Ou Est la Biblioteque?

The Library of Congress entrance inspires awe.

There’s a lot of talk going around these days about how the Book is dead. Or at least on its way out, drummed into the dust by the chattering hordes of hi-tech gadgets that make the act of turning paper pages seem quaint, not to mention ecologically incorrect.

But for those of us who still thrill to the whisper of the turning page, there remain a few bastions of the printed word where books get some respect. The Library of Congress covers three blocks right behind the Capitol, where politicians and news makers fill the air with their boasts and claims of knowledge and virtue. But inside the Library, the atmosphere has the hushed gravity of a cathedral, and the workers scuttle through the miles of stacks with the quiet reverence of acolytes to a higher god.

You can almost feel Wisdom floating in the air.

Words of wisdom line the walls.

For a bookworm like me, it’s an exciting place. I have been visiting libraries all my life, never happier than when wandering the stacks, inhaling that slightly musty scent of old books.

In Seattle the library system is terrific, with well-designed branches all over town which use the newest technologies to share their collections. And the city’s flagship Central library is a stunning work of modern architecture by Rem Koolhaas, its soaring glass walls reflecting the city lights like a beacon of progress.Inside, bright colors and modern art distinguish the many floors linked by a clever system of escalators and ramps that carry patrons up through the building. It’s a marvel, and, though still a source of some controversy, it draws thousands of tourists each year who come to see the building even if they don’t read much.

By the same token, tourists to the nation’s capitol visit the Library of Congress because in its vast collections it holds some of the most famous and revered documents of our country, as well as some unexpected treasures. The Guttenberg Bible is there, for instance. And there’s also an amazing collection of rare musical instruments, recordings and newspapers.

Naturally, the architecture reflects the classical tradition, with magnificent ceilings embellished with allegorical art and breathtaking stonework.You could get a crick in your neck trying to read the ceilings alone. It’s all fairly wonderful.

But not everyone who visits the LoC cares about the building or the books. When I was there this week enjoying a kind of behind the scenes tour with a friend who works there, we came upon a group of young visitors, maybe high school age, who bustled into the lofty entry area of the main building. They gazed around restlessly, clearly not overly impressed by the gilding, the mosaics or the quotations on the walls. After a few seconds one of them, noticing my friend’s badge, asked if she could tell them where the “secret room” was. She shook her head and replied, “Did you lose your guide?”

The guy nodded and said, “But you work here. Can’t you tell us where it is?”

“Do you mean the Dan Brown book?” she asked.

The guy nodded again. My friend told them to wait for their guide, who would be able to answer their questions.

She told me as we moved on that interest in The DaVinci Code has led to an influx of visitors whose passion for books is perhaps not as keen as their passion for hot topics.

Still. They came to the library. That’s a start.

The power of words, to lead or mislead, to inspire love or hate, to clarify or obfuscate, remains. Some people choose to live their lives according to the words of one book or another. Yet, much as I love words and books, I’m not sure that relying on one book is the best idea, no matter how old or how respected that book may be. It’s a big universe. Ours is a small planet. One book may be enough to change the world, but if we hope to save it, I think we’d do well to read more.

A lot more.

Rant Cant

Peace lovers placed this statue of Sri Chinmoy beside Lake Union.

I chanced to see Network again last night and was riveted by the impression that what passed for satire 35 years ago has become business as usual today.

In 1976, when the film won four Oscars and was nominated for another handful, Paddy Chayefsky’s sharp skewering of the corporate struggle for media domination offered a fresh take on what was going on behind the curtain in Oz.

But now, with “reality” programming smearing the line between truth and fiction, aided and abetted by the constant streaming of opinion and rumor on “social” media such as Twitter and Facebook, the distinction between satire and real reality has become harder to detect.

Watching Peter Finch as the outraged news broadcaster on a struggling television network deliver the classic rant, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,”  I couldn’t help wondering if that rabble rousing cry didn’t somehow lodge in the subconscious of an entire generation of budding talk show hosts. We’ve all heard their names. I prefer not to add one more twig to the bonfire of their vanities. But as the daily news continually illustrates, rabble rousing is a risky business. Mobs aren’t known for clear thinking. And regimes confronted by mobs can’t be expected to behave rationally either.

So far, it looks like we got lucky in Egypt. The people who got mad as hell were allowed to vent and the response was measured, not as violent as it could have been, and the hope for peaceful progress remains alive. However, it remains to be seen whether the domino effect in the region will lead to greater peace and freedom or worsening oppression.

Network ends on a cynical note of violence that was too shocking to be taken seriously in its time. But these days, when everyday violence seems as inevitable as the dandelions in the lawn, it’s harder to believe that peaceful solutions can succeed. Perhaps that’s why the jubilation in Egypt, however short-lived it may be, offers a breath of hope in a dark world.

Here in Seattle there are plenty of people who enjoy a good rant. The topics run the spectrum, from the economy to  civil liberties or lack of same, to the vast conspiracy theories burning endlessly, pilot lights on the fires of contention.

But peaceniks still carry on, lighting candles, saying prayers, offering flowers. You might say that we’re dreamers. But we’re not the only ones.

