Anthropology of Reading

April 3, 2014 at 4:59 pm (In So Many Words) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

bookstacksAnthropology
[an-thruh-pol-uh-jee]
noun
1. the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind.
2. the study of human beings’ similarity to and divergence from other animals.
3. the science of humans and their works.
4. Also called philosophical anthropology. the study of the nature and essence of humankind.
Origin:
1585–95; anthropo- + -logy

Reading
[ree-ding]
noun
1. the action or practice of a person who reads.
2. Speech. the oral interpretation of written language.
3. the interpretation given in the performance of a dramatic part, musical composition, etc.: an interesting reading of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
4. the extent to which a person has read; literary knowledge: a man of wide reading.
5. matter read or for reading: a novel that makes good reading.

 

This is a challenging post, in that I could talk for days and days, possibly write a whole website dedicated to the topic, so I’m going to do my best to remain concise and not chase too many rabbits.

The blogger of So Many Books wrote a post about the Anthropology of Read, which I reblogged (click the link and it will take you there). Follow that post even further and the blogger wrote another on Auden’s Eden Meme. Combining these two posts into one thought, this is my anthropological response concerning my reading habits.

“Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not be confused with other pleasures that we enjoy, it is related to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone else’s. All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dreams of Eden are his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments.” – from Auden’s “Reading”

So following Auden’s checklist, here is my Eden:

Landscape
Mountains that butt up against a beach, with open fields in between. I like oceans that beat against cliffs, good soil to plant, large trees to climb, and somehow still manage to lay in the sand whenever I want. Take about 10 acres of the Rocky Mountains and stick them in the Florida Keys. If you manage to surround it all with Texas landscape that would be even better. Clearly, it’s a dream world.

Climate
70 year round, I’ll take an occasional hot summer in the 90’s to 100’s. After all, I’m a born and raised Texan.

Ethnic Origin of Inhabitants
I’m a big fan of melting pots.

Language
“English will be the official language but all languages are encouraged (even Elvish and Klingon) and everyone should know more than one.” That’s a direct quote from the So Many Books response to Auden. I see no need to alter that statement in any way.

Weights and Measures
I’m not concerned with this. I’ll let someone who cares decide.

Religion
I’m a Christian hippie. I’ll take Jesus with a side of dirt & trees.

Size of Capital
Small indeed. Close, personal friends. If I want a break from this closeness, I’ll take a vacation out of Eden.

Form of Government
In very small governments, I’m ok with elected monarchies with limited terms. I like to call a spade a spade, and in my research I never see true democracy at work, it’s always bastardized into an oligarchy or some other nonsense.

Sources of Natural Power
Wind, water, solar… the idea that anything was ever anything but amazes me. Wind turbines, watermills, solar panels, this makes sense to me.

Economic Activities
Farming, arts and humanities. Science would remain of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang variety. I think science is cool, but a lack of tech would be such a nice reprieve from the rest of the world.

Means of Transport
Bicycles, boats, hiking and swimming. Of course, from the mountains to the beach and over some landscape… that requires at least one community zipline.  Also, I love horses and would definitely encourage horseback riding.

Architecture
Self-sustained, energy efficient estates. Design – To each their own.  Although, I see a lot of bungalows, Victorian estates, farmhouses, and hobbit holes.

Domestic Furniture and Equipment
Again, to each their own, but made by hand is a marvelous thing. In the kitchen, all I need is an oven, a French press, and a coffee bean grinder. If someone slipped me a bread machine, though, I wouldn’t complain.

Formal Dress
Simplicity makes me happy. But again, to each their own. If someone likes frills, I have no desire to stop them. There would probably be an abundance of denim and cotton in my Eden though.

Sources of Public Information
Newspapers, journals, and gatherings over food at a meeting house. My population is quite small, remember?

Public Statues
This would be up to the people. I see gnomes and literary-like shrines in public gardens.

Public Entertainment
Choirs, street theatre, and public readings of important books. Book clubs and bands… I come from a Baptist background, so weekly potlucks are sort of a must.

If this is my Eden… If this is end result of my reading… if 30 years of a life devouring books has brought me to this, where did I begin? How did I evolve?

Anthropology… archeology… the two go a bit hand in hand to me. I would like to go back to school and get a Baccalaureate in Anthropology & Archeology. I love that niche of history and science. I always thought the Indiana Joneses of the world were the most amazing. Amelia Peabody… As a child I was riveted by adventures, but was still very much a typical girl – no, correction, a typical tomboy with girlish tendencies.

