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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Books … I mean the ones with pages.

Penguin Hardcover Classics have them. So do Collector’s Library. Yes, they have 20th-Century classics and lots of literature going back to ancient texts. Yes, all of those books that you can find free on line, download to your e-reader of choice, and never worry about packing real books in real boxes the next time you move.

Yet what is Book Culture without books? The virtual book, in my mind, doesn’t count. You can’t turn its pages; you certainly can’t smell the ink and paper. You can’t make marginal notes. You can’t design a bookshelf and fill it with books whose spines are colorful, designerly, and have printed titles, and be of various sizes and thicknesses. Now that’s a book!

This is what Penguin and Collector’s and other publishers of fine hardback & clothbound books have realized: there are plenty of people out there that like the physical book. And they’ll always like them. And they’ll pay money for a beautiful edition.

Penguin Classics have various colors, with stamp-printed designs, and complementary colored endpapers; many have illustrations, because Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and the old fairy tales printers used illustrators’ woodcuts to make these stories come alive ever more. Proust’s Rechercher du Temps Perdu (In Search of Time Lost) comes in three volumes, each a vivid color, a good size for the hand, a volume that makes art on the bookshelf, as much as it holds between the covers. Dickens’s David Copperfield has a chocolate cover, with cream kites as in the sky, printed on its cover front and back.

The Collector’s Library editions are traditional maroon cloth, though newer editions are powder blue (a bit of an odd editorial/sales choice, as it sometime feels as if I’m reading from a child’s prayer book — hardly the effect I sought while reading of a Hemingway character having sex in the outdoors with his paramour under a woolen blanket). They are truly palm size volumes, and fit in most jacket pockets. Perfect for traveling, or being out and about on public trans.

I conceded the flexibility that e-readers offer the consumer. But where is the humanity from yet another robot? Don’t we stare at pixelated type and video screens all day long, and all too much? The book is civilization. The book is humanity. A book brings people together. I bet you haven’t heard much of, “Oh, I love the cover of your e-reader!”

Possible “MAX, the blind guy” cover


(design by Calvin Rambler)


What do you think?


[Book jacket copy:

Max, the blind guy is a complex, emotional story of love, marriage, art, and ego. Beyer’s nuanced story brings to life fictional characters from America and Europe as a group of recalcitrant retirees travel through Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice.

Maximilian Ruth daydreams in colors which his eyes can no longer see. His wife is leading them on a six-city European tour. Greta Ruth calls this trip their “last hurrah.” She hasn’t had the best from 40 years with Max. But Max takes their life differently: marriage is an affair of more than the heart’s journey. This pair of American originals have known passion, riches, and sorrow. Today, these roads lead them through Europe’s famed cities, but Greta wonders if the plan will see her through to the promised “champagne on the Grand Canal.”

Their Elite Travel tour-mates are getting on each other’s nerves. They are characters found next door, on everyday streets, under black-eye days, and across lost-memory nights. The highlights and sights, the posh lunches, the gamy conversation over drinks in the bar – and of course the “tour friendships” – all make their faux-camaraderie sometimes combative but never boring.

A story rife with modern perils – too much time, too much money, just enough libido, secrets revealed – Max and Greta Ruth don’t wait for what the future may bring. ]


Couples Reading

I’ve started reading Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (1992) and Asia is into the late first-quarter of Roth’s “Letting Go” (1961). This is not a battle, and we refrain from trading quotes (even though I recently re-read LG). Roth’s books, for us, are dense with human feeling and psychology, not to mention many beautiful sentences and ways of describing small parts of life we all know but often overlook. These happen on every page, at least once.

Sometimes we’ve read the same book, but not at the same time (no point in owning twin copies, considering the number of books now collected). When we do this, the person who’s already finished the book often asks the present reader “Where are you now?” or “What’s happening to …?” with that anticipation and look of the dramatic irony even the characters in the book can’t match. But we never ask “Haven’t you gotten to the part about …?” We’re ultra sensitive to never giving away what’s to come, even the smallest moment, or snatch of dialogue. This has been 99% successful.

Couples who read together love together. Before reading time begins, there’s some short chat to set the excitement level; after our couple’s reading has run its allotted time, a recap of emotions and character traits, or “what it all means” lets out the anxiety of what’s been discovered. I use “anxiety” because reading Roth — or any strong writer — is a time spent in media dramatica and sometimes one simply needs to get out of that world and into your own. Few enough authors do this to us on the level Roth is capable of inducing. The tension his characters create is incredibly real. You hate them, pity them, envy their audacity, despise their stupidity, and laugh with them. Seldom do you want to laugh at them; they are that real in their conflict, and only a jerk laughs at people for that.

