The Tour de Bookcases

I got married two months ago, and moved into my first home with my husband two weeks later. When we moved, we decided – in our first big step as a married couple! – to combine our books. This act of combination is one of the most visible signs of our married state. Whenever I walk past a bookshelf, I see my books mixed in with his – divided by topic and subject, rather than putative ownership. Of course, the previous sentence shows the unfamiliarity of this state to me: I still refer to “my books” and “his books” rather than simply “ours.” We have kept all the duplicate copies of books that we own – how could we get rid of a copy that one of us feels an attachment to? The books that we brought into this marriage hold memories. The cheap paperback copies of “The Lord of the Rings” are the ones in which I first discovered the magic of Tolkien’s stories. The textbooks each mark an important moment in our college experiences. My books hold memories from my life that my husband cannot share, so they must be in some sense “mine” not “ours.”

But the books are nonetheless combined on the shelves. A brief tour of the books in our (small, one-bedroom) apartment:

Shelves in the living room hold hymnals and books of religion and philosophy. They contain amusing juxtapositions of content: the Qur’an sits by the Marx–Engels Reader; the Bhagavad-Gita two shelves above the Hebrew dictionary.

Elsewhere: books of music theory and history, from my husband’s college coursework, tucked onto a bottom shelf next to the stereo, and a small shelf of cookbooks tucked next to the kitchen. In the hallway, the “work” books (mathematics and literary theory); in the bedroom, the novels (mostly fantasy).

Our books describe us: they expose our studies, our interests, our values. They also expose the values we think we should project: there is a reason the religion and philosophy books are in the living room and the fantasy novels in the bedroom. While I am a great believer in the importance of fantasy and fairy-tales, putting those books in the living room would make me feel a need to explain them to all of our guests: “Yes, these are children’s books. They are ‘easy’ to read; they don’t have the weight of tradition. Yes, they are escapist. But is that so wrong?” I love the novels I read, but I am still somewhat embarrassed by them. I don’t read them to discover fundamental truths about the world, but simply for entertainment. The religion and philosophy books, on the other hand, are in the living room to convey, “We are Christians. We are proud of our faith, and want you to know about it. But we are also thinkers. We read and study and learn. Our faith is intellectual, as well as evangelical.”

The combining of our books mirrors the combining of our lives. Our shared values allow us to combine our books, to decide what image we want to project from our library. I don’t want to sound like a sappy newlywed (although I am one), but one of the joys of marriage is illustrated by the enlightenment that comes from juxtaposing books that come from different homes on a single shelf. These books have more to say together than apart.


On Roses and Poesy

The third line of “Moses supposes” puzzled me at first. I always imagined that "posies" were themselves a kind of flower, and I’d only encountered the word in another nursery rhyme, "Ring around the rosie, / A pocket full of posies..." A posy is "a small bunch of flowers," as my computer's Oxford American Dictionary tells me.

Imagine my joy in finding, as I kept reading the entry, that an archaic meaning of “posy” is “a short motto or line of verse inscribed inside a ring.” Moved to consult the Oxford English Dictionary online, I found further that “posy” was originally a variant of “poesy,” so that a bunch of flowers and “a poetic composition” (1.a.) or “poetic expression” (1.b.) shared a location in the language.

They shared a word. I was tempted to write that a bunch of flowers and poetic expression were once, somehow, the same thing, but this obviously not the right way to talk about a word with many meanings. I wonder whether the metaphor I’ve chosen – a location in the language – shows any promise at all.


Geniuses and Daemons and TED

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, spoke at TED, which I highly recommend generally; the acronym stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design," but they interpret these fields loosely and host fascinating, brief (15-20 min.) talks on things ranging from "6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World," (which features biologist Paul Stamets describing how to use fungi to turn oil spills into fertile organic matter, and to kill termites) to Billy Graham on human failure.

Elizabeth Gilbert's talk is about creatively surviving the success of her memoir by going back to the Roman understanding of "genius" as a spirit residing outside humans, rather than as a momentously gifted human. Even if it weren't insightful on other counts, the talk would be worth listening to just for the stories she tells about musician Tom Waits' and poet Ruth Stone's creative processes.


Delightful Errors

Inaugurating the Weekly Rhyme:

“Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously;
Nobody’s toeses are posies of roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be.”

[from The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, assembled by Iona and Peter Opie]

I’m not much for baby talk; usually I find it annoying. This rhyme redeems itself for me at the end of the second line, where “erroneously” plunks down like a full professional architect’s blueprint in the middle of a toddler’s collapsed pile of colored blocks. The word “erroneously” tickles me pink for its spot-on match in rhythm, mostly-match in sound, and its total mismatch in diction: The whole rhyme is in dactyls (stress unstress unstress: MOses supPOses his TOEses), and “erroneously” doesn’t miss a rhythmic beat. The sounds are mostly long “o” vowels and short “eh” sounds, with the occasional “ee” sound. “Erroneously” matches perfectly in vowels, but the most common consonant is “s”; the “r” and “n” in “erroneously” are not repeated anywhere else in the poem, except for the “n” in “Nobody.” But the word really diverges from the rest of the rhyme in diction: “erroneously” does not belong with “toeses.” This contrast is a kind of internal mockery of the rhyme’s own use of baby talk. And with that five-syllable word echoing in my mind, the two last lines, explaining Moses’ error in words that rhyme with “toeses,” are a delightful continuation of the joke.


Art Collector's Doorway

Santa Fe, July 2009


Another Kind of Day by Day

I'm in one of those small streaks of writing that makes me a writer. I mean simply that I actually am writing: for each of the past several days I've worked on the script that is my main project, a play called "Ghost." I'm once again thinking about time scales. There's the question of how many minutes of theatre I've so far orchestrated; the question of how much time has passed in the world of the play; there are the days of my composition ("several"), but there are also the minutes and hours I've spent sitting in front of my computer, adding word after word to the document; then, too, there is the time I've devoted to thinking about the play and its characters when I'm not actually writing.

Is there an insight here? Is there something to say about the time scales that fold over themselves as we live? Do writers grapple with these multiple scales more than other artists? more than non-artists? And is sensitivity to time something one should – or can – value?

I suspect I'd rather have a clear sense of timing than a clear sense of time, or of time's complexities. In chess, which I've been playing a lot of in between my bouts with words, the clock often matters, but one can improve one's game much more by thinking clearly through the order of moves in one's plan of attack than by trying, somehow, to think faster. "Think fast," says someone who teases you and then either does or does not throw you something. But the person who says "Think fast" usually tests your reflexes or catches you thinking too much. An alternative imperative, "Think hard!" does not invoke time so explicitly, but if one says it seriously, one usually means, "Slow down; take stock; consider before you act." I find it a little bit frustrating that neither of these injunctions applies to my writing, to my being a writer. To think fast, I'd have to rely on something like a writing reflex – and wouldn't it be nice if I had one; and to think hard I'd have to postpone the work itself. "Write!" I tell myself, "Think!" – compact imperatives that leave the time scales up in the air.


The Joyous Pigeon Man

Trafalgar Square, June 2009