Tag Archives: books

Read This Blog – Then Go Read a Book

If you’re reading this blog post, chances are that, like me, you’re reading “stuff” all day long. You glance at the news headlines online and scroll through the blogs you subscribe to; you sift through emails and text messages; you open the mail, read office memos, and so on.  Thanks to these multiple demands on our attention, I suspect many of us who enjoy reading find it difficult to put aside some time to sit down and read a book.

For a bookworm like myself, this is also a practical problem.  When people know that you love books, you tend to receive books as gifts, such as at Christmas or on your birthday.  Similarly, should you find yourself at an event where books are being given away, or where there is a book-signing, you can’t help but pick up a few volumes for yourself.  Within the past six months alone, while I choose not to actually count and tell myself the real number, I would say that I have thus accumulated about two dozen books.

As time passes that stack of unread books, which you have done little more than crack open to have a thumb through, grows ever taller.  Perhaps you hide them away somewhere so you don’t have to look at them, but in the back of your mind you know they are still there, verbally haunting you with a plaintive cry of, “Read me!”  You may even feel guilty about the fact that for months now, these things have been waiting for you to give them a try, while you have wasted countless hours online watching cat videos, arguing about sci-fi movies, or taking quizzes to find out which 90′s pop idol you are (Justin Timberlake, apparently.)

Far be it from me, someone who loves and appreciates what good the internet can do, to tell you to stop using it altogether.  Plenty of good reading material can be found online, and we can use the internet wisely as a tool to expand our knowledge of a subject.  There is also the social aspect of reading something on the internet, which can quickly and easily be shared with our online communities – something that a solitary reader of a book would find it difficult or impossible to do.

Yet that being said, there is nothing quite like settling down on the couch or under the covers with a new book, and savoring the words within it, all by yourself.  Within the pages of a book there is no “share” button to click on, no comments section to scroll through, no ads for unwanted or unpleasant products on the side.  There are only words, which have to stand or fall on their own, depending on how adept the writer is at stringing them together.

The problem remains, however: where do we find the time to have these experiences?

As my readers know, I decided to give up Facebook for Lent, apart from a cursory visit on Sunday mornings just to clear out my inbox and notifications.  Over the past couple of weeks, with that activity out of my life, I have been reading like mad: six books so far.  True, that’s not much of a dent in the stack of unread volumes I need to get through, but it’s a decent start.

The pleasure of quietly reading, with only the scraping sound of a turning page to break the silence, is something too easily drowned out in the noisy assault of media on our senses.  When we are constantly bombarded with visual and audible stimuli, the subtleties of language and the joy of a well-chosen turn of phrase or insightful observation can be utterly lost.  On top of which, I had forgotten that when I pick up a book, I’m reminded that in reading other people’s work, I’m often inspired to pursue my own writing interests.

So now that you’ve read this post, gentle reader, my challenge to you is to go read something else, preferably bound between two covers and printed on paper. Turn off the computer and the television, silence the phone, and spend some time enjoying an activity which today, we too often take for granted among all the bells and whistles of 21st century technology.  For wonderful as that technology is, there really is no substitute anywhere in new media for the experience of quietly paging through a good book.

Detail of "Crackers in Bed" by Norman Rockwell (1921) Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass.

Detail of “Crackers in Bed” by Norman Rockwell (1921)
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass.

20 Comments

Filed under culture

Blurred Underlines

There is a certain logic in the movement to eliminate the printed word in favor of the electronic one.  People spend good money to buy a printed, bound, and glued collection of pulp which, in the vast majority of cases, loses its value as soon as one starts to use it.  And we are all very much aware of the fact that previously read books are one of those categories of household effects which people tend to get rid of when they move.

Not me.

When I moved back to the U.S. from London over a decade ago, I was confronted with the fact that I had bought so many books during the couple of years I lived in the UK, and that there was no conceivable way in which I could possibly take all of these volumes with me on the plane.  I ended up leaving quite a number of them behind temporarily, and it took some dear friends with a spacious attic in Swiss Cottage, and two subsequent trips back with an empty suitcase, to bring them all home.  I know, in retrospect I probably should have shipped them, but then again I would have been more anxious about their safety crossing the Atlantic, but whenever I visit any city I find myself coming home heavily laden with more books to read, so this is not something new.

