Support your local bookstore!

November 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Here’s a joke for you guys: A literature student walks into her neighbourhood bookstore, pays the full price for all the books she needs and goes home with money in her bank account.

Jokes aside because I today I want to talk to you about an endangered species. Biodiversity in our city centres is constantly decreasing. Native species such as the Cozy Neighbourhood Bookstore are being displaced by the more powerful Chain Bookstores, and in the end, Starbucks replaces them. The Darwinists among our readers might argue that some kind of evolution is going on here and that only the fittest survive. But what if I told you that this development is our fault? Just like we successfully exterminated awesome animals such as the quagga, we’re now exterminating the common Cozy Neighbourhood Bookstore. Let me tell you a story.

Back in my high school days, I worked in a used books store. The store was awesome, crammed with old books, piled up all the way to the ceiling. The shop keeper would always bring her dog, and although I’m not exactly a dog person, I liked the lil fella a lot. His presence gave the shop a certain cozy living room atmosphere. We didn’t have a lot of customers, mainly the same handful of regulars who would step by every once in a while. All in all, it was a feel good shop for someone like me, someone who loves this very special smell of old books. Shops like this can be found almost everywhere, and I love browsing through their almost collapsing shelves.

However, some days ago I got an e-mail from the shop keeper – she’s giving up the book store and she’s looking for someone who is willing to run it in the future. I knew that business wasn’t going exactly well and I also knew that she had some other issues to deal with, but I was dumbfounded nevertheless. Luckily, the store is not closing for good, but many other stores suffer a worse fate, even big chain bookstores such as Borders. There is a relatively big chain of bookstores in Germany, Mayersche, and they recently closed a big branch in Cologne. The building is now home to a sports equipment store. Do people suddenly read less and do more sports?

I highly doubt that. But we all know that reading habits are changing, and many people either only read e-books or purchase their printed books online because it is so convenient. There’s a general tendency in our society to always look for the most convenient way to do things, and as a lazy person, I can totally relate. Ordering pizza via phone is good, but ordering pizza via a smartphone app is even better. I have to admit that I buy most of the books I need for university online because it’s one way of saving a lot of money on books. However, I recently bought a novel at a regular bookstore and paid about 12 € for it, and the only thing I could think about were the 8 € I would have saved had I bought it online. Let’s admit it, we’re cheapskates. Even people who could afford new, store-bought books always look for the best deal. What we keep forgetting is that there are people who actually make a living selling books. Those people depend on bookworms like us who regularly shop at their stores.

I’m not saying that you should do all of your book shopping at a local neighbourhood book store. The critical reader might now think that Amazon and ReBuy employees have to make a living as well, and you’re completely right about that. But does it really hurt to go to your corner bookstore every once in a while and shop for books there? No, it doesn’t. It can even be a very interesting and rewarding experience. The shopkeeper at the store where I recently got myself a copy of Grass’ Tin Drum knows my name and always engages in some chit-chat because I’ve done a lot of book shopping there ever since I was a small child. Those of you who love the anonymity of shopping online or at large stores might be annoyed by this rather personal atmosphere, but I can only say that I actually like it.

So, next time you want to buy a book, think twice about where you want to do your shopping. Do all independent book stores and used book stores a favour and step by every once in a while. You never know what gems are hiding in the far corners of those crooked shelves.

Loo Literature

September 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

According to 9gag and other meme sites on the internet, a lot of people take their smartphone with them when they go to the bathroom. The world reportedly plays 5 million hours of Angry Birds per day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if about half of this happened on the loo. Now, I don’t have a smartphone and therefore I have to fall back on the centuries-old entertainment of reading on the toilet. Have you ever noticed how many people, even your average non-readers, have books or magazines in the bathroom? I hereby admit that I myself am a toilet reader. I’m an everywhere reader, so it’s only natural that I also read there, isn’t it?

But what makes the “smallest room” such a popular place for reading? Sitting on the toilet is a bit like using public transport, and I’m not talking about the smell here. You are immobilised in a certain position for some time, so you can as well use that time for something productive. Neither the bathroom nor train seats are the ideal place to get your painting supplies out, but a book fits into your handbag or onto your window sill. It’s a wonderful occasion to read a few pages (or to launch some birds with a sling shot – but let’s stick with reading here).

Now picture the following scene from the author’s private life: My grandmother is invited to dinner at our house, and being the polite person that she is, she has brought a little gift for the host. “Here, I noticed that you sometimes read books on the toilet”, she says and hands my mother a book. My mother quickly examines the book, says thanks and puts it away. Later on, she gives it to me and I decide to give it a try as my new toilet read. It’s Bill Fitzhugh’s novel Pest Control, a nice little piece of fiction so far.

