Archive: February 2011

A Schoolboy Before a Test:

“I knew that he prayed a great deal, of course for help in the examinations. But subsequent clinical experience has convinced me that God is not particularly interested in examinations, just as he won’t be dragged into the Stock Market, or being a backer in show business.”

– Robertson Davies
The Cunning Man, ch. 13

A Tale of Two Bookstores …

This week Borders booksellers filed for bankrupcy.  This is a really sad thing, but it has been coming for a while now.  I started to suspect something was wrong at the company about a year ago.  It happened one afternoon when I simply needed to track down a copy of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.  So I hopped in my car and drove to nearest Borders. Back then, I generally preferred Borders to Barnes & Noble because the staff was a) more knowledgeable and b) less likely to try and sell me a Nook.  Anyway, when I walked into the store, here’s what I found:

That’s right; they had fifteen different Dickens titles, but no Martin Chuzzlewit.  So I got back in my car and headed on over to Barnes & Noble:

Out of just three Dickens books, one was Martin Chuzzlewit. What’s the moral of the story?  Barnes & Noble is staffed by secret mind readers.

Don’t feel bad, Borders.  No one can compete with that.



From Chapter Eleven:

“I am of the firm opinion that Shakespeare in printed form should be kept from Children; if they cannot meet him in the theatre, better not to meet him at all. One might just as well ask children to read the symphonies of Beethoven.”

– Roberston Davies
The Cunning Man

The (Book) Doctor is In!

A special treat for readers today: my good friend Meredith Sommers has written a guest post for The Scop!  I met Meredith when she was getting her MLIS in preservation;  she now works as a librarian and archivist at Milligan College.  Behold her book-fixing powers:

Pretty neat, eh?  I asked Meredith to share some advice on the care and feeding of books, here’s what she came back with …

*     *     *

First off, thanks to Jonathan for the chance to guest post.   I’m excited to have the opportunity to think about the care of books, which occupies a surprisingly small portion of my life these days.   With the exception of unique archival items, our school’s collection is selected for use.   When our books get old and ratty, we buy new ones (because most of them can be replaced less expensively than they can be repaired).   I’m finding lately that this mentality is bleeding into my personal life;  my home library is greatly shrunken from its heyday, and I’m much less emotionally attached to most of my books than I once was1.

That said, there are some books worth keeping forever and handing down.  And the good news is, books are sturdy.  If they’re made of quality materials (read: not mass-market paperbacks printed on acidic paper), and given a modicum of care, they’ll last a really long time.  Below are some basic guidelines for keeping your books safe:

Environment – Books are comfortable when people are comfortable.   They’ll do best around 70 degrees F, and 30-50% relative humidity.  The key, though, is consistency.  Don’t put your treasures in the uninsulated attic where the temperature fluctuates wildly with the seasons, or the damp basement.  Keep them away from flood-prone areas (basement, again).  Built-in bookcases flanking the fireplace?  Not for the heirlooms.  Light causes fading.

Storage – Books should be on the shelf, standing straight up.  Leaning stresses the spine, and eventually leaves them mangled.  Keep the shelf full or use a bookend, but don’t pack it so tightly that it’s a struggle to remove a volume.  If you have to pack books away, lay them flat in the box or rest them on their spines. Resting on the foreedge stresses the hinges and can pull the textblock out of the case.  And if you have to put that box in the basement (it happens), keep it up high and use a plastic bin with a snap-on lid for extra protection.

Use – Be gentle.  Wash your hands.  Finger oil and dirt can build up remarkably.  To remove the book from the shelf, push in the volumes to either side so that you can grasp the middle of the spine (rather than using one finger on the top of the spine to tip it out).  Use a paper bookmark rather than a thicker metal or leather one to avoid distending the pages (similarly, no dog-earing, and no paper clips – which have the added benefit of rust).  No Post-its;  the adhesive leaves a residue.  If you have to annotate, use pencil.  Support the covers;  don’t force the book to open flat.  Never lay it open and face-down.   Keep away from food or drink.

On the subject of repairs, it’s hard for me to recommend DIY jobs.  So many at-home interventions go so badly.  If it’s really beloved, call a conservator.  But a few tips, for things worth fixing, but not worth bringing in the big guns:

Water – Get it dried out.   Stand the book on its end with the pages fanned out and keep air circulating and the lights on.  Stick paper towels in between every 10 pages or so, and change the towels frequently.  The key is to avoid mold, which can set in very, very quickly.  The pages will buckle, but it’ll still be readable.

Tears – Never, ever use Scotch tape.  Give it 20 years, and it’ll be cracked and brittle and yellow — as will the paper underneath.  Filmoplast is lovely (but pricey), and a roll will probably last the rest of your life.  Line the paper up and use small pieces of tape to match the tear’s contours.  Fold the tape over the edge of the page, and repeat up the back of the tear.

