My review of Jill Khoury’s 2016 collection published in The Deaf Poets Society!

I am excited to share my latest publication, a review of Jill Khoury’s Suites for the Modern Dancer. Khoury’s book is a full-length poetry collection, published by Sundress Press in 2016. My review was published in Issue #5 of The Deaf Poets Society. Here’s how the review begins:

I indulge in the fantasy of maneuvering effortlessly to a shady oak, slim volume of poetry in hand, and losing myself for an afternoon. With birds and breezes for companions and sunlight unproblematic on white pages, my escapism thrives on the act of reading, rather than the text itself. In reality my reading of standard-print texts is mediated by real and artificial voices. I can’t follow the text visually unless I enlarge it myself, so I download books to my phone and use VoiceOver’s text-to-speech features. Such readings are mechanical but precise. If I follow along with a large-print version of the text, I almost forget that I am reading collaboratively.

But I prefer real human voices. My friend and I settle down at the kitchen table with two copies of Jill Khoury’s Suites for the Modern Dancer. His is the 2016 paperback edition, and mine is a manuscript copy in 18-point font. Since I can’t skim the collection by sight, I use adhesive red flags to mark each page I write on.

Read the full essay here.

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Poem Published!

My poem, “Crushed,” is live in the June issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature.

Click here to read it—or listen to me read it for you!

Why We Still Need Literary Spaces for Disabled Writers

In spring of 2012, I was preparing to graduate with my M.A. in English. I was teaching with a respected professor and touching up my first real CV. Terrified of the great blankness that would follow graduation, I planned to teach, but I had no idea how I would continue to meet intelligent and fascinating friends. My colleague passed along a call for student essays on the experience of disability, and I accepted — just so I’d have something to occupy those nebulous weeks after graduation.

I worked on the essay, an exploration of how I came to accept my huge dark glasses, and sent it off. I called it “Shades of Shame.” It was the first piece I ever sent out, the first to be accepted.*

Though I had started this blog a few months earlier, I still couldn’t believe that strangers liked my work. I had always written stories and shared them with friends, and I had done well on school essays and presentations. Friends liked my work because they liked me, right? Teachers liked my work because I was passionate about the topic and I followed the directions. Audiences liked my presentations because I enjoyed speaking.

By autumn of 2012, I was teaching my first writing courses and coping with the death of a close friend. I responded to another essay proposal, which led to my piece “Surprised by Disability.” This essay ran in a special issue of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, a journal published by Johns Hopkins University. The issue’s theme was “living with the label ‘disability,'” and my essay described the visual rules used to judge abilities and disabilities — rules even invoked by blind people. Again, I was surprised to be accepted, but I felt a greater measure of confidence: I had strong opinions on labels and terms. The acceptance made me crave a platform — the value in having a space where I could speak and others would listen.

In March of 2013, my first published poems appeared in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. For months I wondered whether I had just gotten lucky. I wouldn’t feel like a real writer until I had published more. After several positive interactions with editors, I realized that this strategy was a harmful lie: I was using publications to calculate my value.

As I began writing about classical music for Minnesota Public Radio, I still felt a powerful hesitation. Moving beyond disability-specific arenas, like Wordgathering and Breath & Shadow, I worried over how to market my blindness. My first article for Classical MPR described my experience of opera with low vision — a pitch I chose for its novelty. That novelty was my ticket into mainstream venues: I had to present a kind of blindness that didn’t scare people. A sense of disability as another (somewhat fascinating) way of life.

For MPR, I wrote about introducing my guide dog to all my musical activities. For a feminist anthology, I wrote about the challenges of being a young, visibly disabled teacher. But every piece that went beyond the safe circle of disability journals held concessions: the little explanations tucked into a line of dialogue, the right terms dropped in inconspicuous places. I had to tell my audience I was a blind woman who didn’t see my disability as a medical defect, but I couldn’t preach.

As I continued to write and teach, I recognized that my postgraduate fear had been refined. Instead of fearing social distance in my personal life, I was now afraid of being shut out by future readers. I was afraid that they would pick up a poem about transcribing love letters in braille and say, “I don’t get this. What’s a Perkins?” I was afraid that they wouldn’t relate to my joy at hearing other canes tapping down the sidewalk.

That fear turned me against myself. If I was really a good writer, my poems couldn’t exclude nondisabled readers. The power of my language would speak to them, transcend all misunderstanding, and help them feel comfortable sharing my experiences. If I was good enough, disability wouldn’t come between us.

In disability theory, this ideal is often called the “supercrip”: the disabled person who strives against all the odds to overcome their disability, struggling and even harming themselves just so others won’t be uncomfortable. Even though I was a sensible activist in my work life, I was supercripping my writing life — taking full responsibility for my readers’ reactions.

I thought readers would refuse to engage with my work not because they were bad people  but because of the literary climate. In most stories, usually written by nondisabled people, disability rendered a character novel, tragic, or strictly medical. Disabled characters were saints: their bodies had failed them so they longed for the soul-world. Disabled characters were freaks: their bodies were anomalous and impossible to understand. Disabled characters were tragic: pilots who couldn’t fly anymore, patients whose lives were over, legendary ballerinas now in wheelchairs.

Disability ended stories. It did not begin them. So work that addressed disability, or work by writers with disabilities, had to dance a special jig just to be considered. And that’s how commercial pressure works on writers, even when we’re not being paid.

Such pressure made me question the value of my own experiences. If I wrote about a Perkins brailler, did I have to say “brailler”? What if “braille typewriter” messed up the meter in a poem? Maybe I shouldn’t say Perkins at all. Maybe I shouldn’t say braille.…

Writers fear one thing above rejection: self erasure. The impulse to delete everything I’ve just typed, the voice that says, “No one wants to read about that.” Self erasure is enough to make a writer stop writing — and feel entirely justified in doing so. It wears away every good feeling, every hint of inspiration, every search for a pen or a keyboard. It leaves the writer hollow.

Maybe other writers were born with the strength to fight such erasure, to insist on the value of their perspective. But I had to learn this skill, and I needed mentors to help me find it. From the colleagues who encouraged me to submit to the first editors who accepted my work, I borrowed confidence. When one editor asked me to contribute to a special issue, I snatched up that feeling and planted it somewhere deep.

My salvation came in community. I could submit work to a few places committed to disabled writers. At these journals, the editors had crafted a powerful trust with their readers and their writers. I didn’t feel compelled to footnote each experience, to clarify every nuance. I didn’t have to define braille or tapping canes or the strange play of light that is my vision. I could give myself completely to my art.