What makes a book an appropriate toilet read? In the end, it’s up to you what you read on the toilet, but I can tell you that I will not attempt to conquer the Magic Mountain on the loo. A good toilet book shouldn’t be too difficult to follow because your reading sessions are likely to be very short. That’s why I usually prefer books at the lower end of the acceptable scale – you won’t find horrible chick lit on the window sill in my bathroom, but I like some contemporary fiction with few characters and few big ideas. Books with short, anecdotic chapters are great toilet reads, and to all my German readers I strongly recommend the Känguru-Manifest by Marc-Uwe Kling.

Short story collections are a good choice as well. Someone who happens to live here is currently making their way through a collection of the “best German short stories”, selected and edited by the German literary pope Reich-Ranicki. Short satiric texts are very entertaining too, but you might break into laughter on the loo, and this might lead to an awkward moment when you come back and you have company. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience here.

There are people who think they’re too busy for reading, and there might even be people who actually are so busy all day long that they can’t dedicate time to the sweet indulgence that is reading. These people are your non-readers, but nevertheless, you might fight a book or at least a magazine in their bathroom. Even they have to admit that during those private minutes, they have “nothing better” to do anyway, so why not read a few pages.

Last but not least, you can also make a statement through your loo literature. Whenever I’m at someone’s place, I instinctively scan their bookshelf. If it’s well stocked, I might fail to notice their most important books. If you want people to know that you own Being and Nothingness, why not put it on your bathroom window sill? Sooner or later your guests will have to powder their nose and they’ll see what a great intellectual you are. On a second thought, why not leave the Communist Manifesto there? Politics don’t stop at the bathroom door.

100 miles an hour

September 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Guess what, dear reader, today I almost dropped my sausage and sauerkraut into my oversized glass of beer. There are a lot of clichés about Germany and the Germans, some of which are true and some of which have a least a very small grain of truth in them. Whenever I come across a description of Germany or a German character in a book, I read the paragraph very carefully, paying close attention to how the writer plays with the common stereotypes. I could write a detailed analysis of the usage of national stereotypes in fiction, but that’s not what this article is supposed to be about.

The CorrectionsBack to my sauerkraut – I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a really good novel so far. It has something about it that makes it unmistakeably American. The big American novel, and say hello to a stereotype here, tries to be very comprehensive and to do more than just tell a story. Both The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen’s latest novel that I read earlier this year, aim to be a general study of American society, and I have to admit that Franzen is doing a good job here. His observations are crisp clear and paint a picture of 20th and 21st century America that is easily accessible to non-Americans. I can’t quite tell to what extent this picture is based on stereotypes, but it seems to be critically reflected and elaborated.

However, his brief depiction of Germany – actually only one sentence long – was a big disappointment to me. Here’s the sentence you’ve been waiting for, the one that made me drop my sauerkraut into the big cleavage of my traditional Bavarian dress.

“In Germany she drove a hundred miles an hour and was tailgated by cars flashing their high beams.“ There’s nothing wrong with the sentence in itself because we all know that on many highway in Germany, there is no speed limit, we all know that a lot of tourists love our highways for that and we all know that even for some Germans, a highway is one long race track. The problem is that Germany as a whole is reduced to this tiny sentence. The novel has more than 600 pages that contain detailed descriptions of houses and flats, but apparently one sentence is enough to describe a country.

What should Franzen have done? In my opinion, it’s either feast or famine – instead of jotting down a sloppy sentence that is based on one of the most common stereotypes, he could have written a more detailed description or nothing at all. Franzen is an intelligent writer who pays attention to the small things, and he’s not the one whom I’d expect to be so superficial here. Call me thin-skinned, but when I came across that sentence, I was seriously offended for a moment. If you want to play with clichés, do it in a clever way.

Speaking of The Corrections and German stereotypes in foreign literature – is there some kind of obsession with the name Klaus? There is a German guy called Klaus in The Corrections, but he’s by far not the only one I’ve met in fiction lately. This summer I finally read Roberto Bolaño’s whale of a novel, 2666, in which a character of German origin is called Klaus as well. While two occurrences might still be considered a coincidence, third time’s the charm. My new “toilet read” (a topic that deserves an article for itself) is Bill Fitzhugh’s Pest Control, an entertaining little novel, that has a German character called… Klaus.

German offers so many equally stereotypical given names – why not go for, let’s say, Wolfgang or Manfred? When I read, I often accidentally mispronounce foreign names in my mind because I’ve never heard them before, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of Anglophone readers will mispronounce Klaus as well. Dear writers, if you want to avoid that, you could also choose a more international name. But then again, it’s up to you.