Loose Hinges – Often the result of storing a book on its fore-edge.  The text block comes apart, just a little, from the cover.  It can be reattached with a bit of acid-free glue (PVA, polyvinyl acetate is good. Check the scrapbook supplies section of Michael’s or similar) applied with a very thin knitting needle2.

Torn spine – Sorry.  I have no suggestions beyond professional help.  Please, though, no duct tape.

*     *     *

Me again.  If you want to see more of Meredith’s book repair wizardry, click here.  She also sent along the following links for (much) more information on the subject:

The Library of Congress

American Institute for Conservation’s Caring for Your Treasures

Northeast Document Conservation Center’s preservation leaflets

  1. 1. Last week, the book I was reading was soaked when a pipe burst, and I tossed it into the garbage without a second thought because I could get another copy so much more easily than I could return the soaked one to a readable state
  2. 2. University of Illinois – Urbana-Champain has a great tutorial

From Chapter Six:

“Then [the doctor] proceeded to tell my parents what he had discovered, while I was still in the room, standing by my mother’s chair. I was, he said, ‘delicate’ and must be treated accordingly … this was of utmost importance to my future, because whoever declares a child to be ‘delicate’ thereby crowns and anoints a tyrant.”

– Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man


Describing Pieces of Coral:

“Some portions were formed like large mushrooms; others appeared like the brain of a man.”

– R. M. Ballantyne
The Coral Island
, ch. 5


From Chapter Four:

“That night the starry sky looked down through the gently rustling trees upon our slumbers, and the distant roaring of the surf upon the coral reef was our lullaby.”

– R. M. Ballantyne The Coral Island

In Praise of Bluestockings

I should warn readers ahead of time, this could get sappy.  Exactly four years ago today, I asked Mary Elizabeth Burke to be my wife.  To my utter relief, she said “yes”1.  I thought I would honor this date by saying a few words about Mary and women like her:  Bluestockings.

Bluestockings are ladies of a literary or intellectual bent.  In the mid 18th century, writers like Elizabeth Montagu and Hannah Moore formed “Bluestocking Societies.”  These were groups of women dedicated to social reform and the world of ideas.  As you can imagine, this was none too popular among men; the Bluestockings were largely ridiculed by the cultural elite2.  When I look at the world today, I wonder whether things have really changed.

Yesterday was St. Valentine’s Day — a day when lots of women get to feel special and loved.  But just as many women don’t feel special and loved.  I only have anecdotal evidence, but I suspect a number of the women on the losing side of Valentine’s Day are modern-day Bluestockings.

Frankly, that sucks.

For whatever reason, smart women have it rough.  This is especially true in adolescence.  I grew up with an incredibly bookish sister, the sort of reader who got so absorbed in stories that she would shout at the characters … sometimes in public.  I recall her favorite books being ones that had profound love stories:  Anne of Green Gables, Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice… Perhaps it goes without saying that her high school was sorely lacking in Fitzwilliam Darcys, and she was forced to spend Valentine’s days alone3.

I have heard a lot of criticism leveled at the male love interests from Victorian novels.  More than a few of my teacher friends have told me that when teaching Pride & Prejudice, the male students in their class revolt — complaining that they can never compare to someone like Darcy, or Mr. Rochester, or Gilbert Blythe.  Even more they resent these (female) authors for daring to suggest that such characters are what men should be.  Call it the Lloyd Dobler effect.

For what it’s worth, I think these boys (yes, boys) are dead wrong.  Literary male characters might be ideals, but they are ideals worth aspiring to.  And any woman who accepts less than a Darcy is settling.

So on this day-after-Valentine’s-Day, let me raise a glass to my sister, to my wife, to every Bluestocking — past and present.  Thank you for demanding more of us men, and forgiving us when we fail.  I leave you with some final words from Charles Warnke’s lyric essay “You Should Date an Illiterate Girl4:

The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. You, the girl who reads, make me want to be everything that I am not. But I am weak and I will fail you … You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied.

  1. 1. This is not hyperbole; over the course of our relationship, I had only once brought up marriage … and by “brought up” I mean muttered something about how fun it would be to one day merge book collections.
  2. 2. with a few notable exceptions
  3. 3. It is worth mentioning that this sister flourished in college, became a lawyer, and is now happily dating a wonderful guy.
  4. 4. If you like this essay, you might also want to check out Rosemary Urquico’s “Date a Girl who Reads

From Chapter Three:

“‘You shall be king, Jack; Ralph, prime minister, and I shall be–‘
‘The court jester,’ interrupted Jack.
‘No,’ reported Peterkin, ‘I have no title at all. I shall merely accept a highly responsible situation under government … I’m fond of having an enormous salary and nothing to do.'”

