Professor Borges on reading

Jorge Luis Borges taught a course in English literature in 1966.  The lectures were recorded and transcribed (albeit not always accurately when it came to names which were rendered phonetically into Spanish) by some of his students.  The lectures have been translated from the Spanish and edited for clarity, but one can tell they were spoken and not written for publication. So far, I have only read a couple of them:  on Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Borges’ take on their lives and writings is unique to say the least and offers much room for new ideas.  It the kind of book where one can pick a lecture topic that is of interest and just read that section.

But it is Epilogue to the book that I want to post today.  It is not from a lecture, but an interview with him at the National Library in 1979.

I believe that the phrase “obligatory reading” is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory.  Should we ever speak of “obligatory pleasure”?  What for?  Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek.  Obligatory happiness!  We seek happiness as well.  For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advised by students:  If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read a book because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old.  If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost -which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which is also is not tedious to me.  But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.  Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament – which I do not plan to write – I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers’ reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment.  It is the only way to read.

Great advice for a retired person maybe, but not really the St. John’s College approach.  I believe it is in the famous Saturday Review of Literature article on St. John’s from the early 1960s that the phrase, “at St. John’s readings include some of the most boring books written” or something like that.  But if I hadn’t had to read Galen or Kant, I believe my life would be less rich.  Not true for everyone, probably, but true for me.  Sometimes plowing though something boring is good discipline.  But when it comes to reading for pleasure, I agree with Professor Borges:  Read only what you enjoy.


The book is Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature.  Edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis.  New Directions, 2013

Reading series mysteries

The last few months have not been kind to my ability to blog.  Between wrist tendonitis and cataract surgery on both eyes, I haven’t been able to do much on the computer.  But now my wrist is settling down and my eyes are staring to clear.  I had intended to start back slowly but I seem to have posted quite a bit this past week.

During my absence from the computer, I have been able to read.  My big accomplishment:  reading the entire Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series by Anne Perry.  I had read a number of them before but realized that I had skipped most of the ones in the middle.  There are 26.  Thomas Pitt begins as a detective with what became the Metropolitan Police in late 19th century London.  He is the son of a gamekeeper who was educated with the master’s son – a key to his rise.  Charlotte is the middle daughter of an upper class, but not aristocratic family.  Their marriage is gradually accepted by her family. (I have to say that I never quite understood why she never had even a small dowry, but I may have missed the explanation.)  Her sister, Emily,  marries up to the aristocracy and then when her husband dies, a man who gets elected to Parliament.  Emily’s great aunt from her first marriage plays a major role in most of the books.  I’m sure you have guessed by now that these are mystery novels. The genius of Anne Perry is her ability to capture the time while often centering her stories around issues that are still current like rape and political corruption.

Having finished up with Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, I began thinking of the other series I’ve followed over the years beginning with the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey series and moving on to the Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott, Victoria Thompson’s Sarah Brandt and, of course, J.D. Robb and the “in death” books.  What happens to me is that the characters become familiar friends.  One gets involved in their lives and is sad when they go away because the author dies or simply, like Sayers, decides not to write any more.  One watches children grow up and wonders how the relationship between Deborah and her stepson, Cal will evolve.  Will Eve Dallas ever have children?  How will Sarah’s relationship with Malloy impact his mother?  And people follow different writers and characters.  But some series get read primarily for the mystery.   I read all of P.D. James, but not necessarily because I wanted to know what would happen next to Adam Dalgliesh although his development has been fun to follow and it is   interesting that James has written the best follow-up to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”: “Death Comes to Pemberly”,

So the question becomes whether or not to read anything by an author, authorized or not, who picks up the series.  I’ve never read any of the “new” Nero Wolfe’s or the continuation of Robert Parker’s Spencer series, but I have read all three of Jill Patton Walsh’s Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane add-on’s.  I had just finished writing that sentence and stopped to think more about where this was going when Margaret Maron herself posted on Facebook.

I think that several no-longer-with-us writers have had their series continued by others with decent success — Sherlock Holmes and  Jill Paton Walsh’s entries in Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey saga come to mind. But rather than write more Peter-Harriet stories, I really wish that she or someone competent would use the Wimsey sons. If you recall, there were 3 of them.  Surely at least one of them inherited his parents’ detecting bug?
What series would you love to see done if you could be sure they’d be done well?
I don’t know if anyone else could do what Margaret Maron does, but if she suddenly stopped writing, I would want to see more of Deborah Knott and her family.
In the meanwhile I’ve ordered the new J.D. Robb and am looking forward to the spring and summer with a new Anne Perry as well as a new Peter Wimsey by Jill Patton Walsh.

Will books – and bookstores – survive?

