07/13/12 12:57pm
07/13/2012 12:57 PM

Imagine that there is a science fiction book by someone like Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke that posits a distant planet where thousands of scientists from a hundred countries spend 10 billion dollars to build a 17-mile underground, circular tunnel that might help them find a tiny particle, the “God particle,” whose existence had been proposed 60 years before, but never proven. Without this particle, there is no mass, so nothing could actually exist. A thousand people line up to get into the auditorium and the scene has a rock concert vibe when two teams of scientists make the announcement that the elusive “God particle” had been found at last.

Oh, wait, that isn’t science fiction. It’s what really, truly happened in Geneva on July 4 here on our own Earth. There will soon be a book about it, ‘The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World’ by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who is good at explaining science to lay readers. I’m looking forward to finding out why and how this unseen force field interacts so that mass, gravity, the universe and all of us can exist. I’d like to know more about this than the joke: This particle walks into a church while the service is already in session. The priest asks, “What are you doing here?” and the Higgs Boson replies, “You can’t have mass without me.” Ba-da-boom.

Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke, he was quoted recently in a New York Times essay by Tim Kreider. The article, “The Busy Trap,” has been making the rounds by email, Facebook and Twitter among people I know, most of them extremely busy but able to spare a few minutes to read the piece and then forward it to all the other busy people they know. It’s definitely worth reading (http://mobile.nytimes.com/article?a=941881&f=28&sub=Sunday). The Clarke quote — “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” — perfectly sums up our current zeitgeist. Not that Clarke was an anarchist or a slacker. He wrote prodigiously — “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Childhood’s End,” among other titles — both fiction and nonfiction, invented satellite communication systems, discovered underwater archeological sites in Sri Lanka and was knighted. He was not a lazy person. He was a creative person, and doing creative work is a way of playing.

In Genesis, God had a lot of fun working on creation, but when He got mad at Adam He sentenced him to work as a punishment. Work in and of itself is not a virtue and there are different kinds of work and different attitudes about it. Another thing I love about Clarke is that when asked if he was gay he said no, just mildly cheerful.

Another piece of the zeitgeist was the July/August cover story in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can-t-have-it-all/9020/). It’s the same, but different from the Krieder piece. Ms. Slaughter says that the few women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, very rich or self-employed and that if we really want equal opportunity for all women, even ordinary ones, we need fundamental changes. She left a high-level government job to spend more time with her family, which is usually Washington-speak for being fired but, in her case, was really true and really her decision.

I’m not sure how all this rejection of work fits in with the current state of unemployment and the economic crises looming in Europe and America, but I’m convinced that if multinational teams of scientists can organize divinely playful experiments all about colliding tiny cosmic bumper cars in the dark, then multinational groups of thinkers can organize some divinely playful ways of making things work for people as human beings without total economic collapse. It may take 60 years, and much trial and error, but it’s happening already with people reading and sharing these essays about how to rethink our personal equations of time and money, family and ambition.

Much of the reading and sharing is taking place in cyberspace, which leads to the book on my bedside table, ‘This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information’ by Andy Greenberg. This is a fascinating look at the new forces aiming to obliterate the institutional secrecy of governments, banks, corporations and militaries. It took Daniel Ellsberg almost a year and thousands of his own dollars to photocopy the Pentagon Papers. It took Bradley Manning a few minutes of clicking to leak a trove of secret military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks.

The title is based on the boast written on Woody Guthrie’s guitar in 1943, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” That phrase, in turn, was painted on bomber airplanes during the Spanish Civil War. From actual weapons to the metaphorical weapon of protest songs to a subversive machine that is neither a photocopier nor even the Internet itself: the living idea in the minds of many people all over the globe that secrets equal tyranny and that the safety and survival of the world depends on transparency and the sharing of information. It is a powerful idea that now has a powerful tool to propel it forward.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

06/08/12 2:40pm
06/08/2012 2:40 PM

Remember learning the vowels, A, E, I, O and U, with the teacher inevitably adding “ … and sometimes Y and W”? Well, I’ve come up with 16 impressive and useful words that use a Y as the vowel but none, zero, that use a W. As a matter of fact, there are a dozen other insignificant three-letter words that use the Y — fly, dry, gym, gyp, etc. — but they’re too ordinary, not nearly as impressive as, say, lynx, cyst and myrrh. I tried for a sentence using them all, and got as far as “The rhythms of the pygmy’s hymns floated into the crypt as the gypsy slyly …” and got no further. Maybe a decent start for some spooky vampire thriller, but I stalled out at “slyly,” leaving nymph and tryst and stymie waiting in the wyngs. A word that uses W as its vowel still eludes me. If anyone knows one, would you shyly email it? I will wryly acknowledge you.