Now I sense the weight of what I bring to these platforms. Disabled writers, editors, and readers have set up spaces where we can be heard, where our stories of disability can ignore the dubious authority of precedents. These spaces are necessary playgrounds for all writers, emerging and established. We need room to imagine without erasure.

 

* This essay is forthcoming in the anthology Barriers and Belonging: Autoethnographies of Disability from Temple University Press.

 

35 in 2016: What I read this year.

In January, I set up a challenge through Goodreads: to read 35 books in 2015. So here are my books—a snapshot of my literary consciousness this year!

1. A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith
My first book of 2015 was a leisurely choice, the prequel to Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel. I was so moved by this absorbing novel that I wrote an extensive response (which you can read here). Suffice it to say that Smith’s beloved characters and lively prose are pretty addictive. I won’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve replayed the audiobook this year, but I will say it’s more than four. A Stranger to Command is a book I return to in stressful times; I love getting wrapped up again and again in this story.

2. Remalna’s Children by Sherwood Smith
Continuing my explorations of Smith’s fantasy universe, I choose this short book—which is actually two long short stories. If you’ve read any of Smith’s works, this addition is intriguing and delightful, adding to the Crown Duel story arc.

3. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World  by Claire Harman
This text was a fascinating look at how Austen’s work and reputation have been handled in and out of the academy. While some chapters were a little slow, Harman offers some interesting historical details about Austen’s relationship to money, Austen’s image, and Austen’s occasionally off-color correspondence.

4. Senrid by Sherwood Smith
Alas, a disappointing read. Possibly because this book collects some of Smith’s earliest work, it seems fragmented and a little silly. Though I enjoyed learning about Senrid, who makes an impressive appearance in A Stranger to Command, I did not enjoy this book overall. It is not a cohesive novel, but rather four separate parts which—and I use the term generously—fit together.

5. The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander
Since reading this book, I have purchased it for several friends and relatives. The Zanders (husband and wife) offer several principles for approaching difficult circumstances. Their anecdotes are far from the saccharine stuff of most self-help books. And the audio version of the text is well worth a listen. Because the Zanders co-authored the text, they take turns narrating, and Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, includes excerpts from the classical pieces he discusses.

6. Danse de la Folie by Sherwood Smith
This book is the first I’ve read of Smith’s forays into historical fiction—and it is superb! Set in Regency England, the book offers a lighthearted storyline and tons of jokes for literary devotees. From the naming of characters to the comments on Regency fashions, it’s obvious Smith has done the research to create this wonderful book.

7. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
If only I could make my students read this book! From Pinker’s brilliant chapter on the structure of sentences (where he introduces “the web, the string, and the tree”) to his intense, 100-page catalogue of the most hotly debated “errors” in Standard English, this text is comprehensively brilliant. Each chapter treats with a different aspect of what makes good writing: the sound of it, the level of complexity, the style, the grammar. I’d say that this text is more accessible than Pinker’s other works on linguistics, so if you’ve never indulged in his work before, start here.

8. His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1) by Naomi Novik
This is another book that I keep on my iPhone at all times. Narrated by the talented Simon Vance, His Majesty’s Dragon is the first in the Temeraire series—which occupies about 20% of this list. It’s an excellent dip into Novik’s Napoleonic fantasy world, a world populated by intelligent, witty, mischievous dragons. Read my meditations on guide dogs and dragons here.

9. Throne of Jade (Temeraire #2) by Naomi Novik
I’ll keep my comments brief as I cover the remaining Temeraire novels on this list. In Book #2, the characters travel to China: it’s a strong sequel to the first in this series.

10. The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John McWhorter
From this delightfully snarky linguist comes a fascinating book on how languages work—debunking the pop linguistics ideals that are often most cherished. McWhorter’s sensible analysis asks us to turn our language myths on English and see if they hold true. This book is dense and complex, but it repays the reader’s effort.

11. Black Powder War (Temeraire #3) by Naomi Novik
In this third installment, the characters cover a lot of ground, returning to the battles of the Napoleonic War by way of Turkey. Again, Novik has created a thrilling tale—introducing new characters and adding dimension to the Temeraire universe.

12. Empire of Ivory (Temeraire #4) by Naomi Novik
Well, we’ve gotten to a Temeraire book I didn’t particularly enjoy. This one finds our characters in Africa. Though this one moves the story along, I don’t think it’s as strong as #1-3.

13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
I decided to revisit an old classic this summer. I first read this book in high school, and I fell in love with Brontë’s tortured characters and metaphorical landscape. However, WH didn’t hold up to a second reading, I’m sad to say. I got irritated with Catherine’s antics and Heathcliff’s brooding. Perhaps this is a book that fits best with the tumult of adolescence.

14. Victory of Eagles (Temeraire #5) by Naomi Novik
An absolutely outstanding novel in this series! This book broke my heart, repaired it, warmed it, and broke it again! It’s totally worth suffering through #4 to get to #5!

15. Tongues of Serpents (Temeraire #6) by Naomi Novik
Another strong addition to the series, this novel finds our characters in Australia! It’s a little dreary in places, but I still enjoyed it.

16. The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare
A delightful exploration of canine consciousness, Hare’s book explains how dogs reason and what is important to them. I particularly enjoyed Hare’s history of genetics and his commentary on canine evolution.

17. Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of the Lord of the Rings by Mark Eddy Smith
This is the first book I’ve really despised in a long time. It’s nothing but a drawn-out, poorly written homily that uses Tolkien’s work for convenience. For one thing, the author commits one of my writerly pet peeves: using the word “spiritual” as code for “Christian.” If you mean Christian, just say so. Secondly, he provides only superficial commentary, mostly just reciting the plot of LOTR. For Tolkien fans and Christians alike, this book is a waste of time.

18. Crucible of Gold (Temeraire #9) by Naomi Novik
This time, our characters have traveled to Brazil—and while the book offers fascinating descriptions of Brazilian culture, it’s not a bright spot in the series. I enjoyed it, but I’m unlikely to reread it.

19. French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle
Oh, I am never disappointed by Peter Mayle! I read  A Year in Provence in an undergraduate Faces of France class, and I’ve been hooked ever since. In this book, Mayle explores several interesting culinary traditions in France—from a festival of frogs’ legs to the creation of the Michelin guide. This book is an utter delight, recommended for foodies.

