08/03/11 5:11pm

Let us now sing the praises of editors. I am the daughter of two of them, sister to one and friend of several, so I have a personal interest in the profession. There are many different kinds of editors, but most of them would not authorize hacking into personal email or cellphones, as some of the minions of Rupert Murdoch apparently did. Most of them work honorably on newspapers, magazines and books, working as liaison between writers and publishers, hiring and managing people, reading and choosing, coming up with ideas, being responsible for the finished product.

What if editors are becoming an endangered species? Maybe there aren’t enough good ones left and the economic downturn means no new ones are being hired and developed. I have these gloomy thoughts when I am reading “A Dance with Dragons” by George R. R. Martin, which I loved, but it definitely could have used a sharp editorial pencil to eliminate some of the repetitions and keep things rolling along. The first book in the series, “The Game of Thrones,” was better and much tighter. In a case like this, do the publisher — who is making pots of money — and the author — also making pots of money and perhaps in love with the sound of his/her own voice — conspire together against the lonely editor? The lonely editor who is trying to give George a deadline for the last book, “The Winds of Winter,” so we won’t have to wait six years to find out what happens next?

This editorial absence might also be the case with a popular prolific author like Peter May. I remembered enjoying one of his books from the China Thrillers series, so when a library patron asked for a recommendation for a new mystery, I suggested his newest, ‘Blow Back,’ from the Enzo Files, a series of seven books featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod, who lives in France, teaches at a university in Toulouse, and is working on solving France’s most famous cold cases by applying the latest scientific techniques. I hadn’t read it myself, but I thought it was a safe bet. The patron brought it back, complaining bitterly about typos, grammatical errors, sloppy changing of character names and generally lackluster writing. Whoops.

Maybe everybody thinks now that computers have spell check, we no longer need intelligent, passionate people to read manuscripts carefully. I just finished a really wonderful book by Tom Franklin called “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” which deserved better editing than it got. On page 3 I was brought up short by this sentence, “The chickens sure liked it, and their egg yokes had become nearly twice as yellow as they’d been before, and twice as good.” My contention is that, even in rural Mississippi, it is the oxen that have yokes, not the chickens. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere, folks, but I’m fixated on the spelling of yolks, Y O L K S, and it’s not funny to be distracted from really fine writing by sheer carelessness.

I had just about gotten over it when on page 123 I encountered this: “Now Cecil, he’s sacred of heights, right, don’t even like going up the steps on the school bus, and wouldn’t be caught dead in that tree.” This is not right. The fact that the author is so good at writing the speech patterns of his southern country people doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t have been watching over him like a guardian angel, making sure that Cecil was scared, not sacred — a word spell check is perfectly happy to accept — since spell check is just a machine and not a human being who knows the difference.

If the Tom Franklin novel, which is really worth reading despite the two little typos, is about relationships between men, then the book we just finished for the book discussion at Floyd Memorial Library, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, also set in Mississippi, is about the relationships between women. “The Help,” which takes place in the 1960s, is the story of an awkward young white woman who wants to be a writer. She interviews and writes the stories of some of the black maids she knows because they are the maids of her friends and her mother’s friends in middle-class Jackson. While the civil rights movement is starting to be heard from around the United States, the white women of Jackson play bridge and decide that they must all put separate toilets in their houses for the help to use, because these black women who cook their food and care for their children should not sit on the same toilets that white people use.

“The Help” was on best seller lists for over a year, has sold over three million copies, has been published in 37 countries, and is soon to be released as a Hollywood movie.

Most of the readers in our book discussion group loved the book. What’s not to love? It has great characters, pathos, humor and that great southern way with language. There was the usual bit of controversy, and even an abortive lawsuit, having to do with whether the story was fiction, as purported, or the true story of a black maid with a similar name to one of the main characters. But really there is some kind of meta-fiction going on here about a white woman writer writing about a white woman writer who is writing about black women’s lives and it all works out pretty well in the book, so why not in real life? If the book helps people to examine, discuss and understand our country’s not-so-distant past, that’s a good thing.

George Orwell said, “Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.” After being rejected by 45 agents, “The Help” was edited and published by Amy Einhorn, an imprint of Putnam under the Penguin umbrella. Amy Einhorn says she tries to hit the sweet spot between literary and commercial: intelligent writing with a strong narrative and great storytelling. She sounds like a good editor.

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

07/06/11 2:27pm

I finally have an acceptable reason to dislike Philip Roth. I read “Portnoy’s Complaint” when I was a kid, because we all did, snickering at the “dirty” parts. There were interesting stories in “Goodbye, Columbus,” but I quickly tired of the later Zuckerman novels, and I don’t think it’s quite sporting for a novelist to engage his ex-wife in a public war of words as he did against the actress Claire Bloom, because the use of words is his profession, while hers is to say the words of others.

