Sunday, November 30, 2008

Basement Bookshelves

I love basement bookshelves. They tend to contain books that people have but don't particularly care about. For that reason, they are usually unpretentious and eclectic.

I remember the books my family had down in the basement—in a closet in the basement, actually. I found a copy of Roots down there when I was in seventh grade. It was yellowed and battered, and it didn't have a back cover. I read the whole thing and loved it. There was a copy of Gone With the Wind, which I started but didn't get very far in. There was a whole series of John Jakes books, which I looked at but didn't even try to read. There was a copy of James Clavell's Shogun and Leon Uris's Trinity. I think these were all popular books that my mom read in the seventies, before she had kids. There was even a Norton critical edition of Moby-Dick from my dad's college years. 

In my wife's old basement, there was also a shelf of books that I loved to look through every time I was down there. Some were clearly from her parents' youthful reading days, some from her sister, some her own. One time, between the ceremony and reception of a wedding, we went back to her house and I pulled out a copy of Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus from that shelf. It was a pink mass-market paperback with a glossy cover, and I read "Defender of the Faith," a great short story in it.

Ever since our basement renovation was finished, we've had a basement shelf of our own (pictured above), which gives me pleasure every time I look at it.

Morrison Speaks

My enthusiasm for Toni Morrison has faded somewhat, perhaps unfairly, but I found this interview she did with Sam Tanenhaus of the NY Times worth watching. It seems as if she'd be pretty disgusted with Z. Dwight Billingsly as well. 

The David Gates review of her new novel is an enjoyable piece of writing, too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


It's interesting to read something that I completely disagree with. I've always found Z. Dwight Billingsly to be kind of an ass, but I think he really outdoes himself in this column.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Food art by Carl Warner.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Interpretations of The Giving Tree

I've read this book countless times to my daughters and have discussed it with my wife and friends, but I haven't put nearly as much thought into it as the folks here have.

W's Nostrils

From Ann Wroe at The Economist:

It is not just that they were large, and lent his face a certain simian charm. They were also uncontrollable. When the rest of the presidential body was encased in a sober suit, and the rest of the presidential face had assumed an expression appropriate to taking the oath of office, or rescuing banks, or declaring to terrorists that they could run but they couldn’t hide, the nostrils would suddenly flare and smirk, as if Mr Bush was about to burst out with something outrageous or obscene, or flash a high-five, or hail his deputy chief of staff as “Turd blossom”.

...they failed to detect the poisonous atmosphere that swirled around him abroad. Granted, the most revolting protesters were kept away. But even so the nostrils, proudly set even when the eyes blinked and the mouth pursed and wavered, maintained an extraordinary belief in the wisdom of the president and the rightness of his cause. One day the rest of the world would wake up and be grateful. One day the Bush administration would come up smelling like a rose.

Packer on Naipaul and Sontag

A fascinating post from George Packer. The type that makes you want to go out and pick up the books he's talking about.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Teaching Idea from Thomas Friedman

From Ian Parker's profile of Friedman in the Nov. 10 issue of the New Yorker:

"Come empty, you leave empty," Friedman said to me one evening. "Come with a point of view, and you could come back with something original."

There seems to be a teaching idea here: have students come to class with something every day: an idea, a quotation from the reading, a response, no matter how brief; and they're more likely to be engaged in the class, and maybe even to come away from it with something new.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Darkness Visible

This week's New Yorker seems like a kind of bookend to the famous September 24, 2001 issue. I read that one feverishly, full of dread. I've been reading this one full of more pleasant emotions: relief, deep satisfaction, and hope.
My favorite passage, the conclusion of David Grann's article on how Obama won:

He told Axelrod, "I am not a great candidate now, but I am going to figure out how to be a great candidate." One of Obama's greatest achievements as a politician is that he somehow managed to emerge intact, after navigating two years of a modern and occasionally absurd Presidential race, while also becoming a great candidate. On Election Night, as he once against invoked the words of Lincoln, he seemed to be saying that he was going to figure out how to be a great President.

And George Packer invokes jazz in the conclusion of his piece on the beginning of a new era in American politics:

The great American improvisation called democracy still bends along the curve of history. It has not yet finished astounding the world.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why I Started This Blog

This [blog] is my Savings Bank. I grow richer because I have somewhere to deposit my earnings; and fractions are worth more to me because corresponding fractions are waiting here that shall be made integers by their addition.
—Emerson, Journal (1834)