The Book that Turned Me into a Reader

An illustration of Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth
An illustration of Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth

Although I remember reading fairly often as a child I don’t have too many memories of myself being engrossed in what I was reading. For me reading was on par with anything else as a gentle aversion. Reading was like riding my bike or eating ice cream. It was something to while away the hours until The Simpsons came or between building marble races.  Then when I was in fourth grade everything changed.

When I was in the fourth grade we had twenty minutes of each day set aside for quite reading. It didn’t matter what we read. We could choose a book off our teacher’s shelf or bring something of our own in; all that mattered is that we were reading.  It was during this quiet reading time that I first read The Phantom Tollbooth and discovered that books can something more. To say that The Phantom Tollbooth changed my life is overstretching it a bit but Norton Juster’s whimsical epic did impart to me one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned: the world is full of wonderful things that you’ve never heard of.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Half-truths, Sensationalism, & A Book Without One Single Redeeming Merit

Charlie Chaplin hiding behind a black velvet curtain in Hollywood Babylon
Charlie Chaplin hiding behind a black velvet curtain in Hollywood Babylon

I had never heard of Hollywood Babylon before a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon it at an estate sale in Riverside Illinois. The house was a gorgeous relic. The dining room was filled with multiple sets of crystal Champagne flutes sitting on silver serving trays and the woman’s bedroom closet was filled with an exorbitant amount of luxurious hats made from, feathers, and fine velvet. The house had a sort of charming class about it that made me imagine all of the parties there called for the men to wear ties and jackets. Then I headed into the basement which was darker than the rest of the house and filled with a thick musty smell. In one corner of the basement there was a large pile of books. The books were mainly instructional guides for golf and computer amateurs and had found themselves victims to mold. But then sitting right on top was Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. I recognized Anger from his extensive and celebrated avant-garde films so I decided to get it without really knowing what was. Although, after reading it I’m sure not exactly sure what it is.

At face value Hollywood Babylon reads like a dated gossip rag. It’s filled with lurid stories of betrayal, drug use, and murders all surrounding Hollywood’s most famous films and actors. A good example of the type of story you’d read in Hollywood Babylon would be a story about Robert Mitchum smoking pot followed by large full page photographs of the actor nonchalantly smirking during his court trial and from behind the bars of a jail cell. And the stories are mostly all fun and good for the kind of light sleaze you might be looking for if you find yourself drawn to celebrity gossip columns but then some stories in Hollywood Babylon elevate things to an entirely different level.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Comics, Funny Pages, & Graphic Novels

Daniel Clowes' The Death Ray
Daniel Clowes’ The Death Ray

This past weekend hundreds of independent authors, illustrators, and cartoonists took time out of their busy schedules of drawing mutants killing pterodactyls and awkward romantic encounters to meet up at a hotel in Maryland. That’s right; this past weekend witnessed the annual independent comic convention SPX where indie comic heavies such as Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine mixed with up-and-comers in a celebration of debuts, conversations, and plenty of tweeting.  So in honor of SPX and the many great artists and authors associated, I thought that I would use this blog space to encourage everyone to read, one of my favorite types of books, a comic book.

The word comic carries with it a sort of juvenile context (of course it doesn’t help any that comics also go by “funny pages” or “comix”) which is why for quite a while they were considered lesser art forms or as something “you know, for kids.” Yet sometime in the late sixties when Roy Lichtenstein was painting large canvases of single panel war and drama comics and Robert Crumb started his perverse and subversive career, comics started to become noticed as a reputable art form.  Today, while we still have comics, comix, and funny pages, we also have the graphic novel which is a longer illustrated work that is given the same amount of consideration that any other novel is.  And since the indie comic world can sometimes be a weird and oblique world I thought I would point out some easy, entertaining, and thoroughly good entry points.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Book Soundtracks & Subversive Lists

Reading Peter Pan on Booktrack
Reading Peter Pan on Booktrack

A good book by itself is a completely immersive experience but that hasn’t stopped publishers, authors, and just about everyone else from tying to make the reading experience more immersive. One of the latest attempts at this is Booktrack, an e-reading app that adds music, sound effects, and ambient noise to classic stories. The app itself, as well as the first few pages of offered titles, is free so I tried it out and immersed myself deeper than I ever could have imagined into the dark and diseased world of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I should clarify though that by “immersed myself deeper than I ever could have imagined” I mean that I read the story on my iPhone while listening to a soundtrack mainly comprised of  spooky choral singing and cough noises.

