Category Archives: Books

Rolling your own

A quick post to tide this blog over until I unpack from a long weekend jaunt…

Recently I went looking for a copy of a classic bit of literature which, while not terribly well known, surprised me at how unavailable it was. Only a few copies on Amazon or eBay, and at much higher prices than expected. You can get almost any classic book that’s in the public domain via Project Gutenberg or CCEL, but who wants to sit at a computer and read it?

On a whim, I downloaded the book text from Project Gutenberg, fed it into one of those online publishing-on-demand websites, and got a quote of $8, far cheaper than the $30-$100 being asked for commercially available copies. I’m probably the last person to figure this strategy out, but I rather like getting away with creating something physical (a book I can take with me anywhere) from the massive data dumps on the Internet.

Emergency laugh generator

I have a couple days off from work and since the weather is not cooperating, I’m getting started on painting my bedroom. This means moving bookcases and books around. I have a lot of books I don’t ever read and really don’t need, so I’m starting a donation box, which will probably sit in my cellar for a while. But I can’t bear to give away Barron’s Dictionary of Spanish Slang and Colloquial Expressions.

I was in need of a Spanish dictionary once and grabbed this innocent looking tome too because I thought it might be useful. It isn’t (not for me, anyway) but it’s one of the most unintentionally funny books I’ve ever come across. It appears to be a serious dictionary, but because every fourth or fifth entry has something to do with sex, drugs or bodily functions, I can’t open it without my eye falling on some bizarre example sentence that I can’t imagine ever needing to say in English, much less in Spanish. For example, page 198 teaches you to say in Castilian, “Three junkies died last night when their lab blew up.” Page 293: Nicaraguan for “Because of her bad mood, I believe that lady is on the rag.” Page 252: “A gang of hookers came down the street — of all colors, sizes, and, I suppose, prices.” And those are just the PG-13 rated ones.

A few times, I have found this book useful as an emergency laugh generator. Every time I think I’ve discovered the filthiest entry, I can open it to any random page and find something even more outrageous. Which is why it’s so funny, and why I’m never getting rid of it. (Although in more sober moments, I have to wonder what the author’s conception of Spanish-speaking people really is…)

My parents, my shelf

The other week, a discussion was going on Sean Kirst’s blog about parents and literacy. Literacy has been in the local news since Syracuse’s ProLiteracy International got a new president, David Harvey. (I’ve already linked to this great speech on Syracuse and literacy by Laurie Halse Anderson but am happy to do so again.)

Recently it’s been reported that American kids are reading less and less. My feeling about improving reading rates is that you can lead kids to books (Harry Potter et al), but that isn’t necessarily going to make them continue reading books into adulthood. I think researchers would probably agree that parental involvement is critical in instilling a love of reading… but I also think it has to go deeper than just accompanying kids to story hour at the library, or even reading to them aloud at bedtime. I think the parental library must be a critical part. That is to say, I believe that it’s being exposed to your parents’ books that seals the deal.

Reading is fundamental. But it’s also fundamentally weird. It’s bad enough that we seem to live in a culture these days where radical alone-time for kids (the time they need for reading) is discouraged in favor of collegiate resume-building. Even when I was growing up, “She’s always got her nose in a book” was not always a compliment; it was seen as slightly anti-social. Well, reading is a weird activity and there’s no way around it. No way (outside of childhood story hours) to make it communal. You may come together to discuss books in a circle, but nobody sits there reading them together. Reading is silent and secret by nature. It’s really the first potentially radical and independent and grownup activity a kid does. And I think there’s a critical phase in every young reader’s life where they put down their own childish books and investigate Mom’s and Dad’s books. (Or, ahem, magazines?) Without that moment — or if some other adult doesn’t hand them a book person-to-person — I don’t know if a young reader ever really becomes an adult reader.

My parents each had their own personal book collections — some of which was no doubt kept out of reach, but most of it was just sitting around freely available. No books were ever really suggested to me; I guess my parents just trusted me to take whatever plunge I wanted. There was no stage-managing. These books were full of things I didn’t understand. Some were inviting and others looked scary. Most of them I looked at, but a few of them I read or skimmed. Of the many books they had, only a tiny few made a lasting impression on me, or really opened up my world to new things. However, if they hadn’t had books lying around at all — if I hadn’t had anyone to model reading for me as an adult activity — I maybe wouldn’t value books as much as I do.

I don’t claim to have fully read or understood the books that belonged to my parents, although I did really love a few of them literally to pieces. It can be hard to communicate the impact of a book on a kid after so many years have passed, and they say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I took some of the actual books that belonged to my parents, which became part of my life (or at least, my consciousness), and photographed them as a small tribute. I have a new photoblog, and you can find the first short series of photos there, starting with just a few of my mother’s books. (Click “next” at the top to see the whole series.) I’ll continue with some of my father’s books, once I dig some more of them up.


Spinning off from my previous post about the economy, I’d like to recommend a terrific (not new, but new-ish) book I’ve just finished: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, by Alfred Lubrano. If you’re like me and you were the first generation of your family to go to college, you may find this book as dead-on as I did on the subjects of school, career and family relationships.

Lubrano takes a personal look at what it’s like for people who come from working-class backgrounds who are attempting to enter “the middle class” as we know it today (and failing, or succeeding, or — as the title suggests — remaining in limbo). For some reason, nobody in the mainstream media ever talks about this these days — I guess far fewer are considered “working class” any more, since a great many more people have access to financial aid and some sort of college opportunity. But for people of my generation, anyway, the conflicts described in this book are still a part of daily life. (Here’s one type of conflict I blogged about earlier.) I never thought of myself as being in the vanguard of a cultural front, but I recognized myself in nearly every page of this book. Much of this stuff is not a revelation to me now — I figured it out painfully since my college days — but boy, I sure wish I’d had this book when I graduated high school.

If the economy should happen to go south in a major way, I wonder if something like this will play out in reverse. What’s going to happen to all those second- and third-generation non-working-class kids — the ones who will be sandwiched between the expectations of their well-to-do parents and the realities of having to do service jobs? I really worry about these kids. They may well be just as clueless (in reverse) as the generation that Lubrano terms “Straddlers” (the ones who are confused by “networking,” who don’t know how to power-lunch, who simply want to go home at the end of eight hours’ hard work, and just wish their managers would manage, for a change.) Will these kids become easy prey for destructive political movements in the future?

I cherish what my parents taught me, but very little of it is useful in a white-collar environment. Sometimes I wonder if I’m guilty of wishing for the political scene to change in a way that would enable me to use what I know and honor, rather than dutifully sticking to the new rules I’ve learned that I often feel so cynical about. So there could be a whole other generation of potentially destructive loose cannons out there, not just the young ‘uns.

On a broader note, one could almost read this book and apply it to our entire region at large — since Upstate New York has such deep working-class history. No wonder our region feels like it’s in such limbo.

These may not in fact be interesting times, but this is a fascinating book anyway. Highly recommended!

Updated: Bloggers of the World, Unite! (Too funny.)