Category Archives: reading

A Horse Walks Into a Bar: Winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

by Cygne Sauvage

Since last year, the Man Booker International Prize has been awarded to a single book. Prior to this, it was a biennial prize bestowed to a collection of work either originally in English or translated to this language.

So, this is now included in my reading list, that is, if ever I will find a copy in any of the remaining mediocre bookstores present only in the metropolis. I have attempted to order books online, but this feat presented a bigger headache for me. Anyway, I have vowed not to spend precious moments on whining about the inefficiencies of the systems in my land of birth. Instead, I promised to devote my time to promoting the sustenance of the intellect and the education of those who still have the willingness to embrace novel wisdom, regardless of age.

I  collect winners of the Man Booker International and Man Booker Prize as well as other awards given to works of fiction for the reason that I regard the citations as benchmark for a book’s quality. I discovered that this is not so, although I claim my judgment to be just my own.  Man Booker prize winners that I have read, so far,  and did not disappoint are The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and  The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. I started the Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst last Christmastime hibernation, a regular escape mechanism from the materialism of the season, but I put it down after Chapter 4.  Since then, I haven’t had the inspiration yet to pick it up.  I had been longing to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, but I am still searching for my copy from the irresponsible borrower.

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Reading as a dangerous feat

by Cygne Sauvage

During the 18th and 19th centuries reading a book, particularly in bed, was considered not only a dangerous feat but a depravity.  In the context of that time when tools for illumination comprised of burning candles, a voracious reader who could not control the urge to finish a novel and thus would bring it to the bedroom  was deemed to be courting death.  Many, generally the elite and the erudite for they were the ones who could afford and have the enthusiasm as well as access to volumes of reading materials,  met their ends in the privacy of their sleeping quarters, a circumstance that turned trendy in those periods of time when reading a story was considered a communal activity.  Because of the prevalence of this deemed undesirable practice it had come to be equated by the religious authority to an immoral act and defiance of the Supreme Being.  A lighted piece of tallow when abandoned as the absorbed reader  unconsciously fell asleep could turn an entire house, in fact a whole estate, aflame with the tragic consequence of loss of lives. Thus, aficionados of the written works were then warned to shed off the vicious vice and were directed to spend, instead, the darkness in prayer.

Discussed in the article in The Atlantic: “ Writings from the 18th and 19th centuries frequently dramatize the potentially horrifying consequences of reading in bed. Hannah Robertson’s 1791 memoir, Tale of Truth as well as of Sorrow, offers one example. It is a dramatic story of downward mobility, hinging on the unfortunate bedtime activities of a Norwegian visitor, who falls asleep with a book. Even the famous and the dead could be censured for engaging in the practice. In 1778, a posthumous biography chastised the late Samuel Johnson for his bad bedside reading habits, characterizing the British writer as an insolent child. A biography of Jonathan Swift alleged that the satirist and cleric nearly burned down the Castle of Dublin—and tried to conceal the incident with a bribe.”  Continue reading here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/reading-in-bed/527388/

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Painting by Marc Romyjos

More than two centuries later, books have evolved from printed form to digitized version, compressed in gadgets along with gazillion data. The electronic gizmo has become the indispensable companion of its owner who brings it not only in the private bedroom but anywhere including the lavatory, dining table and even in the steering wheel. Reading has become everybody’s favorite pastime, taking in facts as fiction and worse fake news as truth. The difference between reality and fantasy has become so blurred, ruining lives and relationships from the microcosm of the society to the grander schemes of political leadership and world’s corporate bigwigs.  Massive disinformation has made life more perilous.

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Hurray for real books

by Cygne Sauvage

STORK

As a book lover, I appreciate not only the content but the aesthetic design of the cover, the lovely array of colors that result from aligning them in shelves. Our family’s library, in fact, is the only vibrant section in the decrepit structure we call home. Not that the books are neatly compiled, something quite impossible in a household of geeks and bookworms who snatch an edition as often as they grab edible materials from the refrigerator, and don’t have the frame of mind to return it to its former place. So, the volumes seem to have evolved lives of their own, taking spaces that suit them, spinning off to a beautiful topsy-turvy setting.

According to this article in The Guardian “Real books have trumped ebooks. The digital revolution was expected to kill traditional publishing. But print books are ever more beautifully designed and lovingly cherished.”