English has long been acknowledged as a strange language, with rough, bough, dough and cough usually used as examples. (Why do they never mention hiccough?) What catches my eye, though, are words that change to an opposite meaning when one letter is added. Like laughter. During a slaughter there’s never much laughter. Or when will it stop raining and start draining? And why is there such futility with our utility? A simple letter switch describes my wife and me moving from united to untied when discussing candied broccoli.

Yogi Berra is renowned for contradictory sentences like “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more” and, regarding Yankee Stadium’s left field sun problems, “It gets late early out there.” But our everyday language needs no help from Yogi. The omnipresent “Watch Your Head” demands an improbable feat of agility, as does the dark and frightening “Louise suddenly found herself lost.” Good trick. And picture this: “We soon realized the professor was speaking tongue in cheek when he said he was trying to keep a stiff upper lip. He was actually beside himself with excitement.”

I wonder why anyone would consider taking a nonstop flight (to the Twilight Zone?) or why something that falls between the cracks doesn’t land smack on the board. Or, just curious, who is it that’s standing in a one-night stand?

Are we having fun yet? What’s the longest word that contains only one vowel? Strengths. What word uses every vowel once and in order? Facetious. (We really should add facetiously, but not facetiouslw). And eleven plus two and twelve plus one not only both equal 13, but use the exact same letters to say so. Also, isn’t this the worst spell of wheather you’ve ever seen? And here’s an every-letter sentence that’s better than the famous “quick brown fox”: Pack my gift box with five dozen liquor jars.

A few oxymorons: old news, pretty ugly, same difference, loose tights, student teacher, mandatory option. Then a couple of familiar acronyms from forgotten sources: self contained underwater breathing apparatus, zone improvement plan codes and DAM, Mothers Against Dyslexia (not really), and I’m through. Thru. Throu. Done.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

05/06/12 9:00pm
05/06/2012 9:00 PM

We have an old copy of ‘Petersen’s Field Guide to the Birds.’ We’ve spotted most of the usual suspects, and also have seen some unusual ones. An American kestrel surprised us on Main Bayview in Southold one day — high up in the wires scanning the fields for lunch. An indigo bunting landed on our deck, a kingfisher perched on a dock pole and a snow goose and its two Canada sidekicks worked our lawn, the three waddling around looking like escapees from “The Biggest Loser.” The best sighting, though, came on a bright, bitter-cold morning: a full-blown male pheasant scrounging birdseed beneath our feeder, standing atop three feet of snow that had fallen that night. Birds are splendid affairs, sort of God’s tree ornaments, a quick burst of eye-catching nature.

There are many fine books about nature: ‘Walden Pond,’ Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac,’ Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us,’ to name a vintage few. Such writers not only give us glimpses of nature’s wonders but do so in language so vivid that we practically see what they’re looking at. A new such author has attracted attention, Carl Safina. ‘The View from Lazy Point’ is written beautifully, but the neat thing is that he’s writing about a neighbor, Lazy Point being a small stub of land on the west shore of Napeague Harbor, facing either the bay or the ocean, depending on your viewpoint.

Safina explores the woods and the ponds, hikes the beaches, sees, remembers and reports. He has strong opinions on what’s happening to our world. Here he is on chickadees in late January: “Their roaming flocks, formed for winter safety, will disband as the birds reassert property claims in the pines. They feel the world changing, and they change their tune. Can we do less? ‘A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world,’ ” said Marcel Proust.” Like the writers before him, Safina sees the sad lack of concern the world clings to as innovation, progress and money remain the goals. Mother Nature? Well, she’s nice, too.

There’s a famous book that tells of a time when nature betrayed us. In the 1930s the rain quit the Midwest and the wind and dust took over. Steinbeck told the story: The people had to leave, their livelihoods blown away, their homes worthless, their future hopeless. They went West and in doing so changed the face of the country. The West Coast, with its rich soil, bountiful ocean and huge forests, absorbed them, revised itself and flourished with them. The Midwest, of course, recovered. Nature hadn’t betrayed us; it shoved us into the future, and seems to be shoving again. I’m a positive guy, but what’s with all the tornados? What happened to the icebergs? Where did all the codfish go? Why are the bees and the bats dying? Seventy degrees in March?