We haven’t owned a television since coming together, and neither of us watched that thing for years before our coupling. There’s something stronger in a relationship that has books over television; I truly believe this. Because, while both mediums keep you occupied solo, the wealth of conversation that can be mined from books far outweighs whatever appears on television. Even the good TV programs have only so much in-depth-ness to them; their lack of individual character mental introspection leaves too much left untold. That’s the true failure of television, or even theater. Only Shakespeare’s drama can get away with soliloquies anymore.

Roth has stopped writing novels. Fortunately, I’ve not read all that he’s written. But almost. Yet there are other books of his that I haven’t read in ten years, or even twenty. Their impression stays with me like embossed paper; but re-reading good literature is essential, one of the true ways we pull more and ever greater pleasure from the human experience. Roth wrote more than 25 books, which makes for a good library if one only has a single author’s complete works to take with him on a desert island.

Or to take with you into your living room, where your mate is already on the couch curled up with her book, saving a spot for you under the blanket.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Reading V.S. Naipaul

I first read Vidiadahr Naipaul in 1982, in a Lit class at Illinois State University, taught by Prof Stan Renner, who, I’ve only recently learned, passed away last year. Prof Renner liked to introduce authors to his lit students. We read “Guerrillas” and I didn’t understand it, frankly. A few years later I read “A House for Mr Biswas” and found that writing was a way of understanding my world, how to notice people in my neighborhood, friends, family, work relationships, and to see how unusual and profound people can be developed as characters.

Reading Mr Biswas for the third time recently, I was no less amazed at how much Naipaul gets from story out of a short scene. He can tell almost everything one needs to know about one part of a character in just a few sentences. And then he does this over and over and over, yet without ever being repetitive.

“Tara came out gravely from the kitchen, embraced Mr Biswas and wept for so long that he began to feel, with sadness and a deep sense of loss, that he really was married, that in some irrevocable way he had changed. She undid the knot at the end of her veil and took out a twenty-dollar note. He objected for a little, then took it.”


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

What New Ways Can Lit Studies Be Wrecked?

I think that Historicism should be an afterthought to studying literature, never the focus. To push aside the characters, the theme, the setting, and thus the story in order to place the “story” in context with the time in which it is set diminishes the beauty and impact of what was otherwise the author’s point in creating that story. Most of the time — if a reader has any knowledge of history and historical eras — one can put forth with ease the simplest of explanations for historical-fiction connection: “That’s how they did things back then” … eg, slavery, war, child rearing, business, etcetera. Now the reader can get down to some deep reading in order to understand what these characters are doing and why they are doing it. Good has always been part of society; evil has always had its role as well. The people who lived within (and who shall yet do so) must tread across the same grounds as ever.

A Note on “Work” at the Start of a New Year

At the start of a new year (lower case!) I’ve been thinking about “work” and its definitions and all that its connotations entail. Back in the summer of ’11 I read de Botton’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” and was, at first, put off by his narrative style, and then I became engrossed with it. Why the change? He took the idea of work to give us basic concepts based on numerous professions. This provided a balance to his investigation, which is about what we do and how it’s done, rather than how it makes us feel (or worse, for a book, How we SHOULD feel).

july 18, 2011

“There are few jobs in which years’ worth of labour can be viewed in a quick scan of four walls and even fewer opportunities granted to us to gather all our intelligence and sensitivity in a single place. Our exertions generally find no enduring physical correlatives. We are diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to. We confront our lost energies in the pathos of the retirement party.”

– Alain de Botton, “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” (“painting”)


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

“The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” by Jose Saramago

I underlined these few sentences from Saramago’s fantastical (and ironical) view of Jesus’ life. This book marks the second time Saramago used his particular narrative style. One might call it peculiar, but only the first five pages. Then you wonder why all books aren’t written this way.

january, 2005

“I’ll bet if we met the devil and he allowed us to open him up, we might be surprised to find God jumping out. Pastor still liked to provoke Jesus with these outrageous remarks. Jesus had gradually learned that the best way to deal with this was ignore it and say nothing. For Pastor might have gone even further, suggesting that on opening up God one might find the devil inside.”

. . .

“Smiling at this renewal of the world, they bare rotten teeth, but it’s the thought that counts.”