But now he has declared, in an interview with The Financial Times of London, “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. Why? I don’t know. I wised up.”

What does he mean that he wised up? He is now so wise that nobody else’s engagement with the craft that he has been practicing for 50 years is of any interest to him? People are allowed to limit their reading to what truly engages them, but if a man makes his living writing fiction, it seems the height of arrogance to not read it anymore.

England can give him their Man Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Literature and it won’t change my mind; I don’t like him and I won’t read his fiction.

So what fiction titles are going to be read this summer by interested and interesting people? Ann Patchett has a new novel, “State of Wonder,” that takes place in the Amazon jungle and in the world of pharmaceutical science, both extremely dangerous venues. Jean Auel has finally published “The Land of Painted Caves,” the long-awaited sixth and final book of the series “Earth’s Children” that started with “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” It hasn’t been getting unqualified raves from reviewers, but the faithful readers who slogged through the first five books will want to read this one regardless.

Kate Atkinson has a new novel, “Started Early, Took My Dog,” which continues with the exploits of former detective Jackson Brodie. Her books are genre-bending feats of literature that play with the conventions of murder mysteries or thrillers, neither condescending to them nor wholly being subsumed by them.

A first novel garnering a lot of favorable buzz is “Vaclav & Lena” by Haley Tanner. It takes place in Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community and involves young love and magic.

Then there’s “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain, which seems to be riding the same wave of zeitgeist nostalgia as Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris.” “The Paris Wife” is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, and features all those madcap American expatriates we meet in Woody Allen’s movie. Those characters also appear in two big, new nonfiction books that are flying off the shelves: David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” and “Americans in Paris” by Charles Glass.

I’m not sure I accept the idea of imagining, in a novel, a real person whose children or grandchildren are still around, but authors are definitely doing it. A few years ago there was ‘Loving Frank,’ Nancy Horner’s novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, which was well written but seemed to me like a violation of some sort. The Woody Allen film is delightful and obviously a fantasy, but these novels tread some boundary between fiction and nonfiction that troubles my librarian soul. However, it seems clear that this summer, when you’re not lolling in the hammock with one of these books, you should be learning to Charleston, having your hair bobbed or drinking absinthe while singing jazz in French. You’ve got to get with the zeitgeist, mon ami, and this season it is Paris in the ’20s.

More summer books for nonfiction lovers might include “Bossypants” by Tina Fey, a really, really funny woman. Sarah Vowell isn’t funny in the same way, but her new book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” is an idiosyncratic take on the history of Hawaii.

Summer vacations used to mean road trips, but now that we can’t afford the gas we could just read “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway” by the aptly named Earl Swift. While we’re thinking about gas and oil, let’s get busy with Carl Safina’s latest book, “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Blowout.” Mr. Safina is a neighbor, an East Ender whose previous books — “Song for the Blue Ocean,” “Eye of the Albatross,” “Voyage of the Turtle” and “The View from Lazy Point” — have won various honors and gotten him named one of the 100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century.

Summer is all about nature, which makes me think of Henry David Thoreau. There are some wonderful programs and exhibits at the North Fork Audubon Society’s Red House Nature Center in Greenport that are based on the writings of that amazing American writer. Thoreau’s cantankerous Yankee spirit was echoing in my head when I started reading “Tinkers” by Paul Harding.

“Tinkers” is a small book, a first novel by a former rock drummer. It hasn’t much of a plot or any suspense. The first sentence reads, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” and then the rest of the book, set in Maine, is his dying and his hallucinating. There are Indians, a nameless pond, a donkey named Prince Edward, a hermit, a tinker, a peripheral connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne and many, many clocks measuring time that is no longer linear for the dying man nor for the reader of this beautiful book. Maybe Americans can be transcendentalists.

Maybe reading fiction is how we can “wise up.”

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

06/05/11 11:29am

Events pile up and tend to obliterate each other as time passes. There was a huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan and yet now that Bin Laden has been killed, the Mississippi flooded, record-breaking tornadoes suffered and sharks seen at local beaches, the news cycle has mostly forgotten Japan. Local libraries and schools were inspired by Southold resident Sonomi Obinata to make thousands of origami cranes to help the tsunami victims, but now we are focused on Little League games, the annual Relay for Life event and waiting for the next inevitable disaster, natural or otherwise. This is a useful mechanism for emotional survival. We have to forget and move on. But just as we are all plugged into the latest breaking news, that story is obliterating the news from before.

Last month our book discussion group was reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’ by Haruki Murakami, which seemed like an inspired choice because of the world’s greater sensitivity toward Japan in the wake of its multiple disasters. Kafka means crow in Czech and the first chapter is a sort of conversation between a 15-year-old boy who is running away from home and his alter ego, Crow, who tells him he has to become “the toughest 15-year-old on the planet.” In some ways it is a conventional bildungsroman about a young person venturing out into the world and growing up. In other ways it is a surreal collage of Shinto religion, the Oedipus myth and Hegelian dialectics populated by a transgendered person, talking cats (and a man who can talk back to them), a character named Johnnie Walker and another named Colonel Sanders.