I read an awful lot of Nancy Drew. I liked historical things like Little Women and Gentle Annie. Jo March, of course, my favorite of the sisters; Gentle Annie was a civil war nurse running out into the battlefield in the face of danger. I was, and still am, fascinated by doers.

Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra intrigue me, but I have a literary foundation in all things Jane Austen – the fierce butting heads with the feminine.

My reading is much like my real life – a black belt, with hair usually down to her butt, who loves to get her toes done. I look for brave warriors who want to bask in the sun with some flowers. I desire the intelligence to drive to take care of people, protect them both in battle and emotionally by serving them foodstuffs and coffee. Because this is who I am, this is what I look for in my reading – in fiction, in history, in science, in all of it. I try to find people in all the thousands of years of literature, who are (as Anne Shirley would say) kindred spirits.

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The Wild Girls – A Review

March 14, 2013 at 3:58 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

WildGirlsTitle: The Wild Girls

Author: Pat Murphy

Publisher: Speak (an imprint of Penguin Group)

Genre: Young Adult

Length: 288 pages

Dear Publishing Companies,

Allow me to tell you something you probably already know: Take a book, add a matte finish to it, trace some swirly-like-ivy lines about, and add a garden or forest scene – I will most likely take the book home on the spot.

At least that’s what happened with Pat Murphy’s The Wild Girls.  And despite having an equally girly and gardeny looking book on my night stand (The Distant Hours by Kate Morton), I started reading The Wild Girls that day.

Even if the cover had not been so fabulous, the first line is:

“I met the Queen of the Foxes in 1972, when my family moved from Connecticut to California.”

How do you pass up a first line like that?

It’s a story about twelve year old girls for twelve year old girls, but at twenty-nine I was still dying to know all about the Queen of the Foxes and how interesting a girl would have to be to have the honor of meeting her.

My own wild girl, running, after we read in the park and took a boat ride, but before we had our picnic in the grass.

My own wild girl, running, after we read in the park and took a boat ride, but before we had our picnic in the grass.

Joan meets Sarah in the woods behind an old orchard and immediately takes to her even though Sarah is malicious and contemplating throwing rocks at her.  She can hit a kid dead on from about thirty feet away, too.  Soon the girls are fast friends with woodsy aliases Newt and Fox, telling and writing stories together as they each escape their lives in the comfort and enchanting beauty of the woods and its wildlife.

In the spirit of Bridge to Terabithia (without the inevitable water works), The Secret Garden (without the invalid), and a dash of How to Buy a Love of Reading (or writing), The Wild Girls is a great coming of age story for girls harboring an inner Josephine March (Little Women).

I loved it.  I read a lot of it to kiddo outside and she loved it as it served for a great book to welcome spring.  I can’t wait to read it again when she is older and see what she thinks of it then.

In the mean time, I’m looking for more Pat Murphy titles, reading Kate Morton, and writing a novel.

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Eden’s Outcasts – A Review

March 10, 2013 at 9:18 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

January 2013 079Title: Eden’s Outcasts

Author: John Matteson

Genre: Biography/ History

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Length: 497 pages

I knew I wanted to read this book the first time I saw it at Jill’s Books in The Woodlands a few years ago.  I have loved Louisa May Alcott all my life and in the last few years I’ve really started to enjoy the art of the biography.  My best friend bought it for me on the spot because she is one of those beautiful people who doesn’t think people should be denied their bookish desires.  It wasn’t until March (a novelization of the younger years of Marmee and Mr. March) was chosen for the HPB Humble Book Club that I actually committed to sitting down with it in an attempt to understand Brooks’ portrayal of the patriarch.

*Notes about A Family in Debt*

So my review of the biography begins with Bronson Alcott’s astonishing ability to over zealously botch everything he touches.  This trait of Bronson is made overwhelmingly clear around page 181.  By this time in the biography, his utopian commune Fruitlands has failed, he has lost all his manuscripts, the house the family is living in was purchased with his wife’s inheritance, and he has completely disappointed me.  At this point in his life Bronson refused to be employed and takes up an architectural endeavor on Emerson’s land, a building that would be nicknamed “Tumbledown Hall” and “The Ruin.”  For a man portrayed as one so taken with education, he tackled projects with a whole lot of zeal and not nearly enough research.  When he did research, others’ ideas were usually disregarded in order to implement his own innovative plans.  To me, most his plans pretty much always sucked.

