"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I woke up a few weeks ago with holiday fever, characterized mainly by a strong desire to listen to Christmas music. But there are a million other little pleasures to the wintertime that I love.

The first clementines have appeared in the dining halls. The coffee shop has started selling peppermint crunch chocolate bars. Everything, from hot drinks to granola to cake, is suddenly flavored with pumpkin spice. Ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, pears, cranberries, and pecans are all in abundance.

I suddenly seem not to own nearly enough sweaters or wool socks. Yesterday, I wore rain boots for the first time since I was a little kid. Wool hats - so comforting and comfortable - are an acceptable accessory. It's the perfect weather for nylon stockings and bulky sweaters, chilly legs and a warm belly. Every time I go outside, there's that enveloping cold, and when I come home, the glow of the heaters.

It's amazing how many things we've accumulated in order to combat the winter duldrums. Cheery songs, delicious goodies, indulgences, presents, not to mention the age-old traditions of bringing lights and greenery inside to keep the year alive. The other day, I stopped into the rose garden next to my dorm and picked some roses for my room - for the first time this year, I felt the need to have something alive and blooming in my room, even though roses seem slightly incongruous in the winter.

I find there's a kind of nostalgia that comes along with the holidays. There are memories going back however many years you've been alive, and traditions going back much farther. And I especially like classic holiday movies.

Aside from all that, the changing of the seasons itself makes me more aware of the weather and the foods available to me and generally reminds me of times when people actually had to change their life-styles according to the season. I really don't think it would be a bad thing if we slowed down as the weather got colder. Instead of rushing around taking exams and writing final papers and doing last-minute present-shopping, we could settle down, bake cookies, take long cold walks, knit sweaters, and read books aloud to each other, and then the holidays would be even nicer.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What I'm Reading Right Now: 1984

I've just started 1984 for the first time, and I only have one major quibble, which is: why didn't he write the book as the contents of Winston's diary? I assume there's some turn in the plot later in the book that makes this impossible, but I think it would have been a very good choice for the first bit of the story at least.

There's something very immediate and high-stakes about reading a story as it unfolds in a character's diary account, instead of with the hindsight of standard narration. There's a wonderful section of The Woman in White (which I still haven't finished, but will soon) told through a diary, and it's incredibly exciting and suspenseful.

A diary also obviously puts us in first-person territory, which I think would have been ideal for Winston's story, because, as he says, the only space he has to himself is the several cubic centimeters inside his head, and most of the book so far is just thoughts, thoughts, thoughts because that's all he has. So why not first-person, which would make us, like him, feel trapped inside that head, possibly the only freely-thinking head in the world.

Finally, were the book written as a diary or even just in first-person, Orwell would have been forced to do the exposition a little less expositorially, which I think is the one weakness of the opening. I really was crawling through the book until about page 50, when we had finally established everything we needed to know about Oceania. Then, suddenly, plot and character started happening, and when I got to the end of part one, where I'd planned to stop, I could not resist turning the next page to see what happened.

My other main reaction so far is surprise at how obviously Orwell references Communism and Soviet Russia and at the words and references that have entered common culture but that originated in this book - the most obvious example being Big Brother. It's like reading a piece of history, which is interesting in light of what Orwell is writing about, too. All in all, so far, it's not been a pleasant read (especially coming right after Waugh's hilarity), but I believe I'm now hooked.

As a side note, when I was looking for a cover image to include in this post, I came across a huge range of them (which just goes to show how important this book is, or how important people think it is). Here are some of my favorites:

Political satire or dime romance? I especially like the tag line at the top.

This, on the other hand, makes it look more like a noir or a contemporary sci-fi best-seller.

I like the grittiness of this one, and the face that it looks like there are fingers reaching out of the mouth instead of teeth. Creepy.
I especially like this last one because of its simplicity and those striking those black lines coming out of the four. It also suggests to me the layout of a map, and architecture and physical space are so important in the book, especially in the contrast between Winston's space of work and sleep and the world of the proles, with its winding streets and hidden corners. I also just like the idea of covers that continue front-and-back.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What I'm Reading Right Now: Decline and Fall

And here's a quote from the book - a description of, I guess, what it means to be a functioning individual in society - that I found striking and a bit sad.