Murakami is one of the world’s greatest living novelists, according to many critics, and has won numerous prizes and been translated into many languages. He writes in Japanese and is then translated into English, but his English must be pretty good, since he himself translates various writers into Japanese, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, Ursula LeGuin and Grace Paley. He has written many other novels, short stories and even works of nonfiction, most recently “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” about his training and competing in marathons. His first work of nonfiction, “Underground,” was written in 1998 after Japan was shaken by the Kobe earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack.

“Kafka on the Shore” was such a terrific book that I find myself taking a short fiction break. I am slowly working on ‘Fidelity,’ a book of the wonderful Wendell Berry’s short stories, and looking forward to our next book discussion choice, ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding. Meanwhile I am deep into two nonfiction titles of enormous interest. One is an advance reading copy by Kathleen Sharp called ‘Blood Feud: The Man Who Blew the Whistle on One of the Deadliest Prescription Drugs Ever.’ It starts with a gruesomely detailed description of a man who thought he was going to recover from cancer. Before going home from his chemo treatment to celebrate with his wife and children, he was given a shot of Procrit. The story of Procrit, how and why it was developed, and the rivalries between Amgen, Ortho and Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical companies are detailed through the life of salesman Mark Duxbury. The weakness of the regulators and the vulnerability of patients, doctors, hospitals and administrators, scientists, salespeople — all of us — makes for a riveting read.

The other book is ‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts’ by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, subtitled “What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire.” The authors have leapfrogged light years beyond Kinsey to study the secret sexual behavior of more than a hundred million men and women around the world, not by running university psychology experiments on people who are “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), but by examining what regular people do on the Internet.

The Internet, where people really think they are anonymous, is the world’s largest experiment on human behavior. The authors analyzed a billion web searches, a million websites, a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, millions of personal ads and tens of thousands of digitized romance novels. One data set the authors used was a 2006 AOL release of the search histories for 657,426 different people over three months. The release was a public relations disaster for AOL and named one of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business.” Even though users’ names were not included, it was viewed as an egregious violation of privacy, but has proved a gold mine for researchers.

This book is not for the prudish. I have already learned a new word. Kinks are unusual sexual interests and squicks are unusual sexual interests that gross you out. It can also be used as a verb. Things in this book can squick you out. I may end up with a squicky reaction to these two male writers who seem to be moving toward equating romance writing for females with visual porn for males. But meantime I am enjoying finding out all sorts of arcane information, not all suitable for publication in a family newspaper, but all true, or at least painstakingly researched with footnotes to back it up.

And who knows, it may inspire me to read some romance novels.

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

05/09/11 8:57am

Books may be full of ideas, imagination, metaphors, fantasies and other such metaphysicalities, but they are also physical objects with a certain weight and heft to them. That becomes extremely clear when you are moving 25,000 of them from one place to another. Not me, all by myself, but a whole team of movers who came to Floyd Memorial Library. They took all the reference and nonfiction books off the shelves upstairs and moved them down to the shelves where the fiction used to live, meanwhile moving the fiction up.

It was a daunting proposition. We had made maps and plans and counted shelves and volumes. Then these enormous gentle men came and, while joking with each other, slowly, ponderously marched wooden shelving bins on wheels up and down the aisles, unshelving and then reshelving all those precious, beautiful, heavy books.

The trick is that each book needs to be in the place where it belongs so it can be found by readers. A misplaced book is as gone as a stolen book or an unreturned book or a book dropped in the bathtub. Libraries shelve their books by systems and if you understand the system and the book is shelved correctly, according to the rules of the system, then you should be able to find it.

It doesn’t really matter what the system is, as long as it works. Most academic libraries use the Library of Congress system and most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal system. There is a movement toward getting rid of Dewey and moving toward a word-based system, more like the one bookstores use. Dewey was invented and adopted because it was supposed to be simpler and more user-friendly than the alternatives at the time, but times have changed. It seems needlessly complicated to have to look up and remember a number like 641.5636 when you want a vegetarian cookbook, instead of walking down an aisle labeled cookbooks and finding a sign that says “vegetarian” next to related books that are shelved alphabetically by title.

That may be in our future; meanwhile the books all need to be housed according to their old addresses so they can be found. They need to be found so they can move and circulate, not only to local library patrons but all around Suffolk County and all around New York State and, theoretically, all around the United States at least, if not the world.