Last evening I was going through “No Man Is An Island”, a book by Thomas Merton which I had bought many years ago at the Notre Dame bookstore, and which had gone with me to London and back.  As with many of the books I purchased during that time in my life, it has quite a bit of underlining.  For those of you who have not been to law school, you cannot appreciate how much you must underline and make notes in the margins of your books as a first-year law student just to keep up with your nightly reading assignments of 200-300 pages, any of which you might be called upon to explain in class the next day.  You overcome the sense of wanton destruction rather quickly under such circumstances, even if you are, like I was, the sort of person who was always loath to write in a clean, printed book.

What I found particularly interesting, not having cracked open this particular volume of Merton in quite a number of years, was seeing what I had underlined when I was younger. The lined sections were either key elements of Merton’s arguments, or passages which spoke to me in a particularly personal way at the time I originally read them.  Looking back and seeing myself in what I had chosen to underline taught me just as much as re-visiting the content of the book itself did.  In fact, had I not underlined it in blurry, smudgy ballpoint many years ago, reopening that volume would probably have made less of an impact.  I was able to see who I was as a younger man, pushing my way through graduate school, rather overly-educated, naive, and not having much of a clue, and compared him to the older man, now long-since finished with formal education and considerably less naive, but oftentimes still not having much of a clue.

While there are a number of books which one ought not to write in – first editions, folios, exhibition catalogues, and so on – it does fall to me then to endorse the  habit of making handwritten notations on books at least in some cases, particularly where you do in fact stand a decent chance of going back to revisit a particular volume later in life.  That does not mean every work of fiction or non-fiction which comes through your hands needs to have your own personal gloss put on the margins.  Moreover if you are still in Catholic school when you read this, do not show Sister Mary Library my blog post and tell her that I told you it was okay to write in your textbooks – you have to return those books at the end of the school year, remember, and the last thing I need right now are angry phone calls from vicars of diocesan education .

Yet I would ask you to consider that even with the technology to make notes on your Kindle or other reader device, typing is still is not the same as drawing those lines yourself around words that strike you as meaningful, in much the same way that receiving an email, however heartening the details, is never quite the same as receiving a handwritten card or letter, however brief.  Even in our supposedly technologically enlightened age, that piece of paper is still just a tiny bit more special than something which arrives electronically.  Indeed, perhaps its comparative rarity nowadays makes it even more special, just like finding some old lines in an old book.

Parm

“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Parmigianino (c. 1530)
York Art Gallery, England

7 Comments

Filed under culture

Creating a Habsburg Comic Book

The careful student of history knows that so much of what we think makes us unique or special in contemporary society has far more ancient origins than most of us realize.  For example, human beings love a good story, particularly one about heroic deeds.  People have been telling triumphal tales in many different ways for many centuries, and one such way is through the creation of images.  Now, a newly restored masterpiece from 16th-century Austria gives us a chance to think about how these earlier efforts had a surprising, perhaps unexpected impact on our culture today.

In the past, among the most effective methods of describing adventures and victories was by the use of the tableaux or processional image, featuring an unfolding narrative told through a series of figures and scenes.  Sometimes these efforts were truly massive in scale.  Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, depicts victories of the Emperor Trajan and his processing armies in a carved scroll rising nearly 100 feet high, while the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy is a 230-foot long cloth depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.  Such was the case as well with the massive “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I”, which has recently been restored and put on display at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Created for the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I between 1512-1519, the Triumphal Procession was originally more than 300 feet long, though today only a little more than half of it survives.  It is a series of hand-colored, woodblock prints on parchment, which depict a procession of people, events, and symbols associated with the reign of Maximilian.  The piece symbolized both the power of the crown and celebrated the triumphs of Maximilian’s momentous reign, but unfortunately the Emperor himself died before the project was fully completed.

The importance of Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession to our contemporary culture should not escape the reader’s notice, for in a sense it is both the first comic book, and possibly an early motion picture as well.  The piece  is composed of colored pictures which were bound together end to end, so that the story unfolds as one unrolls the parchments.  Scholars believe that, given its state of preservation, it may have been unrolled in sections, to be read and admired sequentially.  Interestingly, it may even have been attached to some sort of device which allowed it to turn onto a spool – which is the same basic, mechanical principle behind motion picture film projectors, for example.