Please excuse me, I have to put on my dirndl and go to Munich in order to be on time for the Oktoberfest. At an average speed of 100 miles an hour, I should be able to make the trip in less than four hours. O’zapft is!

A plea for a new literary canon

September 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

We need a new literary canon. We have to say good bye to the books that have been on there for decades – yes, you heard me right. I’d love to replace some of the “classics” with other books, not necessarily more recent, but definitely different. Why?

“You know, I’d totally put it on the reading list for high school graduation.” Can you guess what book I am talking about? Probably not because this is not an apparent choice. I’m talking about The Marx Family Saga, a very good postmodern novel by Juan Goytisolo. Seriously, it’s postmodernism 101 – no punctuation and no capital letters, but a load of metafictional elements. Anas recommended it to me, and of course he was keen to know my opinion on it, and he was a bit surprised when I told him I would include it in the high school reading syllabus. The book is definitely not easy to read and it takes a lot of patience and concentration, but once you’ve found your way through it, it turns out to be a very rewarding read.

But the main reason for putting it on the reading list would be sweet, sweet revenge for all the mediocre stuff that I had to put up with in high school. I wonder how some of the books we read ended up on the list in the first place.

I’m not saying that the books in the current literary canon are bad, but there are better books out there that are just less known. But is it really the quality of a book that makes it suitable for a literary canon? Let’s ask my ever-faithful friend, the dictionary. It says that a canon is “a list of books or other works that are generally accepted as (…) being important”. Anas and I have had long discussions about what makes a book important, but we have agreed on two points. A book should reflect the era it was written in and at the same time it should have a timeless value. An important book, in my opinion, should address an issue that is still relevant centuries later.

Fontane’s Effi Briest paints a nice picture of German society in the late 1890s and it is certainly a nice additional read for history class, but it is so dependent on exactly those social circumstances that to a high school student in 2012, it is no longer relevant. Goethe’s Werther, admittedly embedded in its era as well, on the other hand offers a protagonist going through lovesickness and teenage angst. And no matter how society changes, a young person will probably find traces of themselves in this character.

Furthermore, a literary canon should show a certain development. Most national literatures are obsessed with a certain era or even writer that they think is the peak and epitome of their literary production, but one mustn’t forget other schools of literature. The German literary canon shouldn’t start with Goethe and end with Schiller, it should be a list of books that depicts the change of style, form and motifs throughout the centuries. A canon should include more than just the bestsellers of each decade – why not dare more and dig a bit deeper into the treasures of the written word? Some books that went unnoticed when they were first published might prove to be perfect additions to the current “must-reads”. The textbook examples of each literary school have their right to exist as well and they’re necessary to teach the basics, but we should have the guts to include some more obscure works in our literary canon. In the end, this list of so-called important books is arbitrary, despite the criteria that one might detect, and this means that we can change it. We just have to start.

But what do our readers think? If it was up to you guys, what would you make a mandatory read in school? And why?

On the Power of Art: An Unnecessary Digression

September 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I can safely say that the question of the importance of literature has inevitably crossed the path of every serious reader. Czeslaw Milosz, whom I think of as one of the finest poets of the 20th century, once wrote that ‘Poetry is quite different… Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot – if it is good poetry – look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness.’ (1)

The question here is not whether all types of literature adhere to this definition of the nature of poetry or not, and this unnecessary digression isn’t a comparison between the qualities of poetry and prose. However, the nature of poetry as described by Milosz can be read in a wider context: I think of it as a possible explanation of the importance of literature at large, or even art as a whole.

But before I dive into that, allow me to digress: Let’s agree, first of all, on the idea that all forms of art have been created, in the first place, to retell reality, re-represent it, communicate it, probably because the individual reality that was to be communicated to another individual was not lived or witnessed by him, that is, the latter. I imagine a primordial man telling another primordial man about the adventures he had while hunting in the dense forests. Let’s agree that that, before even the mythical explanations of the world, was the birth of a primordial and unique form of art: In other words, communicating individual stories to an individual or a small circle of individuals, who, in return, communicate it to other individuals, etc. We can safely conclude then that the creation of art is, at least in its origin, a purely individualistic action.