If nature is speaking, we need to listen, put personal NIMBYs and attitudes aside and — dare I say it? — change. Let’s separate our trash, take back our empties and conserve our fuels, for openers. Let’s support new ideas and find other ways to respond to the wake-up call.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

04/21/12 9:00am
04/21/2012 9:00 AM

April may well be the cruelest month: Fighting season begins again as the mountain passes thaw in Afghanistan, tornadoes rampage throughout the Midwest, taxes must be paid and we mourn the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes, who both purportedly died April 23, 1616.

People in those days had such interesting lives and yet they were not tempted to write memoirs. I had no idea that when he wasn’t writing “Don Quixote,” Cervantes was collecting taxes, provisioning the ill-fated Armada, languishing in jail for “financial discrepancies” occasioned by the previous occupations, being sold into five years of slavery in Algeria and losing an arm fighting in the battle of Lepanto. All that, some poetry and plays and inventing the modern novel besides, made him a very busy man.

And Shakespeare, if he really was Shakespeare and not some earl or other, will always be with us. I’ve never liked the earl theories. They all seem to be based on some deep snobbery that says a mere glover’s son, a provincial, an actor for heaven’s sake, could not possibly have been able to write so well. One recent film, “Anonymous,” champions the notion that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. Another, “Coriolanus,” takes a story from the first century, written as a play in the 17th century, and turns it into a blistering 20th-century political spectacle. Hollywood and the rest of us are not done with Shakespeare yet.

April is full of bookish events: Poetry Month, Library Week, Pulitzer Prizes. Partly because of Cervantes and Shakespeare, we are celebrating the first U.S. World Book Night on April 23.  World Book Night is an annual celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books. Following its warm reception in England and Ireland last year, tens of thousands of people will go out into their communities to spread the joy and love of reading by giving out free World Book Night paperbacks. Two of those people will be Floyd Memorial Library director Lisa Richland, who will be giving out copies of Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids,’ and me, who will be giving out Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’

It is a little like our day jobs, giving books to people, but it will be interesting to go out into the community instead of waiting for people to come to us. It will be different to give people books for them to keep forever instead of expecting them to be returned.

“The Things They Carried” is about soldiers during the Vietnam War and might be particularly meaningful to veterans of that or any other war, or to young people who may be contemplating military life. Actually, it is so well written and so important that I can’t imagine anybody, young or old, male or female, of whatever political persuasion, not being moved and uplifted by the sheer beauty and artistry of it. They say no one finishes a book the same person as when she started. Giving people books is a powerful responsibility and some serious fun.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder what is up with those Pulitzer Prize people? For the first time since 1977, they declined to pick a winner in the fiction category. Finalists included ‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace, both quite worthy works of fiction. What does not giving a prize mean, except some sort of dysfunction of the committee? Is it because it’s in New York? New York City has the dubious distinction of not having a one city/one book program like most other civilized places, even Long Island. Apparently the various committees could never agree on which book to choose so the city ends up with nada, zilch, bupkus while Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, etc., enjoy a month during which everyone is encouraged to read the same book and talk about it.

On Long Island, from Garden City to Greenport, from Massapequa to Montauk, many of us have been reading ‘The Lost Wife’ by Alyson Richman. Ms. Richman has been speaking at various Long Island libraries and there’s talk that the Nassau Library System is trying to organize a trip to Prague this fall to see some of the places described in the novel. One of which would be Terezin, the Nazi ghetto and way station to Auschwitz. The novel is cleverly constructed in the way the story moves backward and forward in time.

It is an amazing book and it makes me wish that Long Island had more mass transit and more cafés and park benches — those great places where if you see a perfect stranger reading the same book you are, or have just read, you can accost them and have an impromptu book discussion. Hmmm, there is a place near here that has mass transit, cafés and park benches, but you’re unlikely to find people reading the same book. Oh well, their loss; we provincials will have survived cruel April with our various bookish diversions, our Poetry Month, Library Week, Long Island Reads and World Book Night.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

04/06/12 1:12pm
04/06/2012 1:12 PM

Once a month 25 to 30 people sit around a big, square table at Southold Free Library and talk about a book they just read. All but six are women; all are of an age to have read “A Catcher in the Rye” when it was still in galley proofs; and all are smart. Smart in 25 to 30 different ways, but smart. Some come armed with printouts, book reviews and Spark Notes. Others arrive two minutes late, breathless, having just finished the last chapter sitting outside in their cars.

