by Campbell Geeslin
“When I find books that I love, I feel the author is writing for me alone, and feel a private joy.” The quote is from Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. He has been sentenced to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” Ms. Liu is living under house arrest in Beijing.
Another quote from one of her letters to a friend: “My reading has no specific goal, for me it’s rather like breathing—I have to do it in order to live.”
A translation of the letter was sent to The New York Times by Perry Link, a professor at the University of California, Riverside. Ms. Liu described herself as “feeding on books.”
FAT PAPER TIME: If you picked up a copy of Sunday’s New York Times, you are aware that Christmas is on the way. It was heavy. And the special gift issue of the Book Review was the biggest of the year. The 100 notable books listed five by authors 80 years old and older.
A couple of writers contributed essays that answered the question: “Do you get in any reading over the holidays?”
A more important question: Have you hinted to your nearest the titles you would most welcome under this year’s Christmas tree?
OBAMA’S LIST: What do the books he buys tell us about the President? Barack Obama went shopping at Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore, a favorite site for author lectures and signings on C-SPAN’s BookTV. “A reading list offers a rare window into the presidential mind,” wrote Peter Baker in The New York Times.
Unlike Bill Clinton and most other presidents who read histories, biographies and other nonfiction, Obama concentrated on literary novels such as A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, about Chechnya, by Anthony Marra. Other selections were The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, All That Is by James Salter and Red Sparrow, a spy thriller, by Jason Matthew.
Obama also bought a couple of sports books and Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir about a hike along the Pacific coast during a troubled time in her life.
BOOK POWER: A book for children can have a lasting impact on a life. Your Police by George J. Jaffo was published in 1956. It was found in a library by nine-year-old William J. Bratton, who is about to become New York City’s police commissioner.
At the announcement of his appointment, Bratton held up a copy of the book. He said, “I’ve taken this book everywhere I’ve ever gone, every department, it’s always proudly displayed, because it had such a profound influence on me.” The New York Times said the book has pictures of “a police laboratory, forensics equipment, a police helicopter, guns and mounted police.”
Bratton quoted from the book’s last page, “We must always remember that whenever you see a policeman, he is your friend.”
SURPRISE: The late Graham Greene started out thinking that short stories were inferior to the novel. In Ways of Escape: An Autobiography, he wrote “The short story as a form bothered me when I first began to write and a little bored me. I knew too much about the story before I began to write—and then all the days of work were unrelieved by any surprise….I was misled. It was only the surface of the story which might not be so far-reaching as in a novel, but [the surprises] were there all the same. They came in the unexpected shaping of a sentence, in a sudden reflection, in an unforeseen flash of dialogue; they came like cool drinks to a parched mouth.”
UNAMERICAN: Some collectors are complaining about new first-class stamps that picture Harry Potter. John Hotchner, former president of the American Philatelic Society, complained in The Washington Post: “It’s foreign, and it’s so blatantly commercial it’s off the charts.” Hotchner said that the mission of U.S. stamps is to sell “the American story.”
The Postal Department is looking for another Elvis Presley. His image, when issued 20 years ago, sold 700 million stamps.
MEMOIR: Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem.
In an essay for The New York Times, Budd said: “I wrote a memoir in the aftermath of my father’s death. . . .I was measuring my life against his, telling his stories, making him the ghostly muse in my midlife crisis.”
Budd said that once the book was released, he discovered something curious: “Even though it’s my story on the page, readers see it through the prisms of their own lives. . . to suit their own needs, their own experiences, their own journey. It’s a type of literary scavenging; they keep what serves them and reuse it for new purposes.
“But it is still [the author’s] story. And in telling mine, I grew closer to Dad. He became not more dead. . .but something entirely different. He became more real.”
LOOKING BACK: When he was 88, Bernard Berenson, the famous art historian, painted a sad self-portrait.
He wrote in his diary, “Why do I wiggle and toss at the idea of being biographied? It makes me uncomfortable and unhappy. Is it only because there are so many big and little episodes I wish forgotten? Of course I have much behind me that I hate to recall. . . Every kind of meanness, pettiness, cowardice, equivocal business conduct (due more to ignorance and the ethics of art dealers than to my own nature), humiliations, furtiveness, ostrichism, etc.”
But he didn’t want to have his life described as a success. “I never felt that I was climbing, being promoted from an inferior to a higher standard of life, to a higher social class. I felt only that I was coming into my own, what I had always regarded as belonging to me, of which, for no fault of my own, I had been deprived.”
TOUGH SUBJECT: Ingrid D. Rowland teaches at Notre Dame. Her book, From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town will be published next year. She wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books on the difficulties of writing about an artist.
Rowland said, “Writing an artist’s biography has never been easy, for one of the most significant elements of any artistic life, the passage of an idea from eye to hand, is virtually indescribable. Furthermore the pioneer of the form, the 16th-century Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, struck such a brilliant balance between professional insight and juicy anecdote in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects . . . that writing an artistic biography after him can seem like trying to write an epic after Homer.”
P.S.: The above item is an excuse to quote from Vasari’s Lives. In his chapter on Leonardo De Vinci, Vasari wrote: “Often when passing by the places where they sold birds he would take them out of their cages, and paying the price that was asked for them, would let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty.”
Vasari was an artist, and it’s believed that he brightened his colorful prose, too.
UPDATING? Parodies of children’s books aimed at an adult audience started with Go the F____To Sleep by Adam Mansbach. It has sold 1.25 million copies since it came out in 2011. Now there is Good Night iPad by Ann Droyd, inspired by the classic Goodnight Moon.
Are You My Boyfriend? A Picture Book for Grown-up Children by C.B. Bryza will be out in time for Valentine’s Day. It may owe something to Are You My Mother? by Dr. Seuss.
Bi-Curious George: An Unauthorized Parody by Andrew Simonian came out last year. It’s adults-only, about gay firemen.
Go the F___To Sleep spawned Seriously, Just Go to Sleep by Mansbach. It has no four-letter words so it can be read to children. Alex Williams of The New York Times commented: “A kid’s book for adults for kids. Perhaps that is the next hot publishing category.”
HAND PRINTED: William Morris’s printing press is seven feet tall and weighs almost 3,000 pounds. From 1894 to 1896, Morris used it to print the 556-page The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. The lavish illustrations from woodcuts are by Edward Burne-Jones. All 436 copies of “the work of art” are believed to have survived. One sold last year for $140,500.
The press is up for auction at Christie’s. The owner, 70-year-old J. Ben Lieberman of Ardsley, N.Y., hopes that the buyer will put it back in operation. But he admitted to The New York Times, “You have to have a strong back.”
RETURNING: Elaine’s restaurant, a Manhattan writers’ hangout for 48 years, is reopening as the Writing Room. It has undergone a $4 million facelift. Glenn Collins reported in The New York Times that Guy Talese, a regular at Elaine’s in the old days, said that he and his wife, editor Nan Talese, “expect to go there for a visit. But we don’t expect to have a courtship.”