But that’s not all. Art is also a rebellion on reality. Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian author, realized that and tried to explain it in his Letters to a Young Novelist. Allow me to quote, ‘Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities? Naturally, those who rebel against life as it is, using their ability to invent different lives and different people, may do so for any number of reasons, honorable or dishonorable, generous or selfish, complex or banal. The nature of this basic questioning of reality, which to my mind lies at the heart of every literary calling, doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that the rejection be strong enough to fuel the enthusiasm for a task as quixotic as tilting at windmills – the slight-of-hand replacement of the concrete, objective world of life as it is lived with the subtle and ephemeral world of fiction.’(2) Thus, in this retelling and re-representing of reality, an individual automatically refines and recreates it. Upon realizing that, storytelling, for example, ceases to be an innocent action. Art is a recreation that is rebellious, whether consciously or not.

Finally, art is also truth. By presenting the core or the truth of the world it depicts – in a thingly quality uniquely its own according to Heidegger – art contributes in representing truth. But what is truth? I’ll leave that question to great philosophers and sages for sadly I cannot enter this debate without taking a gargantuan amount of space in the process. But let’s say, for the sake of easiness, that what is meant by truth here is the original and inward nature of things. The truth in the shoes Van Gogh drew (a uniquely Heideggerian example to point truth out). The truth in the chair Picasso drew. That which if no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not, as St. Augustine once put it. Let me conclude this point with a quote from Heidegger’s Poetry, Language and Thought, ‘Yet truth is put into the work. What truth is happening in the work? Can truth happen at all and thus be historical? Yet truth, people say, is something timeless and supertemporal.’(3)

But I digress. Apologies! Let’s return to Milosz’s quote at the very beginning to bring this circle to its logical end. ‘Poetry is on the side of being and against nothingness’ because ‘it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint.’ My argument is very simple: This is not only a quality of poetry, but also a quality of prose, of all literature, even – I dare say – of all art. If it is good art. For only good art has truth in it, and this truth is, by default, on the side of being and against nothingness.

 

Now I have to admit that this article began as a little thought-game on the power of literature and not art as a whole; however, during the process of writing, I somehow realized that I cannot differentiate or draw a clear line between literature and the whole bulk of forms of art in terms of power or influence. Yes, novels might sell better than paintings (and have a larger audience) and films might be more expensive to make than music, but in terms of power, in terms of the unique thing that makes great art the great art it is, all forms are equal in my opinion. However, since literature is my personal favorite of those forms, allow me to linger on it a bit before I end this article. Literature shares the qualities of any form of art, it is an individualistic action designed to communicate on a much deeper level, intellectually and linguistically. It is also an act of rebellion which carries truth in its heart. Needless to say, it is precisely because of those qualities that an unbelievable power stems out of literature. And it is this power that drives Italo Calvino, for instance, to say, ‘Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology. My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.’(4)

But literature has an advantage over any other form of art. It is not that literature is more powerful than other forms of art, but it is more immediate. The immediacy of literature differs from the immediacy of cinema in the fact that when we read, our whole consciousness is immersed in the act of reading. That is not the case with painting, for instance, which can be sometimes alienating, or films, which we cannot substitute for reality. Literature ‘reveal[s] the colors and complexities of our lives and [is] full of people, faces, and objects we feel we recognize. Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing.’(5) And this is the uniqueness of literature: the ability to sustain the illusion – or the naiveté as Pamuk likes to call it – that forces us to see the same world with new eyes.

Let me conclude: Art, great art, can change the world with the power it exerts on its subjects. And in a world that constantly bludgeons ideals and universal truths, the only absolute to look for is to be found in a brush stroke that signifies meaning, in the wailing of a violin, in a carnation drawn with words, between heaps and heaps of paper. We need art now more than any other time in history. We need poetry. We need prose. We need a new Cezanne to teach us how to see with new eyes, and a new Debussy. Oh, and we need readers and lovers of art. Need I say more?

 

_________________________

(1)       Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry.

(2)       Llosa, Letters to a Young Novelist (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

(3)       Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought (translated by Albert Hofstadter)

(4)       Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (translated by Patrick Creagh)

(5)       Pamuk, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (translated by Nazim Dikbaş)

Shock your parents, read a book!

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

When I was young, there was this poster in our library that read “Shock your parents, read a book”. To me, the slogan didn’t make any sense. My mother was (and still is) an avid reader and therefore wouldn’t have been surprised, let alone shocked, by a reading child. On the other hand – she always encouraged my reading and tried to interest me in all kinds of books as a child, be it fiction or non-fiction. Having grown up in a bookish environment, I was dumbfounded when years later I realised that in many families, reading is not an integral part of their everyday life.

Reading has given me so much when I was a child, it introduced me to new worlds, fed my imagination and taught me quite a bit of factual knowledge as well. Books and literature have played an important role in my personal development and I think that children who don’t read miss a lot.

