Month: January 2014

A Good Concept, But– : S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

I’ve pretty much given up reviewing books here, preferring to do that on Goodreads. But this book is such a special case, I thought I would dump out my thoughts about it here.

This is what it looks like.

S., or Ship of Theseus

First of all, in the ubiquitous 5-star rating system, I would give this book three stars. Maybe 3.5 — mostly for a clever and intriguing package. It really does celebrate (and, some would say, desecrate) the book as physical object. The book, entitled Ship of Theseus, supposedly published in 1949, really does look like an old library book, complete with return dates stamped inside the back cover. (The latest date is from 2000, which suggests that good old Pollard State U is really behind the times, because rubber date stamps disappeared from college libraries long before the end of the last century. But never mind that). The grey buckram binding, the slightly discoloured paper, even a typewritten spine label — having worked in libraries for more than 30 years I found all that totally charming, especially a stamped note inside the back cover, exhorting the borrower to “Keep This Book Clean.”

That’s ironic, because of the marginal notes.

S. marginal notes

Reprehensible in a library book, some would say, although I believe that thoughtful marginal notes add value to a book. The thing about these voluminous notes is that they represent a second storyline, one more recent than that of Ship of Theseus, incorporating a good deal of debate about that book and its fictional author, V.M. Straka. (See how intriguing this sounds? Sucked me right in).

As I write this, I haven’t nearly finished the book. I’m only on page 28 of 456. So what am I doing writing a review? That’s just it — the very things that make this book such an attractive package also make it very difficult to read. The 22 inserts — loose pages of various sizes, a photograph, paper napkin with a map drawn on it, postcards and mysterious decoder wheel — are, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass. It’s impossible to keep them from falling out of the book or to keep them in order. Because of them, you really need to read this book at a table or desk, not on the couch or in bed, and certainly not on public transit or in the bathtub.

Then there’s the legibility issue. The all-important footnotes (because they contain clues as to the true identity of the mysterious Straka) are in a near-microscopic font. Add a magnifying glass to your reading equipment. The intriguing annotations become annoying in short order, especially the earliest lot, written in faint pencil by the disgraced grad student character. They are almost impossible to make out in the dim light of the bedside lamp. Add a good reading lamp, preferably one with a green glass shade such as those found in some library reading rooms.

What this book needs, in my opinion, is an electronic version along with the physical one. The purchaser could admire the physical features of the faked-up old book and all the extras, but in order actually to read it, they could go to the e-version and highlight either the text of Ship of Theseus or the marginal notes. Text enlargement would certainly help with the footnotes, and clickable icons would bring up images of the inserts. The reader could experience the book almost anywhere — bed and bus if not bath — while the physical version is way too awkward in any of those settings.

These issues aside, so far I haven’t had too much trouble following the two story lines, but it’s slow going. There is no way I’m going to finish this book by the time it’s due back at the library. Which is why I’m writing all this down while I still have it in hand.

Finally, I have to comment on that title — S. That’s it. How silly is that? “What are you reading these days?””S.” “What?” “S. That’s the title.” “Huh. Sounds dumb to me. So what’s it about?” I’m betting most people will end up calling it Ship of Theseus, or, as the two marginalists do, SOT.

This book, by the way, presented unique problems when it came to preparing it for library circulation. (I work in the department responsible for the library’s catalogue and preparation of materials). We put a good deal of work and creativity into devising a way to package all the loose inserts so they wouldn’t get lost. Sadly, we covered up the genuine-looking spine label with our own.

Addendum:  by the time I had to return the book, I had read only to page 65 or so. Too bad, it was starting to get interesting. I might just revise my rating to 4 stars, if I ever get a chance to finish reading it.

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Hip, Hip Hypocrisy!

I’ve been thinking a lot about hypocrisy lately. I’m not sure why, but it has certainly proved to be a blog-worthy topic. In fact, it’s going to be a two-parter.

First, however, the definition and origin of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary (online version) defines hypocrisy as “the assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations … pretence, sham.” As for the etymology, it appears the word in Greek referred to “the acting of a part on the stage, feigning, pretence.”

Part I:  Everyday Hypocrisy.

Who among us isn’t a hypocrite at some time? We are all guilty. Social events, workplace etiquette, even simple daily interactions with others demand that we act in a way or say something at variance with our true beliefs. A certain amount of this is necessary, as in the “little white lies” that smooth the bumps and jags of social interaction. But it doesn’t stop there.

“That outfit looks great on you!” “I’m really excited about the reorganization.” The thoughts behind the words may very well be something like “The outfit makes her look like a clown, but I know she spent a bundle on it and expects me to say it looks great, so I really have no choice,” and, “The reorganization is a major pain that won’t accomplish anything, but I want to look like a proactive team player who embraces change, so I’d better act excited.”

