Tag Archives: literature

Booked Up

stack-of-books-art

Hi, my name is Alejandro, and I’m a bibliophile. And damn proud of it, too!

Yes, of all my curious habits, book collecting is the most pronounced. A gatherer of literature; a captive of scribes; a hoarder of tomes. Don’t try an intervention on me, though! Your picture might end up on a milk carton.

My fascination with books goes back to my toddler years, when my parents bought a slew of children’s literature – mainly the classic “Little Golden Books” – and set me down in front of them. Their determination to instill a love for reading in me stemmed from their own upbringing. They come from a generation where a high school diploma was enough to get through life. But, while it took me more years than I wished to complete my own formal education, that love for the written word was embedded into my brain at that young age and has never faded. I still have all those “Little Golden Books.” They’re aged and crinkled – practically falling apart – but they’re mine. And they’re just as valuable as the rest of my vast cache of reading material.

I recently did a comprehensive inventory of my books and have counted 459. This gallery doesn’t include my equally grand collection of magazines, such as “National Geographic.” Some neighbors, a childless couple, bought my parents and I a gift subscription for Christmas 1975. I fell in love with the magazine and have maintained an annual subscription ever since. Over the years, I’ve collected a number of older “National Geographic” periodicals; some dating back to the 1920s. Other magazines include “Archaeology,” “International Artist,” “Smithsonian” and “The Sun.”

But it’s the myriad of books that harbor the essence of my cerebral interests. I don’t have enough shelves for them, so – as you can see from the photos below – I’ve merely stacked them wherever I can. Among my prized tomes are first editions of Edna Ferber’s “Giant” and Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough.” I have a 50th anniversary edition of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” from the Folio Society and “The Multi-Orgasmic Man.” (No, it’s not erotic fiction.) I have the complete works of both Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov; Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes compiled into a 3-volume set; almost every Agatha Christie murder mystery; and Geoff Mains’ “Urban Aboriginals,” a comprehensive guide for leather fetish aficionados.

Two items from Taschen, “Circus Book: 1870 – 1950” and “Magic: 1400s – 1950s,” go beyond qualifying as coffee table books – they practically are coffee tables! They’d also qualify as deadly weapons and – in a state like Texas where education is virtually an elective – I might be committing a crime in owning them.

IMG_0638

It’s not unusual for me to be reading two or more books at once. Currently, I have three going: “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700,” Robert Ludlum’s “The Aquitaine Progression,” and Tom Bianchi’s “Fire Island Pines.” “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700” is so called because of a mysterious series of tsunamis that struck Japan’s eastern coastlines in January of 1700; an orphan in that no local seismic activity had been noted. Scientists finally made the connection between that “orphan” and a powerful earthquake that rocked what is now the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

My love for dogs matches my love for books. The two merge in Catherine Johns’ “Dogs: History, Myth, Art,” Bruce Fogle’s “New Encyclopedia of the Dog,” and “Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives & Evolutionary History.” The latter is very much like a text book, but it’s the best one on the canine species I’ve ever read.

My collection ranges from the practical – Charles Schwab’s “Guide to Independence” – to the whimsical – H. Jackson Browne’s “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the smallest-sized item in the group.

Although I’m no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, I have Steven Runciman’s “A History of the Crusades,” which is a triptych piece: “The First Crusade,” “The Kingdom of Jerusalem” and “The Kingdom of Acre.” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” is an in-depth analysis of the possibility Jesus Christ survived crucifixion and went on to get married and have children. Conversely “The Day Christ Died” is Jim Bishop’s intimate retelling of Jesus’ purported final days before his death. Malachi Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil” is an account of five cases of demonic possession the late Irish-born Jesuit priest attended. Martin gained notoriety several years ago when he claimed Satanism had been practiced within the Vatican. I once offered to lend Martin’s book to a close friend, but he vehemently refused. “That’d be scary to read something like that,” he told me. He’s the only person I’ve ever known to be terrified of a book.

Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised that my preoccupation with the macabre and supernatural manifests itself in Ann Arensberg’s “Incubus,” as well as “Ghosts,” a collection of short stories compiled by Marvin Kaye, and Mary Higgins Clark’s “Where Are the Children?” But I also like to view the so-called supernatural from a practical lens, as is evident in Nicholas Roger’s “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.” Before my parents saw “The Exorcist” at the theatre, my mother read William Peter Blatty’s book of the same name. We had moved into a house in suburban Dallas more than a year earlier; an area that had once been farm land. Displaced mice and scorpions often turned up in the home. Reading “The Exorcist” one night after I’d gone to bed and my father had returned to work for a short while, my mother was startled by faint scratching sounds coming from within the walls. (If you’ve either seen the book or read the movie, you know what I’m talking about.) ‘We need to get this house blessed,’ my mother thought, as we were still devout Catholics. But an exterminator later told us the noises came from confused mice, trying to get out. Or – so he said.

