Posts filed under ‘Books’

Closing Time

I’ve never been at the big library on campus at closing time before tonight. When the bell rings, squinting scholars skitter out of the stacks like termites when you pick up a piece of rotting wood. Some of them even have the same pallor as termites. They look like they haven’t seen sunlight in weeks.

Does that sound like I have an aversion to libraries? Nothing could be further from the truth. I still remember the first time I walked into the campus library at the folkhögskola I attended in Sweden. What a relief it was to find that it smelled exactly the same as every other library in my life. All I need is to get a whiff of the drying glue and crumbling paper, and I know I’m home.

21 November 2007 at 17:30 2 comments

Book Envy

Every so often I read a book that makes me wish I was the one who wrote it. This usually isn’t because the book is brilliant (although it likely is) and I wish I had written something so perfect. Most often the author has had some interesting adventure that I wish I’d had. Or I imagine that the research must have been just ridiculously fun to do. My most recent case of book envy falls into this latter category.

Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France traces the history of France before it was France: when people outside Paris spoke hundreds of regional dialects and each remote village was a law unto itself. Robb describes how, from the Revolution until World War I, French geographers, ethnographers, scientists, engineers and tourists moved out into the hinterlands to colonize their own country.

In the first chapter, Robb recounts how a young cartographer mapped the area around the village of Les Estables near the Gerbier de Jonc mountain in what I believe is now the Ardèche. Just five pages into the book, I came across this passage:

To isolated villagers, a man in foreign clothes who pointed inexplicable instruments at barren rocks was up to no good. It had been noticed that after the appearance of one of these sorcerers, life became harder. Crops withered; animals went lame or died of disease; sheep were found on hillsides, torn apart by something more savage than a wolf; and, for reasons that remained obscure, taxes increased.

Even a century later, this was still a remote and dangerous part of France….In 1854, Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in France warned tourists and amateur geologists who left the coach at Pradelles and struck out across country in search of ‘wild and singular views’ not to expect a warm welcome….The handbook, perhaps deliberately, said nothing of Les Estables, which lay on the route, nor did it mention the only occasion on which the village earned itself a place in history — a summer’s day in the early 1740s when a young geometer on the Cassini expedition was hacked to death by the natives

How can you not wish you were the person to come across that story in some dusty archive?

10 November 2007 at 23:14 1 comment

This Says Something About Me (I’m Not Sure What)

I arrived home for the bookstore tonight with two purchases crammed into my handbag: a copy of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies and the new issue of Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food.

1 October 2007 at 21:05 Leave a comment

Time On My Hands

So what am I going to do with myself and all the copious free time on my hands between now and a week from Monday when the new semester starts?

