For the Love of Books
I have a lot of memories of being read to by my father, mother, and paternal grandmother before I was old enough to read (Alice in Wonderland, Charlotte's Web, My Father's Dragon, The Borrowers). My maternal grandfather used to "read" to us from this plastic organizer thing, before I could read. I thought entire stories were contained in those plastic sleeves. It turns out that they were contained in his head, which was even better!
I don't have an earliest memory of going to the library, but I know I went to "story hour" at a young age, and I know that I wasn't too fond of some of the stupid (to me, at the time) songs we sang. In addition to story hour, I remember doing puzzles at the library, and I remember my mother telling me that we couldn't borrow the little, itty-bitty Beatrix Potter books because we would lose them. (I think my mother, instead, read Peter Rabbit to me at the library.)
The first book I read on my own was Pat the Bunny. It was a Shabbat afternoon. I was six years old. As was the custom in my home on Shabbat afternoons, everyone was reading and I wanted to also. I read the whole book and was so proud of myself. And I was off and running... By second grade, I was really into biographies, and by fourth grade, I had written about the mystery and magic of the local public library in my lock-and-key diary.
Most of the books I read were from the library, but I bought some books also. I ordered books of this and this genre from the Scholastic Book Club and other publishers' fliers that we got at school. The only time I ever really got into trouble in elementary school was when I was caught reading a Babysitters' Club book inside my desk in 4th grade. I am also not ashamed to admit that I loved the Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High books, although I satiated my need for those in the summers in Palo Alto, where the public library carried them. (It turned out that high school was nothing like Sweet Valley High!) I still like reading "low brow," bestselling new fiction kinds of books. When my allowance was large enough, I started going to the local discount bookstore, Royal Books, and bought my own books. For some occasion, my greant-aunts Sarah, Rose, and Marion, the divine ladies of Los Angeles, took me to B. Dalton Booksellers and let me pick any book of my choosing! Always budget-conscious, I decided to get my money's worth and have them purchase A Little Princess, which was the longest book I could fathom reading at the time. I think I was about seven, and I think it was a few more years before I actually read it.
Since Pat the Bunny, I basically haven't stopped reading, although in college I read a lot fewer books than I did before or after. (I bought more, however.) I think it was because I had so much assigned reading that it made me want to read less. I didn't feel like I could indulge in pleasure reading when I had so much not-yet-done assigned reading, and there was no way I would ever get all of the assigned reading done. So I more or less gave up on full-length books and switched to magazines.
The other thing about books is that there's something deeply aesthetically pleasing about a new book. I mostly own paperbacks, but I especially love the heft of hardcover books. And the smell of new books when you open them for the first time! Yum!
My love of reading has given me at least two things: the ability to never be bored and a great way to escape when this world seems too oppressive. I much prefer to escape into books than to escape into movies, although nothing beats TV for pure mindlessness.
Mark Twain on Travel
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
— The Innocents Abroad
I got it from the Wandering Jew's blog. And I really do think that's true. For me, travel frees us from the confines of our everyday lives, and I think that kind of freedom may be necessary for "broad, wholesome, charitable view of men and things." In general, travel expands your mind and viewpoint by exposing you to difference. Different everything (as I think I mentioned before)--sights, sounds, smells, tastes, people, everything!
In addition to the problems of physically "vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime," I am also wary of the dangers of emotionally and/or spiritually "vegetating in one little corner." Like many students of history and fans of musty old archives, I sometimes lament how much things change, even in my own life. I have kept private journals since I was nine, and sometimes I read things I wrote when I was twelve or eighteen, and I wonder, "Why can't I be as passionate about that now?" And the answer is that I'm in a different little corner of the world, and of my life, than I was then. And, overall, I am very, very happy to be a different person than I was when I was twelve or eighteen. I was probably more passionate about various ideas at 12 or 18 than I am now, but I was also far more narrow-minded. And that's a change I'm definitely happy about.
I am compulsive about a few things...
- Checking my e-mail.
- Putting dry dishes back in the cabinet. Where they belong.
- Organizing the newspapers that have piled up so that if I want to find Wednesday's Metro section on Friday, I can. (Do I ever want to? Sometimes!)
I mostly just assume these things are personality quirks and don't give them much thought. (Although when I read volume 9 of the Torah UMaddah Journal in 2000, I wondered if there wasn't some biological tendency for Orthodox Jews to be overly compulsive. The article in question was reprinted in Mind, Body and Judaism: The Interaction of Jewish Law With Psychology and Biology, but the rest of the book doesn't interest me much.)
One compulsion of mine--book buying--has gotten me thinking lately. Why do I keep buying books? It is true that I read a lot. (At least a book a week and sometimes as many as three books a week. Often multiple books at once. And last night I read a 200 page novel in one sitting.) But if all I wanted to do was read, I could (a) make more use of the local public library and (b) read the books I already own. I do use the library, probably more than many people my age. When I'm in a library-going frame of mind, I go at least twice a month. And I do read the books I own. But not as fast as I buy them!
What I came up recently was this: I buy books because I believe that books change lives. More specifically, my life. I buy more books when I am down (discontent, upset, bored, blue) than when I am not. And I buy them because I believe, somewhere, that I will one day find the book or the combination of books that will solve all of the irritating problems of my life. Possibly in one fell swoop! (No, I don't really think that. Changes that happen in one fell swoop aren't the best kinds of changes, in my experience.)
