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From time to time we remind you to patronize your local, independent book store.It’s part of our effort to stamp out starving writers by buying their books. In the past, when we suggested that you buy a book, you may have thought we had in mind only a literary novel or a heavy work of non-fiction. We never mentioned pulp fiction, even though it’s one of our guilty pleasures. And by pulp fiction we mean everything from Westerns and mystery stories, to science fiction and romance novels. Pulp fiction writers get paid by the word, and only pennies per word. Buy some pulp fiction and you’ll help stamp out starving writers!
And as long as were talking about pulp fiction we should mention The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. Yes, it was news to us, too. Their web site says, “We’re a group of friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and complete strangers, who love good books and sunny days and enjoying both as nearly in the altogether as the law allows. Happily, in New York City, the law allows toplessness by both men and women. So that’s the way we do our al fresco reading. If you’re in New York and the weather’s good, won’t you join us sometime…?” The photo above comes from their website. Finish reading this page first, the whole page, then go off and do what you will. We hope that will include buying a book.
Buy their books! As a Public Service, we at Critical Pages urge you to visit your local independently owned bookstore and buy a book. Now is a good time to prepare for spring and warm rains by sitting in a tub of warm water with a good book. Bring a friend to the bookstore, too. Then you can sit together in that tub of warm water and read out loud to each other. You don’t think so? Have you ever tried it? We thought not. Yet it’s amazing what can be accomplished this way. Try it. You’ll be amazed. And you’ll make the bookstore, the publisher, and the starving writer happy, too.
Today, being the 14th of February, is secular Valentine’s Day, which is a wholly different matter from St. Valentine’s Day in the liturgical calendar. We had a nice post about both secular and liturgical Valentines last year, and it’s still in our archive for the curious or the bored and lonely. (We hope you’re not lonely today, but there’s nothing we can do about that. We’re sorry.) In any case, unless you’ve stumbled onto this site by accident you’re probably fond of books and reading, and as we’ve come across a couple of photographs of books, reading and Valentine romance we’ve posted them for you.
You never know what you might find when you venture deep into the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library. Of course, not just anyone can get into that particular collection of books. But you might have luck at your local library. The lighting isn’t too bright in the narrow aisles between bookcases, so make sure you have the right book and be very sure you have the right person.Here’s another pair of intellectuals reading in bed. He’s the kind of intellectual who gets tattooed, and she’s the kind who smokes in bed. The like to live dangerously. Or carelessly. Anyway, it’s a good bet he’s not going to finish reading that paperback of Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. But we don’t care if they don’t care. And we’re pretty sure they don’t care.We can’t help it. We know we posted this same image exactly a year ago, but we like it. We admire the young gentleman helping the young lady across the street in a snowstorm, and we admire the young lady who wears a short dress and those high-heel shoes in a blizzard.
Considering our life, would it have been better for us if we had never been born? Maybe you wondered about that. You weren’t alone, though it may have felt that way. The question is very old. In fact, it was debated almost two thousand years ago between the followers of two Jewish philosophers, the rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Both men were learned scholars and each established a schools of thought on Jewish law, but they differed greatly on certain points.
In general, Hillel was flexible and generous, liberal in his views. Shammai, on the other hand, took a strict, narrow view in deciding issues and was zealously conservative. Their followers, like the sage Hillel and Shammai, frequently differed with each other. For over two years these two opposing groups, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai, debated the question: Would it have been better never to have been born? Surprisingly, these opponents agreed: It would have been better never to have been born.
Now that’s a desolating answer.
We aren’t rabbinic sages. Far from it. And if we were to choose a school of thought it might be the house of the skeptic Michael Montaigne. (We’ll sum up Montaigne for you: The human mind is limited and contradictory. Get used to it.) For solace, we’ll leave you with this stanza from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Stamp out starving writers! Buy their books! That way they’ll have a few pennies and in time they’ll have enough to buy food and not starve. Summer is the perfect time to buy a book, take it to the beach, read it. Not only will you be supporting a writer, you’ll be contributing to the artistic milieu of the United States, at least that part on the coast. And just because your beach is clothing optional doesn’t mean you can’t bring a book. Forget the swim suit. Take a book to the beach and you’ll meet interesting people — handsome guys and beautiful women and passionate intellectuals like yourself.
If you’re old enough you may remember a time when as a school child you had to memorize certain poems. “By memorizing,” the teacher said, “you’ll always have that bit of poetry with you.” That practice has disappeared from most schoolrooms today. Marilyn Robertson, a poet and songwriter in California, remembers memorizing poems when she was a kid, as she tells us in “Wordsworth Visits the Seventh Grade.”
We had to say his poem by heart—
the one he wandered in — our voices
droning down the stanzas, grateful
for the sturdy crutch of meter.
Standing by the teacher’s desk,
I trembled like a daffodil,
having no idea that
I, too, in fifty years, would wander
through the hills with pen and notebook
knowing chances would be slim
to none I’d ever come upon
then thousand blooms untrammeled by
the middy tires of some enormous
truck whose driver in his crowd
was never lonely as a cloud,
nor given much to gazing
and wouldn’t be caught dead
dancing with a flower.