So, if the average book weighs 12 ounces and we just moved 25,000 of them, that was about nine-and-a-half tons of moving literature. No wonder I’m exhausted. All I want to do is curl up, maybe on a lounge chair out in the garden now that we have spring sunshine, tulips and budding lilacs. I would bring the book I’m reading now, which is not an average book weighing 12 ounces. Oh no. ‘A Storm of Swords’ by George R.R. Martin probably weighs about two or three pounds. Including the appendices, it has 973 pages. It is Book Three of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ which started with ‘A Game of Thrones’ and will end eventually with ‘A Dance of Dragons.’

I am totally addicted to this epic fantasy series after fending it off for a few years. I actually had breakfast with Mr. Martin at a conference of some sort — me and George and 50 or so other authors and librarians. I found him funny and charming and he’d had written a book in which one of the major characters was named Bran, the same unusual name I had given my son. So I accepted the free paperback copy of “A Game of Thrones” and gave it to my son, who loved it.

I like fantasy as a genre, when I am in the mood and when it is good. Martin is being called the American Tolkien (did you get the echo of the double Rs?) and though his work is different from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it is no less compelling. My favorite writer in the fantasy genre is Ursula Le Guin, who has written six novels about “Earthsea,” each much slenderer than the epics noted above, but just as weighty and important in exploring the real subject of fantasy epics: good and evil. Not a simple subject, and these are not simple books.

In earlier years, Martin worked as a television writer on the remake of “The Twilight Zone” and a “Beauty and the Beast” series, so it’s not surprising that “The Game of Thrones” is being made into a TV series by HBO, 10 hour-long shows, aired weekly. I’m sure I will end up watching it eventually, but I know it won’t be the same as the hours I’m spending happily immersed in these gigantic, complicated, heavy books. Heavy both metaphysically and physically.

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

04/08/11 11:01am

“Go west, young man!” said Horace Greeley, eastern newspaperman. It was the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and supposedly good advice, particularly for young men. So off they went, two college friends from Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister, to discover and invent the American West. Teddy was the Rough Rider who became president and Owen Wister wrote a novel, ‘The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains,’ that still defines the masculine code of the cowboy.

“The Virginian” started as a series of letters that the homesick Owen was writing to his beloved mother. He was traveling in the West to recuperate from an unspecified illness he suffered after his father made him return from his musical studies in Paris to work as a bank clerk in New York. Apparently the fact that Franz Liszt thought the boy had talent did not impress Dr. Wister.

When Owen came back East to study law (another of his father’s failed attempts to make him a respectable breadwinner) he reworked some of the letters into publishable vignettes. Before he actually had to start practicing law, he strung a number of the vignettes together into a sprawling novel that features an unnamed tenderfoot narrator telling the story of an unnamed young man from Virginia who lynches cattle rustlers, wins the love of a blonde schoolmarm and outdraws the chief villain in a gunslinging duel.

The novel, dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, was published in 1902 and reprinted 14 times in eight months. It has been the basis for at least five movies, the most famous version starring Gary Cooper in 1929, and a television series with Doug McClure. Owen Wister never had to clerk or practice law after the book came out.

Readers in Floyd Memorial Library’s book discussion group loved “The Virginian.” Mainly they admired the hero and his uncompromising moral sense. Only I was outraged by the denouement, when the heroine’s moral stance is thoroughly compromised. That’s just my feminist nit-picking, I suppose, and my feeling that the writing is dated — by that I mean that there is a measure of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and pro-plutocrat sentiment that has to be “understood” because of how long ago the book was written — was generally dismissed as not germane. I admit that some of the stories, like the baby switching, are really funny, some of the characters memorable, and some of the descriptions of the landscape quite lovely, but I am not an uncritical fan of this particular Horseman of the Plains. I think I might like the Gary Cooper version better.

Meanwhile, I actually went west, myself, all the way to Los Angeles, where I had never been before. I know Gertrude Stein was referring to another part of California when she said “there is no there there,” but I think it’s a perfect way to understand L.A.

While I was there, I went to a wonderful bookstore called Book Soup and heard Thelma Adams reading from her debut novel, ‘Playdate.’ This is a novel of the contemporary but no less dangerous West. Encinitas, a suburb of San Diego, is being threatened by raging wildfires fanned by the Santa Ana winds, while the children of two different families are trying to figure out their places in the social order, given that some of their parents are sleeping with more than each other.

This is a new and different way of looking at Western masculinity, from the standpoint of a stay-at-home house-husband who is practicing tantric-yoga sex with a neighbor whose husband is busy helping the house-husband’s entrepreneurial wife with a franchise idea worth millions of dollars. This novel has parts that are sidesplittingly funny, memorable characters and great descriptions of the weather and landscape, but it is definitely not dated, nor does it describe a West that I would want to inhabit any more than Owen Wister’s version.