Now, one might argue that for a 21st century child, books are obsolete and have been replaced by other media such as television and the internet. Of course it is true, to a certain extent, that other media offer different approaches to children and satisfy their curiosity in a different way. I don’t want to deny the advantages of an age-appropriate computer programme over a simple book when it comes to for example studying or learning a language. But I have the impression that we’ve reached a point where in some people’s opinion, book and especially children’s books have lost their right to exist.

In 1984, Austrian author Christine Nöstlinger gave a speech that has been published as her “Message to the Children in the World”. This little text is one of the most impressive things I have ever read on the importance of books, and almost thirty years after its publication, it’s still as relevant as it was back then. Let’s have a quick look at the text’s core message:

“[A]ll over the world, the TV belongs to those who are in power, and they are in favour of the world the way it is. Many books are in favour of that as well. But there are many books that tell you what’s really going on in the world and why it’s going on. (…) [B]ooks can be a kind of help that you don’t get from anyone else“.

Nöstlinger’s wise words sum up the many reasons why sometimes it’s advisable to pick up a book and read about a topic extensively instead of just relying on the tiny bits of information the daily news or the internet is providing us with. Unfortunately, many adults don’t think this way and pass on their attitude to their children, which is a pity. I believe that no child is born with a natural aversion against books or reading, the same way no child is born with a natural aversion against physical activity. Kids want to explore the world, and it’s up to the parents to provide them with adequate material. If you don’t read to your baby or toddler, it’s much less likely that 10 years later, he or she will be a bookworm. Every child should be introduced to various forms of written words at home and at kindergarten or school, and later on, they can still decide whether they want to stay on the book drug or not.

Reading will help kids to develop an ability to think critically or as Nöstlinger calls it, an ability “to distinguish wrong from right“. If you want to understand the world you live in, this ability is indispensable and should therefore be encouraged even in very young children.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you to read War and Peace to your two-year-old. I just want you to take your toddler to the municipal library every now and then so that you can discover age-appropriate books together. There is no “right” or “wrong” reading material for a young child – the essential thing is that they discover the medium “book” as early as possible.

Or, in a slightly more populist way, “Shock your kids, give them a book”.

Do you want fries with that?

August 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

What does a literature graduate with a job say to a literature graduate without a job? – Dou you want fries with that?

Pretty damn funny, isn’t it? Well, I don’t think so. I’m currently in college, studying French and German literature and linguistics, and I get those jokes a lot. Most people don’t know that they have tickled a very sensitive nerve of mine there. I’ve wanted to study literature ever since 8th grade, but now that I am a year away from my bachelor’s degree, I’m facing a reality that is frighteningly close to these jokes.

Those who know me will agree that I’m not very talented at small talk. But there is one question that I fear more than all the others: “What are you studying?” I want to sound confident and bold when I tell people that I’m majoring in French and German, but I usually just mutter those two words and hope that we move on to the next subject. I can’t stand the jokes and comments, the disapproving and condescending looks of people who study “something real”. Why am I so ashamed of my studies? Literature is my passion and, in theory, I should be proud that I followed my heart.

Unfortunately, the whole “follow your heart” thing turned out to be bullshit. At the beginning, it seemed like a good idea to study the thing that I like most and that I’m good at, but I was so in love with the mere idea that I ignored all warnings from the people around me. By warnings I mean both the old jokes mentioned above and long, serious lectures about the bad job market for literature graduates. After high school, I had some hesitations whether to enrol in French and German literature or in something else, something that is more promising career-wise, but my emotions won against rationality.

I’m seriously not happy in college. Not because I don’t like the classes I’m taking (on the contrary – most of them are quite interesting and rewarding) but because I constantly worry about my future and wonder if it would have been better to have gone for med school, engineering or even a teaching degree. I’ve had long conversations with various people, some of whom encourage my decision and tell me that I will eventually find a job, but just like me, they can’t really picture what job this will be. Other people say that I’m irrational and irresponsible and that another degree would suit me better.

I seriously don’t know whom to believe. I know that the job market is everything but promising for me, and I’m constantly thinking of taking up something entirely different or switching to a teaching degree. But then I imagine myself in med school, learning by heart all parts of the human body, and I wonder if this Lena is more satisfied with her choices than I am. I doubt it.

Literature, unlike medicine or engineering, is a field of study that makes a very good hobby. If you’re an avid and attentive reader, you can analyse and discuss books with a cup of tea on your living room sofa and not in a dusty classroom with squeaky chairs. Maybe – for people like me who care a lot about what others think of them – it’s even better to solely read in your living room, in your own private bubble. And I know that no matter where my studies will lead me in the end, I’ll never turn my back to literature, no matter if it’s what earns me a living or what I waste my earned money on.

In the ideal case, it’s both at the same time.