And if you want to refresh your memory, check out Wordsworth’s poem,“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”
Sometimes life makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you get the most unexpected surprise gifts for your birthday. Or maybe it’s not your birthday and you receive gifts anyway. Or maybe you simply receive surprises. The poet and songwriter Marilyn Robertson isn’t fazed by any such surprises, as she tells us in her poem “A Change of Scene.”
I was sitting in the comfortable chair —
the green one — and I remember
someone had come in from the kitchen
with a cake — chocolate with white frosting —
and a pinball machine w rapped in yellow paper.
It was the only thing I’d really wanted
for my birthday. That and the set of law books
an aunt wheeled in later on a trolley.
It was always a comfort to know there would be
plenty of small print nearby.
After that there was ice cream —
And after that I began to play.
My game had improved considerably in the last year.
Everyone called me the Pinball Queen.
But then, well, things started happening
and I stumbled in to another story.
This one has a mahogany sideboard
and four kinds of cheese.
Maybe you had The Giving Tree read to you when you were a kid, or maybe you’ve read it to your children. Jo Page used to read it to her children when they were little, but she’s had some second thoughts. Here she is in her own words.
The last time my older daughter visited, she and her younger sister had a conversation about Shel Silverstein’s renowned book, The Giving Tree.
Whether you’re five, 45 or much older, you probably know The Giving Tree.
But if you’ve been living under a rock somewhere since it was published in 1964, here’s the plot: There’s a tree and a boy. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him whatever he needs to provide for his happiness: juicy apples, shade from the hot sun, branches on which to swing. As he grows he carves the initials of the girls he fancies on the bark of the tree. Eventually, of course, he grows—more or less—into adulthood and seeks to leave the tree. Only how will he, having no means by which he can survive without the tree?
So the tree offers to be chopped down so that the boy can make a boat and sail away. The boy, satisfied once more by the tree’s inventiveness and generosity, chops it down and sails away, leaving the tree a branchless, fruitless stump.
And many years pass.
In time, though, the boy comes back, no longer young but stooped with age and weary of life. The tree, in sadness, explains that she has nothing left that she can give him. The boy assures her: he needs little now. All he needs is a place to rest.
A stump can be a place of rest, she offers. Come, boy, come and rest.
Which is what the boy does. And the tree is happy.
I first read The Giving Tree when I was a teen-ager, fatherless, angry at my mother for her distracted passions, her vanity, her self-absorption. (Naturally I saw her with the total objectivity of an adolescent girl.)
So I loved the book. It made me feel sorry for myself. Why didn’t I have a giving tree for a mother? Why didn’t I have a mother who would put my needs ahead of hers? I would never be that kind of parent.
What kind of parent would I be? The kind who gave her daughters a copy of The Giving Tree, of course. The kind who read it to them in the regular rotation of the dozens of children’s books I read to them before bed.
But then, one day when I read it, it made my skin crawl.
This happened when my children were still very young; I hadn’t been made jaded or cynical by their adolescence. And I never wavered in my commitment to be anything other than the best of mothers to them. They were the loves of my life. However, this time when I read the book I saw a boy who really had remained a boy. I saw a one-sided relationship based on selfless giving that seemed to somehow endorse this as the ideal model for parenthood: the parent rightly fulfilling her role as a decimated stump.
As it happens, it’s been interpreted that way. Timothy P. Jackson, a former professor of religious studies at Stanford observed of it:
“Is it a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is depressing. . . . The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”
I’m here to attest to the fact that there are some damn bad parents out there. I’m sure they’re doing their best and all that. Or maybe they’re not. But the point is more that if self-immolation is the best model of parenthood, what are our children learning? What are we learning about ourselves? Is Shel Silverstein positing that the best parenting is a kind of personal crucifixion in which our selfhood is poured out to our children’s benefit and at peril to our own?
Yet our children don’t remain young. They age, even if they don’t grow up. Do parents have a responsibility to enable their growth or to mainly meet their present needs? It’s not a black-and-white question.
And take note: I’m not endorsing any position. I’m not going to do that in print. Not about something as incendiary as how to be a good parent. Lots of people love The Giving Tree. I think my girls do (I decided not to listen to their conversation since I didn’t want to know how I measured up against the tree or even what they thought of the tree) though I’m not really sure why. Neither of them seemed inclined to follow the tree’s extreme—neurotic?—selflessness, for which I am grateful.
Maybe the point is that The Giving Tree is a parable; it doesn’t make transparent sense even in its apparent transparency. And just like Jesus’ parables, The Giving Tree makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We’d just as soon forget those kinds of stories. And aren’t those just the kind of ones we can’t?
Yes, yes, the Pulitzer Prize Board didn’t make an award for fiction this year. According to the Pulitzer website, “If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld.”
But you and I know that the board simply deadlocked and weren’t able to choose a winner from the three nominated books. And maybe that’s best. Maybe the concept that there’s one very best novel is childish. Which is the best novel, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations? Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov or Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Now, here are the three Pulitzer fiction finalists:
- Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm.
- Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years.
- The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace, a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.
We suggest you go around to your local book store, check out the three nominated novels (go ahead, pick them up, read the jacket copy, look at the author’s photograph, read a few pages — you can do that in a real book store), then buy one of the books. Or maybe you’ll find something the Pulitzer people didn’t even notice. You’re the best critic of what you like to read.