Thelma Adams has been a film critic for many years, first at the New York Post and since 2000 at US Weekly, and her writing is witty, sexy and sharp as a tack. She grew up near Encinitas, but has long been relocated to the relative sanity and safety of the East Coast.

The East Coast, in particular Sag Harbor, is the setting of the 2011 Long Island Reads selection. The title is ‘Sag Harbor,’ the author is Colson Whitehead, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a fine read, as are ‘The Janus Stone: A Ruth Galloway Mystery’ by Elly Griffiths and ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins, which is the first book in a trilogy aimed at young adults. I can’t wait to read the next two installments: ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay.’ “The Hunger Games” is soon to be a movie, made, no doubt, in the arid, windy canyons of greater Los Angeles.    

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

03/14/11 11:26am

I am part of “Imaginative Worlds,” a new book group at Floyd Memorial Library that consists of children who are 9 to 11 years old and their grown-ups, usually mothers. We meet every two weeks at the library and have a discussion led by librarian Mira Dougherty-Johnson and scholar Timothy Clayton Wood. This is funded in part by a grant from the New York State Council for the Humanities. Last week was the first session and we started with the picture book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak, which I’ve read before and written about before in this column. One of the marks of a really terrific book is that each time you reread it and each time you really listen to someone else talking about the book, you learn new things.

All of us were a little shy with each other at first, but our fearless leaders thought of two great icebreakers to get us more comfortable. First we were paired up with a new person from the opposite age group and we had to tell that person a true story from our childhood in which we did something naughty and were caught and reprimanded or punished. Then we had to listen very hard to our new partner’s true crime and punishment story. Then we went around the table introducing our new partner and telling their story. We were each in turn introduced to the group by our partner telling our story. It was a great way to get to know people very quickly and it was based on our book’s plot that has the hero, Max, acting like “a wild thing” and sent to his room without any supper.

Next, all the grown-ups went to one side of the room while the children went to the other so each group could prepare to act out the story for the other. The children made a boat out of two folding chairs for Max to sail “off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” The grown-ups were not so foolhardy, inventive or small enough, but both groups managed the playacting very well, especially the wild rumpus.

We will be reading some other classics of imaginative children’s literature: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ by Norton Juster, as well as newer titles, ‘Tuesday’ by David Wiesner and ‘The Magician’s Elephant’ by Kate Di Camillo. I can’t wait to hear what other people think of them and what new things I will learn by rereading, by listening and by using my imagination.

One of the last books I read was ‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss, who is also getting a lot of attention for her most recent book, ‘The Great House.’ She is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, whose book ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ was one of the library’s book discussion choices of a few years back. The two authors are young, attractive, talented and doing very well economically even in these parlous times, even in the book industry whose death the gloom-and-doomers are bewailing. They just bought a bigger brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to house their growing family and they keep writing terrific books that people want to publish, read and lavish critical praise on.

Some readers in our group found the multiple voices and nonlinear flow of “The History of Love” to be confusing, but others were enchanted and moved by its cleverness and humor, the books within the book and the sheer bravado of the beautiful writing. Nicole Krauss, like her husband, is of the generation whose grandparents were affected by the Holocaust and the Second World War. The books that are being written by this grandchildren generation are different from the books written by the children. The history is farther away, but still not forgotten.

Here is a sample of the voice of one of the protagonists, octogenarian locksmith Leopold Gursky, who long ago had written a book called “The History of Love”:

“Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible …  Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question that he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

The other main character is a 12-year-old girl, Alma, so named by her mother “after every girl in a book my father gave her called “The History of Love.” Which is, of course, the book written decades before by Leopold Gursky. The story ends with these two people meeting each other, but in the middle of the story we are transported back and forth in time, between Europe, South America and New York, and transported by a poetic imagination that is luminous and all-encompassing.

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

02/15/11 10:45am

Gloom and doom, woe is us, with general wailing and bemoaning (it is winter, after all) the financial difficulties of Borders bookstores. There was gnashing of teeth and groaning when Amazon said it sold more e-books than paperbacks. Pessimistic bibliophiles everywhere are predicting, for the umpteenth time, the death of books, the end of publishing and the shriveling away of libraries. And then they are sensibly curling up by a cozy fire and reading another nice new book.

But maybe in between reading all those novels they should stop and read the Feb. 7  article in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called “Some Good News from the World of Books.” McSweeney’s is a project of the author Dave Eggers, whose first novel, ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ was published to great acclaim in 2000. Eggers’ novel ‘What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng’ was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and in 2009 he published ‘Zeitoun,’ a nonfiction book that tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the Syrian-American owner of a painting and contracting company in New Orleans who rode out Hurricane Katrina in his home and then traveled the flooded city in a secondhand canoe rescuing neighbors, caring for abandoned pets and distributing fresh water.