“Political correctness” equals hypocrisy. As soon as a chunk of humanity is designated as a special group, any mention of it invites hypocrisy. Truth! Who ever really thought “chairperson” was anything but an awkward and laughable word? “Handicap” is now a bad word; “disability” is preferable, but some now advocate for “diversability,” which I find offensive because it’s meaningless. Who doesn’t have diverse abilities? How does this word distinguish anything?

The thing that really bugs me about these semantic machinations is that they actually create barriers. If you don’t buy into something, but only say you do because you don’t feel you have a choice, resentment is inevitable. Not wanting to admit your hypocrisy, you start to feel isolated from the rest of your team or group, one who harbours a shameful secret. Wouldn’t the truly inclusive thing be to allow everyone to voice their true thoughts and discuss them? A real exchange of ideas would create long-term genuine change, rather than the childish expedient of drawing a line and declaring that everyone on this side is good and those on the other side are bad.

To bring about a change in thinking is better (but far more difficult) than changing the words applied to groups, situations or ideas. Simply changing a word is creating a milieu for hypocrisy.

Everyday hypocrisy. It’s indispensable in human society. Which is why I often prefer the society of plants and animals.

Part II next time:  The Introvert’s Dilemma.

Being Aware

A red-leafed barberry bush in my front garden has grown larger than I expected it would (even though I took the cutting from a huge bush — such is the self-delusion of gardeners). I was planning to prune it next spring, cutting out one or two of the oldest branches at the base. This, I reasoned, would reduce the overall bulk of the plant. Last fall, after the barberry’s leaves had fallen, I took a look at the bush in order to decide which branch or branches to remove. I never got to that point, because I discovered a bushtit’s nest in the middle of the bush. It’s hard to see in the picture, but it’s that brownish clump of stuff among the thorny branches. (The white berry near it belongs to a snowberry that has grown into the barberry).

Bushtit's Nest in Barberry

Bushtit’s Nest in Barberry

Bushtits are tiny grey birds with long tails that hang out in groups, flitting through the garden at times through the summer. Their nests are woven of things like grasses, lichens and spider silk, suspended in a shrub, with holes near the top for the birds to come and go. I was surprised to find this nest, but now that I know it’s there, I’ve decided to postpone the pruning job until I know whether bushtits re-occupy nests from one year to the next.

This is one of the great things about being a gardener. You have to know what’s going on in your little paradise, and you have to accept that it is the domain of creatures besides yourself. The gardener can’t go along in happy ignorance — or at least the responsible gardener can’t. Yes, I have every right to prune “my” barberry bush, but I’ve decided not to exercise that right until I know whether it will harm the creature that was using the bush as a nesting location.

Gardening is in large part a matter of observation. Almost every day during the growing season, I walk around the place, just looking. How is plant X doing? Is plant Y spreading too quickly? Have the raccoons dumped the rocks into the pond again? (They have. Every time). Along with all those details, I make a multitude of other observations. Aphids on roses, sparrows in the lilac, moss spreading among the rocks of the paths, different sorts of mushrooms in various parts of the garden. Some of these things demand action, but most are simply interesting. After more than twenty years of gardening on this patch of land, I have come to expect certain phenomena to recur.

When you know a place in detail, you enter into a relationship with it that is deeper and more complex than when a piece of land is merely “real estate.” Which is why, as Henry Mitchell said, “Compared to gardeners, I think it is generally agreed that others understand very little about anything of consequence.”

The Garden In December

I spent a few afternoons over the holidays doing cleanup in the garden that somehow never got done in the fall — cutting down old perennial stalks, raking up leaves that inevitably show up from somewhere after I think I’m finished with them, and massaging the compost heap to accommodate the new contributions. Now the place no longer looks abandoned, and I feel I’ve reconnected with the garden.

December 31, 2013

When I gardened in Saskatchewan, snow covered everything from November until March. The garden was an expanse of white; at dusk the snow would take on a mysterious blue colour that was quite gorgeous. Gardening became theoretical during those months, but when summer came (spring lasts about a week on the prairies), I had to go through the reconnecting process really fast.

It’s hard to take good garden pictures in December. Darkness comes early and stays late. There isn’t much to do in the garden so I’m not there to observe details. With the holidays, attention is often somewhere else. And snow is rare here on the west coast; most of our Christmases are green.

If I were a better photographer, I would have gotten a picture of robins feasting on cotoneaster berries on December 22nd. The bush went from looking like this

Cotoneaster Berries

Cotoneaster Berries

to bare in a couple of hours.

Instead, I’ll close with these snowdrops, which have been in this garden for more than 20 years. I don’t know what variety they are, but they bloom very early and are entirely reliable. The 2014 gardening season begins.

First Snowdrops

First Snowdrops