Because these images were printed, rather than a one-off creation like a sculptural column or an embroidered tapestry, they could be re-produced again and again for as long as the original printing block lasted.  This is why several different printings of the Triumphal Procession are known to still exist, in portions, in other European museums.  Gradually, as printing technology improved and the cost of creating these images decreased, it became possible for a series of related images which tell a story to be created and bound together in sequence, and thereafter distributed relatively cheaply.  Eventually, this led to all sorts of developments, including picture books and illustrated how-to manuals.

Admittedly, I am compressing enormous amounts of time, but we can see how the idea of using multiple, cheaply produced images to tell a story eventually led to the creation of characters like Superman (let alone my experience attempting to adopt his persona/appearance), who have had a tremendous influence on our popular culture.  And with the creation of these popular figures, we later on get the work of artists fascinated by the stories told and the techniques used in the creation of these images, such as American Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, and contemporary British portraitist and painter Julian Opie.  Meanwhile in a separate, parallel development, the idea of a connected strip of images eventually led to the creation of motion pictures, television, and the like.

As stated at the outset, often we do not take the time to appreciate how many contemporary things are conceptually very ancient.  Indeed, in one blog post I cannot touch on everything that led to that something which seems, at least at first glance, to be a modern idea.  Its antecedents can be spotted not just in this important piece of Western art, but also in the art of many other cultures, from Japanese paneled screens to Egyptian tomb paintings.

Yet this single object reminds us that simply because something does not, at first glance, seem very relevant to today, does not mean it should be ignored.  Take the time to be curious about the past, and ask yourself what such objects and concepts meant to people of their time.  By taking the time to learn and study, and to be curious about the world around you, the long-gone Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to memorialize himself may have more relevance to you today, than it did even to the contemporaries of his own time.

Detail from “The Triumphal Procession” by various artists (c. 1512-1519)
Albertina Museum, Vienna

5 Comments

Filed under culture

One Is Never Enough

freshly-pressed-rectangle

[N.B. This piece was also selected by WordPress as the Editors' Pick for one of the top 10 posts of the month.]

As if you could not guess, gentle reader, I am something of a bibliophile.  By this I do not mean that I collect beautiful, leather-bound volumes of first editions, nice as those are.  I mean that I love and collect books in many different subject areas, fiction and non-fiction, all of which I actually read AND display.  I am the sort of person who winces when he reads of decorators purchasing bulk lots of books by the yard from secondhand bookshops, graded by size, to fill up the shelves of someone whose taste in literature is generally limited to the airport newsstand variety of novel.  And more often than not my books have come to me via someone else’s previous collection.

On the British sitcom “Black Books”, bookshop owner Bernard Black is generally in an impenetrably foul mood.  He hates his customers interrupting his reading, smoking, and drinking, usually getting rid of these interlopers as quickly as possible.  And he has only two friends to speak of: his long-suffering shop assistant and flatmate Manny Bianco, and their mutual friend and fellow alcoholic/chainsmoker, Fran Katzenjammer.  If you have never seen the series, it is a wonderful mix of black comedy, misanthropy, and surrealism.  It is also about the love of books.

It is easy to understand why Bernard gets so fed up with the people who paradoxically both allow him to continue to have books to read, while at the same time they stop him from reading so he can serve them.  Many people in secondhand bookshops are more interested in browsing than buying, and if they do buy they rarely pick up anything more than one book at a time.  The amount of effort required for the shop owner to realize a sale is so much greater than the actual reward, that Bernard does not really care.  In one episode for example, when Manny has successfully managed to shift a large quantity of the stock through good salesmanship, Bernard becomes despondent since he will now have to contact a book supplier to send more books, something which he hates doing and, thanks to his customer handling technique, he almost never has to do.

I know of a bookshop in Barcelona with a proprietor not unlike Bernard in his way, where a few years ago I managed to purchase a book by my great-great-grandfather.  It is probably my most valued book in a rather extensive library (a collection still split between my current residence and my childhood home), since my ancestor inscribed it and gave it as a gift to a friend of his.  The following year I returned to see whether they had any more of his books, but instead of dealing with a pleasant and helpful young shop assistant as I had the previous visit, this time the old man himself quite literally shooed me out of the shop and refused to see whether he had anything: he was too busy smoking his pipe and talking with another elderly fellow.  Needless to say I have never returned there, as tantalizing as their stock is.