Eggers is a really interesting guy as well as being a terrific writer. He and his wife, author Vendela Vida, have started a nationwide nonprofit corporation called 826 Valencia, dedicated to teaching creative writing to children and teenagers. He is a publisher as well as a writer, and wins cash prizes — which he promptly donates to good causes — for his writing and for his humanitarian work. So when he embarks on a multi-part article that says there is good news about books, we should probably stop weeping and wailing for a moment and pay attention.

Eggers writes: “The good news is that there isn’t as much bad news as popularly assumed. In fact, almost all of the news is good, and most of it is very good. Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high. The good news goes on and on.

“But still, perceptions persist that in a few years there will be no books printed on paper. That e-readers will take over the industry, and perhaps soon after, some other trend will kill books dead.”

The article goes on to illustrate, with lots of facts and figures from the last few years, that even as we struggle with recession, we are still a more literate, more book-buying and more library-using people than ever before. Amazon may have sold more e-books than paperbacks, but that’s because it is an online resource that, of course, skews toward electronic delivery. Overall, e-books are only 8 to 10 per cent of the overall book market. Some chain bookstores may have money woes, but publishing is a healthy industry and books as physical objects are not going away.

Nor, despite the ridiculous notions of some people, are we moving into a world in which everybody can afford and wishes to use home computers for all their informational, cultural and recreational needs. Librarians are still the guides and keepers of credible information, whether that information has been downloaded, scanned or printed, and libraries are vital centers of community activity. People know that and they go to their libraries. A June 2010 report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services shows that per capita, overall library visitation is up 20 percent over the last 10 years. According to the American Library Association, 68 percent of American adults held a library card in 2009, the greatest number since they began keeping track of library card usage in 1990.

So there is plenty of good news on the book front and anyway, spring is just around the corner. The Floyd Memorial Library book discussion for this month is about the aforementioned “Zeitoun.” We usually read fiction, but an occasional nonfiction book is often a welcome diversion.

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

01/17/11 9:39am

Start with an image of a single mother on welfare walking around Edinburgh, pushing a pram until her baby daughter falls asleep, then ducking into the nearest café to work on writing her novel for the length of the nap. Jump to Orlando, Fla., where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is part of Universal Studio’s amusement park. Thousands of visitors from all over the world come to drink butter beer on the cobbled streets of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. It is the kind of story that would be hard to make up, even if one were as gifted a storyteller as J.K. Rowling, the aforementioned young woman, the author of the Harry Potter books, and the reason I found myself in Florida despite my lifelong aversion to even the idea of an amusement park.

My critics would suggest it is intellectual snobbery that inures me to the charms of amusement parks, but may I add, in my own defense, that it is also a deep-seated physical cowardice that has always made me uninterested in speed. I prefer cross-country to downhill skiing, figure to speed skating, walking to running, and the one and only time I was stopped by the police while driving a car, it was because my excessive slowness on a mountain road caused a considerable backup behind me.

There may be some vestigial Calvinism involved, too, but I have never needed a whole park or an industrial complex or lots of expensive equipment to be amused. I like watching people, reading books and my own company just fine. Or sometimes a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou beside me, singing in the wilderness … whichever.

On the other hand, J.K. Rowling invented butter beer when she wrote about it, and all of us imagined it when we read about it, but it’s a pretty amazing thing that, thanks to all sorts of young marketing geniuses, people can sit in the Three Broomsticks Pub and actually drink it. It can’t be bottled and exported because it would explode, so you have to go to Orlando to try it. It is a two-step pour: A clear, golden, carbonated liquid, a bit like cream soda only more caramel-like and slightly brighter tasting, comes from a keg, then a head is added from a separate tap that is a sweet, foamy, whipped-cream-type concoction. Not exactly my favorite type of libation, but my 8-year-old traveling companion adored it, and I liked the way something that was imagined became real, and not just the butter beer.

There was also Honeydukes Sweetshop, which sells Chocolate Frogs, Liquorice Wands, Pepper Imps, Chocoballs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, among other delights. The Ministry of Magic has not yet licensed Fizzing Whizzbees, Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, Toothflossing Stringmints, Ice Mice, Cockroach Clusters, Jelly Slugs, Blood Lollipops, Acid Pops and Sugar Quills, but it’s early days yet. Wizarding World only opened in August 2010.

At Hogwarts School, we walked through hallways with framed pictures that were conversing with each other and through classrooms like the herbology greenhouse and a room where a surprisingly lifelike 3-D projection of Dumbledore addressed us. Then Harry himself, with Hermione and Ron, suddenly appeared out of the folds of the Invisibility Cloak and urged us on to the next room while Hermione cast a spell that made it snow on us.

Next was the part that was like a roller-coaster ride, but with projections and computer-animated stuff. You were strapped into a seat and it was dark and everything was lurching, often with the impression of great speed and free-falling through space. But I was distracted by the Dementors and giant spiders, the quidditch game we were playing and the whomping willow tree, so I didn’t really get too scared. And then, of course, you exit through the gift shop.