Continue reading here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/14/how-real-books-trumped-ebooks-publishing-revival

 

 

 

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Should books smell like café latte?

by Cygne Sauvage

At the start of summer vacation for public schools in the country where I am based, I was pressured to accede to a family friend’s request to accommodate her daughter as a student trainee.  The 17-year old lass is on her way to the final year of senior high school in the succeeding term.  Her mother boasted that her third female offspring is knowledgeable in computer where she spends most of her time.

Interviewing the student-trainee  reveals her  deficiency in communicating both in verbal and written form.  When asked what book she has read during the last year, apart from what they were required in their homework,  she proudly responded that she is into The Diary of the Wimpy Kid. I told her that that’s way below her education level, and unashamedly she said that she enjoyed it because of the simple words and the pictures, an easy read.   When I queried what books they were required to read in school, she groped for an answer, and then suddenly remembered that their readings were those posted by their teachers on their tablets, which every student is required to own one.

This millennial girl could be the typical student, not the exception. Despite the advancement in communications technology, these young peoples’ capability to correspond or exchange ideas has been hampered by the pre-designed repartees facilitated by electronics and social media. In everything, from how to respond in situations to expressing one’s feelings, a certain emoticon is ready to be pressed to match it. Words are lost, real emotions uncaptured, remains repressed.

The gift of communications is honed by diligent reading. Social media has likewise summarized everything in pictures. Electronic books pose no attraction as they’re just a bunch of words.

There must be an effective way of motivating young people to read books. Libraries and bookstores must present alluring atmospheres that would draw them like ants to a drop of honey. Should we make books smell like café latte’ since millennials crowd coffee houses? Incidentally, an article in Popular Science says that “old books actually smell like chocolate and coffee.” Read it here:  http://www.popsci.com/old-book-smell#page-3

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Doesn’t she know that there are things called toys?

by Cygne Sauvage

“Doesn’t she know that there are things called toys?” is the vehement reaction of the little girl who received a set of books from me. These were well chosen reading materials, made sure of their appropriateness to her age and interest. Yet, at the age of six, reading a book has not caught up with her enthusiasm for the pre-installed computer games in her electronic gadget, latest doll crazes from the enterprising movie producers and collecting Peppa Pig in various poses and expressions.

This personal crusade to inculcate reading commenced upon observation of children within my family circle and those of my colleagues’ nibbling on their food with eyes set on the monitor of either their mobile phones or ipods. Doesn’t  Apple realize the inanity of its corporate brand which represents the fruit of knowledge? Well, we cannot put the blame on big business for having turned a big chunk of the world’s children population into zombies.

A child’s home environment casts the formative values. Partly responsible for my penchant for reading is an uncle who used to stay with us while attending college until the time he reviewed for his state exam.  A big bulk of his luggage are books and very seldom do I chance upon him not preoccupied with one of the volumes.  My mother, likewise, on rare occasions not burdened with housework spends her brief siesta with either a magazine or a book rather than with neighbors for an exchange of juicy gossips or with other housewives who delve into trivial pursuits.  My grandmother, whose trade involves collection of old magazines, entitled me to browse into them which are housed in a small warehouse-like hut.  Perusing these foreign publications of glossy, colorful pages never fails to leave me in awe and entice me further into the habit.  Thus, though the public financed school I attend that time cannot render quality books that would arouse enthusiasm in the students, my household provides me the atmosphere as well as the materials. I am so appreciative when my uncle hands  me down all his entire Perry Mason series, my initial encounter with detective stories. This is prior to my being able to afford discriminating with food for my thought.

Hence, those who are in this similar crusade as mine can only do so much as promote books through gift-giving on various occasions. I choose to target children, exposing them early to the genre for their impressionable minds.  But, it seems I have been beaten by Samsung and Steve Jobs.

 

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Censorship deprives future generation of great literary works and robs them the right to decide what to read

by Cygne Sauvage

To Kill  a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been suspended from the curriculum in some Virginia schools after a parent complained about the use of racial slurs,”  The Guardian newspaper reports. “At the centre of the complaint was the use of the N-word, which appears frequently in both titles.” The verdict issued by the Accomack County extends to libraries.

These two great classics which I read when I was of the same age as Mark Twain’s protagonist stood out for having dealt with racism at a time when this topic was a taboo, and its reality was ignored by the predominantly white population. Considered as direct criticisms of the injustice committed against colored people, it is but inherent in the course of their narrations to mention the unacceptable word representing racial prejudice. So, did the authority’s contentious decision in banning these vintage works of fiction rely merely on the impact of the words independent of the context they were in use? Did they not regard the entire novels’ plots?