20. The Marseilles Caper by Peter Mayle
A witty, sun-drenched mystery novel set in the succulent city of Marseilles! Read it with a snack nearby! The audio version is particularly yummy; I like hearing someone else pronounce all the French words.

21. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
I learned so much from this book! Pollan’s prose is absorbing, and his references are extensive. I kept flipping to the bibliography and adding items to my Amazon wish list. The book is accessible, philosophical, and fun.

22. The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye
This book contains Frye’s six legendary essays on the purpose and vocation of literature. It’s essential reading for all English teachers and writers, and it’s edifying for everyone.

23. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Here is Novik’s attempt to write something other than Temeraire: she retells a Polish fairytale about a haunted wood, a sorcerer, and an unlikely heroine. My main complaint with this text is that it’s too long. There are several places where I expected the story to end, but it kept on going. The book has some truly beautiful passages and interesting characters, but I would rather it had covered less and told more. The story feels stretched and shallow to me.

24. Blood of Tyrants (Temeraire #8) by Naomi Novik
Another disappointment. This novel that attempts to tie up all the loose ends before the final Temeraire book (which won’t come out until next year). Strong style but weak plot here.

25. The Modern Scholar: The Anglo-Saxon World by Michael D.C. Drout
This “book” is technically one of Audible’s Great Courses, a series of 30-minute lectures centered on a theme. But if Goodreads calls it a book, I’ll call it one, too! If you’re an Old English nut like me, you’ll love this course. They provide rich background about the classics of Angl0-Saxon literature as well as explaining some language and history. Plus, Drout reads several texts aloud, and his pronunciation is admirable.

26. The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
I read this book with great sadness because it was the last one Pratchett worked on before his death. It bears the marks of this untimely composition; some elements of the story are not really fleshed out, and Pratchett’s morals are a little too close to the surface. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable.

27. You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen
Though this book has some gems to offer, it’s not as enjoyable as Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Once you’ve read one Tannen book, it feels like you’ve read them all. Her research involves the same conversational matrix of competition and cooperation, which is fascinating, but this book seemed repetitive.

28. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
An enjoyable and succinct read with lots of cool anecdotes! Gilbert’s advice breaks the tradition of the tortured artist. Instead, she offers a refreshing portrait of an artist who is centered and productive.

29. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Ken Robinson
Robinson is another writer who uses accessible prose and superb sources. This book tackles several issues in education and offers practical solution to each. It’s dense only because Robinson covers so much ground, dipping into educational history as well as current politics.

30. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
Hilarious, engaging, and—believe it or not—educational! Ansari’s witty, flippant book on dating in the 21st century invokes a ton of legitimate psychological research. And for once, he’s not saying that we young people are doomed to intimacy-starved lives. Through research, he offers several solutions to the online dating conundrums and busy schedules we all face.

31. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
What an indulgent read! All writers and English teachers need to read this book—or better yet, listen to Norris read the audiobook. She tackles many of the serious language concerns covered in academic texts, but instead of dry research, she relies on her experience as a copy-editor for The New Yorker. After I finished this book, I was begging to be a Comma Queen.

32. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Since getting hooked on 30 Rock, I wanted to read this book—and I was not disappointed. Fey uses humor and stylish prose to address all kinds of issues: fame, feminism, politics. It’s an excellent memoir.

33. Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres
Let’s just say I’m glad I borrowed this one from the library. I was disappointed. Rambling, disconnected, pandering, unremarkable. I think Ellen could do a lot better. I wouldn’t be proud of this book if I had written it.

34. Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol
Incredible. Kozol handles many of the most heartbreaking issues in education without losing hope. His book is a must-read for all teachers, parents, students, citizens. It’s so well done, rich with revelations.

35. The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life by Noble Smith
Now here’s an author who knows how to write about Tolkien—with humor, thoughtfulness, and respect. This little book is enjoyable and informative; I picked up a few Tolkien tidbits from its pages!

So what’s on the shelf for next year? Probably more linguistics, nature writing, biographies, and food writing. And of course, that ninth Temeraire book. I’ve also resolved to read more poetry.

What would you add to the list?

Lasting Impressions

When I was nine years old, I longed to use the words amiable, countenance, and clergyman – though they never appeared in my spelling or phonics workbooks. I knew what it meant if a manor was entailed away, and I guessed that £2,000 in the 19th century was a sizable fortune. I understood that the oldest daughter in a household was addressed by her family name while her younger sisters would be addressed by their first names. I recognized that married women always wore a head covering: a wide-billed bonnet or a lacy cap. Sometimes the caps had ribbons or draping fabric that gave the lady’s gestures a swaying elegance.

I absorbed these extra-curricular customs by watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with my great-aunt, who explained the finer details of Regency culture around the familiar onscreen dialogue. I had first encountered Pride and Prejudice through a children’s TV show, “Wishbone,” in which a remarkably literary Jack Russell terrier guided viewers through abridged versions of the classics. Wishbone narrated in 25 minutes what Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehie dramatized in 5 hours – and I was enthralled with every second.

I loved the characters, especially stoic Mr. Bennet, melodramatic Mrs. Bennet, witty Lizzy Bennet, ebullient Mr. Bingley, and unctuous Mr. Collins. I appreciated how each character seemed like a real person, someone I could meet (or choose to avoid). And I loved how long it took for the couples to finally coalesce. Both Jane and Lizzy met their beaux in the first installment, but the couples weren’t solidified until the final installment; the in-between time covered family dramas and personal revelations.

Along with the characters and their vocabulary, I developed a penchant for the sounds of the series. I contrasted the tinny notes of the 19th century pianoforte with the full-bodied timbre of my grandmother’s honey-colored upright. I admired the delightful crunch of gravel beneath sturdy Georgian shoes. For weeks after I first saw the series, I shuffled my feet across any paved surface – hoping to replicate the textured noise of gravel underfoot. And I liked the deep clink of heavy silverware in use, the hearty swish of cloth napkins and table linen, the hollow snap of closing doors.

While I watched the characters adjust bonnet-ribbons or trade places on the dance floor, the author herself hovered in the background. I vaguely understood that this lively and colorful world had been created by Jane Austen. I knew that Austen had never married, that she wrote in the early 19th century, but to me, she was only a name.  When I was ten, I decided to read Pride and Prejudice and meet Ms. Austen on the page. From the book’s first paragraph, I recognized lines skillfully repurposed in the onscreen version, and I felt confident navigating Austen’s prose.