There were Japanese families, some grandparents from France with their bespectacled Harryish grandson, every sort of American, all of us shaken and stirred and set down in a crowded store to try to memorialize the experience we’d just had with some sort of commodity we could buy. An interesting impossibility that nets the commercial Harry Potter empire lots and lots of money.

The story starts with a lack of money and time even, but plenty of talent, determination and luck. Seven books and seven movies later, at the end of the story, there’s lots and lots of money for J.K. Rowling, who does a lot of quiet philanthropy, and for the publishers and film studios, amusement parks and toy licensees. But in the middle of the story there were simply the books and the readers. The decision to publish Rowling’s first book apparently owes much to Alice Newton, the 8-year-old daughter of British publisher Bloomsbury’s chairman, who was given the first chapter to review by her father and immediately demanded the next. Although Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book, they advised Rowling to get a day job, since she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Her publishers also demanded that she use two initials, rather than her full name, fearing that their target audience of young boys might not want to read a book written by a woman.

The first book was published in Britain as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and in the United States as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and found its readers in both places. Not all the people enjoying butter beer and rides had read all of the books (unlike my traveling companion and myself), but the books had to exist before the rest of the magic could happen. And the books started simply, as books often do, with a person stealing a bit of time from the rest of her life to imagine and write down what she imagines.

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

11/15/10 3:17pm

As a child, I loved to read and was often praised for being an avid reader, and yet I was also often admonished for reading too much. I was always being told to stop reading and play with my little sister and brother; stop reading and go outside and get some fresh air and exercise; stop reading and come to the table to eat — no you may NOT read at the table; stop reading and go to sleep. First grown-ups want you to learn to read, and then they get in your face telling you when it’s OK to do it.
The other morning, I found myself being really annoying to a grandchild who was reading when I was trying to get him and his little brother to school on time. When I heard my own voice, I cringed and then apologized. Luckily, I don’t think I inflicted too much psychic damage. He was too busy reading to have really registered either the annoying part or the apology.
That is one of the ways reading works in families. The readers might physically inhabit the same space as the rest of the family, but they’re not really there. They are in the space of the story. They prefer the company of some made-up characters to yours. You can have hurt feelings if you want, but it probably won’t change anything. Readers negotiate the shoals of family life with an air of preoccupation and an escape clause. They can always pick up their book and disappear.
One reason we want children to learn how to read is so they’ll leave us alone. The other night, I was explaining to a young friend that since I had read him Anne Rockwell’s ‘At the Firehouse’ two times in a row, now he could sit on my lap and turn the pages quietly all by himself while I talked to his mother for a few minutes. That way he’d be reading to himself like a big boy by looking at the pictures and remembering the story in his head. He fell for this ruse hook, line and sinker and we grown-ups had a few moments of uninterrupted conversation. It was sweet, but of course, in a few years, he will be busy actually reading while we grown-ups are berating or cajoling him to talk to us, finish his dinner, pay attention, tie his shoes. He will have an air of preoccupation and an escape clause.
Reading with two other children on a rainy November afternoon went from the ridiculous to the sublime. First my granddaughter read aloud to me and her younger brother. She read most of Dav Pilkey’s ‘Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future’ and then, because it was so terrific and I wanted to know what was going to happen next, I read the rest. Dav Pilkey is most famous for the “Captain Underpants” series, which put him right up there on lists with Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling, Maya Angelou, Stephen King and Maurice Sendak.
Pilkey is a bit like Dr. Seuss on Ritalin, with the grosser body fixations of the average 6-year-old. Each chapter has at least one “Flip-o-rama” section, which is a low-tech version of a flip book in which two pages, flipped quickly, supposedly give the illusion of action. Cavemen punch each other, things explode, a baby dinosaur has motion sickness. While I was reading aloud, both children worked on making their own Flip-o-rama drawings.
Then we all looked at a huge new art history book, ‘30,000 Years of Art: The Story of Human Creativity Across Time and Space,’ which debunks art historical classifications and hierarchies by presenting 1,000 masterworks of art in simple chronological order. It demonstrates what was being created all over the earth at the same time. Each work of art is on its own page, each is given equal weight. You find the Venus de Milo next to a mural from the Mayan civilization and Velasquez’ Las Meniñas next to a painting from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, an Indian jade wine cup, a ritual Nepalese plaque, a Korean portrait and Vermeer’s milkmaid. We made games of guessing what countries things were from by covering up the caption before turning the page (sort of the obverse of Flip-o-rama) and guessing what things were used for, or just saying which of two facing images we liked better — sublime games and a very sociable way of interacting with books and family members simultaneously.
Two books I read all by my unsociable self in the last few weeks both were set in Asia. Amy Tan’s ‘Saving Fish from Drowning’ is a long, ambitious book somewhat inspired by Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in that it has 12 travelers embarked on a kind of contemporary spiritual pilgrimage. The all-knowing narrator is the unquiet ghost of the woman who had organized and was supposed to lead the trip to China and Burma, until her untimely demise.
At first, the book seems slow, because there are so many characters and a bit of explication is required to get all the narrative machinery set up, but when, having been promised a Christmas surprise, all but one of the tourists go off across a Burmese lake in boats with some tribesmen they know nothing about, things start happening fast. It is Tan’s skill that the things that happen can be very funny and at the same time unbearably sad. The privileged American tourists and the politically repressed tribal people of Burma have a perfect storm of mutual miscommunication, with some unexpected consequences.
‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ by David Mitchell is a wonderful, wonderful book. It takes place on the tiny man-made island of Dejima, toehold of the Dutch East India Company, in the harbor of Nagasaki in Japan in the late 1700s. I loved spending my time in the company of the characters — red-haired Jacob De Zoet, an ambitious but honest clerk; Orito Aibigawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai and a talented midwife; Dr. Marinus, misanthropic healer, teacher and musician; Abbot Enomoto, ageless evil incarnate; and Ogawa Uzaemon, heroic translator. I love a novel with a historical setting so unknown and exotic as to afford me a complete escape from my usual world. It’s not that my usual world isn’t a glorious place, but I have this habit of escaping, and why not escape to somewhere very, very far away?