IMG_0640

My fascination with Earth’s natural elements shows up in Erik Larson’s “Isaac’s Storm” and R.A. Scotti’s “Sudden Sea,” each about two of the deadliest hurricanes to strike the United States in the 20th century. The National Geographic Society’s “Realms of the Sea” is as much a study of the world’s oceans as it is a photographic collage. Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded” details the 1883 eruption of the notorious Indian Ocean volcano that altered the planet’s climate, even into the 20th century, and became a synonym for all types of global cataclysms.

History has a firm place in this array: Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century,” Edmund Morris’ “Theodore Rex” and A. Scott Berg’s “Wilson.”   I believe Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” and “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” should be required reading in schools. Together they explain a lot how the world has come to exist in its current condition. Neither is told from a strictly Euro-Christian viewpoint, so that would be the first obstacle to overcome in getting them into the hands of grade-school students. But it’d be worth the trouble.

I’m also not the only writer in the family. One of my first cousins, Richard De La Garza, PhD., co-authored “Cocaine and Methamphetamine Dependence: Advances in Treatment.” A guide for psychiatrists specializing in drug addiction, it’s just one factor in Richard’s ongoing efforts to mitigate the damage caused by substance abuse; mainly cocaine and methamphetamine.

IMG_0648

Aside from “Giant” and “The Day Christ Died,” one of my oldest books is Lareina Rule’s “Name Your Baby,” published the same year I was born. I’ll search through it sometimes, as I name the characters in my stories. I still have some actual reference and text books, such as Reader’s Digest’s “Family Word Finder,” which I still use religiously for my writing; the always indispensable “Chicago Manual of Style (6th ed.)”; and Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” a guide for the Internet age. Of my three dictionaries, “The Living Webster: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language,” is the oldest, as well as the largest. It wouldn’t qualify as a coffee-table; it’s more of a small-lamp end-table type. One of my mother’s work colleagues had bought it for me as a birthday present in the 1970s. That woman knew I liked to write stories and felt it would make the perfect gift for me. She was right. My mother had said the woman’s son had been killed in Vietnam and had become so distressed by it that she’d periodically tell people at the office she needed to call her son…before realizing he was dead. Now I watch helplessly as my mother’s own memory keeps faltering. That mammoth dictionary still ranks as one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

I’ve tried to share my love for reading with other people. In July of 1998, I was surprised to get a notice in the mail from some friends announcing the birth of their daughter. I rushed out to buy a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. In 2005, my then-supervisor and his wife adopted a baby boy from Guatemala. I did the exact same thing: bought a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. Get that kid into reading as soon as possible!

I’ve heard more than a few people say that reading is a waste of time. To them, I politely say, ‘You’re an asshole.’ More directly: an illiterate asshole. Many of them are the same ones who consider TV guides and beer bottle labels reading material. Others have told me the Christian Bible is the only book they’ve read front to back or are reading at that moment. In that regard, I consider Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” on equal grounds, since it’s also filled with violence and erotic imagery. (Yes, I have that one, too, and find it more plausible than the Bible.)

IMG_0644

If people spent more time reading, they’d learn more about the world around them and wouldn’t have much time left for fighting or fucking. Fewer people would get killed and / or get sick.

Literacy is such an integral part of civilization I can’t understand why someone would find it boring. Societies with high rates of literacy and education generally have lower rates of violence and are more politically and socially stable. Nations such as Australia, Israel, Japan and Norway boast some of the highest standards of living in the world, which correlates to their equally high rates of literacy – almost 100% in each case. People who can read and write spend more time contemplating the mysteries of the universe and how to make the world better for everyone. Yes, sometimes they misuse that knowledge to harm others. But, then again, there are people who view education itself as dangerous; a detriment to the structure of the society they’ve carefully designed for themselves. An educated populace is composed of people who can think for themselves. They have the audacity to question authority and wonder aloud why things have always been done a certain way. Such boldness upsets the oppressors, but it’s a measure of true spiritual freedom. For me, freedom comes in all shapes, sizes and colors of the written word.

Top image courtesy of “Must Be This Tall to Ride.”