  • Let’s start with the boring necessities, shall we. I need to clean my room. It’s never completely organized, but it’s gotten worse over the past month since I’ve been working on end-of-term assignments. Stacks of paper everywhere. CD cases fallen down behind the bookshelf. A thick layer of crap on the top of my dresser: ponytail holders and pill bottles and receipts from my pockets. The air conditioner sitting on the floor where it’s been for the last month. (Finally, in December, it was actually cold enough in El Niñoed, globally warmed New England to justify pulling the A/C out of the window.)
  • Fiddling. After months of feeling like my playing was deteriorating, I finally got it together to take my fiddle to a luthier. When I got it back, it was like having a whole new instrument – and for only a fraction of the price. What’s more, I actually feel like I’m a better fiddler. (There’s a lesson in this: something along the lines of “don’t be to eager to blame yourself.”)
  • I’ve been so excited about playing my newly repaired fiddle that I signed up to go to the annual Ski Dance Weekend in Vermont. This weekend is officially about dance and fiddle classes, but I tend to just go to hang out with my fiddling friends and maybe go on an outing to some local (usually food-related) attraction or other.
  • I’m going to read books for fun. I would be exaggerating if I said that I’ve forgotten what this feels like. I actually found time to read two novels during the week of bronchitis and three term papers. But it will be nice to read books without the knowledge that there’s some assignment I should probably be working on instead. Here are some of the things on my to-read list (some already in progress):
    • Kalla det fan vad du vill by Marjaneh Bakhtiari – I’ve actually started this already. It’s a great Swedish novel about a family of Iranian immigrants in Malmö. Kind of like the Swedish White Teeth.
    • The Atoms of Language by Mark Baker – When I first bought this book three or four years ago, I gave up on it as over-my-head linguistically. (I think I was intimidated by the syntax trees.) After a semester of linguistics, I’ve been finding it much easier going. (Heck, now I can even draw my own syntax trees.)
    • This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitan – There aren’t so many books that let me indulge my love for science and my love for music, but this is one of them.
    • Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley — Okay, this is admittedly not reading, but rereading. I read this book (in hardback) when I lived in Sweden, and then at the end of the year gave my copy to one of my classmates, an aspiring linguist. I’ve never regretted giving her my copy, but I’ve regretted not being able to reread it at will — especially while I was taking linguistics this past semester. So, as a present for finishing up my coursework, I bought myself a new copy.
    • The Deception of the Emerald Ring by Lauren Willig — This is the third in Willig’s romantic comedy adventures set in Napoleonic Europe. The series centers around a group of English spies (the Purple Gentian, the Pink Carnation) modeled on the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the first two books were a whole lot of fun. And how can you not love an author who, when she started the PhD history program at Harvard, told her professors that she was studying history so she could write romance novels.
    • There are many other books on the pile by my bed, so I’ll just stop with the ones I’ve listed. I’ll be lucky if I manage to finish the ones above by the time classes start up again.
  • Last but by no means least, I’m going to watch the Firefly box set for what must be the sixth or seventh time. I finally bought my own copy — yet another end-of-semester present — which I actually had to leave sealed in its packaging until all my papers were turned in lest I watch the adventures of Mal and the gang instead of doing my schoolwork.

There’s probably more I could add, but I think I just leave it at that.

20 January 2007 at 10:57 2 comments

Daily Reading Update

You know a science book is compelling when it’s making me think about taking organic chemistry.

Quote of the day from The Secret of Scent:

…chemistry is essentially the study of the mating habits of outer-shell electrons… (112)

Of course, I’d be lucky if my organic chemistry professor were that entertaining.

27 December 2006 at 11:09 1 comment

Behind Door #16: Congratulations Are in Order

I’m thrilled to find out that two of my friends have recently received some pretty exciting recognition for their creative work:

Kudos to them. What a great way to end the year!

16 December 2006 at 11:46 Leave a comment

Behind Door #7: Book Lust

These days it seems like the gaps between really good books is getting longer and longer. I’m not just talking about enjoyable books. I’m talking about books that make me check my public library request list twenty times a day to see if the object of my desires is wending its way to me through the maze of inter-library loan. Books that force me to choose whether to stay up all night reading in one big gulp (like I did with Lost in Place) or to take small sips, doling out each page or chapter to make the whole thing last longer (like with Songbook).

I’m not sure that the choice ultimately matters that much since these are the books I reread. Some, like Paris to the Moon or Anyone But You, I return to every once in a while. Others, like The Emperor of Scent, I can’t wait to reread. The day after I finished reading it the first time, I started all over again. I think I read it four times in succession — marking favorite passages with post-it tabs so I could email them to friends — before I finally decided I was developing an unhealthy attachment.

I almost hesitate to type this for fear of jinxing myself, but I think I might have found another one of these books: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. I’m only about twenty or so pages into it, but already things are looking promising.

Witness the following passage from page 6:

Waste recycling turns out to be a hallmark of almost all complex systems, whether the man-made ecosystems of urban life, or the microscopic economies of the cell. Our bones are themselves the result of a recycling scheme pioneered by national natural selection billions of years ago. All nucleated organisms generate excess calcium as a waste product. Since at least the Cambrian times, organisms have accumulated those calcium reserves, and put them to good use: building shells, teeth, skeletons. Your ability to walk upright is due to evolution’s knack for recycling its toxic waste.

7 December 2006 at 23:51 Leave a comment


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