Couch Gag

Why does a couch cross the road?

The answer to this age-old riddle depends on whom you ask.

If you asked the infinitely creative writers of The Simpsons, they might suggest that the couch has deep personal issues of its own to work through. No doubt putting up with Bart and Homer all these years has left its mark on that  particular couch.

But perhaps all couches need a break from being sat upon. If you asked writer Benjamin Parzybok, author of the whimsical and strange novel Couch, you might find yourself immersed in a couch odyssey, seeking nothing less than the meaning of life.

I came upon Parzybok’s book in a used book store a while back and was immediately drawn to its tagline: “Three guys move a couch, save the world.”

Wow. Talk about a story I can relate to. Who among us hasn’t moved a couch? Who among us hasn’t broken down in hysterical laughter while trying to maneuver said couch up a tight stairway? For me, for some inexplicable reason, moving furniture, particularly large unwieldy items such as couches or mattresses, up stairs, around narrow corners, into seemingly impossible positions, has always triggered fits of laughter. I think it has something to do with that feeling you get when you know you’re edging right up against the fractured borderland where the not funny becomes funny. Those moments when the realization hits you that you’re this close to dropping the piano, or the couch, or whatever. And then you have a choice. Either panic, or laugh. But whatever you do, don’t let go.

In Parzybok’s rambling misadventure story, the moving of a couch becomes an extended metaphor for all those perilous moments when things seem too heavy to deal with, yet deal we must.

I wouldn’t recommend the book for everyone. It’s kind of a Portland thing. It’s weird. But, if you like that sort of thing, it’s kind of great.

Seattle has its own love affair with the weird and quirky, and in a quiet corner of Ballard a pocket park pays tribute to the humble couch. At first glance the concrete couch at Ballard Corners Park looks so inviting and homey, you might plop down on it before checking to see if its soaking wet. Rain won’t damage this couch, but soggy pants are a downer.

But should you come across this couch corner on a sunny day, it offers a wonderful change from the usual park bench. It invites you to sit a while and ponder the mysteries of life. And couches.


Some don’t like his voice. Some can’t stand his music. Some never forgave him for going electric back in the ’60s.

But for me, Bob is the One.

I like his voice. I love his music. There’s nothing to forgive.

He’s given me more solace, more pleasure, more soul satisfaction than any of the multitude of blandly pleasant popular crooners whose forgettable tunes rise and fall on the charts with as little lasting impact as the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

The best of Bob’s music is the stuff of poetry, with its wild free-wheeling imagery and close to the bone insight. Even his few mediocre recordings in the course of a career enduring more than forty years have a lyrical integrity that eludes most others. But  little of his vast output is radio-friendly. I suspect that to kids today Bob is known almost exclusively as the creator of “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,”  and to a slightly lesser extent, for “Like A Rolling Stone.” And of course, in the case of the first two, the covers by The Byrds and Peter, Paul, and Mary, respectively, have enjoyed more airtime than Bob’s original recordings.

But those of us who light candles in the Church of Bob tend to favor works less widely known.  “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” still casts a spell that takes me back to a time when many of my generation thought music could change the world. I no longer believe that any one song has that power. But “Visions of Johanna” takes my breath away. And “Dear Landlord” still hits the mark. The anti-war anthem “With God on Our Side” is as powerful and relevant today as it was in 1964.

So, yeah. When I hear people talk about what kind of music they like these days, and they rave about whoever it is, be it Taylor Swift or Kanye West or any of the thousands of bright young bands mixing and mashing up musical styles for the great buffet of modern musical tastes, I nod and hold my tongue. Unto each generation is born a new roster of talent. Some got it. Some don’t. As Bob himself once sang, “Time will tell who has fell, and who’s been left been behind.”

My guess is, it won’t be Bob.

Goths to the Flame

Seasons come and seasons go, but complaints about the weather never wane.

As we reach the end of a dreary January here on the Northwest coast, we dare to hope that conditions will improve. Perhaps the sun will come out once or twice a week for an hour or two. Is that asking too much? Or, failing that, at least there may be an end to the moaning and griping from friends and relatives back East who’ve had more than enough snow this winter.

The thing about weather is: it can always be worse. Some of us take comfort from this. After all, when you live somewhere cold and dark for nine months of the year, you can take a kind of grim satisfaction in the fact that at least you don’t have to dig your car out from under two feet of snow every weekend. Nor do you have to contend with heatstroke and failing air conditioners. No indeed, here in the Shire all we need are three or four thick sweaters, a layer of Gore-Tex, an industrial strength espresso machine and an impenetrable shield of denial and we can get through winter’s gloom. And spring’s, and fall’s for that matter.

But there’s no denying that at this stage in the calendar year we are not immune to the siren song of sunlight, however fleeting and cold it may be.

Thus, last weekend, when the clouds thinned just long enough to allow some glittering rays to reach the Sound, some of us threw on our parkas and scampered down to the shore to enjoy the moment, before it vanished, and we trudged back to our dark bungalows to dream of brighter days ahead.

I Never Metafiction

And here’s why: life is confusing enough as it is.

