Cholodenko, Cholodenko…. Cholodenko. It really rolls off the tongue. I saw a movie directed by Ms. Cholodenko this evening. She didn’t direct it this evening, I saw it this evening, at the Vista in Los Feliz. I had enjoyed her previous movie, High Art. In Laurel Canyon she continues her riffs on sexual predators, sexual innocents, and the curiosity of all those folks thrown together at once. It was light and entertaining, but also pretty invigorating. Frances McDormand plays a “seen it all” record producer. Her life is fun and free of the usual drudgery, and those around her don’t know whether to fear or envy the life she leads while surrounded by rapscallion British rocker types. Like High Art, Laurel Canyon is a coming of age story, but without so much psychological trauma and none of the admonishments about the scary drugs.
In late 2001 among the people I knew, cellphones went from being a gadget of the technorati to something that everyone had. I was living in a dorm with five roommates at the time and one consequence of the change was that we no longer ever spoke with each other’s parents. Previously parents had called the room line and whoever was around would pick up. I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my friends’ moms (it was mostly moms who called) and I regretted that there was no longer much opportunity to do that once cellphones allowed our parents to call each of us directly.
Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001. They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric. When the Kindle came out in 2007 I poopooed it as the future face of reading; the hyperactivity of the Internet just seemed like a bad match with the meditative experience of reading a book. But the other day while watching my eight-month-old son knock around a pile of books, I knew suddenly and viscerally that I was wrong. The clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.
The Millions has written previously about the externalities of e-readers. Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).
One of the most prominent losses in this regard stands to be the loss of bookshelves. A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf. What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood. And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house? All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.
Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential. The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up. When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf. The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves. In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.
And then there was my wife, whose bookshelves I first inspected in a humid DC summer, while her parents were away at work. The shelves were stuffed full of novels—Little House on the Prairie, The Andromeda Strain, One Hundred Years of Solitude—that described an arc of discovery I had followed too. At the time we met, her books still quivered from recent use and still radiated traces of the adolescent wonder they’d prompted. In the years since, on visits home for the holidays and to celebrate engagements and births, I’ve watched her bookshelves dim and settle. Lately they’ve begun to resemble a type of monument I recognize from my mother’s room. They sit there waiting for the day when our son will be old enough to spend his own afternoons puzzling out a picture of his mother in the books she left behind.
It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents in just this way. One for sure, and maybe two, but not much beyond that I wouldn’t think. To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progression of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.
[Image source: David Goehring]
Nearly three years ago, I mentioned the El Bulli cookbook, which contains the mad scientist recipes of the famous Catalan chef Ferran Adria. At his restaurant, El Bulli, Adria popularized techniques like creating foams and gelatins using unexpected ingredients and layering flavors and temperatures in his dishes in disconcerting ways. In keeping with what some might call the inaccessibility of his cuisine, his cookbook is large, expensive, and pretty hard to get a hold of. A new edition out in 2005 made it a little easier to take a peak at Adria’s recipes, though, even on sale at Amazon, it’ll still set you back almost $200. This hasn’t kept chefs from coveting the book, according to a recent article in the Contra Costa Times. With Adria’s mystique, and the book’s steep price tag, El Bulli would likely be a jewel in any cookbook collection.
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
In the Indian newspaper Business Standard, Nilanjana S. Roy declares “There is always a point in the life of the avid reader when you have to make a choice between your books and your sanity.” She is not saying that reading will drive you mad but that the multiplying volumes owned by many book lovers could.I love having books around, and Mrs. Millions and I certainly have a lot. I’ve found that our book collection is quite fluid, expanding to fill the vessel it occupies – the result being that in our large apartment in Chicago the shelves seemed to fill as soon as we put them up, with additional stacks spreading to any available surface like some sort of creeping mold. In our slightly smaller row house in Philadelphia, at least half of our collection has been relegated to the basement. But we like the books we own, and to keep it that way we go through the occasional purge. (See the post Options for Basement Booksellers for ways to conduct your own purges.)Getting back to Roy, her suggestions for keeping the towering book piles at bay are fairly creative: conduct regular “inspections” of your library; follow the “one in, one out” rule; spend more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks; use the library more. I’m sure that if, as I mused yesterday, digitizing personal book collections were feasible, she would suggest that as well. As it stands now, she says she’s “beginning to follow the ‘Google Books’ rule; if a book is available online in sufficiently reasonable form, it will only be bought in book form if the edition is rare enough or beautiful enough to justify this.” Not a bad idea, but I’d likely only follow that rule if the book was for reference rather than reading. And anyway, we’re moving to a bigger place soon, so that means plenty more shelf space to fill.
So, there’s this guy Chuck Klosterman. Here is the “About the Author” blurb from the dust jacket of his first book, Fargo Rock City: Chuck Klosterman is a music, film, and culture critic for Ohio’s AKRON BEACON JOURNAL. He began his career with THE FORUM in Fargo, North Dakota, where he interviewed numerous metal gods and once consumed nothing but McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets for seven straight days. Chuck still tries to dance like Axl Rose when he’s drunk.” Here is an “anecdote” pulled from said book. Now that you’ve read both of these items, I’m sure you already love Klosterman as much as I do and will be delighted to hear that he has a new book out, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I’ve barely delved into this one, although, at work the other day I happened to flip to his chapter about the odd proliferation of “naughty housewives” on the internet.File under my second dimensionLest you think my book obsession and it’s accompanying website indicate that I am a one dimensional person, I went to Amoeba Music today and purchased two cds, which I will tell you about. The first is a selftitled ep by a band called The Vells. The Vells are a side band for a couple of guys from Modest Mouse. The ep is pretty good, too indie rockish at times, but really good when it’s not. I also got an amazing little gem. You probably didn’t know that Johnny Cash made a concept album in 1960. Well he did, and now I own it. A self-described “stirring travelogue of America in Song and Story,” the album invites you to follow Johnny across this great country of ours as he paints a rustic sort of picture, half in spoken word and half in song, of a whole buch of salty, backroad sort of places. It’s called Ride This Train, and there’s even train noises so you feel like you’re along for the ride with Mr. Cash. Amazon’s got it, if you want it.