Austen continued to be extra-curricular: I didn’t encounter her work in a schoolroom until eleventh grade – and even then, the excerpt we read was part of a mock final exam, not a serious literary immersion. My teacher chose the passage where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, and I instantly recognized his pompous, unromantic language. In the same year, I took a similar test to measure my reading level, and the passage indicating  a twelfth-grade reading level also came from P&P: it was the scene where Lizzy Bennet first visits Pemberley.

In the same eleventh-grade English class, I discovered Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and her ardent discussion of early women writers motivated me to reexamine Austen’s work. When I reread P&P, I found that none of my early enthusiasm had waned: I still felt an unruly admiration for Jane Austen’s prose. I knew I wanted to spend my life working with great women writers, in person or in print.

Early on, I only knew Austen through P&P, but I eventually moved through her other novels – Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. So far, Persuasion, the story of the contemplative Anne Elliot, is my favorite Austen work, with Mansfield Park at a close second. Persuasion is an ecstasy of balance and precision while Mansfield Park is an untidy journey of self-discovery. Emma, in print and onscreen, is my least favorite Austen creation, but even here, she displays superb character-building.

After exploring most of her work, my curiosity about Austen’s life has led me to some “on Austen” reading. I enjoyed John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen (2013), which explains how age, money, names, and even British seaside resorts work as cultural code – often misinterpreted or totally ignored by 21st-century readers. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen (also 2013) recounts the details of Austen’s life through treasured objects – an Indian shawl, a small notebook, a portrait – and describes how early family biographers strove to color Ms. Austen with appropriate Victorian modesty.

In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (2010), Claire Harman devotes an entire chapter to debunking the modesty myths. According to family biographers, Jane Austen didn’t struggle with her writing or worry about making money. She didn’t value her work enough to be mortified by failure  or overjoyed with success. She wasn’t worldly, never traveled far, didn’t look beyond her home sphere. She was satisfied with the crumbs of a literary life.

I don’t need Claire Harman to point out the falsehood here, but I’m glad she does anyway. To create such crystalline, proportionate prose, Austen had to care about her work; she had to consider it a worthy venture, or she would’ve spent her time elsewhere. Luckily, Harman has found passages in Austen’s letters that contradict the Victorian “model authoress” – passages that show the author’s spirited devotion to her craft.

Though Austen’s birthday was December 16, I am continuing my festivities: revisiting my favorite Austen texts and Austen-inspired media. I need to honor the woman who encourages me to write and pulls me toward kindred spirits – the woman whose work has been part of my orbit for 18 years.

Interview: “Dialogue on Blindness and Writing”

With other disabled writers, I participated in an interview for the September issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature:

“Jill Khoury, Emily Lund, Emily Michael and Kristen Witucki are four writers whose work in poetry and fiction has openly addressed issues of physical disability. Wordgathering invited them to take part in a discussion surrounding issues of craft and publication for writers with visual disabilities.”

Read the full interview here.

Sweet Response

May is turning out to be a literary month for me. I’ve created an account on Goodreads to keep numerical track of how many books I’m currently reading. So far, Goodreads says I’m reading 13. As I’ve listed several collections of poetry in this category – collections I read a few poems at a time – my sense of accomplishment hasn’t plummeted too dramatically. Also according to Goodreads, the number of books I want to read exceeds the number of books I’ve read. Seeing a larger pile of books in my future than the pile in my past seems like a sign that I am living a full and promising life.

Books from the past never really stay in the past. I remember many vivid books from earlier years. When I was in elementary school, I favored American Girl and Sweet Valley Twins books. Around fourth grade, an elderly aunt introduced me to Jane Austen. Then came the memorable and gloomy books of adolescent summer reading lists: A Bridge to Terabithia, Shiloh, Jacob Have I Loved, The Outsiders.

Perhaps to combat the melancholia of the assigned middle school texts, I discovered a love for fantasy and witty retellings of fairy tales. I adored Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (which is superior to the movie in every way) and Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, the sassy diary of a thirteenth-century teenager. I graduated to Harry Potter, and while I was waiting for the next magical installment, I traveled slowly and carefully through The Lord of the Rings. In high school, I was in love with two men: Tolkien and Thoreau. I am still in love with them now.

This month, I’ve just finished two books, and I found them delightful. The first was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, read on Audible by the author. The second was Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I listened to the audiobook, not read by the author, and followed along in the print text – I underlined meaningful and relevant passages on nearly every page. This audio-visual approach is my favorite way to read a text, but I don’t always have time for it. I made time for LaMott, and she was worth it!

So now I’m at the bookstore with Katie, looking for something new. Yes, Goodreads says I’m currently reading in the double digits, but the numbers really don’t matter. I’ve finished two books; I need to start at least one more. This is what bibliophilia really means: constant dedication to the reading life.

Katie and I begin with a brief stroll around the classics table, where stacks of gorgeous hardcover books teeter and nestle against each other. The rows of overhead lights glint off their gold-edged pages. I have several of these beautiful books on a special shelf at home. But I never curl up with them, annotate them. They’re trophy books.

Next we travel to our favorite section, Poetry.  Here, we willingly take all the abuse this section has to offer: three tall rows of shelves with the same slightly battered editions. With each visit, the No Fear Shakespeare volumes edge a little closer to our favorite poets, or the copies of Dante and Homer proliferate, crowding the more obscure (and doubtlessly more wonderful) authors.

I shudder as my fingers brush against thin volumes of Mary Oliver and T.S. Elliot; somehow The Wasteland and Other Poems is always hanging out beside A Poetry Handbook. But most of the books on these shelves make me happy, even when I already own them. Katie and I both sigh over the various books by Rainer Maria Rilke – “We have all these,” she says. We greet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rumi, and the French poets with the same quiet enthusiasm: it’s encouraging to see old friends.

On a shelf with an unnecessary number of books by Billy Collins, I find a new arrival: Selected Poems of Robert Creeley. Though I haven’t read much Creeley, I met him in college through a jazz-major-turned-English-major friend. The same friend introduced me to this poem, by Ron Padgett –

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

Katie and I pour over the Creeley, admiring the straightforward free verse, the clear font, the new smell, the bendiness of the pages. She flips it over:

“Thirty dollars.”

Depressed, we trudge away from the poetry section, ask a few questions at the service desk, and begin perusing the magazines. A writer friend has advised me to pick up a few poetry magazines so that I can see what kind of poetry they publish. Katie hands me a copy of The New Yorker and another of Poets & Writers Magazine. The Poets & Writers logo is large, difficult to miss. An elderly man walking past asks, “Oh, are you writers? Are either of you ladies writing books?”

