Wednesday, March 4

I ducked.

One would think that having a new kindle2 and going to a book group would mean a show-and-tell. Alas, not the case. I had brought my kindle, in its gorgeous ultrasuede cover, but it stayed in my purse.

We even talked about kindles. Someone brought them up, someone else mentioned a Seattle Times article than "panned them." The career bookseller was pleased to hear that. (It didn't, not really.) Her livelihood is at stake. But most people had never seen a kindle and no one had seen a kindle 2. One person mentioned that a little wistful. But I was too chicken to get controversial. Little did they know they were about four feet away from one. The negative things they said about the kindle? Most of them weren't true.

Face it. Kindle or its competitors will change bookselling. And in some ways, it's about time. Sorry about that, but times change. There will still be a market for bricks and mortar bookstores, for real live booksellers, at least in the near future, but the times are changing.

  • Like holding a book in your hands? Well, actually I don't. I find my hands hurt after too long holding a book open. And some books are heavy and awkward to hold. A kindle is like getting ergonomic bars on your bicycle. All of a sudden, many other hand positions are available and no more cramping.
  • Multi-tasking. I like to knit, but that cuts into my reading time. I thought audiobooks would be the thing, but they aren't always appropriate. I can read a children's chapter book (big print) and knit, as long as the spine is already broken on the book. With the kindle, my reading while knitting options open up wide.
  • No backlight? I love the fact that it doesn't have a light! It's easy on the eyes, easy on the power consumption, all around a win. I am fine with greyscale. Color is over rated.
  • Weight of books. Several people mention being able to take lots of books on vacation, not running out if the plane is delayed. I also see this as the future of textbooks. My teen's backpack is lethal. There's no reason he should be carrying around all that weight all day. (sure there are lockers, but not enough for everyone and not enough time between bells to utilize it anyway.) Just think if all or most all textbooks were e-books. A savings all round.
  • Formatting pdfs and blogs and newspapers. So it's a work in progress. I downloaded the free sample first chapter of my graduate school Algebra text to see how it handled the symbols and it was fine. I haven't tried a knitting pattern yet. I expect some will be frustrating, some might be fine.
  • Not being able to share or resell books? I suspect that's a work in progress as well.
Carbon footprint? Saving paper, of course, but it does cost resources to make the e-reader. Saving trucking costs getting books to stores. Just thinking textbooks alone: My son carries at least 10 pounds of textbooks every day. So, 10 pounds by one million kids by 5 mile average round trip commute is using fossil fuels to carry 50 million pound-miles every school day. Account for absences etc and say 150 days a year. How much gas does it take to move 3.75 million tons of weight a year? (note, my numbers are very back-of-envelope.) I know laptops were supposed to be the end of carrying heavy backpacks, but that hasn't happened. I like that the e-reader has limited net access. I don't want a full bells and whistles browser, because I don't want the distraction and temptation. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but it will happen. And sooner than some suspect. Now I just have to get up enough nerve to admit my purchase to diehard book fans. I'll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.

Grow Up, Young Man!

Maybe we should read the classics more often.

Book group last night. Six women. Five questions of "Why is this a Classic?" and "Why do we have teens read this?" (One woman arrived late. But she wasn't asking those questions anyway.)

Most said they didn't really understand the book until they realized how depressed Holden was. Another woman brought up bipolar as I considered, but really, I don't think we can say bipolar to be exact, but Holden is seriously depressed and having a manic episode. Very depressed, very out of control. So the ending is bleak because, given the time and culture, there isn't much hope of him getting proper treatment. Someone mentioned the self-medication with all that alcohol. Without proper treatment -- that's going to come right back.

So why do we have high school kids read this? One woman -- the one who brought up the bipolar and self-medicating -- said that she had read it as a young teen and thought then it was an adventure story. Hmmm. Just like Huck Finn is an adventure story. There's a thought. When the American Character group discussed Huck Finn recently, many were struck by how challenging it would be for teens. That the themes of race and the characterization of Jim were so brutal and needed perspective. Many were also struck by how awful Tom behaved. Tom in popular culture is not such an awful bully and brute; he's a fun kid who likes adventure! I don't believe in censoring books to kids, but I have often gotten uncomfortable when kids are reading books as adventure stories but missing --- on the surface --- the book's darker themes. Are they absorbing themes without consciously evaluating them? Think Jane Eyre as a romance, even though if today our BFF were involved with a Rochester, we ought to be very worried for her.

We had a lively discussion. One woman had researched themes on the internet and another woman bought the Spark Notes. Wow, often we discuss a book for all of ten minutes! These women were serious last night, they wanted to understand, to think! So a theme that resonated the most was that Holden really does not want to grow up. His ambivalence about sex, his issues with "applying himself" and on and on. Sure, this would resonate with teens, this does make for legitimate reason for teens to read it. Teens are ambivalent about growing up. Independence comes at a cost. Holden seems to have had a decently affluent childhood, but then his younger brother died and he gets sent away --- as all the boys of his culture are --- to boarding school, a brutal existence with no adult protectors. When he was young, no one protected him. Now all he can think of is to protect children. (Hmm, Ender's Game)

Is it all about sex? Sparknotes would have us believe that. In a way, probably. Everything is about sex. Holden is immature in some ways, but actually seems pretty mature in other ways, in conflicting feelings about wanting sex, but with whom? Sex with someone you like --- but do girls want it? How do you know when a girl says no because they mean it or because they want it but want to be able to deny that later? Or sex with someone you don't like? That's easier, but harder. He sees his peers following this route without compunction --- just one more way in which everyone is a phoney.