These are enormously patient and polite people, all brimming with opinions, up to their ears in insights, filled with love or hatred, disdain or admiration for the characters in this month’s book, filled with awe or criticism for the author’s writing skills, plotting techniques and imagination. They are literally bursting at the seams. Yet it’s rare that two people will be talking at the same time.

Some of this is attributable, certainly, to the leader of the pack, the astute Caroline MacArthur — pointing gently to raised hands, keeping things moving and ensuring equal time for all. But there’s no hiding from her. Maybe you hated the book, or failed to finish it. And you sit there, dead silent, hoping the meeting will end before you’re noticed. Then, impending doom arrives: “Jerry, you’ve been quiet. What did you think of it?” But when she nails me, and I’m feeling like Jimmy Cagney caught in the prison searchlight, I’m actually pleased. I can be myself, just like the other 24 to 29 people can — there’s no pressure to suddenly become brilliant, or to conform to the opinions of others.

And all of these book people are good-humored and without conceit. Someone might make an interesting point and the others nod their heads and say, “Gee, that’s terrific. I didn’t think of that when I read it.” The discussions are brisk, the give-and-take creative and thoughtful, the appreciation of one another obvious.

I think the best part for me is being induced to read good books — books I probably would never have chosen on my own. When Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ was selected I inwardly groaned, yet it’s among my club favorites. I had never even heard of Colum McCann’s ‘Let the Great World Spin’; it has now replaced another title on my 10 Best list. And to reread a long-forgotten book like Graham Greene’s ‘The Heart of the Matter’ was an unexpected treat. So thank you, Caroline, and thank you, all 24 to 29 members. Thank you for ‘Atonement,’ ‘The Blind Assassin,’ ‘Devil in the White City,’ ‘Too Late the Phalarope,’ ‘John Adams,’ ‘The Madonnas of Leningrad,’ ‘Snow in August,’ ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and many, many more.

The Southold Free Library Book Club celebrated its 11th anniversary in March. That’s 132 books I got to read, to give two thumbs up or two thumbs down, but that certainly kept my juices, my senses and my imagination flowing. Although we never did buy those sweatshirts that proclaim, “My Book Club Can Beat Up Your Book Club.” Ah, well.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

03/23/12 1:06pm
03/23/2012 1:06 PM

Birds do it every year, this spring migrating thing, with its accompanying twittering racket. Public librarians do it once every two years at the Public Library Association conference, this year In Philadelphia. And what are the librarians twittering about this year? They are Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking and blogging about tweeting, Facebooking and blogging as tools for communicating with colleagues and library patrons. And they’re talking about the trends and forces that are changing books, reading and the ways librarians do their work.

As is often the case, there are two divergent trends that are either pulling in opposite directions or balancing each other out. One trend is toward more computers and automation: self-service checkout stations in the library and digital downloads of e-books being made available to patrons. The other trend is toward even more “high touch” customer service, which means more personalized and interactive conversations with more of our “power patrons,” those who come to the library frequently, borrow the most and attend programs regularly.

For years libraries were on an epic quest to capture the elusive non-user. It was thought that if we were attractive enough and nice enough and offered stuff for free, people couldn’t stay away, so we kept trying to be more attractive and nicer until we were going cross-eyed from the effort. And still the non-users were not using us.

Meanwhile, we were taking for granted our most loyal users, forgetting to ask them what they wanted, what they liked or didn’t like, what they were reading, who they were. It turns out that she, the national generic power patron, is about 46, makes around $61,000 per year, has children living at home and when she comes to her local public library she takes out multiple items in different formats: books, movies, music, magazines and downloads for her e-reader.

That last item, e-reader downloads, continues to be an issue. As of 2011, one in six Americans were using e-reader devices, more than 67 percent of libraries were offering access to e-books and patrons were checking out over 35 million digital titles. New studies are showing that a person who checks out an e-book from a public library often buys that same title and sometimes another book by the same author, and that the people who borrow e-books are the same people who buy e-books, just like the same people who borrow books are those who buy books.