I answer as Katie hands me two more magazines: “I write poetry and creative nonfiction.”

“Oh Lord!” he exclaims. He continues to walk away.

Feeling snubbed, I stare at Katie, who smiles encouragingly. I know she would stop to talk with a poet.

We end our shopping with coffee. I slide my writing magazines across the counter and ask the barrista if she has any seasonal flavors. She rattles off a list of options – espresso-flavored whipped cream, crumbled cookies, mocha-something – all available in icy blended drinks. Nothing sounds good to me. When poetry is slighted, hot coffee alone will soothe the sting.

So I invent a drink – a French vanilla latte with a hint of caramel. It’s warm and foamy, no whipped cream. I will call it the Rejected Poet.

Immortal Welcome

In my freshman composition courses, the students read a variety of scholarly articles, poems, short stories, style guides, and essays. During our discussion of the writer-reader relationship, I like to work in a chapter from Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I choose the chapter “Communion: Nobody to Nobody,” in which Atwood attempts to answer three questions: 1) For whom does the writer write? 2) What is the book’s function or duty? and 3) Where is the writer when the reader is reading?

This chapter opens with a series of epigraphs about the nature of reading, writing, and stories. Introducing her guiding questions early on, Atwood takes the reader on a narrative meander throughout the text, stopping to smell the roses of several detailed examples before finishing with a personal anecdote about her first writer-reader relationship.

Atwood first suggests that writer and reader are both “nobodies,” each created by the other’s perceptions and expectations. The writer dreams of an ideal reader, the reader searches for clues about the elusive writer, and both communicate through the written text. With literary exploration and personal experience, Atwood arrives at the idea that writer and reader are, in fact, specific people with unique perceptions and motivations.

Though most students find the theory of Atwood’s chapter to be accessible, they are put off by its structure. Used to the solo lecturing voice of a thesis-driven essay, they become derailed by Atwood’s flowering examples and hefty epigraphs. They do not expect to find so many voices in one document, and they feel like strangers meeting strangers in the textual space.

I recognize the feature that alienates my students from Atwood’s writing as the one I treasure. The piece is an energetic, gloriously detailed conversation, the kind of talk I’d have with colleagues at a gathering for graduate students or the celebration of a poet’s birthday. Atwood’s piece accomplishes what all wholehearted English majors strive for; it creates a conversation space for the living and the dead. Her text is an endless party — the English major’s life-work in microcosm.

As an English major, I’ve never earned a reputation for wildness. I like to spend hours  with kindred spirits in musty used bookstores, fighting over the editions with the best old book smell. I wile away entire afternoons listening to grammar books with my assistive devices, annotating as I follow along in the print version. I write poems and share them with friends; we schedule revision dates where we read each other’s work and revise it line-by-line. I get excited about authors’ birthdays, especially Jane Austen’s in December. And now that I’m not taking classes, I beg my student-friends to tell me about the books they’re reading, the papers they’re writing. I want to hear fellow English majors describe their process of discovery – the in-class epiphany that stalls the note-taking pen, the sudden insight that interrupts the at-home reading, the excitement that accompanies a familiar pattern in a new context. I want to relive the moments of delight when I witnessed resonance on the page – when I discovered a contemporary theme in an ancient text.

In an essay from his book, Why Teach?: In Defence of a Real Education, Mark Edmundson describes the ideal English major as a person “unfinished,” constantly seeking transformation and “reincarnation” through the texts she reads. I see the work of the English major – if we even need to call it “work” – as an unfinished conversation, the determination to reanimate old or forgotten voices alongside the remembered ones. The desire to throw a good party across time and language.

Neither art nor the artist can make someone immortal; immortality belongs to the reader, the one who decides to welcome another’s work. By continuing to read, the English major bestows immortality on voices that have long since lost the need for breath. The attentive reader invites others to speak, to share her mind and body. While she lends her mind to another writer’s words, she recognizes who she is. No writer can ever overtake her because she is part of the conversation; her perspective expands, accommodates.

I’ve seen the same guests at my party for years – Austen, Tolkien, Woolf, Thoreau – but, like a good hostess, I try to expand my social circle. Recent partygoers include Vita Sackville-West, Amy Hempel, Laurie Colwin, E. M. Forster, and Jeanette Winterson—and they will definitely be invited again. Others, like Joseph Conrad or Daniel Defoe, will not.

Each of these authors has enriched me as a poet, an observer, a communicator. Still delighted and surprised by the timeless empathy of certain writers, I apply snatches of this ongoing conversation to my music or teaching. As writer and reader, I welcome the animating connection, the splendid life of texts.

The Pen and the Playground

My favorite teaching duty is course design. Though I hardly control every aspect of the courses I teach – the text choice, the policies, the measurable learning outcomes – I can arrange the order of readings and daily activities. I particularly enjoy asking my students to draw connections between seemingly unrelated texts. I’ll take a 2008 TED Talk and a political essay from 1849 and ask my pupils, “What can a student gain from studying these texts in tandem?” I urge them to synthesize something new by closely examining each text’s objectives.

For today’s class, they read Northrop Frye’s “The Vocation of Eloquence,” the final chapter of his book, The Educated Imagination. In this essay, Frye insists that the study of literature nourishes the imagination, and the imagination helps us adapt and survive – transforming the world we experience into the world we desire. Imagination, says Frye, lets us test-drive our futures; if we want to be doctors, we must be able to imagine ourselves as doctors. Thus, literature – playful, expressive, and versatile – allows us to train our creative minds.

During class, my students viewed Dr. Stuart Brown’s TED Talk, “Play Is More Than Fun.” With the help of countless adorable animal pictures, Brown argues for the importance of play. Debunking the idea that play only serves as a rehearsal for adult life, Brown suggests that play promotes adaptability, learning, and trustworthiness. He urges his audience to contemplate their own “play histories,” thinking back to their happiest, most playful memories in order to connect with their real passions.

So here is my play history – or a brief excerpt from it. I know my current passions: poetry and music. But I want to see what a playful exploration of my past delights will uncover.

Inside my childhood bedroom, there is a mirrored closet with glass shelves. For several years, the shelves hosted a sprawling miniature village. Houses constructed from popsicle sticks sheltered action figures of miscellaneous origin, each villager no more than a few inches tall. Star Wars characters resided alongside Disney princesses in perfect harmony, their world accessorized with everything from tiny teapots and potted plants to a music box shaped like an upright piano. One lucky family even owned a petite bookshelf, stocked with colorful and anonymous volumes.