On the other hand, Louisa, his daughter, was exceptionally prudent.  She had an intense crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson when she was young, which I find adorable, but never shared the love letters she wrote to him.  Instead, when the crush was over, she burned them, but continued to look up to Emerson as a teacher.  Emerson would be a part of Louisa May Alcott’s life from her birth until his death.

Bronson may have failed in many things during the first half of his life, but his efforts as a father are later a solid testament to home schooling.  Matteson shares on page 182 that

“During her teen years, Louisa received essentially no formal schooling outside the home.  However, reading Dickens with her family, poring over Goethe in Emerson’s library, and scrambling through the woods with Thoreau comprised a unique education in themselves.”

Bronson Alcott, I believe, had some serious issues.  Matteson has the grace to allow you to come to this conclusion on your own before he shares the fact that mental illness did indeed run in the family and that it is likely that both Bronson and Louisa May were manic depressive or bipolar, but that there is no way to know for sure.

Bronson’s worldview was both passionate and skewed.  He established his house at Hillside (a few years before the well-known Orchard House) as an underground railroad station and fought viciously for equal political rights for African Americans.  Then in contradiction to his own actions stated that blond hair, blue eyed people were closer to God and that black men should not be allowed to reproduce.  How these beliefs reside in one human being baffles me.  It reminds me of an observation Bill Bryson made in his book The Lost Continent, where when traveling the United States he identifies a curious contradiction in American culture and race relations.  In the north, Yankees are known for their belief in equality and pretend to make no distinction between black and white in personal treatment and political issues, yet they live very segregated lives and rarely share the same neighborhood.  However, in the deep south, there is a general assumption of hatred between the two groups, but they live side by side as neighbors.

Why such dichotomy?  I find it all rather ridiculous.  In Bronson’s case, he refused to use products made by slaves and destroyed his career on the principle that even black students had a place in his school.  Kudos! But then he thinks something so crass as an idea that black men should be denied their God given right to have children.  Absurd!

I find Bronson entirely too duplicitous.  He insisted on a family commune but almost left his family to a more philosophic way of life.  He was passionate about fatherhood, but made it very difficult for his children to feel worthy of his praise.  He desired a Utopia, but in every action tore what could have been to the ground.  His ease in living off hand outs from the labor of his friends while simultaneously declining anything done honestly through the labor of animals is confusing.  It is no wonder to me that the father figure in Little Women is both absent and idolized.  The fact that Bronson went to such great lengths to have a perfect transcendental family and then refused to accept work when it was offered because he had as “yet no clear call to any work beyond [him]self,” is irritating.  The Alcotts were flooded with debt and Bronson had the means to fix it, but was too busy living in his head.

The greatest contradiction of all is that in the second half of his life he would rectify my horrible opinion of him…

*Notes about An Authoress*

The thing I love most about biographies is the same thing I love about “bookish” books – they provide lists, a more diverse reading experience.  While reading Eden’s Outcasts, the biographer periodically offered reviews and insightful critiques to Alcott’s little known works.  So while reading her biography, I was also led to read specific stories out of A Whisper in the Dark, like Love and Self-Love.  It also led me to desire to seek out a piece called Hospital Sketches.

Matteson continues to offer literary criticism on many of Alcott’s publications and goes into a lengthy discussion of An Old Fashioned Girl.  It is during this portion of the biography that Bronson has redeemed himself as a father in my eyes.  At this point he was quietly living at Orchard House in between traveling and making his money.  His ideals were far less irritating later in life than when he had a poor young family to support, because at this point Louisa’s fame had made the entire Alcott family debt free.  This success and income is also what finally made Bronson a more supportive father who spent many of Louisa’s later years doting on her and praising her success.

This age old story of the parent-child relationship reminds me of a Bill Cosby sketch where he laments his parents as grandparents.

“I’ve never seen such a turn around in all my life […] That’s not the same woman I grew up with; you’re looking at an old person who’s trying to get into heaven now.” (watch the whole sketch here)

In the story An Old Fashioned Girl, Alcott actually praises her father by inferring that,

“Shaw’s offspring would need less reforming if he had given them more of his time and less of an allowance.”

Matteson continues to say,

“Louisa goes to far as to suggest that a well-provided childhood is a hindrance to happiness and achievement.”

This is a much different sentiment than that during the aftermath of Bronson’s failed Fruitlands.  Mostly proud father, but partly opportunist, Bronson wrote, “I am introduced as the father of Little Women, and I am riding in the chariot of glory wherever I go.”  Bronson may have begun to be capable of providing for his wife and family, but only because Louisa made it possible with her fame.

