5:45 p.m. On the south side of 35th Street, two men are rummaging through a construction dumpster blocking half the sidewalk. One is waving a mannequin leg in the air while the other stands on a precarious stack of milk crates in hope of liberating a torso.
* * * * *
5:59 p.m. At 14th Street, a woman boards the subway car with a wedding dress in a bag and a clear plastic umbrella. She hangs both on the subway pole and sits down to check her messages, oblivious to the small girl whose fingers are slowly stretching toward the dress just to see what it feels like.
* * * * *
6:26 p.m. The tunnel out of the subway under the park is damp with condensation. Under the dim lights, we are spelunkers heading back from a long journey in the wilderness. As we approach the exit, sun and heat flood the tunnel. We emerge blinking as the boy, draped over his father’s shoulder’s just in front of me, rouses himself from an imminent nap to shout, “Hooray!”
* * * * *
6:28 p.m. Just inside the low wall of the park, there is a couple dancing, slowly, cheek to cheek. The man is black, wearing a black T-shirt and white jeans. The woman is white, wearing a white T-shirt and black pants. They are a perfect mirror image, smiling at each other, dancing slowly as the boys hauling their wooden bats to the ball fields break around them like a stream around an oblivious boulder. As I walk away, they have already turned into an abstract painting, all black and white and green.
* * * * *
6:32 p.m. A husky sniffs the air with his pink nose while his owner carefully combs out his fur, sending soft clouds into the air for some lucky birds.
* * * * *
6:35 p.m. In front of my stoop, I wait for a boy to stop swinging his scooter in circles to menace the pigeons.
It’s been the most long and luxurious spring. I don’t know if it’s the luck of the draw or the variation in climate from Chicago, but for many years, it’s seemed to go straight from winter to summer, with barely a moment to catch your breath. But this year, it’s a slow unfurling of fragrant blossoms and gentle heat. Perfect.
But the activity is starting to feel like summer. Last night, AJ and I heard some strange booming. At first I thought it was coming from the cruise ship docks on the east river, but it kept going, so we headed up to the roof, where we were treated to an unexpected display of fireworks from one of the Manhattan piers. And this weekend we’ll be attending AJ’s school carnival, which is conveniently located in front of Cranky’s house.
We’ll also be trying to avoid some crazy festival that has pretty much shut down all our favorite areas of the park, to the extent that I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to get to AJ’s Saturday baseball game from here. Last year when this festival happened, it was chaos and there were complaints for weeks afterwards. This year it’s even bigger and the complaining has already begun (and not just by me). Among the bands playing, is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. AJ had never heard of the band, so in a moment of questionable parenting, I showed him this video starring Lass’ nephew. I’d forgotten about the assorted moments of sex and nudity. Oops. But at the end of the video, the question I got was, “Is sacrilege a real word?” So I think I dodged that bullet. Let us not speak of it again.
In other news of my neighborhood, I’ve mentioned before that there are four bookstores within walking distance of my house. Naturally, my favorite one is the one furthest away and the least useful one is the one around the corner (although I have relented a bit on my opinion of them since they provided me with a signed copy of Alice Munro’s Dear Life on Mother’s Day). The second closest one — just a couple of blocks away — is a used bookstore that I don’t get to very often, mainly because I don’t head by it on my way to other things. It’s owned by an woman who is ready to retire. The good news today is that my favorite bookstore is taking over the used bookstore. They’ll still sell used books, but some new ones two. And best of all, if there’s something you want, you can go to the used bookstore (close!) and ask for it and someone will cycle it over to you from my favorite bookstore. I’m not sure what I like better — having access to my favorite bookstore even closer to home or the whole concept of a bicycling book delivery service.
A few years ago I read a book by Alberto Manguel called The Library at Night, which is basically about what some people do to gain or grant access to books. The best part is that devoted to the Biblioburro:
I think a donkey-bearing books is too much to ask for in Brooklyn (chickens are another story), but I’ll settle for books on bikes. It’s the civilized thing to do.
Now if only they’d deliver them to the park.
I’m always stunned by the number of hits I get on this post on and around Mother’s Day. Stunned and a little saddened. Do so many people need help thinking of good things about their mothers? I can think of dozens. Happy Mother’s Day to mothers and their children everywhere!
Looking for something to do with your mother today? Try playing her some hiphop tracks all about her.
* Best performance review ever. Seriously. It was embarrassing. And also a relief.
* Proposal I’ve been working on for a year got approved. Even better — getting to tell all the people working on it with me the good news.
* Home sick for two days — probably should have been three. But the bonus? Veronica Mars reruns at 5 pm. Yes I have seen every episode a bazillion times. No, I am not tired of watching them yet. Yes, I was an early contributor to the record-setting Kickstarter campaign. Yes, I’m a little embarrassed about that fact.
* Having excellent candidates for our summer intern position. Although horrified to find such talented unemployed people. And also not surprised.
* Gratitude for having such excellent people to work with and getting the chance to tell them so all official-like once a year.