"For an evening at least the shadow that has flitted about this narrative under the name of Paul Pennyfeather materialized into the solid figure of an intelligent, well-educated, well-conducted young man, a man who could be trusted to use his vote at a general election with discretion and proper detachment, whose opinion on a ballet or a critical essay was rather better than most people's, who could order a dinner without embarrassment and in a creditable French accent, who could be trusted to see to luggage at foreign railway stations, and might be expected to acquit himself with decision and decorum in all the emergencies of civilized life."

I found this striking because some of it seems very true, but sad because such things sometimes do seem very hard and also because other things are conspicuously absent - like friendship, love, good health, curiosity, or a sense of humor. Waugh doesn't specify that Paul should be able to enjoy his dinner or the ballet, or that his life might be anything other than a series of these various "emergencies of civilized life" - is life nothing but challenges to one's ability to uphold civilization with decorum? Waugh is probably expressing something quite particular to British culture in his era. It certainly isn't the exact portrait of life today, but it's not quite that foreign either.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thoughts on Unfinished Books

There will always be a few of them, floating somewhere near the back of the cloud in my mind that is the things I've done and seen and experienced. But unlike most of the books, films, landscapes, days, meals, trips, etc. that make up that nebula, the unfinished books are not whole and distinct. They aren't discrete little packages I can open up in my memory. Recalling them doesn't give me that thrill of accomplishment, the sense that my life is whole because it is made up of whole elements. Instead, it's like I'm still in the middle of the experience, like the book is still lying open on my bed, waiting for me to come back to it.

I forget about them, but eventually they resurface, always with a little pang of guilt. These are not the books that I put down for a purpose - because they weren't worth my time, usually. These are the books that just got lost in the shuffle, and I can't even remember why I stopped reading them and walked away. Most of the time, it's probably because I had to physically depart from where the book was. I only had a couple hundred pages left in Middlemarch when I had to get on a plane for Uganda, but in that case, I was dedicated enough (or crazy enough) to actually cut the (very large and cumbersome) book apart so that I could carry that last little sliver of it with me to finish. But other books I just left. And I will continue to do so over the course of my life, I'm sure, so that eventually I'll have a whole pile of open books and a whole pile of missed opportunities to add another story to my history.

I'm not a very fast reader, and I imagine there are people for whom this is inconceivable. They could just stay up a few extra hours and finish. This is never a problem for me with watching a film. But I read slowly, and I like to read when I have ample time and energy to really savor the words and the story. I don't dislike long books. In fact, I love the experience of living in a novel for several months, always having it there as a world I can slip back into for respite. But those kinds of books are always in danger of being left unfinished.

Right now, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is sitting neglected on my bookshelf. I started it this summer, read it pretty devotedly, but didn't quite finish before the start of the semester. I have about 200 pages left. I haven't touched it for almost three months. But it's still sitting on my shelf, right above my bed, just in case. I will be finishing this book. Just not right now.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Music - Laura Marling

I'm always looking for new music, especially stuff that I can play on loop while writing. I like songs that havn't got too much noise in them - clean melodies with some intricacies in the back-up that I can tune out if I need to. Sometimes classical music is just the ticket, but sometimes you need some kind of beat to push your hands over the keyboard.

Anyway, I think a lot of people share the quandary of what to listen to when writing, so I wanted to share my newest find, Laura Marling.

She's a British singer/songwriter with 3 albums out. I'm not very good at categorizations in this type of music, but I think she falls somewhere in the zone of folk music. She looks a little like Evanna Lynch, the wonderful Luna Lovegood actress, and she writes notes to her fans by hand and puts them up on her website.

I've been listening to her music for the last couple of days and am starting to love her songs - original and interesting lyrics, wonderful control of her voice, from pure crystal to rough earthy.

She also won me over with this bit of lyric from her song New Romantic, which is just so much more personal than most of the trite love songs one mostly hears:

"Maybe I should give up, give in,
give up trying to be thin,
give up and turn into my mother,
god knows I love her."

I love the sentiment of not disavowing one's family or one's body in the young person's quest to become a grown-up. You can listen to that song on YouTube here.

Another one of my favorites is All My Rage - click here for YouTube video of her playing it at the Glastonbury festival and looking somewhat celestial

And here's a video of her playing a song while riding a merry-go-round. How cool is that?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What I'm Reading Right Now: Bouvard et Pécuchet

(In French, not German. My copy is leather bound with no cover design, but I like this cover quite a lot.)