IMG_0654

6 Comments

Filed under Essays

In Memoriam – Harper Lee: 1926 – 2016

Nelle Harper Lee

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

Harper Lee

Leave a comment

Filed under News

Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2015

PEN_International_-_Day_of_the_Imprisoned_Writer

“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action – though often trivial in isolation – are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

George Orwell

 

Today is the 34th Annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer, sponsored by PEN International.

Leave a comment

Filed under News

$1 and a World of Art

Never judge a building by its facade.

Never judge a building by its facade.

 

What can you buy for a dollar these days? Maybe a pack of gum, or a single doughnut. In Chicago, it can buy an entire building. Okay, said building is a 1920s-era former bank on the city’s south side. Long-abandoned and crumbling from one end to the other, it’s the type of structure where the best residents are birds and rats. Artist Theaster Gates, however, saw something else: a world class arts center. The Chicago native, an urban planner with a gallery of prestigious art awards and even more creative vision, literally purchased the 20,000-square-foot edifice for a single U.S. dollar in 2013 from the city and began transforming it into a conclave for exhibitions, artist residencies and the headquarters for the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization he established in 2010 to foster cultural and artistic development in forgotten and underprivileged neighborhoods. Earlier this month the former Stony Island State Savings Bank was reintroduced as the Stony Island Arts Bank. Among other artifacts, it contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music”; and slides of art collections from the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Gates described the center as a “a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists,” and “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.”

As a writer, I’m naturally attracted to the slew of books the place houses. But it’s obviously much more than a glorified library. It’s a people’s center; far removed from the ranks of high society cocktail parties and stuffy art museums. Gates has connected the beauty of art and literature – hallmarks of a progressive nation – with communities that some thought worthless. In this volatile election season, where self-proclaimed saviors of the masses regurgitate their ideas of revolution and the future, that’s simply extraordinary.

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates

 

stony-island-3

stony-island-1

stony-island-2

stony-island-6

stony-island-7

5 Comments

Filed under Art Working

F This!

oldest-F-word

Just when you think something is new, researchers prove you wrong. For example, I thought American cowboys invented the ‘F’ word. Then I heard rumors someone in my family came up with it during a baptism, but that’s another story. A British historian, however, has found the earliest written record of this vocabulary gem in a court document – from 1310.

The item refers to a man named “Roger Fuckebythenavele,” and was discovered accidentally by Dr. Paul Booth, a historian at England’s Keele University. Booth was examining medieval court cases, when he stumbled upon the unfortunate moniker. Roger wasn’t actually born into a family called “Fuckebythenavele.” He was branded as such because he was an incompetent copulator. Usually that refers to most politicians, but Booth informed the local press, “Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator, referring to someone trying to have sex with the navel, or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid they think that this is the way to have sex.”

Apparently Roger was so bad at sex he was considered an outlaw and would be tried under judiciary circumstances. Before Booth’s discovery, the earliest documented example of “fuck” was in a 1475 poem titled “Flen fyys.” The line in question reads, ““fvccant vvivys of heli,” which can be translated to “they fuck the wives of Ely.”

Booth has contacted the Oxford English dictionary people to advise them of his discovery; whereupon they should then make the appropriate updates to the historical etymology of the “F” word. As of now, Booth hasn’t received a reply. In that case, just tell them to…have a nice day. Dagnabbit!

2 Comments

Filed under Classics

National Banned Books Week 2015

Old Covered Books on Table HD Wallpaper

Today is the official start of “Banned Books Week” here in the U.S.; the annual counter-assault against the angry and the self-righteous who dare to tell the rest of us independent thinkers what we can and cannot read. It’s a relentless battle.

This year the theme is “Young Adult” fiction. YA fiction, as it’s more commonly known, is the newest fad among adventurous scribes who want to help teenagers cross the troubled bridge into full-blown adulthood; the period of life where people learn the hard way that they aren’t the center of the universe. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy is one highly successful example. Despite its popularity, it has garnered its own share of conservative protestors. I really can’t understand that. Within the context of American mythology, “The Hunger Games” has everything: violence, racial exceptionalism and plenty of bad luck. I mean, people getting shot down like wild animals. What’s more American than that?

One of the more curious books being challenged is Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, born Loretta Pleasant in Virginia in 1920, who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. It’s not her brief life or tragic death that is necessarily so compelling. It’s not even the fact she died of cervical cancer. It’s what resulted from her death, and the variety of ethical challenges her situation posed. The type of cervical cancer she developed was unique; something oncologists at the time had never seen. Shortly before Lacks’ death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed two samples of the cancer – without her knowledge or permission. They ended up in the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who noticed the cells were unusually durable. Gey isolated and multiplied some of the cells, producing a line he dubbed “HeLa.” The HeLa line would go on to assist cancer researchers in the ensuing decades.