My friend Caitlyn and I spent hundreds of hours, kneeling or sitting in delighted absorption before this layered village, moving its people in and out of elaborate plots. We created character voices and dialogues – conflicts, love stories, comedies, and seemingly incongruous tragedies – sacrificing previous plot lines for the whimsy of the moment. Caitlyn’s bedroom contained an analogous structure – the same playground with different architecture. She was particularly proud of a complex popsicle-stick bridge that joined the two halves of her city, and a glittering waterfall she skillfully constructed from layers of aluminum foil and blue plastic wrap.

The chief companion of my elementary school years, Caitlyn joined me in a thousand variations on imaginative play. We spun scenarios from the extraordinary material in books and the ordinary stuff of classrooms. A lesson on Jupiter’s volcanic moons transformed us into intergalactic lunar mountain climbers. A chapter from an American Girl book hurled us back in time; we became sister settlers on the prairie, or a merchant’s daughter and her governess in colonial Williamsburg. One particularly demanding English teacher swapped the traditional book reports with a radio play option, daring our creativity to new extremes. With a keyboard and unsophisticated tape recorder, we documented fictional talk shows and radio plays — long after we completed the initial school project.

Though we grew older, we refused to surrender our love of make-believe. As our schedules filled with homework and after-school club meetings, we took our play onto paper. No longer able to spend hours crouched before our miniature villages or dressed in costumes of our own creation, we traded the physically active play of our childhood for its mental representation. Caitlyn picked up a drawing pencil, I selected a ballpoint pen, and we filled notebooks with cartoons and stories. Like the improvisational radio dramas of our middle school years, this play began to keep its own record.

Our playground moved onto paper, its character uncompromised. Between classes, we exchanged a decorated spiral notebook, leaving each other notes. This play honed the art of stealth: while we scribbled the latest installment in a parody or comic strip, we appeared to be taking diligent notes in class.

As a self-proclaimed nerd and enthusiastic student, I am almost ashamed to admit that I took this deceptive “note-taking” beyond the notebook Caitlyn and I shared. I often traveled with two non-academic notebooks in my backpack – the one I exchanged with Caitlyn, and another in which I began a trilogy of fantasy novels. I carried the habit beyond high school into my undergraduate and graduate classes. My low vision always helps me in this private wordplay; I bend so low over my writing in any situation that people can’t tell whether I’m creating poetry or prose.

I look to Northrop Frye and Stuart Brown to justify this play on paper. Frye asks us to engage with the imagination – does he really want me to ignore the wisps of inspiration that always seem to arrive during faculty meetings or uninteresting speeches? Brown says that play will keep me young and help me learn – wouldn’t he encourage me to keep a notebook, a private playground, with me always?

That’s the way I choose to join Frye and Brown’s texts. But, like a good teacher, I’ll leave you to make your own connections.

Memorial for Seamus Heaney

On Friday I received the sad news that Seamus Heaney, one of my favorite poets, had recently died.

I first encountered Heaney’s work eight years ago in an AP Literature class. Over two semesters, our teacher—a vivacious, knowledgeable man who always fought for the best parts in our class readings of Shakespeare—steeped us in poetry. Insisting that “poetry isn’t always pretty,” he began our first lesson with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” a graphic account of the poet’s experience as a soldier in World War I. We moved through John Donne, the Romantic poets, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and countless others – our glimpses of each poet ranging from single poems to groups of six or seven. When we arrived at Seamus Heaney, our teacher selected “Digging” and “The Forge.” He read them aloud in his sonorous way, with his natural proclivity for the native Irish inflections of the poet.

I liked Heaney’s unassuming, earthy style, and I liked his rhythms. I liked how, at the end of “Digging,”* Heaney chose the pen because he didn’t believe he could hold the shovel. Thinking of myself as a writer of only novels and dreaming of being a poet, I considered poetry a holy, untouchable craft. (I still consider poetry sacred, but now I choose to reach for it, rather than assume its touch will burn me.)

After this brief foray into Heaney’s work, I completed a ritual for the poets I enjoyed from AP Lit: I searched for Heaney online and read his poems “Blackberry-Picking” and “Song.” I loved what I found, but I didn’t think to purchase a book of his work. I considered my exposure to Heaney incidental; I didn’t think I needed to pursue his poetry beyond the rare moments when it chanced across my life.

The next time I saw Heaney’s name, I was picking up my books for a Periods of Early British Literature class in autumn, 2007. I was a sophomore with a vague idea of the booklist, and, rather than defaulting to the college bookstore, I found myself standing before Barnes & Noble’s shamefully small poetry section, trying to remember which copy of Beowulf I needed. My choices were limited to the stale and formulaic Barnes & Noble Classics edition (with its unromantic cover, thin pages, and spidery, faded font) or a flashy, stylish edition with a striking, high-contrast cover design. The soldier’s helmet emblazoned on the dark cover was textured; I could feel the “metal” links beneath my fingers. The book was sturdy, almost square-shaped, with the Old English verses on the left and the Modern English translation on the right. The translator of course was Heaney. I recognized his name, but I didn’t realize the significance of his work. When I studied Old English three years later, I developed a profound appreciation for Heaney’s translation—I recognized the level of linguistic knowledge and marveled at the intense poetic labor needed for this task.

My English teachers continued to shape my interactions with Heaney’s work. What began in AP Lit intensified throughout three courses taught by Dr. Rae: Early British Literature, Linguistics, and Poetry & Poetics. Katie and I took these courses, and together we fell in love with Heaney’s poetry. Sitting side-by-side in cramped desks, we poured over his poems—inebriated with delight and desperate to show Dr. Rae that we could interpret Heaney as brilliantly as she did.

However, our professor’s most significant gift came outside the classroom, on an enjoyable but poignant evening. Before she transferred to another university, she wanted to have dinner with us. We sat down to Thai food and ginger-pear martinis in an elegant, dim restaurant, and Dr. Rae handed each of us two identical books: a copy of a journal in which one of her poems was published and a copy of Seamus Heaney’s 1995 Nobel Prize Lecture, “Crediting Poetry.”

My edition of “Crediting Poetry” was small and square, a hardcover with dust jacket and thick pages. In the lecture, Heaney articulated his history with poetry—how poetry expresses all human conditions and validates our vulnerabilities. He wrote, “I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.” For Heaney, poetry is a way of keeping your humanity in a turbulent world, for processing and understanding your experiences, for anchoring yourself and your values.