– R. M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island

CORAL ISLAND and the Childlit Mentor

For those of you just joining the conversation, my wife and I are currently team-teaching a children’s literature course.  Last week’s book was R. M. Ballantyne’s 1857 adventure The Coral Island.  Instead of summarizing the plot1 or discussing its literary significance2, I thought instead I could talk about a certain character relationship that the book depicts — one that traces back to Homer’s Odyssey and lives on today in books like Harry Potter.   It is the relationship between a boy and his mentor.

The Mentor in The Coral Island In the second half of the book, fifteen year-old Ralph gets kidnapped by pirates.  He spends many days on this ship, surrounded by cutthroats and monsters.  Among the crew, however, he finds a man named “Bloody Bill”:

This man, although he was always taciturn and often surly, was the only human being on board with whom I had the slightest desire to become better acquainted. … Once or twice I tried to draw him into conversation, but he always turned away after a few cold monosyllables.

Ralph soon befriends Bloody Bill and learns the true nature of his character — namely that Bill is a sensitive man, wracked with guilt over his wicked deeds.  The relationship between these two only spans a few chapters, but it acts as the emotional center of the novel.  Without Bill, this would just be another book about some kids surviving on an island.

I find this child/mentor dynamic particularly compelling as an adult reader of children’s books.  It forces me to question whether the adults in my own life were so deeply invested in me — people that I once perceived to be cold and indifferent.  Usually after reading such books, I have an overwhelming desire to call my parents and teachers3.

The Mentor in Contemporary Children’s Literature. To be honest, child/mentor relationships were on my brain long before I picked up The Coral Island.  It all started when I read D. M. Cornish’s “Foundling” trilogy over Christmas4.  Cornish seems to compulsively render the child/mentor dynamic between his young hero Rossamund and … every adult character in the series:

Well, maybe not every adult character.  But shades of this trope show up repeatedly.  (I don’t blame Cornish for repeating this dynamic — he writes it very well.)  With both The Coral Island and the “Foundling” books, I’m not just talking about a pairing of an old character with a younger one.  Rather, it’s about the layers of understanding going on between those two characters.  In both texts, I see a consistent theme of a young person struggling to comprehend an older caretaker.

When I think of other contemporary examples of this dynamic, my mind goes straight to Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore:

To my thinking, this relationship stands out as being the real story in the “Harry Potter” series.  Each volume moves Harry closer toward understanding just how much this enigmatic old wizard cares for him — even when he appears distant.  At the end of every adventure, Harry receives a “reward” in the form of a conversation with his mentor, who reveals the ways in which he has been watching and helping from a distance.  These conversations are the climax of personal growth … just as they are for Rossamund Bookchild and Rover Roger.

The Mentor in Adult Literature. With the above examples in mind, I tried to think of some child/mentor relationships that predate children’s literature.  The only thing I could come up with was Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.  My friend Doctor Comics is publishing a book on Arthurian legends, and so I asked him about the relationship between King Arthur and Merlin.  He told me that the original Arthur texts don’t really capture the dynamic I was looking for — in fact, it wasn’t until T.H. White’s depiction in The Sword and the Stone in 1938 that Merlin-as-mentor really emerged.


So it wasn’t until Arthur was re-written for children that the child/mentor dynamic really came through?  Huh.  With this new revelation, I started to wonder whether the relationships that I find so moving are actually unique to the genre.  Maybe there is something about children’s literature  —  which is meant to be read by both children and adults — that captures this child/mentor relationship in a way that adult literature cannot?

I have no idea whether this is true.  But a part of me suspects it may be so.  In the meantime, I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of great child/mentor relationships from children’s books.  You should let me know in the comments.

UPDATE: I wanted to give a special welcome to any readers visiting from Fuse #8! I like to think of the comments section as that “reward” that Harry (me) gets to have with Dumbledore (you) at the end of an adventure — in which wise readers tell me why I’m wrong about this or that thing.  So please, pull up a chair, grab some butterbeer, and join the conversation!

  1. 1. Three boys get shipwrecked on the island. They get along splendidly. Then some pirates come and ruin everything. Also, cannibals.
  2. 2. Coral Island is considered by many to be the first boy’s adventure novel; it is also the book that provoked William Golding to write The Lord of the Flies (as a rebuttal)
  3. 3. This is no accident.  The word “mentor” actually comes from the character of the same name in Homer’s Odyssey.  In the poem, Mentor is a wise old man who looks after Odysseus’ son in his absence.  In English today, it is a word for someone in a role that is equal parts parent and teacher.
  4. 3. A special thanks to Betsy Bird and her wonderful Factotum review for putting these books on my radar!
Older posts Newer posts