– José Saragamo, “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ”


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Iris Murdoch dishes some introspective paradox…

Stuart thinks: “Truth was fundamental, his life-oath. Certainty was there, honeydew was there, but meanwhile the dedication remained as a task, cumbersome, detailed, where every minute contained the likelihood of failure. How could such a paradox be lived?”

– Iris Murdoch, “The Good Apprentice”

Three Books at Once! … the height of attention-span degeneration

That’s right … I’m reading three books at once. “All the King’s Men” by Penn Warren, “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher, and “The Ecstasy of Influence” by Jonathan Lethem. Good books, all—a fabulous novel, a thought-provoking meditation on language-culture influence, and essays on books & arts culture.

These are mood-related books for me. And time-space related, as well. As I’m trundling around Prague, or writing at home, and always trying to avoid everything re socio-politico-televistic, I have options. Lately, one option has not been wholly engrossing/intellect-grabbing. And since I’m very story oriented, I’ve wanted to read more non-fiction to fill out my philosophical cravings. Novels pull me into their world and don’t let me go. That’s okay. I prefer the ephemeral stage than the actual. Life would be terribly boring for me without the written story.

But here’s where I become contradictory. This love of story comes from passion for language. Deutscher has this fascinating theory about “why the world looks different in other languages.” This is not science, but culture, politics, the passage of time, and … science, too! He begins with the concept of color. Sounds as easy as primary and secondary. It’s not.

Likewise a deflection from fiction is Lethem’s collected essays. I’d read his journalism in Harper’s and the NYT and elsewhere. While I’ve tried to stay away from criticism and cultural essays over the past 8 months or so (mainly because what I’ve found written is done poorly, in my opinion, or taking such esoteric angles on subjects, that all I could do by the middle of such essays was to sigh. Sigh.) there’s that other tug at my conscience that asks me to “please” keep up with society (or at least with one of its subheadings, “culture”).

The Lethem essays focus on art and writing and book culture topics. I hadn’t known Lethem was a science fiction writer. And a good writer, too. His passion for the works of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick are enough to draw me toward that genre. Which, well said by many before me, in their capable hands transcends any notion of genre. On the other hand, both of those authors are dead, and their greatest stories were written between the time I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parent’s eyes (they hadn’t even met each other yet, in Dick’s case) and while I was in my Stephen King phase. Which makes it fortunate that good stories transcend contemporary and, especially, pop culture.

At some point soon I’m going to dive back into “King’s Men” to finish this masterpiece. It’s worth savoring, actually, so I’m not un-happy that I’ve had it going so many weeks. (to confess, I put it aside when I found a copy of “Cloud Atlas”) Also, I want to begin “East of Eden” soon; it’s a story I’ve wanted to read for many years. As for the other two: books on language and of collected essays can be read just about anywhere; and on those odd days where I find myself torn between fantasy and uber-reality, the short-form comes in handy.

“All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren

I first read Penn Warren’s politics-of-America novel 15 years ago. Many of its images have stuck in my mind since then. Penn Warren has sight-heavy scenes of high drama and deep introspection. It’s a book of America, a story of politics, and characters of high (and low) character. No much less or more than America has ever seen; but maybe more poignant today than every.

Where have all the books like this gone? Too few exist. Where have all the characters gone? They’ve come alive.

The flavor of “All the King’s Men” is politics of all sorts, in all guises. Penn Warren never lets up. This is a abject lesson for every writer, young & old, new or seasoned: whatever your story is about, every page and every line of dialogue must have its blood on its words. Here’s a sample:

” ‘Friends, red-necks, suckers, and fellow hicks,’ he would say, leaning forward, leaning at them, looking at them. And he would pause, letting the words sink in. And in the quiet the crowd would be restless and resentful under these words, the words they knew people called them but the words nobody ever got up and called them to their face. ‘Yeah,’ he would say, ‘yeah,’ and twist his mouth on the word, ‘that’s what you are, and you needn’t get mad at me for telling you. Well, get mad, but I’m telling you. That’s what you are. And me—I’m one, too. Oh, I’m a red-neck, for the sun has beat down on me. Oh, I’m a sucker, for I fell for that sweet-talking fellow in the fine automobile. Oh, I took the sugar tit and hushed my crying. Oh, I’m a hick and I am the hick they were going to try to use and split the hick vote. But I’m standing here on my own hind legs, for even a dog can learn to do that, give him time. I learned. It took me a time but I learned, and here I am on my own hind legs.’ And he would lean at them. And demand, ‘Are you, are you on your hind legs? Have you learned that much yet? You think you can learn that much?’ ”

– Robert Penn Warren, “All the King’s Men”


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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