Nevertheless, even if the stories were offensive to a sector of the population, banning a book from circulation deprives the future readers the power to exercise their rational thinking as well as judgment. They are already robbed of their right to decide what to read.

“Books are at the forefront of battles over free speech across the US.  In Iowa, a proposed ban on Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower was successfully overturned after complaints about ‘graphic sex’; and in Washington State, a prohibition on ‘potentially frightening books’ being read out at state-sponsored nurseries came under fire after it emerged that daycare providers had refused to read classics including Where the Wild Things Are.”

This is like going back to the medieval period.

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The library is back but the “bookworm” is gone

by Cygne Sauvage

 

Image result for the fountainhead cover art

My hometown was a laidback locale dotted with evidences of Spanish colonialism. Among these are robust buildings in Baroque style that looked weird for us who were conditioned to simple, plain architectural designs. One of these structural remnants was an edifice that used to be a court especially established by the foreign country to try cases of rebellion by the indigenous inhabitants. After the war, for lack of school facilities the local government turned this into a complex for learning. It was within this area of eerie atmosphere that I spent my primary years in school, and that before I gathered later in life that such construction always has a small attic that resembles a tiny dwelling meant to keep important mementos, our teachers rather used it to threaten us for their convenience, peddling the tale that it was intended for naughty children who the elves will pull up and chain. Hence, we must always behave so as not to anger the mythical creatures. This was their method to silence us.  Unfortunately, these were the kinds of educators I encountered in my formative period.

Another beautiful edifice the colonialists left behind housed the public library which was no larger than a corporate boardroom.  A complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, novel at that time, was displayed at the entrance but restricted from being freely used by a visitor. The system was rather bureaucratic. One has to fill out a form of request, present an ID and sign another sheet of paper for some kind of liability statement. Thus, who would bother to frequent this place of study?  Inside are a number of tomes that speak of the culture of the donor country, usually the United States, as part of the war reparation agreement.

The library was an ideal place of retreat for me to avoid housework, feigning scholarly pursuit. Further, I was spared the tedious process of borrowing a book by the chief librarian who was our neighbor, and who was so delighted to have an additional patron who is familiar, in a somber space of vacant chairs and just three or four readers. A man in his mid-twenties at that time was a regular habitue who  stayed the entire duration reading any book  which he got at random from the shelves. He usually arrived before the opening time and had to be talked to diplomatically to leave at the closing hour.  Often,  I would spot him mumbling to himself like “oh, this is crazy, this is crazy, ” while browsing a voluminous opus.

The story going around households was that the man, who was from a prominent family, lost his marbles for being forced to follow in the footsteps of the patriarchs in his family, who all were in the medical profession.  An exaggerated version of the man’s tragic life was that in order to please his elders he tried to study and read excessively until this became a compulsion.  People, the old folks in particular, believed that it was his having overdone perusing books that drove him to lunacy. Thus, the only place where I could find solace and feed my intellect was deemed as sanctuary for those whose sanity has left them. My folks at home would even warn me not to engage too much in serious reading for I might end up like the “bookworm,”  the moniker the community gave him, tinged with mockery, bereft of compassion.

The public library was among the first to suffer from the financial crunch, indicative of the skewed priorities of the authorities. Worse, the decrepit remnant of the Spanish colonials was razed to the ground to give way to commercial fast food centers. On occasions I would pass by, I would recognize the spectacle of the man in front of the construction, yelling at the workers for having destroyed his books.

Returning home after many years of joining the diaspora of citizens seeking the proverbial greener pastures, I learned that the town has established a new library, and this time with a museum. It was in a modern, yet rundown building, though more spacious than the one where I usually spent the afternoons of my summer vacation years ago. Quite apparent, however, were the empty shelves. As explained to me, there was no allocation for the purchase of editions, relying only on donations. Due to manpower constraints, on the other hand, the staff could not sort out the boxes of old books solicited from concerned scholars. Such  non-viable situation casts doubts on the sustainability of a decent bibliotheca, depriving myriad starving minds access to a  wellspring of knowledge, suppressing the blooming of young ingenuous thinkers unfortunate not to have the learning resources both at home and  school.

Ironically, a huge water fountain emitting array of colors embellishes the frontage of the plaza, a stone’s throw from the place that’s supposed to be the fountain of learning,  a more essential one, but did not get the same financial favor.

Thus,  the chairs were still all vacant, not even an avid “bookworm.”

 

 

Acknowledgment: The picture is the design cover of Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead.

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