Perhaps the most famous outcome was the cure for one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop the polio vaccine, which was approved for general use in 1955, after only three years of testing. Immediately thereafter, other scientists began cloning the HeLa cell line; since then, over 10,000 patents involving the HeLa cells have been granted.

The Lacks Family didn’t learn of these advances until 1973, when a scientist contacted them, wanting blood samples and other genetic materials. For them and many African-Americans, this scenario reminded them of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study;” perhaps the most egregious and blatant example of medical racism in the U.S. The tale of Henrietta Lacks is nonetheless a compelling study of medical research and medical ethics. But one idiot in Knoxville, Tennessee has a different view: she calls it pornography. Parent Jackie Sims found Skloot’s book inappropriate for students at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. The term “inappropriate,” of course, means: ‘I don’t like it, so no one else should have access to it.’ Sims apparently equates gynecology with pornography. The term “cervical” surely sent her frail mind into a tizzy. Her precious on was given an alternate text (maybe something along the lines of a Disney coloring book), but Sims – like the typical self-righteous curmudgeon – wants Skloot’s tome to be banished from the entire school district. Fortunately, district authorities haven’t backed down, and – as of this writing – the matter is still under consideration.

For a complete selection of this year’s frequently-challenged books, check out this list. Then go out and buy, or download, one of them and read it, if you haven’t already. Remember, true freedom begins with the written word.

Banned Books Week on Twitter.

Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

2 Comments

Filed under News

Writing Lives

603cuneiform

Think about what it takes to create a writing system from scratch. Imagine the intellectual aptitude of someone who draws an image on a rock, in the sand, or anywhere and declares that it represents something – a word, an action, a single sound. What is required of somebody to actually sit down and do that?

Not long after I began walking and talking around the age of 9 months, my parents started teaching me to read. The books were those simply-worded “See Spot Run” types, but I took to them with an uncannily inborn sense of ease. Whenever my folks became engaged with some task around the tiny two-bedroom apartment where we lived, they made sure I was either asleep or sitting on the couch with one of those books. Many of those colorful little pre-school tomes were “Golden Books,” the classics of childhood literature that helped to educate the young masses. I still have scores of them stored away neatly in boxes; surely they’d be collector’s items by now.

By the age of 5 – even before entering kindergarten – I was writing stories. Although I could speak in complete sentences and use seemingly grown-up words (my parents never “baby-talked” to me), putting those thoughts into written form became my primary means of communication. I’ve been reading and writing ever since.

My precociousness wasn’t always viewed with admiration. As a first-grader at a Catholic parochial school in Dallas, me and my fellow students were required to look at our name plates before carefully copying our names onto sheets of paper. I looked at mine once and, upon the second time I had to write it, I simply did so from memory. Proud of my accomplishment, I displayed the sheet of notebook paper to the nun teaching the class.

Her reaction was harsh. “Don’t ever do that again!” she chided.

It didn’t seem to matter that – all of 6 or 7 years of age – I successfully reprinted my name after having looked at the plate once. So I sauntered back to my desk, feeling humiliated and dejected.

Bitch!

I recounted the incident to my parents that evening at dinner, and they beamed with pride. My father reassured me I did nothing wrong and told me, from that point onward, just “pretend” to look at my name plate. I followed his advice, confident in my new-found ability. I never again looked at that stupid name plate; neither did I try to impress that decrepit nun. I surmised some time later that a vow of poverty, coupled with a life of celibacy and a cardboard headdress, must have a nasty impact on a woman’s cerebral capacity.

Another incident at that same school a few years later, however, made me question everyone in the education field. A lay teacher arrived at the school in the fall of 1976 to teach English. She and I got along nicely at first. But my impulsive audacity to question certain things apparently made her head hurt, and she’d stare at me from behind those gigantic 1970s-era glasses (the kind that now would qualify as motorcycle windshields) and seethe with frustration.

Other students in the class loved when her and I got into those “fights,” as one boy described them. That teacher certainly didn’t enjoy it and used every opportunity she could scrounge up to humiliate me in front of my classmates. Then, one morning, things came to a head between us over a single word: llama.

Because it’s a Spanish-language adaptation of an Indian term for the only draft animal to evolve in the Western Hemisphere, I knew it was pronounced “yama.” In Spanish, a double “L” bears a “Y” sound. The teacher shook her head no and insisted it was pronounced “lah-mah,” with the “L” clearly enunciated. I didn’t budge. I knew I was right.