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

09/23/10 12:00am

Reading is actually some kind of miracle. I am watching one of my grandsons in the process of learning how to do it all by himself and I am awed. Most of us have probably forgotten the moment when it all clicked into place, because it isn’t really one big moment, it’s a lot of little moments, all adding up together.

We are reading the Bob Books, an early-learning series with three-letter words. The characters named Dot, Mac, Mat and Sam interact with hats, cats, mats, bags and dogs. The first challenge is to make the letter sounds and then run them together into a recognizable word. The second is to remember the sound from the beginning of the word when you are looking at the end of it. Plus you have to start on the top left and move to the right. It’s all pretty arbitrary and whimsical.

Nobody is born being able to read. It is a lengthy process during which certain synapses are connecting, certain parts of the brain lighting up. The school year has started up and this very important work is going on right now in the classrooms, the teachers and students engaged in this enormous work of achieving literacy. We should all cross our fingers and send good karmic energy toward all those classrooms and libraries where the work is being done, the miracle happening.

I have also had the experience of knowing two older people who had minor strokes that left them unable to read. Both of these people recovered well in many other aspects, hale and hearty and vital as ever and just as intelligent, but inexplicably unable to decipher the written word any more. The brain connections formed when they were children learning to read are just gone, unraveled, useless. They are back to that preliterate stage in which words are just meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper. That is truly frustrating for college educated, professional people who have always assumed their ability to read would stay with them even in old age and illness.

I think we all tend to assume we will hold on to this skill in our old age, but I have been working with older people in the community and I am beginning to see how old age, pain, loss of visual acuity and even arthritic hands can all interfere with people’s enjoyment of reading. Some are able to transfer their interest in literature to listening to books, but for some others, hearing may be a problem or they just don’t enjoy listening to books. I have also watched as some older people started feeling that a book they were reading, say for a book discussion group, was not of their generation, not interesting to them, had nothing to say to them. When someone dislikes all the books they read for one reason or another, the enjoyment of reading diminishes further.

This miracle of being literate is something we shouldn’t take for granted, and it may not last forever. Don’t wait too long to read the books you want to read, because who knows if you’ll be able to? Thank your parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, librarians and favorite authors for the parts they played in making you a book lover. Don’t forget to read to children whenever you have the opportunity. Wherever they are in the process of deciphering meaning from squiggles, the voice of a grown-up reading to them is an integral piece of that puzzle. Be part of the miracle.


Meanwhile, everybody is rushing to read Jonathan Franzen’s new book, ‘Freedom,’ and he is doing all the radio talk shows. He actually sounds nicer and more intelligent and interesting than I thought he would from my aborted reading of his last big novel, “The Corrections,” which I actually hated enough to not finish. I hardly ever do that. I suppose I ought to take a deep breath, abandon my prejudices and dive in, willing myself to be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps “Freedom” is “a masterpiece of American fiction…,” which is what the reviewer Sam Tanenhaus said on the front page of the Aug. 29 New York Times Book Review section.

At the end of his review he says, “Like all great novels, ‘Freedom’ does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.” Wow. It would be a shame to miss something like that and besides, what if my not liking it is a sign that I’ve started on the downward literacy curve? No, no, a thousand times, no. I will try again, just like the millions of 5- and 6-year-olds who are busily trying to make sense of the written word.

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