I am surrounded by books.  I’ve always kept my books, carting them from place to place, but things began to get out of control when I bought my first house in Virginia and I had the room to have bookshelves.  Then 19 years ago I married another collector.  Luckily we live in a large space because we not only combined libraries, but we continue to acquire books at an alarming rate.  We started cataloging our books on a year ago and are still less than half way done at 2,100 books.  We get our books from many sources:  online used book dealers, yard and library sales, used book stores, independent stores wherever we vacation, Barnes and Noble and our local independent for new books.  So I was happy to see this story in the Washington Post this morning.

On Monday, Barnes and Noble announced that the chain’s CEO, William Lynch, was stepping down.

It’s never a good sign for a company when its CEO resigns, leaving it provisionally leaderless. In the case of a struggling chain like Barnes & Noble, it’s enough to make people wonder how long it’ll be until it declares bankruptcy. But headlines, in this case, are deceptive. Lynch’s resignation doesn’t show Barnes and Noble is doomed in the age of Amazon. It shows how Barnes and Noble can survive — as long as it doesn’t try to compete with Amazon.

Ah, the Nook.  I had a coworker with two teenagers that read a lot.  She got them Nooks for Christmas one year.  One of them loved it, the other wanted real books.  I understand there might be times when reading a book electronically might be convenient, but for me that convenience is outweighed by a physical, print book.

If you’ve got a teleological conception of new technology as something that eventually drives the old into oblivion, Barnes & Noble is doomed. It sells physical things in a digital world, and other companies are better at selling digital things than it will ever be. Blockbuster and Tower Records essentially disappeared from the face of the earth, after all, and we should have no illusions that Barnes & Noble won’t go the same way.

Here’s the thing: Bookstores, more so than movie rental and record stores, are oases in the middle of cities (and even in suburban malls). We go there to kill time, expose ourselves to new stuff, look for a gift without something specific in mind, and maybe pick up something on impulse while we’re there. Even Borders’ disorganized warehouses left holes in the urban fabric when they disappeared, and Barnes and Nobles would do the same–they’re a kind of public good, at a time when the public is getting less good at supporting libraries.

So, is there a way for Barnes & Noble to survive? The answer is yes–in a vastly different form.

There’s a happy storyline buried in Barnes and Noble’s overall revenue picture. The Nook disaster clouds the fact that the physical stores actually aren’t doing that badly, generating a comfortable $374 million profit last quarter. The chain got a significant bump when Borders closed 399 stores, and it’s now the only national bookstore chain in the country. It’s been shedding unprofitable real estate, letting expensive leases expire, and consolidating into the spaces that actually generate revenue.

“When you look at the financials on the retail stores, it’s basically a pretty good business,” says Al Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University School of Business.

It’s also got a hidden weapon: The academic market. Barnes and Noble now manages some 700 university bookstores, which are essentially monopolies over high-priced textbooks as well as collegiate merchandise. They’ve been moving into textbook rental and e-books there as well, and the millions of students on financial aid that includes textbooks are more willing to shop local rather than scour the internet for deals.

Finally, they’ve got an important friend: The publishers, who hate the idea of an all-Amazon world. To help keep the only large physical retailer alive, they might be willing to do things like offer some inventory on consignment, so that the bookstore doesn’t have to eat the cost of unsold books. They could even help offer e-books with the paper version at cut-rate prices on the Nook, whoever ends up owning it, or open-platform tablets like the Nexus.

The company’s management has noticed. Len Riggio, who started the chain and is now back running it, is interested in splitting off the retail stores and taking them private. Without the Nook, the business would get hammered by the markets anyway, so it’s best to avoid them. Absent the pressure of quarterly earnings statements, he might be able to try some radical new ideas, like drastically shrinking their square footage and offering a smaller selection of books curated by a knowledgeable and passionate staff.


The Brookline Booksmith which is the other store where I buy books has a wonderful staff  – and they send out a great weekly email newsletter.  Not that the BN folks where I go aren’t helpful, just that it can be more difficult to find one of them.  I have to admit that I use BN online a lot especially when I know what I want.  But there is nothing like roaming around a bookstore:  one never knows what treasure one will find.

And besides, print may be one of those things that never vaporizes entirely, just as newspapers still put out daily editions because they pay the bills. People like giving books as objects, having shelves full of them as decoration, traveling with them and not worrying about them getting stolen. Even in a smaller form, Barnes & Noble could be there to serve them.

“Will it survive? Yes it will,” says Greco. “We will still be buying and selling printed books in the U.S. in the year 2020. There will be a decline, but print is not going to disappear.”

Is 2020 supposed to be comforting?  That’s not very far away.  I’m hoping for way longer than that.  And will continue to do my part by buying books.

Photograph:  Brookline Booksmith