Yet our constant linguistic tennis match finally made a few of her precious brain synapses explode, and she literally yelled at me to shut up and pronounce the word the way she saw fit – with that Anglicized “L” sound.

A near-deadly pall enveloped the room like a tsunami accosting a beachfront. Everyone fell silent, and the teacher ordered me to remain after class. My heart sank, and my stomach felt hollow.

After my fellow students departed, the teacher stuck a well-manicured fingernail into my quivering face and told me never to question her authority again. “Do you understand me?” she growled.

A weak “Yes, ma’am” tumbled from my lips. That evening at dinner I recounted the entire episode to my parents. This time they didn’t offer any coy suggestions for me to remain quiet. Arriving at school the next morning, both of them promptly entered the building with me and demanded to speak with that teacher.

The principal, a feisty and intimidating nun named Jean, told them they either had to make an appointment or wait until an upcoming parent-teacher conference.

My father, who was growing increasingly disillusioned with Roman Catholicism altogether, leaned forward onto the paper-cluttered desk and said, “Jean, get her in here now, or I’ll go find her and drag her ass in here myself.”

Sister Jean’s eyes widened, and her self-righteous demeanor crumbled faster than a Ku Klux Klansman accidentally entering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a suitcase full of Christian bibles. The lay teacher arrived, and, as I waited outside by the secretary’s desk, she tried to explain her side of the story. My parents had always been renegades, but they were also fair. I don’t know what all was said amongst them, but my father made it clear that she was never to yell at or humiliate me in front of the class. He and my mother also made that teacher realize my pronunciation of the word “llama” was correct. Technically, everything was settled, but she still gave me a “B” for that spring semester. It didn’t matter. I graduated from the school shortly thereafter and was more than glad to get the hell out of there.

Neither of those situations diminished my love and passion for the written word. I’ve remained an avid reader and writer. And, just like I resisted the demands of those two teachers to think and behave differently, I’ve resisted any attempts to downgrade my intellect or circumvent my literary aspirations. As we stand on the threshold of this pioneering electronic medium called blogging, I think of the countless writers and poets who simply wouldn’t give up on their dreams to describe the world as they see it, or to tell the truth as they know it. I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech. But the power of the written word transcends that.

Writers have always been at the forefront of social and political changes. Powerful elites have tried to silence us; lest the truth gets out to the otherwise loyal masses who then should dare to forget their places in a carefully-structured society – places designated by those same powerful elites. Education and literacy are the best tools against tyranny and oppression. Once someone learns how to read and write, they start to think for themselves. And, while that’s good for society as a whole; for some, it forebodes danger. It’s why, for centuries, the Catholic Church tried to keep books out of the hands of commoners, especially women. It’s why, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, some Whites tried to do the same with the freed Negro slaves.

In more recent years, a number of journalists have been murdered in México, as they covered that nation’s ongoing war against the drug cartels and linked some of that violence to government and law enforcement officials.

Of course, composing short stories for my blog or recounting skirmishes with haughty nuns and teachers doesn’t constitute a battle against repression. But, from the moment some six millennia ago, when an unknown individual in the Sumerian desert carved the emblem of a human head in conjunction with a fish to indicate eating, writing has been an essential and inescapable attribute of our existence. I observe, from the comfort of my suburban home, the battles between police and drug lords in México and wonder if any of them are aware that a form of writing arose in the central part of that country around 600 B.C. Do they even realize how significant that is, not just in México’s history, but the history of the world?

I swing my attention to the mountains of landlocked Afghanistan and question if any of the men training to attack Europe and the U.S. in the name of Islam realize their ancestors corresponded frequently about such matters as the possibility of an afterlife and how birds stay aloft. How did that area reach the 16th century and become stuck there?

I remain passionate about literature and education, even in this increasingly digital world where cell phone text messages have become the norm. I have no less than 400 books crammed into my home, placed neatly on shelves or stacked atop one another. They cover everything from art to political science. Moreover, I have scores of magazines: “National Geographic,” “International Artist,” “The Sun,” “Indian” and the “Smithsonian.” And I keep adding to my repertoire. My only hope is that I get to read them all before I die, and even then, maybe carry them with me into the afterlife.

Regardless of what happens anywhere in the world, I know we writers will win the ongoing battles against ignorance and arrogance. Whether we have to stay after class for daring to question a teacher over the pronunciation of a single word, or stand before a hostile government that only wants so much of the truth to get out into the world, writers will always win. Even if we have to die for it.

Image: Mr. Dowling.

5 Comments

Filed under Essays