Another secondhand bookshop I know here in Washington is somewhat different in its view of its stock, for if you purchase four books you may take a fifth, free – lowest value, of course.  As it is run by a non-profit with a fairly high rate of book turnover, it does a reasonably brisk trade, and there are always new finds being placed on the shelves by the elderly ladies that work there.  I am particularly fond of tracking down rather technical history and architectural/artistic theory books, or English translations of lesser-kn0wn works by Balzac, and often have success at this shop.  Yet here again, one of the women behind the desk strikes me as a bit suspicious of her patrons, and a bit slow to serve, more interested in what she is reading than in serving.

Perhaps this has to do with the sort of person who would be attracted to working in a bookshop in the first place, or more particularly to working in a used bookshop.  People who love books often are only understood by other people who love books.  One can imagine that the scriptorium of a medieval monastery must have been somewhat similar to a secondhand bookshop in this respect, with some of the monks lingering lovingly over the words they were copying, or the librarian himself keeping choice books back for his own, private enjoyment.  In fact, one of the reasons Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” was such an engagingly-written tale was that it tried to capture that love – albeit an obsessive, unhealthy love – of the accumulation of more and more books, which has not really changed over the centuries.

At the moment back at the manse I have a stack of books which I have not yet read, and which I know I need to tackle, and I will definitely take the sensible option of getting through all of them before I even think of accumulating any more.  Yet even as I do so I cannot help but think about what books I want to read which are missing from my collection, or what wonderful discoveries of books or authors I have never heard of might be waiting for me at a secondhand book shop, charity shop, yard sale, or the like.  Unlike most addictions, the love of good books does not make one less, but rather more, of who you already are – provided, of course, that you try your best to be polite.

Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) tries selling an unusual volume on “Black Books”

82 Comments

Filed under culture

A Strange Trip: From the Coffin to the Bookshelf

Last evening while watching BBC World News I caught a report on the 1,300 year-old St. Cuthbert Gospel, which recently became the property of the British Library in London.  The story of how the earliest, completely preserved European book came into the collection of the Library is an extremely interesting one, as you shall see.  However it is also a rather sad, contemporary example of how many of the Christian art objects we enjoy in museums today have lost their original, intended purpose.

Last summer the British Library began a campaign to purchase the book known as the “St. Cuthbert Gospel” from the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in England, who have owned it since the 18th century; the book is a beautifully handwritten, simple manuscript of the Gospel of St. John in the New Testament dating from the 7th century.  The Library announced yesterday that, with the assistance of Christie’s auctioneers and other experts on valuation, since the book was not actually on the open market, they had finally raised the agreed-upon $14.7 million price tag for the volume, through a combination of public grants and private contributions. The Library has been in possession of the book since the late 1970′s, when it was loaned by the Jesuits for exhibition and study.

St. Cuthbert (c. 634-687) is one of the most revered of the early English saints. He was born in the Kingdom of Northumbria, in the north of present-day England, and discerned a religious vocation after spending part of his youth as a shepherd and then as a soldier. He subsequently became a monk, and was eventually ordained the Bishop of Lindisfarne, one of the most important centers of Christianity in Britain during this period.

The process for canonization of saints as we understand it today had not been fully formalized at the time of St. Cuthbert’s death, but according to St. Bede, the great chronicler of the early Church in Britain – whose superb “An Ecclesiastical History of the English People” is a must-have for any serious student of history – when several miracles were attributed to St. Cuthbert’s intercession and his coffin was opened, his body was found to be incorrupt. This led to his popularly being declared a saint, and he was re-buried in a beautifully decorated coffin in about 698 A.D., behind the main altar at his cathedral in Lindisfarne. The Gospel copy which is now the property of the British Museum was a gift from a neighboring monastery, which created and donated it to be buried with St. Cuthbert when he was re-interred.