Libraries do not put bookstores, publishers or authors out of business. We enhance their businesses. So why are some of the publishing houses acting so peculiar? Random House just upped the price of e-books to libraries by 300 percent. They change their pricing structure midstream, they limit how many times a title can be borrowed and they are so intent on squeezing every dime that they are losing sight of the big picture. Maybe their accountants and financial officers should look into the recent history of the music business.

It seems that when there is a shift in distribution format or system for an art form, the artists survive and continue to make art; a good percentage of them are starving, of course, but that’s normal for artists. Not good, but normal. Musicians are still making music and people are still listening to it, usually as a digital download. Or they go to live concerts. The people who didn’t survive the shift were bean-counting dinosaurs who, while the world was changing, were trying to squeeze dimes out in the narrowing space between the musicians and the listeners. And now there are bean-counting dinosaurs trying to get between authors and readers, writers and libraries.

There are many things changing about the world of books. One of them is that more and more books are being self-published and there is no longer the stigma around self-publishing that it’s for amateurs who couldn’t get an agent or be published by Random House, etc.

One title that has been on many lips was ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ a pseudonymous self-published e-book trilogy by a British author that started life as something called “fanfic,” a subgenre in which people write their own fiction using characters first created by other authors. According to what I’ve read about it, this particular fanfic is based on characters from “Twilight,” Stephenie Meyer’s popular vampire series for teens. This author has taken this relatively chaste world, changed the names and turned it into another sub-genre that is being called “mommy porn.” Is it homage or plagiarism? Admiration or desecration?

There are many delicately shaded nuances of opinion about all of these issues, but the incontrovertible fact is that “50 Shades of Grey” is a publishing phenomenon. It has sold more than 250,000 copies and the first volume was recently No. 1 on both Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Vintage, Random House’s paperback division, will be printing it for distribution in early April.

Meanwhile, back at the library, March has been a good month for reading Irish authors. I discovered a new author, Declan Hughes, whose ‘City of Lost Girls’ travels between Dublin and Los Angeles with great verve and excitement. Our book discussion group enjoyed Peter Carey’s ‘Parrot and Olivier in America,’ which could be seen as a sort of fanfic about De Toqueville, or at least an homage. Now we are reading ‘The Piano Teacher’ by Janice Y. K. Lee and next month we will participate in the Long Island Reads initiative by sharing ‘The Lost Wife,’ the debut novel by Long Island native Alyson Richman, with other Long Island readers. I look forward to sitting outside in the sun to do some of my reading, while listening to the twittering of actual birds.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

03/02/12 12:52pm
03/02/2012 12:52 PM

On Jan. 10, 1992, 500 miles south of Attu Island, a cargo ship labored in a storm that was generating 35-foot waves. As the ship pitched and yawed 12 huge containers were hurled over the side; inside one were 28,800 bathtub toys. As the containers smashed apart, as the cartons within disintegrated, as the plastic bubbles separated from the cardboard backing, the encased turtles, beavers, frogs and, yes, rubber duckies floated to the surface and began their journey. It made for captivating headlines and charming articles. Our imaginations were piqued, we remembered Ernie singing, “Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you.” (Who among us hasn’t stood staring into the window of the toy store in Greenport?)

Years passed and as reports began drifting in about current-bound toys showing up in unlikely places (Kennebunkport, Scotland), Donovan Hohn got hooked, embarked on a watery crusade and wound up writing ‘Moby Duck.’ Beyond the excitement of duck hunting, Hohn learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a Texas-size area in the Pacific where currents convene and circle endlessly, and where multiple tons of manmade stuff, much of it made of death-defying plastic, whirl and swirl.

Over the course of his adventure Hohn visited toy factories in China, sailed on an enormous container ship from South Korea to Seattle and met up with ecologists, chemical engineers and oceanographers — all concerned about the health of our oceans. One remarks, “Everyone says they simply threw this stuff out. The problem is there’s no ‘out’ any more.” A green book about yellow ducks; a thoughtful book with an amusing backdrop about a very un-amusing situation.

Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie — ex-soldier, ex-policeman, ex-private eye — joins Nero Wolfe and Archie, Travis McGee, Spenser and Hawk, and Lucas Davenport in my squad of elite crime stoppers, all with that tough-guy, wise-guy, straight-shooting approach.

‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ is the fourth Brodie novel; the first was ‘Case Histories.’ Atkinson has a rare gift. By about page 77 I’m beginning to lose hope, sure I’ll never figure out who all these people are and what they could possibly have in common. And Brodie is stumbling around in the pages, too, seemingly as lost as I am. Then Atkinson sheds a ray of light. One. And Brodie thinks “Hmm” and I think “Ahhh” and the fun gets funner as things begin to knit together. Brodie is philosophically amusing, or maybe amusingly philosophical:

“ ‘I don’t understand,’ Jackson said. He wondered why he didn’t just get that sentence tattooed on his forehead.”

A really good character in four really good books. They’re loosely connected, so start with “Case Histories.”

‘Leviathan’ by Eric Dolin is a history of whaling in America. I’m only halfway through; it’s tougher going than reading about fictional murders. I’ve visited Sag Harbor, Mystic and New Bedford and read the grim saga of the whaleship Essex, but it’s fascinating to follow the life and death of this enormous American industry, an economic backbone until petroleum took over our lamp-lighting and lubrication.

Oil, plastic, plastic, oil — did they save the country or are they sinking it?

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

02/18/12 12:46pm
02/18/2012 12:46 PM

What if books, or novels anyway, are like wristwatches? They tell time. There are Rolexes and Piagets out there among the novels, finely crafted, beautifully designed, precious works of art with precisely jeweled movements. I think of the cogs and springs as the elements of plot, character and description that all must be precisely calibrated so the whole mechanism does exactly what it is supposed to do: have things happen that propel the reader forward, but with particularity of detail so the things that happen are firmly attached to the persons, places and times of the novel. And if indeed it is a finely crafted masterpiece, it remains beautiful and useful for a long time.

I am thinking about Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year. Some of these classic “wristwatches” tell two times, the time in which they were made and the time in which they are being read, even if 100 or 200 years elapse.

There are also the sturdy little Timex novels. They tell the time, they are of their time, they will not last forever, but most of the time they are correct. They fill our bookshelves, our best-seller lists, our imaginations for a while and then they stop telling us the correct time. Or they go out of fashion.

Meanwhile, times change. Instead of the springs, gears and cogs that are sort of an 18th- or 19th-century Industrial Revolution metaphor embedded in the analog clock, we have the digital wristwatch. It tells the time, but there is a different science at work: luminous excited ions, glowing numbers that announce themselves as only themselves, not visually connected to their past or future. Twentieth- and 21st-century science as a metaphor for a newer kind of novel: Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson, Haruki Murakami …

And beyond that, we have a demographic shift, from people who almost always wore wristwatches to generations who don’t wear watches because they can always check their cellphones for the time. Does that mean they are not reading novels? Or if they are, they are reading them in digital format?

And what about time, storytelling and self-awareness before there were wristwatches and novels? I’m thinking of Werner Herzog’s documentary film called “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” From 35,000 to 30,000 B.C. in the south of France, Paleolithic humans coexisted with Neanderthals, mammoths and cave bears. Over the course of 5,000 years they regularly visited a limestone cave complex although they didn’t live in it. What they did in it was make extraordinary art.

Using line, pigment and the contours of the natural rock, they made images of animals that seem to leap and flicker on the walls, telling stories about water holes, mating and fighting. Some of the images were done once and then altered or added to 3,000 years later.

When our ancestors visited the caves, what were they experiencing? Were the painted walls a backdrop for performances involving music and dance, storytelling, religion or magic, or were the pictures enough by themselves? How did they understand time? Who got to make the art and who chose? Why did they do it? We can’t answer these questions with scientific certainty, but we can think about them with the same sort of imagination that inspires us to write novels or invent timepieces, whether of the gear-and-spring or the glowing-electron variety.

Meanwhile, back in the contemporary world of regular novels and book discussions, there are some compelling novels by Lisa See that our group read a few months ago. ‘Shanghai Girls’ and the sequel, ‘Dreams of Joy,’ are about sisters who come from war-torn China to America in the 1930s, specifically, Los Angeles’ Chinatown. This is an immigration story of Asian people coming through Angel Island near San Francisco and settling in Los Angeles in the early days of the film industry, with the inevitable dislocation between generations that surfaces when the American-born daughter rejects her mother and aunt to return to Communist China.