I get that he wants to save kids. I get that he wants to keep them from falling off the cliff. The most vivid scene I remembered from my reading as a teen (the only scene I remembered) was him trying to erase the "Fuck You" grafiti from his sister's school. I took it on the surface, just protecting kids. But big themes go further, he wants to protect kids' sexual innocence. Is it just about sex? (ah, the joys of high school. the one woman who said they read it for high school said they never mentioned sex.)

Well, he does take those two young boys to the mummy exhibit, even though he knows it will scare them. And maybe this explains the carousel pony on the cover of my copy. When Phoebe is on the carousel he comments about how kids will attempt to get the brass ring. How it is dangerous for them to attempt this but how we just have to let them do it anyway. Then he goes home and gets help.

I am struck by how yesterday I was stuck in the depression angle. Then discussing the book, we started with depression but were able to move on and appreciate many different aspects of the book and Holden. While acknowledging the depression, we were able to view Holden's journey apart from it. Unlike the protagonist of many children's and YA novels, Holden has two parents. Two relatively normal parents. So for his journey to make sense, it comes with a different cost. I just wish I didn't get the feeling that the book says that growing up requires mental illness. Or maybe I just wish that idea didn't resonate with me so much.

America is still a pretty young nation. Are we still wrestling with growing up? With sexual maturity? Does a bear shit in the woods? This book then seems awfully prescient, given how the 50s and 60s played out.

Tuesday, March 3

Go West, Young Man.

Another question about Catcher in the Rye, is why did the book group facilitator (an emeritus professor of literature) choose this book as part of a series on American Character?

On one level, the answer is trivial. Holden Caufield is considered a quintessential American Character. A teen, 50's, boarding school, all popular topics. Many people know of Holden even if they haven't read the book. But is that the reason enough to include it in the list?

I suspect there's a bit more than that. I don't think it's an accident that Holden ends up in a psych ward in California. Just like Huck Finn & Jim, just like Jack Burden in All the King's Men, he doesn't fit in civilization and looks West for salvation and a place to call home. We never know if Huck and Jim make it. Jack lies around Long Beach, creates his own god -- The Great Twitch -- and goes back East where he belongs. Holden? What has California to offer him? What he needs is family, connections, support --- as well as professional psychological help. All he wants to do is save kids, but who will save him? California does have his brother, but only for an occasional visit. It doesn't have his sister Phoebe who probably needs Holden by now as much as he needs her. California implies that Holden is the problem and he can get fixed in isolation. California for therapy, chosen by his parents. How is it different from Holden's plan to run away to California, get a job pumping gas and pretend to be a deaf-mute?

Did Salinger mean to allude to Twain? Or is it just burned into the American psyche to look West to follow your dreams. Are we all a bunch of misfits out here?

Why a duck?

I have no idea.


I was planning to use some cut-up thrift store cashmere sweaters or other stash fabric to make a protective case for my kindle 2. But while I was at the fabric store this morning on an errand for Franz and was browsing the buttons, I stumbled upon the ultrasuede squares* and knew instantaneously that my kindle's case would
  • be made of ultrasuede
  • be made of these exact colors
  • have a duck on the cover
  • not just any duck, the duck from the duck stencil Zach had when he was a preschooler.
Even though I hadn't actually seen that duck stencil in years and wasn't even sure we still owned it.

We do have the stencil. Before committing to it though, I browsed stencils and images on line. How about a nice elephant? They never forget and could hold tons of books in their trunk? Or a goose? Y'know, Mother Goose-ish? Oh, then I found a really cute owl. But no, none of those would do, it had to be a duck. This duck.

*They are called ultrasuede squares even though their dimensions are 9x12 inches.

Monday, March 2

Why is this a classic?

I just finished reading Catcher in the Rye, for perhaps the third time. I'm in two different book groups that are discussing it this month. Convenient for me. In one book group, we read children's and YA literature. We read a lot of newer work, but occasionally go back to a classic or two. The other book group is more erudite --- It has a theme. This year's theme is The American Character. In neither case did I have any say in choosing this book.

I really disliked the book the last times I read it, but couldn't have told you why. I found the ending so depressing, so hopeless. This time, I enjoyed reading the book. I liked the voice. I was surprised. But then, at the end, I realized why I disliked the book in the past, why I thought the ending was so depressing when other people seemed to think it was hopeful.

Here's the thing. The book is not what most people seem to think -- a teenage rite of passage, a teen facing the normal angst of growing up. The book is a first person account of a psychotic break. Manic break, I would say, but I am no expert. The signs point to mania though. Many hours without sleeping or getting tired, staying awake even after consuming a lot of alcohol. Grandiose thoughts, poor judgment with money. The hallucinations near the end when he is afraid of falling every time he steps off a curb.

Because the person having the psychotic break is a teen, because that teen is intelligent and aware and empathetic and all that, it looks like a teen event, and because he is so articulate, it looks like something readers can identify with. But it is not a teen event. It is a psychotic break from reality. You don't treat them the same way. And it's not really his first break. When his brother died, he slept in the garage and used his fist to break all the windows. And he tried to break the windshield of the car, but by then his hand was broken. So, he got hospitalized to fix the hand, but no one seems to have considered that the fractured bones were not the problem.

That's the reason I find the ending depressing. He's not being treated as someone mentally ill, he is being treated as someone who needs to grow up, to "Apply himself." That's different. He's not going to get better that way. I don't know the state of medical diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder or even serious depression in the late 40's early 50's when the book was written. Electroshock? Worse? We don't even have an avuncular Judd Hirsh to give us a Hollywood moment and make it all better. Holden, hater of Hollywood that he is, would have declared that phony anyway. He'd been right.

Sunday, March 1

new best friend for a knitting reader or a reading knitter

I'm happy, too.

Make sure you read the alt text as well.