* Hearing the peal of the carillon in the church outside my office window playing Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” on a Thursday afternoon, as men in dark suits and women in colorful dresses spill onto the street
* Coming home and seeing a man in jogging clothes walking his dog toward the park, headphones in, dancing up the street, oblivious to anyone watching. Coming the other way, a young woman pushing a stroller is also dancing to entertain her toddler. When they meet mid-block, they smile and dance around each other on their respective ways.
* Sushi for dinner.
Earlier today, on VisageTome, Jill of Writing or Typing posted a link to a Huffington Post article on Coverflip, a project where readers of Maureen Johnson’s twitterfeed created revised covers for novels where the gender of the author was reinterpreted. The results are thought-provoking, particularly in the wake of the story about how Wikipedia is moving women novelists out of the American Novelists article. Why do we care about the gender of an author? What interpretive information is coded into our knowledge of an author’s gender (whether through personal experience or via experience as a reader or a member of society)? How does this affect the way we read?
A discussion at Florinda’s blog 3 Rs about Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue raised some similar types of questions for me, as did reading Richard Powers’ stunning novel The Time of Our Singing. The issue with Chabon and with Powers was not gender but race. Both Chabon and Powers are white, but both are writing not about race through the eyes of people of color. I didn’t know anything about Powers until I looked him up partway through my reading on The Time of Our Singing and was shocked to discover he was white. I was even more shocked to discover that this disturbed me. Why are we more comfortable about an author imagining some aspects of a character that are different than the author and not others? Why is it a little disturbing to read a novel about a black man written by a white man? Why does this somehow feel less savory than a man writing a female character? Why does a woman writing a male character not bother me in the least? Is this about notions authenticity (some things have to be lived to be truly known)? Or hegemony (whether or not writing against author type is “okay” depends on whether the socially dominant trait (maleness, whiteness) is the author or the character)? Or both? (Probably).
I’m not sure I can — or want to — answer any of these questions, but I find the questions themselves interesting, because they speak the way we read. We want a context outside the book. We look for information to help us interpret what we see. We make assumptions based on what we think we know about the author.
A book’s cover takes that information and codes it in particular ways for particular reasons. Prioritizing the gender over the nationality of female novelists listed on Wikipedia is problematic for the way its categories would seem to reflect notions of ability or type — there are many articles about authors of various nations; there is no article about “male authors.” When publishers choose “girly” covers for all their novels by women authors, although the pigeonholing effect may be the same as with the Wikipedia situation, the motivation is different: They are doing it because they think it sells books.
I do not design book covers (nor would you want me to), but at the Toy Factory, I have a pretty intimate view of the process (albeit for a different kind of product). I can tell you that we think about all of these things carefully, but that the most important questions we answer for each new toy design are, Will this cover attract buyers?, and, Does this cover reflect the contents? Because you can design an attractive cover, but if it does not somehow reflect the insides, it will ultimately be dissatisfying and will piss readers off. For example, check out the (in my opinion, totally justified) uproar over a re-covering of Anne of Green Gables that suggested Anne had given up her literary ways and turned to the (bleach) bottle in order to pursue life as a soft-core porn star.
How much baggage do we really need to bring to a book? Is it possible to judge a book not by its author, not by its cover, but by its text? Is it advisable? My training as an historian specializing in music as a reflection of cultural context suggests maybe not. Some things can be dangerous to consider outside the associations we bring with them. I made an argument to that effect a number of years ago about how to perform Bach’s St. John Passion while appropriately addressing its anti-Semitic language. [Eek. 10 years ago. I blogged about that 10 years ago. How did that happen?] And yet, there’s that experience that we all (I hope) carry with us from childhood of falling into the world of a book — sometimes there’s value in leaving the context behind for a while.
These days, I read most of my fiction on a Kindle, which I find much easier to manage on the subway because you can hold it and turn pages with one hand. One of the unexpected side effects of using an e-reader is the realization of how much I rely on certain cues from the printed page. One is the pages themselves. Kindle offers a percentage read, so you know how far you are, but your sense of the space-time of the book changes. Also, I find the percentage can encourage self-competitive reading, especially in longer books. While reading David Foster Wallace’s tome Infinite Jest, I pushed myself to read more in order to see those percentage points tick up. Apparently I like to win at reading and the change in format has changed the way I read.
Another big change in visual cues is the cover. On e-readers, some books include images of their print covers, but even those that do are usually set to begin after the cover image — if you want to see the cover, you have to go looking for it. And since my e-reader is strictly black and white, I don’t usually go looking. Books are now entirely about text.
My knowledge of the author is still an influence on my reading, of course, but overall, I find I go into a new book with many fewer expectations than I do with print books — mainly, I think, because I don’t see the cover. And interestingly I’m much more likely to take a chance on a totally unknown book. The price point on e-books and the possibility of instant gratification contributes to that, but so does another Kindle feature — the preview.