Yet, obviously for some brainy writers it’s not enough for a novel to combine a plot, characterization and compelling narrative authority into a coherent whole. The challenge is to create a fictional world in which nothing is reliable – not the narrator, not the apparent setting, and certainly not what passes for a plot.

However, once you get used to the idea that you can’t trust anything to be what it seems, in this sort of novel – one which refuses to behave like a civilized, domesticated piece of fiction – it can be kind of thrilling to let go and see just how far out or in deep the author can go.

Charles Yu, in his brilliant, confounding, yet ultimately moving novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, provides an extraordinary journey outside the box of conventional narrative. His hero is not heroic. His quest may or may not be real. His experiences are simultaneously profound and mundane. The novel has moments of violence, tenderness and dry humor.

But Yu’s subject, ostensibly time travel, is explored with acute sensitivity to one of the great paradoxes of human life – our awareness of time and the effect this has on the way we live. Our attempts to beat the clock, to escape the consequences of being dependent on our ticking hearts, to somehow control time so that we can . . . live forever? Undo past mistakes? Fix the world, or at least our own small lives?

Yet make no mistake, while How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe does indeed include descriptions of time machine building, and a gauzy film of computer wizardry veils the suspension bridge of disbelief, Yu’s use of the concept of time travel has more in common with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than Wells’s The Time Machine.

Yu is most lyrical when reflecting on the experience of being human in a world of constant change. Early in the novel the hero says: “Time isn’t an orderly stream. Time isn’t a placid lake recording each of our ripples. Time is viscous. Time is a massive flow. It is a self-healing substance, which is to say, almost everything will be lost. We’re too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about. Time is an ocean of inertia, drowning out the small vibrations, absorbing the slosh and churn, the foam and wash, and we’re up here, flapping and slapping and just generally spazzing out, and sure, there’s a little bit of splashing on the surface, but that doesn’t even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us.”

Some like it deep.

Just Another Word

This past week, as the shock waves from the latest senseless shooting reverberated across the country, I was in the middle of reading Jonathan Franzen’s remarkable novel, Freedom, and day after day, as the media went through its usual rapid response analysis and pointless speculating, I was struck by how the novel was eerily relevant to the mood of the nation.

In Freedom, as in his earlier knockout novel, The Corrections, Franzen’s complex plot is rooted in a complex marriage, a marriage which shows no sign of having been made in heaven. The story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their struggle to live with each other and raise their children in a world where the moral compass seems hopelessly compromised by modern economic and political imperatives reveals a lot of what is wrong, and right, about the world today, when the clarity of simpler times is so muddied by the brute force of pop culture and the current penchant for hair-trigger communication that the concepts of honesty and fairness seem almost quaint.

But as Franzen’s acute sensibility and brilliant characterization reveals the  long-suffering Berglunds, it becomes apparent that his great theme is, indeed, no less than freedom itself, the price we pay for it, the immeasurable value of it, and the great mystery of how true freedom never comes without the acceptance of some measure of responsibility. There’s a price for everything.

And that’s what Franzen asks us to consider. As Walter Berglund says late in the novel: “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want.”

Reading these words in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, I couldn’t help but feel that Franzen had put his finger on the throbbing pulse of the problem of violence in America. People without hope do desperate things. Anyone can be a target. It’s not the politics, it’s the poverty that infects the human spirit, and locks it in the dark.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

A New Edge

So, the first week of 2011 has slipped by, and, as yet, I’m unable to detect anything particularly distinctive about its personality. Whether it will be a Year To Remember or a Year To Redecorate remains to be seen. But at least in terms of my reading list, it’s off to a good start.

My first read of the new year was “Personal Days” by Ed Park, not a new book (it was published in 2008) but one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. As I read it this last week I was enthralled by Park’s brilliant observations on human nature and the way it gets bent out of shape in the bizarre machinations of the modern office environment.

The world of the office has provided fertile ground for literary works ever since Dickens, in works such as “Bleak House,” created scathing portraits of the soul-crushing tombs where numbing routine and Byzantine power structures combine to drain the life out of workers. More recent authors have exposed the absurdity and pathos of modern office life. Notable examples include Joshua Ferris’s funny, yet deeply moving “Then We Came to the End” and Max Barry’s sharply comic “Company.” One of my personal favorites is Tom Holt’s gleefully insane fantasy “The Portable Door,” which posits an office where the boss from hell is, well, that pretty much says it all.

Like these novels, “Personal Days” is wry and thoughtful, but it steps farther out on the ledge where the Mad Men lurk. Park is a founding editor of The Believer and a former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement, and his novel stands out in part because of his own marvelous voice. Writing about an office operating under a kind of Machiavellian cloud, his descriptions of familiar office types are fresh and thrilling. Of a character dealing with a sudden onset of panic he writes: “It was like she’d been set in italics.”

In a tour de force monologue which stretches over several pages he describes one employee as “someone who would always have an ax to grind – who would, upon finishing the satisfactory grinding of one ax, refuse to relax, but instead go back to his cavernous ax storeroom and haul out another one that needed a new edge.”

Ah. That’s what I’m talking about. The first cut is the deepest.