As Matteson picks apart Alcott’s life and novels, he states:

“As is more than once the case with Alcott, the fiction teasingly invites speculation that the surviving facts can neither confirm nor dispel.” – pg. 382

Of her own fame, Alcott said: “I asked for bread and got a stone, – in the shape of a pedestal.”

*What it all Means to Me…*

All in all Matteson’s biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father is the most well-written and thorough biography I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.  I hung on every word.

All the detailed family relationships, the well thought out literary critiques, and little factoids like the fact that Louisa was the first Concord woman to register to vote, made the whole book a joy to read.

Above all, I am pleased that Matteson has finally put into words a truth that has been part of my own beliefs since childhood when I first read most of Alcott’s work.  Without reading Matteson’s biography I may have never come to understand a piece of myself and where aspects of my own worldview were initially formed.  It seems that my ideas regarding feminism may be largely attributed to what Louisa imparted to me through her novels, as our views are nearly identical.

Louisa’s ideas call for

“each person, male and female to cultivate his or her talents without regard to sex, so that each may optimally serve the community.”

Matteson also says that

“Louisa remained true to the ideals of her mentor Emerson, who, as William James observed, believed that ‘no position is insignificant, if the life that fills it out be only genuine.’  Louisa was hostile to any limitation on women’s opportunities.  Nevertheless, she would have been mystified by any feminist credo that implicitly valued traditionally masculine pursuits above the conventionally feminine.” – pg. 419

Whether you want to be a doctor or stay home and bake pies, male or female – just do it well.

I could not agree more.

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March

January 16, 2013 at 12:39 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

march300-196x300Title: March

Author: Geraldine Brooks

Publisher: Penguin Books

Length: 280 pages

When I first selected March for the HPB Humble Book Club, I wasn’t fully aware of what I was getting myself into. I knew two things: it had been on my TBR for quite sometime and it had been quite popular with private book clubs in the area. By the cover and Geraldine Brooks reputation, I assumed it was some kind of historical fiction and that it was most likely to be something I considered good. I had not yet discovered that it was the story of Mr.March while off at war and Marmee. I did not realize I’d be reading back story on characters I’ve loved my whole life.

Geraldine Brooks’ writing is impeccable, amazing. It should be, she won a Pulitzer for this incredible book. I love the story.

Marmee Sarandon

I was ten when Susan Sarandon appeared in Little Women. It was not the first version of the movie I saw, nor the last; but as I watched the movie and re-read Little Women for the first time she became and still remains my favorite Marmee.

The problem is, I had an image of these wonderful people in my mind, an image I held onto for years and years.  From the first time I read the book to the last time I re-read the book, through every movie adaptation, Marmee and Mr. March, though less present than the other characters, were pillars of perfect parenting, virtue, and strength.  Brooks doesn’t take that away exactly, but she makes them so human it’s a bit disconcerting.

It’s like the first time you see pictures of your own parents at parties when they were young, before you were around.  Or, the moment you come home at the proper time after prom to discover they are nowhere to be found and when you call them they are at some event you were unaware of, laughing and joking.  In those moments you think, ‘Wow, they have a life.’  Marmee and Mr. March weren’t exactly having a party, most of the book is about the devastation of slavery and the civil war.  Still, that moment you read about Marmee and Mr. March making passionate love in the woods before they were married, a tryst that resulted in Meg, you think: ‘No! I didn’t want to know that about them!’

At the same time, there’s something magical about the way Brooks has managed to weave a new tale from and into an old one.  To take a small little quote about the girls missing their father who was so far away where the fighting was and turn it into a very distinct and unique piece of work, to read the telegram insisting Mrs. March go to her ill husband and have a whole life story revealed, it’s simply breath-taking and a bit of genius.  It is all very excellent.  It just isn’t what I had imagined for them myself.

Granted, many say Brooks based the story off of Louisa May Alcott’s own family life, as Alcott had written Little Women with the same background in mind.  With that said, it stands to reason that Brooks book probably honors the author and her own imagination well.

mr march paper dollsStill, I go back to my eight year old self (the first time I read Little Women) every time I re-read the book.  The magic of books is that they may always take you back to a moment, a bit of time in your life where your mindset was a certain way, the feeling you had the first time you read those lines… like a song that gives you chills decades after it has made you cry.  Geraldine Brooks’ March, though beautiful and epic, doesn’t fit with my eight year old Little Women reading self.  There’s a disenchantment there.

The book is a dichotomy that flusters me to my core.  To love a book so much and to be equally indignant about it is frustrating.

I plan to read Eden’s Outcasts next. It is a biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father.