Dr. Rae’s gift has become a treasured possession, one that I share with students as often as I can. Heaney’s lecture overflows with poetic images and manipulations of time and space, blurring the line between poetry and prose. Its form alone earns it a place on my course syllabus. And if students grasp even a vague impression of its message, I know I’ve done them a service.

I started to purchase Heaney’s work on my own, and I continued to receive Heaney’s poetry as gifts from Katie. Each gift commemorates our shared enthusiasm for the poet and our history with his work – a history that resonates with all our classroom epiphanies. During my last and most difficult semester of grad school, Katie presented me with a box of anti-stress goodies, and Heaney’s 2011 collection, Human Chain. When we heard about his death, we read Human Chain aloud together.

Heaney’s “Sunlight” was the first poem I ever read in braille. I’ve written extensively on  my very brief experience of braille poetry—on the struggles and joys of deciphering a single word and realizing its poetic significance, on the ability to finally read poetry outside, on being able to spend so much time laboring over Heaney’s words. I still keep my braille copy of Heaney’s North on a shelf in my office, waiting for the perfect combination of sunshine, autumn breezes, and free time.

The remarkable thing about writing is that it softens the blow of hardship and separation. Poetry has often helped me through extreme difficulties—the death of a friend who was more like a sister, the distance of a thousand miles between my beloved friend and myself, the terrifying waves of doubt that come when any chapter of my life closes and the pages of a new one start to turn. Perhaps this is why I don’t feel desolate about Seamus Heaney’s passing. I must relinquish the far-fetched dream that I’ll meet him in some exclusive yet earthy poetry workshop—the fantasy that he’d shake my hand and say something brief and beautiful about my work. I have to let go of the sorrow that rises each time I think, “He’ll never release another collection.” Katie and I won’t be rushing to the bookstore in search of his latest volume of lectures or poems. He won’t win any more prizes or deliver any more lectures. But he has left us—left me—with so much to explore. Several volumes of his poetry and prose sit on my shelves, in braille and in print, and I have read only a fraction of them. Even his recent book of collected poems doesn’t contain all his work.

Seamus Heaney’s is not an easy loss to bear, but I believe that his poetry will do what poetry always does. It will, as Heaney wrote, be “itself and…a help.” I am thankful that he trusted so much to poetry and left us so many poems in which to trust.

* I recommend that you listen to Heaney read “Digging” aloud. The link is just above the text of the poem.

A letter to Jane Eyre

Dear Ms. Eyre,

I hope that the unfamiliarity of my name and address do not baffle you. The lack of a formal introduction and a long friendship shall not stop me from saying some things to you which I trust you will absorb with the spirit of Helen Burns – that is, the spirit of self-improvement and beneficent attention.

Today I write to offer my thoughts on certain aspects of your story, which I have just finished reading. Perhaps you are wondering why I call you by your maiden name. Ms. Brontë’s wonderful publication tells me that you are lately married, but it is your unmarried self, at a fixed point in the narrative, for whom I fashion this letter.

I know, Jane, that I have no right to pass judgment on the actions of your life. However, I find an inability to keep silent in one quarter – your initial treatment of Mr. Rochester in the last installment of your tale. Let me remind you of the scene.

After your long departure, you have returned to Thornfield. You hear the tale of its recent devastation from a garrulous innkeeper, and, determined, you make your way to Mr. Rochester’s side. The innkeeper has described his new afflictions; your beloved is now blind in both eyes and missing his right hand. You can easily guess how these new losses have transformed his passionate spirit.

You arrive at Mr. Rochester’s current residence, resolved to love him and live with him. Coming upon the house, you catch a glimpse of your beloved – dear Edward! – trying to take an evening walk about his premises. I say “trying” here because he walks with a mixture of reticence and resolution. Unaided, without a cane, he steps cautiously forward, his remaining hand extended before him. In a century, rehabilitation therapists will teach blind children to walk this way before they learn to use the white cane. When a blind child chances to totter forward without the proper precautions, its teacher will kindly admonish, “Put up your bumpers.”

But dear Edward is no blind child under the supervision of a solicitous mobility instructor. He will not receive a slender white cane nor a course in street crossing. No wonder he hesitates, careful of each step, his outstretched hand seeking familiarities. For you and your readers alike, this is a sad spectacle.

You witness and relate the deepening pathos of the scene. Resigned, frustrated, and unwilling to accept another’s arm, dear Edward can only travel so far on his own. He must return to his house to sit in the dark, lonely parlor and dream of your coming.

You know, at this point, that he hasn’t seen you – that it is impossible for him to discern your silent presence. In some minutes, you enter the house and present yourself to Mr. Rochester’s attendants, two old servants from Thornfield Hall. You insist that you, not Mary, will carry to dear Edward the glass of water and candles he has requested. So far, Jane, I object to none of these actions.

Surely you remember the details of your long-awaited reunion with Mr. Rochester, but I will continue to summarize. You enter the room without speaking and try to discourage the friendly, audible welcome of your master’s dog. Dear Edward tells Mary to hand him the glass of water and you oblige. He senses something – your movements, the dog’s excitement, perhaps both – and asks you to confirm that you are Mary. You tell him she is in the kitchen. You offer him more water, and he asks you to speak, to reveal yourself.  You answer him, saying, “Pilot [the dog] knows me, and John and Mary know I am here. I came only this evening.” Again, you withhold your name. He must guess and speculate in discomfort; you keep him shrouded in uncertainty. After a few more lines of dialogue, you reveal yourself to be his “living darling,” his long sought and beloved Jane.

I’m sure that this is a very touching memory for you, Ms. Eyre, but I must speak out at this juncture. No doubt, your story creates a dramatic, poignant, and brilliant entrance into Mr. Rochester’s dreary disabled existence. You withhold your identity and name from him just long enough – perhaps to draw him out or prepare him for the shock of your presence. But you must admit that this is bad form!

You see, I am a blind woman with a blind beloved, and I must protest your actions. To test your dear Edward in this way, to try his powers of perception even for a few moments, is cruel. We writers sacrifice much for a good story, but I believe that you overstep the bounds of compassion in this scene.