With print books, to find a new book, I’d browse in a bookstore, where I’d be swayed by the cover, the size and shape of the book and maybe a tag saying one of the booksellers recommended it. With e-books, I browse lists or words or even by price and then try a free sample. The free sample takes the place of the cover. It’s what makes me decide whether or not I’d like a book enough to buy it. Not surprisingly, it’s a much better system to read a book than to look at the cover. I’ve become a much more adventurous consumer of fiction — and even non-fiction, although I still prefer most non-fiction in book form, mainly due to my frustration with the way e-readers handle footnotes — since I started using a Kindle and I think a lot of that has to do with being less influenced by cover image and more influenced by what the book actually says. Looking through the books I’ve read on my e-reader since the beginning of the year, I can see a clear pattern where I start with a book that someone’s recommended and than tacked on other books that I’ve discovered through browsing and sampling things that show up when I search for the book I just read. It’s probably been the longest jag of books I’ve really liked that I’ve ever been on. And many were things I hadn’t heard of or hadn’t heard much about before trying them.
So is there a case to be made for more naive reading? I’m not an adherent to the theory of intentional fallacy, but the notion of art on art’s own terms has its charms. I’m not sure that the way I read on the Kindle is better — I read less deeply than when I can create my own elaborate marginalia — but I am exposed to many more ideas from many more places reading this way. I am less influenced by what marketers think I should know about books. I am less influenced by cultural context while I am reading when I am not constantly confronted with a book’s frontmatter (the downside, of course, is that these days I can almost never remember the name of the book I am reading, as you are not constantly confronted with the title at the top of a page in an e-reader).
Instead, the context comes back when I’m done reading. I read The Time of Our Singing on my Kindle, read it for love, page after compelling page of small stories and huge ideas. I fell into the story, fell so far that I missed my subway stop on more than one occasion, so far that I learned to set my alarm when I got on the train so I remembered to get off. I finished it a month ago and as you can see, I’m still thinking about it. I may miss some of the details by plowing through books fast while travelling not fast enough. But the ideas sink in and govern my next steps, with less baggage telling me how to react. As dedicated as I am to print books, I have to say that I like this part.
It’s performance review season at the Toy Factory. I started working on the reviews I have to write for others early, but with my own review looming, I finally buckled down to work on mine and consequently spent the afternoon careening between fist pumps and self-flagellation. Ugh. Please tell me the rest of you do this too.
Yesterday was our church’s spring concert. The Organist asked me if I’d play a solo, but as I’m really much happier soloing from the choir loft than in front of people and I’m happier playing with others than either of those things, I asked two of my fellow toymakers to join me. The three of us are working up a short lecture/recital that we’ll perform at the office next month. But we thought we’d try one of the pieces out on the road, in part because we’d get to play it with an organ instead of a piano, which is much more idiomatic for early Baroque music.
As I am discovering is usual, no one had any idea what was on the program until we walked into the church. It turned out that in addition to us and the choir, all of The Organist’s piano students were playing too. It turned out to be a wonderful mix of adults and children playing together and I realized how rare that is.
It was a beautiful day and the church doors were open to the street to let the fresh air in. My fellow violinist and I played with our organist friend to open the program and were’ playing again with the piano and choir at the end. The piano, however, was tuned about a half step higher than the organ, so we opted to walk outside on the sidewalk to retune before the second part of our gig. While we were standing out there with our violins, a small girl came up to me, right up close, staring at me and my instrument.
“Hi,” I said.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at the violin, her mouth still hanging open.
“It’s a violin.” I played a few notes for her. She stuck out her hands like she wanted to hold it. “Do you want to try it?” I looked at her mother, standing back a little, to make sure it was okay. I got a nod.
The little girl nodded vigorously. I stooped behind her to help her hold it under her chin (it was far too big for her to hold herself — she was 3 or 4) and showed her how to hold the bow and pull it on the strings. Her whole face lit up when she made a sound. We played for a minute and then she was done. She handed it back and grabbed her mothers hand and skipped away, shouting over her shoulder, “I’m going to take lessons.”
One of my failings as a violin teacher is that I don’t really like to perform very much. I like to play. I’ve always thought that the performance requirement is something you need to help your students to get through their own performances and to keep your own skills up. But really, part of it is solid evangelism. Kids won’t know they want to try it until they see it.
* * * * *
Last night, AJ and I went to the park after dinner to squeeze in a quick game of Frisbee before dark. The wind was kicking up and we were both throwing badly, so badly that we were laughing a lot. As we threw back and forth into the wind, a small boy appeared at the side of the field. His family was on the paved area by the bandshell, watching his older siblings roller skate and ride their scooters. They boy was very attentive, moving with us each time we threw the Frisbee, and jumping up and down with excitement. We asked if he’d like to join us and he ran onto the field. I tossed him a Frisbee and it sailed over his head. He grinned and ran after it, winding himself up like a discus thrower to toss it to AJ. We played until his parents urged him to tell us thank you. We all waved at each other and he went home.