There will be a meeting to discuss March at Half Price Books in Humble at 7:30 pm.  Join us!

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How Alcott Raises Little Women

December 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Title: Little Women

Author: Louisa May Alcott

Publisher: Little, Brown

Genre: Young Adult Classics

Length: 502 pages

Buy Now!

I don’t remember learning to read, as I did it from such a young age.  I do, however, remember the first books I fell in love with and the first books I read that were difficult for my limited vocabulary.  Laura Ingalls Wilder I fell in love with first, I read the entire series several times by the end of first grade.  Little Women, however, I fell in love with and learned from in second grade.  Little Women taught me new words and phrases, culture, and how I wanted to live.

Josephine March has been one of my heroes since I was seven and first read about her chopping off all her luxurious hair.  As a young girl, I identified quite well with her “one beauty” (that amazing hair) and tomboyish ways.  I myself, was a ruddy, freckled girl, often found either playing tag football with boys at recess or perched in an oak tree reading a book, hair flowing every which way that my mother did not allow me to cut.  My first significant hair cut, I donated two feet to locks of love, and who else was on my mind? Jo March.

I re-read the book multiple times before I left elementary school, getting more and more out of it each time as my reading skills improved.  And despite cherishing it always, I set the book aside and did not read it again until my twenty-seventh year, this year, to my one year old daughter.

I opened it up a week or so before Christmas, not realizing it would spur a desire to re-read it every Christmas with my kid for the rest of her life if she likes it as much as I do.  It’s such a great Christmas book!  Upon this fresh re-read, I also discovered many other things that my brain had forgotten, but my soul must have internalized.  For instance, the girls are all distraught and Hannah, bless her soul, “came to the rescue armed with a coffee-pot.”

Like every good American, I am wholly addicted to that black magical brew, it’s in our veins and culture, look at how well Starbucks has taken off.  But my family did not keep coffee readily available, my dad won’t touch the stuff and my mom’s mother died of cancer the doctors blamed on her caffeine intake so she never kept it around growing up.  So part of me wonders if Alcott played a role in my introduction to it, as I don’t remember a time when I did not love it.  I remember sneaking cups of it from the employee break room at the bus barn where I waited with my bus driver between routes in elementary school.  In hindsight, I believe it was the reverence that writers hold for it, the way it is talked about in books, that drove me to love it so much, and it very well may have begun with Little Women.

Then, there is Theodore Laurence.  I believe every guy friend’s worth that I ever had my whole life was measured against the character of Laurie.  He is whimsical, gallant, a rascal and a gentleman.  Theodore Laurence is handsome, a friend, and all around a good time.  Every girl needs a Teddy-Dear in her adolescent life and if you can’t get one in the real world, its time for yet another read of Little Women so you can live vicariously through Jo!

Jo March taught me to love, to read, to pursue life with a fiery passion, and how to pick my friends.  It was Jo March that sparked the first desires in me to be a writer.  It was Little Women, and the romance of Jo and the Professor, that set the stage for me to fall in love with the art of Jane Austen and the Brontes.  It was the pen of Louisa May Alcott that taught me how to really enjoy books and the thrilling life they have to offer.

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The Brownie and the Princess – A Review

December 8, 2011 at 6:08 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Title: The Brownie and the Princess and Other Stories

Author: Louisa May Alcott

Image

A HarperCollins Publication

Genre: Children’s fiction

Length: 250 pages

As everyone knows, Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in the 1800’s and became one of the most well-known and timeless children’s literature authors of all time.  The story of the March sisters is one that all little girls discover eventually, even if it isn’t until adulthood with the many movie productions (the most recent in 1994 featuring Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and many other well-known stars).   What a lot of people don’t know is that, just like Jo March, Alcott had many stories published in children’s magazines.  The Brownie and the Princess and Other Stories is a collection of those stories.

One of the most delightful things about being a new mom is seeking out children’s books that I either remember loving or discovered later and wish I had owned.  This particular collection was published while I was in college, so I missed the joy of reading it as a small child, but am extremely excited about having it available for my daughter.

The story of the Brownie and the Princess teaches good manners and being happy with what you have.  Tabby’s Tablecloth is about patriotism and respecting antiques and the sentiments attached to them.  The Hole in the Wall is beautifully innocent and romantic in a way.  It’s lovely to go back to pleasant stories of gardens and happy moments strung together, skipping, playing, and the teaching of basic goodness, in the midst of a rough day of teething, tears, and tantrums.  Books like these help gently aid the teaching of right from wrong.

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