From there the travels of this book, and indeed St. Cuthbert himself, become exceedingly strange. The coffin had to be moved multiple times due to invasions by the Vikings, until in the 10th century it finally came to rest at Durham Cathedral. During construction of a shrine to house the saint’s remains, his coffin was opened and this volume was re-discovered. It was then removed from the coffin, and kept in the cathedral priory for select visitors to examine and use as an aid to prayer; it remained there for the next 500 years.

When Henry VIII decided that he was not disgusting enough already, and decided to destroy the monastic communities in Britain so he could take their wealth and possessions for himself and his cronies, many books such as this were lost. Fortunately, someone managed to preserve this little volume from destruction, and it eventually came into the possession of the Earls of Lichfield.  The 3rd Earl, in turn, presented it in the middle of the 18th century to the Reverend Thomas Phillips who, in most of the news articles I have read in researching this story, list him as a “Canon”, meaning a priest attached to a cathedral.

However it turns out that Thomas Phillips was not a Protestant dressing up and playing Catholic in property stolen from Rome, but rather the real thing: a Catholic priest. He was private chaplain to the recusant Berkeley family, who were instrumental in getting the remaining English Catholic nobility and gentry together to petition King George III for his support of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. This Act was the first, small step toward the emancipation of Catholics following the Reformation, who up until the passage of this Act could be prosecuted, for example, for being or housing a Catholic priest, or teaching the Catholic faith in a school. Catholics were forbidden from buying or selling land, and they could in fact lose their property if a Protestant relative wished to take possession of it. Of course, legally enshrined prejudice against Catholics is still in fact part of English law today, but we will save that for another post.

For his part Father Phillips was the first English biographer of Reginald Cardinal Pole (1500-1588), the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and published a two-volume study of this rather interesting prelate at Oxford in 1767. As an aside, Cardinal Pole was perhaps not always a saintly bishop, but he and I share a mutual dislike for Machiavelli and a preference for Count Castiglione, who is of course the patron of this blog. Cardinal Pole once described Machiavelli’s “The Prince” thusly: “I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed”.

In 1769, Father Phillips presented the St. Cuthbert Gospel as a gift to the English Jesuit College in Liège, Belgium, where many of the English Jesuits who had been killed by Elizabeth I received their education. It then traveled back across the Channel, after the Jesuits were suppressed in Catholic Belgium and, ironically, found refuge in Protestant England in 1794. The book had remained at their school, Stonyhurst College, until it went on loan to the British Library, which now owns the well-traveled and ancient volume.

As interesting as all of this history is, I cannot help but think it a shame that this book is not still resting with the relics of St. Cuthbert. Of course it was not a book which he personally owned, since it was created several years after his death. Yet it was a mark of love, gratitude, and respect from his fellow monks, in recognition of how much he had done for them, and indeed for all early Christians in the north of England.

It also demonstrates yet again something which I have talked about periodically in these pages over the years. As much as I love things like beautifully made, historic paintings, statues, illuminated books, and other Catholic religious objects, there is something very tragic about seeing said objects in secular hands. I am of course not naive on this point: no doubt they are being better cared for than they would be if they were kept in regular use, or if they were simply gathering dust in some ancient and leaky church.

However when these things stop being ways of giving glory to God, and become little more than pretty baubles to be looked at, or remains like fossils or pottery shards to be studied scientifically, there is a type of sadness that arises for those of us who not only appreciate these things aesthetically, but also as spiritual expressions of the Catholic Faith made tangible. They were created by Catholic artisans for Catholic communities, but have been removed from the practice of the Faith, never to return.  I cannot walk into the National Gallery for example, and kneel down in front of the tranquil, meditative, and magnificent 15th century Perugino altarpiece of the Crucifixion to pray and reflect on Christ’s suffering. Well, I suppose I could, but then I would probably be chased away or arrested.

In the end it is certainly a good thing that more people will be able to study this remarkable book – which by the way has been digitized and will be available to examine online – and that it will be preserved for future generations.  However in isolation from its context, i.e. the shrine of a great Catholic saint, it loses some of its impact.  It is no longer an ex-voto, as it was originally intended to be, but an ex-ex-voto.  And for those of us who are aware of this fact, we cannot help but be a bit disappointed that it is not remaining in at least some kind of a Catholic setting.

Beginning of the Gospel of St. John from the St. Cuthbert Gospel (c. 698 A.D.)
British Library, London

4 Comments

Filed under culture