicism is objectively true. It isn't necessarily literature that is "nice" or "safe." It may have bad people doing bad things and using bad language. It need not overtly proclaim the author's religious beliefs, though they will be implicit in the work. And only the poorest specimens of Catholic fiction will be thinly fictionalized apologetics. So for my money, Declare qualifies. It's a book in which Catholicism is the underlying physics of the world, so baptism has a real effect on a person's identity and prayer can be surprisingly efficacious.

(By the way, I also think that not every book by a Catholic author is neccessarily a Catholic novel. Tim Powers also wrote Drawing of the Dark which takes place in a universe in which reincarnation is true.)

Catholic fiction is a topic I hope to explore frequently in this blog. In fact, I had originally planned to call my blog "Catholic Fiction," but discovered that there is already a very good blog by that name here. I invite my readers (all two or three of them!) to list in the comments box those books which they think might qualify as Catholic fiction and to explain why.

By the way, interviewed Tim Powers about fantasy, science fiction, and the relationship between literature and faith, here. If you are interested in reading one of his short stories which is overtly Catholic, check out "Through and Through" which was reprinted with permission at Another good interview can be found here at Strange Horizons.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


There's nothing like having to pack up and move forty years' worth of book collecting to make a person become a just little ruthless in the matter of duplicates. I tried to weed them out as I was packing, but they still keep turning up.

I know that some of our duplicates were due to the vagaries of our shelving system. For example, my husband divided the history section into rough subject catagories, but didn't alpabetize by author or title. Consequently, duplicates, overlooked in the jumble, crept in without our knowledge. Or sometimes they would hide themselves by being filed in two different catagories -- one copy of Tom Aquinas in the religion section and another in philosophy.

As I unpack I've rigorously alphabetized by author and then title and have turned up a fair number of unsuspected duplicates. (Would you believe three copies of Religion and the Rise of Western Culture? How did that happen?) In general, I've decided to keep hardcover copies rather than paperbacks though allowing some exceptions based on sentiment. For example, even though I also own a hardcover copy, I could never discard my paperback edition of 84 Charingcross Road. It's got the romantic inscription from my husband who was a bookseller before we married.

I had to steel myself to relinquish my battered childhood copy of Tom Sawyer in favor of the very nice hardcover collection of Twain's Mississippi writings. And I do feel some regret. The older copy was one of my very early book purchases. I'd bought it at the local Woolworths which, for a time, had a big stack of used books which they were selling off cheaply. I used to walk there (it was about a mile from my home) and root through the pile looking for books I had already read. My allowance was only 25 cents a week, so I seldom took chances on a book I hadn't read yet. I see that the copy of Daddy-Long-Legs which I bought there was priced at 50 cents. So that gives you an idea of my limited purchasing power.

Lately I've been unpacking the paperback fantasy, science fiction, and literature.

Hmmm. Two copies of Voyage to Arcturas. I still haven't read that! And we bought it way back in the '70s because we'd read that C.S. Lewis had been impressed by it. And look how many volumes we have from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series! I'm embarassed by how many I haven't read. And judging by their pristine condition, some of them were never read by either my husband or myself. (Blush!) But it seemed so important to buy them back when, thanks to the popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, old works of fantasy were finally being reprinted and new ones were being published. We always thought we'd get around to reading them sooner or later. I still intend to, but I never imagined it would be during my retirement.

I'm trying to be ruthless about culling the dupes, but I find that there are limits. Can I really part with my Ballantine copies of Lord of the Rings -- even though I have the Allen & Unwin one volume edition (slipcased and printed on India paper) and the Folio Society's edition (with illustrations by Ingahild Grathmer)? I know that Tolkien never liked the covers of the Ballentine edition (especially the little emu critters), but nothing brings backthe '60s, the era when I first read LOTR, like those battered paperbacks which lined up side by side to form a continuous landscape. In cases like these a book is more than a work of literature -- it's also an artifact of personal history. Besides, my Ballentine LOTR has little paper bookmarks scattered throughout the pages with penciled drawings of elves, hobbits, and Vulcans which I doodled while working at Telecredit in the mid '70s. And they just wouldn't fit in my newer, nicer editions.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Books . . .

"Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them."
--John Milton