Monday Miscellany

Athena’s Library, The Quirky Pillar Of Providence

NPR offers a look at the Providence Athenaeum in Providence, RI, USA:

With a bit of reverence, librarians carefully wind an antique library clock near the circulation desk in a temple of learning called the Providence Athenaeum.

This is one of the oldest libraries in the United States, a 19th-century library with the soul of a 21st-century rave party. In fact, the Rhode Island institution has been called a national model for civic engagement.

Opened in 1838, the Athenaeum sits upon a plinth that gives the building the appearance of a temple. Inside, a bust of the goddess Athena overlooks visitors.

A hundred and 50 years ago, social libraries like the Athenaeum were all the rage. The concept of the Athenaeum, a member-supported library dedicated to social improvement, predated the modern public library as we know it. The Athenaeum is one of 17 remaining membership libraries.

The Athenaeum offers free programs every Friday night. Anyone, member or not, can browse through the building or attend a program. The institution has retained its original ambiance as a gathering place for families interested in literature and cultural events. It even still features a real card catalog.

How To Cure Reading Forgetfulness

How much do you remember about the books you read? I read a lot of mysteries, particularly series mysteries, and I usually can’t remember exactly what happened in each particular one. All the stories featuring the same character tend to coalesce.

Gabe Habash realized that he had the same problem:

when I think back to most of the books that I read last year, I come up with patches of the story (and, if I liked the book, usually patches of inner character workings), and a whole lot of fog.

Aside from putting an insidious terror in me, my memory’s failure made me consider how we pay attention and what we choose to pay attention to when we read. I’m not sure how much of a problem memory is for you out there, but it made me think, with my rickety brain, if tweaking a few reading variables might put a little grease in the old mental clockwork.

Analyzing his approach to reading led him to several realizations:

  1. The time it takes to read a book: He used to set a goal of a particular number of books to read in a given period of time. To achieve the goal he often read books too quickly to absorb them. Now he takes as much time as necessary with each book and doesn’t worry about the numbers.
  2. Reading more than one book at a time: Habash thinks that switching between a couple of different books keeps his mind fresh and allows him to concentrate more effectively on what he reads. The question of reading more than one book at a time periodically comes up in each of the book groups I’m involved in. The closest I’ve ever come to reading two books at once is reading one print book while having an audiobook that I listen to in the car and while doing household chores or exercising. Perhaps I should rethink this reading strategy.
  3. Keeping up with your “Favorite Lines” document:

In 2008, I was reading Blood Meridian and I got to the long passage in chapter 11 in which the Judge tells a story about the harnessmaker welcoming a traveler into his home, seeming to repent and becoming a brother to his fellow men, and then killing that man out by the road and stealing his money. I opened a new Word document and copied out the whole little story. Since then, I have a never-ending document in which I retype passages and lines that I like whenever I come upon them. I underline in books I read, so I save the document for only the best of the best. A lot of lines from A Sport and a Pastime are in that document, as is the entirety of “The Symphony” chapter from Moby-Dick, that perfect self-contained piece of writing that is one of the very best things I’ve ever read.

I don’t have a “favorite lines” document, but I have been keeping track of my reading in a database since 1991. (And I’ve been able to maintain that database through software updates and changes over the years. I even weathered the switch from Windows PC to Mac.) I find that when I take the time to write some notes and copy favorite passages, I remember more about the book later on. But I must admit I don’t always take the time necessary to do this. Sometimes I just record the book’s publication information and the date on which I finished reading it so that I can dive right into my next book.

Be sure to look through the comments beneath this article. I particularly liked this one:

Why would you want to remember everything that you read? I’m a re-reader. Often I find a book is better the second (third, fourth) time around. Because I don’t remember everything, I’m free to enjoy the unfolding of the narrative again. And when I run across one of those Favorite Lines, I stop and savor.

How about you? Do you suffer from reading forgetfulness? And if you do, do you do anything to counteract it?

America’s Major Magazines Still Aren’t Publishing Stories By Women

Vida, an organization devoted to examination and discussion of the roles women play in literature, has released its latest survey of the articles and reviews published by women in major magazines in 2011, and the results aren’t encouraging.

On AlterNet Alyssa Rosenberg comments on this survey, which analyzed work published by the following magazines:

  • The Atlantic
  • Boston Review
  • Harper’s
  • London Review of Books
  • The New Republic
  • New York Review of Books
  • New Yorker
  • New York Times Book Review
  • The Nation

“Granta’s the only publication that’s close to parity—in fact, it published slightly more pieces by women than by men, 34 to 30.”

Here’s Rosenberg’s response to the situation:

the only answer here is not that these publications can’t find women. It’s that they don’t really care if they do or not. These numbers, and the annual discussion of them, seem to have succeeded in making a lot of female journalists and readers angry and frustrated, but they don’t appear to have made editors feel ashamed, much less called to action. And I’m not quite sure what it would take to persuade them to shake off their lethargy and acceptance of the status quo, which really means accepting sexism. Do we really have to educate editors that women can bring new perspectives on major stories, and not just to stories about living as a single woman or going through a divorce?

Life of a ‘Salesman’: An Online Discussion

The New York Times‘s Charles Isherwood will be paying attention to a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s play about Willy Loman:

For the next few weeks I’ll be leading an online discussion here about the high hopes and hard life of one of the American theater’s most famous characters. Willy Loman, and the play that immortalized him, Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic “Death of a Salesman,” are returning to Broadway in a new production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And Isherwood is asking readers to chime in on the discussion:

As is often the case with classic plays or novels we’ve lived with for most of our lives, “Death of a Salesman” can seem entirely different each time we renew our acquaintance with it. If your first exposure came in high school and you haven’t read or seen it since, you may be surprised at stylistic innovations that barely registered at the time. Pick it up and see if the same thing happens for you.

I last saw the play in 1999 when the touring company featuring Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman came to St. Louis. Since that time I’ve wondered if anyone could portray Willy any better than Dennehy did, but Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role is a tantalizing prospect. I can only hope that the company will go on tour and land here in my city.