The feeling that books can change lives is connected to the feeling that ideas can change lives, and that's fairly reasonable. Ideas have so often changed my life and always for the better. Even ideas I reject have changed my life for the better--in rejecting them, I have become firmer in my beliefs. (Sometimes I worry that what I have rejected has shaped my life more than what I have believed. Maybe it's just easier to reject bad ideas than to find good ones...)
The idea of going out and buying something with the hopes that it will change one's life for the better is not so far-fetched. Lots of people thing that the perfect outfit, shoes, or makeup will fix all of their problems. What do they call it? Retail therapy? (Do men engage in retail therapy? I think most of the examples cited are mostly relevant to women. Correct me if I'm wrong.) Question: Can you become addicted to buying things with the hopes that they will improve your life the way you can become addicted to drugs or alcohol? (I don't think I'm addicted to buying books. It was just a question!)
Why do I buy books, though? Couldn't the ideas found in a book from the library change my life just as much as a book I've purchased? It's not like I reread books. I don't. (For some people, not rereading books is a cardinal sin. Not me.)
Maybe it's just that if I really think a book might change my life, there's no reason not to own it. Or, more likely, I have been conditioned by the advertising machine that drives our capitalist society to want to aquire as much as possible, and, since the things that I value--ideas--are found in books, I acquire books. I realize, by the way, that I am lucky to live in a time and a place where I can buy books. To the extent that my book-buying is under control, that's because of my limited budget and limited space. But, by far, books take up the greatest volume (not to mention weight) of all of my possessions. Well, that or the furniture.
To be perfectly honest, I also buy books that I don't think will change my life. Sometimes I buy books that I think are funny or silly or will only have a short-term burden-lifting effect. And sometimes I give those books away. So I will have room to buy more books.
Steve Jobs on Life
On Traveling (Alone)
I've been talking to a lot of people about Brazil since I got back. I universally acknowlege that it was awesome, and once even went so far as to call it "life-changing." Why, you ask? Here's why.
In short, in going to Brazil to travel around alone for two weeks in a country where I didn't speak the language, I did something I never thought I would do, and never thought I could do. I found the experience to be utterly exhilarating and intensely liberating. I often--often!--found myself happily semi-lost (shh...don't tell the grandmas!), using some combination of broken Spanish and sign language to speak to Brazilians around me. I got to use parts of my brain that I didn't know I had, and was forced to use all of my senses, again and again and again. Sight, smell, taste, hearing... Being constantly bombarded by new things. Doesn't that sound fantastic? It was! I don't know that none of this would have happened if I had been traveling with other people, but I can't help but suspect that the experience would have somehow been diluted if I had had a fellow English-speaker with me. I certainly would not have been mistaken for a Brazilian (as I was, at least twice) if I had been traveling with someone else.
I wonder if that's what it's like to be a baby or young child. It's like I could feel new connections being built in my brain, in a way that's been utterly foreign to me for...awhile.
To explicate further: It was exhilarating and liberating. It was exhilarating to see so much gorgeous beauty in nature, mostly at Foz do Iguacu. The animals, the plants, and the waterfalls (especially the waterfalls!) were fantastic and utterly breath-taking. I really didn't know anything could be that stunning. It was also an intensely humbling experience. I felt so little... One of the photos, I think, shows another thing that the waterfalls stirred in me.
There was something primordial, something otherworldly, something second-and-third-day-of-biblical-creation, something Genesis-y about the waterfalls, about their power, about looking out into the water and seeing no living thing. I don't think much about being witness to creation, but in a way, I felt like I was, there, standing over a waterfall. Watching the waters rushing down around me, I felt grateful, for the first time in my life, that God thought to separate the waters above from the waters below. The firmament--what a great idea!
And the liberating part? It's liberating to be somewhere entirely different from where you've been before, where nobody knows you. I can't exactly explain it, but it made me understand why some people pick up and move to new places. I was happy to be able to feel that liberation in a constrained time period, though. I would have thought you'd have to change a LOT more about your life to feel the liberation I felt in Brazil. And in case you did not read the play-by-play accounts of my trip from previous posts, let me assure you that I did nothing unlike me, nothing out-of-the-ordinary, nothing I wouldn't do in New York City (if New York had gorgeous beaches, stunning waterfalls, and enormous statues of Jesus). It was just being somewhere else that liberated me. Who woulda thunk it?
And, finally, to be honest, part of what was so great about being alone was being left to my own devices, and having only myself to rely on most of the time (with the exception of all of the wonderful help from my cousins, the Shprechers, in Sao Paulo). There was no teamwork. There was just me. It was a selfish trip, but I think that was a good thing for me right now. (If you can't be selfish when you're single and 25, when can you be selfish?) I didn't have to think about anyone else or worry about anyone else. Also, there was no one to take care of me, but I was okay with that. (Except for when my allergies got the best of me on Saturday night in Rio and all I wanted was someone to go and buy me more bottled water and lots of tissues. But one of the porters did it for me, so that was nice.)
I guess that's it. I want to blog more, but am not sure what about. Ideas, anyone? I want to get back into writing, and figure that this may be as good a forum as any.