You must acknowledge, Ms. Eyre, your position as teacher throughout this entire novel. Yes, you go on to treat dear Edward with kindness and respect – reading to him whenever he wishes, guiding him throughout countless nature walks, being his eyes in all cases – but this initial test, this power struggle in the first moments of your reunion, colors your whole relationship. I know that you and Edward have made a happy marriage together, but I cannot overlook this first breach of courtesy.

I call you teacher, Ms. Eyre, because your readers learn from you. Truly they learn to be helpful and considerate to all, regardless of age or ability, but they also learn something of narrative cost. The narrative cost of your reunion with Edward is that he must give up his power to identify you. Are you unaware of the custom, Ms. Eyre, of identifying yourself to a blind person upon entering a room? Perhaps this custom did not exist when the scene occurred. It is possible, but I am unsure. None of your readers could doubt your deference, your knowledge of etiquette. I wonder then that you did not apply such deference in this case.

I do not propose to rewrite your story. Now that you and Edward have developed such a comfortable routine, I am sure you always tell him when you enter a room. I am sure that you do not continue to observe him when he cannot observe you.

I suppose then, Jane, that I am writing to warn you. There is a danger in the perceived power of the spectator – in the belief that one can always watch and never be watched, that such a watcher is therefore superior to those who cannot return the gaze. Not even for the sake of a good story should one exercise this power with impunity. Yes, a writer watches, a narrator observes, a speaker perceives – but all are accomplished because the environment allows it. Let us not write an environment which allows only some to exert a power of perception. Let us write of the times when Edward creates his own observations. He is not made to be watched only, to be digested in such a one-sided way.

I hope you will accept and contemplate this frank composition. I place these thoughts before you because I know that a character as deep and strong as yours can change the nature of narrative. I urge you to build with me a society that treats vulnerability as an opportunity for characters to empower, rather than overpower, one another.

Your sincere admirer and distant friend,
Modwyn

Intimate with Print

When venturing in search of new (or used) books, the Serious Bibliophile requires a few essentials: canvas bags for carrying the books home, a bottle of water, a dedicated and equally bibliophilic companion, a list, and a lot of time. The canvas bags are necessary for two reasons: 1) they won’t tear when you cram them full of books of different shapes, and 2) they represent environmental consciousness. Using the cloth bags will help you resolve your eco-guilt from bringing home a dozen print books. The bottle of water will keep you hydrated as you make use of the ample time you’ve allotted for this session. When you want to go dashing down every aisle, whisking books off shelves with the irrepressible glee of a 5-year-old on a sugar rush, the list of titles to look for will help you to exert some self-control. The companion will also help you make use of your time; her enthusiasm for finding and reading the books you desire will the hours disappear quickly.

My most frequent book-buying companion is Katie, and she is meticulous about observing the rules above. We regularly schedule trips to one of Jacksonville’s largest used bookstores, our canvas bags, shopping lists, and protein bars in hand. If the trip to the bookshop occurs somewhere in a long day of errands, we have learned to eat before we step across the sloping threshold. Book-buying on an empty stomach is a dangerous business. Combine our crankiness from hunger with our desire to buy four times the amount of books our budgets allow, and we represent a serious threat to ourselves and all other customers.

Because I am a lover of literature – poetry and prose, drama and nonfiction – you might assume that a book’s content is the only thing that matters. However, accessing literature is a multi-sensory experience, an indulgence for the hands, eyes, and nose – as well as the mind.  The books I purchase are stories I want to read, in formats I can easily access. So, aside from interesting content, what am I looking for in a good book?

While shopping with Katie, we wandered into the Classics section in search of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I had read the book eight years ago, for my AP Language & Composition class, but I’d somehow lost track of my beloved copy. Katie found the card with “WOOLF” printed in large, blocky lettering, and began to scour the stacks for the book I wanted. She found several editions, published by different companies – their fonts, pages, and binding wildly varied.

Our process is a simple one: Katie pulls an edition off the shelf and hands it to me, I open it to check whether the print is easy to read, and Katie uses my observations to filter the books she passes to me. I rarely require books in standard large print (size 18), because I apply a collection of magnifiers, reading glasses, and bifocals to texts I read. For me, ideal print is dark against the page, not a spidery or blocky font. Fonts like Courier New that echo the look of a typewriter are a recipe for disaster, while seriffed fonts like Times or Garamond are easy on my eyes. (WordPress tells me that the font I’m using now is Times.)

The quality of the page is also important. Often, I prefer to shop for used books because the yellowing pages are easier for me to read. Bright white pages can be glary, making the letters difficult to distinguish. Yellowed pages, on the other hand, soften the glare of overhead lights and contrast well with most fonts. If the book has any markings in it, it becomes exponentially more difficult to read. Occasionally, I can read a text that has underlining throughout, but, if someone has highlighted in the text, forget it!

The book’s spine is worth considering as well; if the book does not open easily, it will be difficult for me to get close enough to the pages to read them. When I was younger, I used a dome-shaped glass magnifier to read print. Now, I prefer reading glasses with 10x bifocals; I don’t have to worry about wedging a heavy glass dome in between the pages, but I do need to get about two inches away from the printed text to read it. Since I regularly underline in books, I must be able to get close to the text.

Because of my necessary textual intimacy, I have to give all my books the sniff test. Unless a book smells appealing – musty, old, and well-loved or crisp, new, and papery – I am reluctant to read it. I once avoided a textbook for my Mark Twain course, because, when I got deep into the pages, I could only smell the acrid glue of the binding.

The olfactory pleasure of books prevents me from switching to an all-digital experience of literature. Arguably, many more books are available online as e-books and free texts, but I know how desperately I would miss that Good Book Smell. Plus, my tactile relationship to texts helps me to navigate them with ease. I often remember where a passage is located because I remember reading it halfway down the page, on the left side, in the second column. My spatial awareness of text on a paper page disappears when I switch to texts on my computer. Audiobooks, however, are a welcome addition to my library, and I enjoy listening to a book while following along in the print edition.

If you’re thinking that my preferences sound like a load of cumbersome specifications, you’re very close to the truth. It is certainly easier on my eyes when I have an audiobook doing the reading and I can simply skim the pages with a pen, underlining as I listen. Yet I continue to gravitate to the printed page, even in the absence of audio recordings. Something in the experience of curling up with a good book – my nose, without exaggeration, deep in the pages – conveys a coziness, a tranquil absorption. As my body performs the posture of reading, the book is a reassuring weight in my hands. Getting my fingers around the edge of a page, sliding my bookmark into place, drawing a thin bracket around a particularly moving passage – these gestures comprise the sensory pleasures of a revitalizing experience.