Lisa See is the daughter of the author Carolyn See and I always find it amazing when children go into a family business like writing. It’s one thing to inherit a butcher shop, a watch factory or a brokerage house and another to collaborate with your mother on a couple of pseudonymous novels and then to strike out on your own, armed only with some learned skills and introductions to agents or publishers. Lisa See has written well-received novels set in more distant Chinese eras, ‘Peony in Love’ and ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,’ and her writing is assured and graceful. The stories she tells about women whose societies undervalue them are consistently fascinating and moving. Time will tell whether they are Timexes or Rolexes or perhaps morph toward some new way of telling us the time and telling us who, at this moment, we are.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

01/21/12 12:21pm
01/21/2012 12:21 PM

January is the month for resolutions, for fresh starts, for trying to get things right. Mostly we focus on our bodies, trying to lose weight, get fitter, stronger and healthier. Sometimes we focus on getting better organized or being kinder. There is a list from an article in American Songwriter magazine that has been appearing on friends’ Facebook pages of 33 resolutions that Woody Guthrie wrote down in his own handwriting in 1942, full of very sensible advice to self, the 13th being “read lots good books.”

Just this week, author Walter Dean Myers was named the national ambassador for young people’s literature, a sort of poet laureate of the children’s book world who tours the country for two years, speaking at schools and libraries about reading and literacy. He will be urging people to read good books, including, no doubt, some of his own dark and realistic titles, “Autobiography of My Dead Brother,” “Monster,” “Bad Boy.” His is an urban, African-American voice writing gritty fiction that is far away from the wizards, dragons, English boarding schools and other recent staples of young people’s literature. But his own story, about how reading and then writing books rescued him from the violence and chaos of his environment, will surely resonate with many young people.

So the advice is to read good books, but the question is which ones are good for you? Someone asked Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson which books should be read by every intelligent person on the planet and he responded with a list of seven books, all available as free e-book downloads and all (except maybe the Bible) written by men:

The Bible, “The System of the World” by Isaac Newton, “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu and “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Tyson is an astrophysicist and a very smart person, certainly entitled to his opinion — “If you read all of the works above, you will have profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world” — and it’s sort of cool that all those titles are available free for digital downloading, but it’s just one person’s list. And personally, I have gotten to the point where any list that excludes the half of the human race that I belong to is a list that I feel free to ignore.

One thing to consider about resolving to read more good books is that, like resolving to exercise more, eat healthier, be kinder, etc., one’s success will depend on some mental or spiritual ability, some kind of willpower or energy. When I am feeling energetic and strong, then I enjoy reading challenging books that force me to think in new ways. When I am feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I read easier titles. Resolutions might be a good way of reminding oneself of one’s aspirations. Is this the year I will start rereading “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust — in French this time? Probably not. Nor will I run a marathon or lose 20 pounds. But perhaps there are some realistic aspirations I can articulate and accomplish.

1. Read more poetry.
2. Read more short stories.
3. Use my online Goodreads account to keep track of and share my reading.
4. Explore new magazines and newspapers instead of depending on familiar ones.
5. Read books aimed at different age groups and demographics.
6. Read aloud to children when given the opportunity.
7. Try to read some French and Spanish beyond menus.
8. Every once in a while, read at least one book I wouldn’t think I’d like.

That last piece of advice is the one that motivated me to pick up “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I am usually interested in the Man Booker winners but, for some reason, I’ve been avoiding Julian Barnes. Too English, too middle-aged, too refined, repressed — I don’t know, just not my type. But this novel, or novella at a scant 163 pages, was a revelation.

I must be careful not to give too much away, because it turns out to be a cleverly plotted page-turner masquerading as an elegiac memoir. More than one reviewer remarks that its short length is deceptive, because when you finish it, you will want to immediately reread it in its entirety. It is about aging, time, remorse, memory and history, about some of the very terrible things we can do to each other in our youth, about how we forget or make up stories so we can survive our middle age and how we can be derailed in old age by confronting what may be the truth. The whole book is unreliably narrated by a bald old man who is not especially sympathetic, but the elegant unfolding of the tale is mesmerizing, and it is a really good book. Exactly the sort of thing you should read if you are resolved to read some good books this year.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.