To say that I think Booktrack is silly would be redundant. Instead I’ll say that Booktrack is something that I’m sure more than a few early adopters will get into but not something that will revolutionize the way we read. The main reason I don’t see Booktrack sticking around any longer than fifteen minutes is that it is just a fresh coat of paint on something that never took off to begin with, book soundtracks. Book soundtracks themselves are relatively new (relative to the history of books) and although they haven’t become wildly successful, when done properly can add another level of depth or entertainment to the text it was created for.

One of the best examples of music added to a book in order to establish a more profound experience comes from John Hodgman’s 2005 The Areas of My Expertise. John Hodgman’s work can best be described as made up information that sounds true but isn’t.  In fact John Hodgman’s entire public persona, from playing PC in Apple’s famous Mac and PC commercials, a smarmy literary critic on Bored to Death, and pretending to be a judge on the internet, is predicated on the joke that he looks and sounds like a genius but isn’t (but is).

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Books on Chains

Hereford Cathedral chained library
Hereford Cathedral chained library

Wherever you’ll find me, you’ll find me carrying books. It’s something that I’ve always done and something that I will always do as preventative measure to ward off boredom and people who want to talk to me on the bus (weirdos, right?).  Beyond that, it’s just fun to take your books on vacation to a new comfortable spot where you can really settle into the pages.  Most books are small enough to fit comfortably in a backpack or jacket pocket and especially now with the advent of the e-reader books are more versatile than ever. But books have not always been so easy lug around, especially academic books.

When I was in school Norton’s Anthology of American Literature was the book that all the English majors would complain about carrying. With the book being roughly the size and weight of a cinderblock, it’s somewhat understandable; but that’s nothing compared to what our academic predecessors had to put up with, especially if we consider chain libraries. Chain libraries were libraries where the books were literally chained to the shelves. They were popular back in the days before printing presses when every book was written by hand. Since the books were written by hand there were only very few of them making them materialistically and philosophically priceless.  If someone stole one of these books, beyond losing the material possession the library would also lose the ideas contained within the pages. Hypothetically speaking, it would be like if you owned the only copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim but then your friend Jake borrowed it and “lost it while moving” and then, as a consequence, no one would ever be able to read it again. David Sedaris’ essay about drowning a mouse on his front porch would be forever lost to the ages. You’d definitely put a chain on all of your other books.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Coloring Books & The Democratization of Art

Image from The Little Folks Painting Book
Image from The Little Folks Painting Book

Within our society art is something that anyone can create. There are some superficial boundaries set by academics and critics such as high art, low art, and outsider art; yet, despite its given category, any piece of art will still be considered Art. The idea that absolutely anyone can create art is still a fairly new one but one which gained popularity due to one of my favorite types of book, the coloring book.  When they were first introduced, coloring books were meant to engage children with classic stories that they could read and color simultaneously. To this day coloring books still serve the same general purpose but that’s not to say they aren’t something we should reflect upon.

Oddly enough, I first began thinking about coloring books while reading about the influence of artistic movements on miniature-golf courses (which is a great sentence).  The article I was reading included an argument for the artistic relevance of miniature-golf made by Lint Hatcher:

It’s seeing the Empire State Building the way the sun sees it, the way a hurricane sees it, the way God sees it: as an incredibly intricate man-made wonder that is to be treasured and appreciated not only for its grandeur but for its smallness, even its mortality.

While reading Hatchers wonderful critique of miniature-golf courses it occurred to me that coloring books manage do the same thing. Coloring books which feature line drawings of famous works of art, or coloring books which feature classic stories, allow their readers an opportunity to re-create each work as they see fit. Coloring books take the epitome of cultural achievement and then ask you to recolor them in crayon. Whether you stay inside the lines or not is, of course, your own choice.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Children Looking At Books They Don’t Understand

Codex Seraphinianus
Codex Seraphinianus

Would you ever buy a book written in a language you couldn’t read? And for the purpose of this question I’m not talking about a language that you don’t currently read. Instead, I’m talking about a language that you’d never be able to read because it’s a language that’s doesn’t exist.  It’s a strange question to ask because it purposefully puts an advantaged person in a state of disadvantage. It’s a question that assumes literacy and then forces you into the darkness of illiteracy. But it is a question that has been asked by many authors in the past; and two of the authors who’ve asked it best are Xu Bing and Luigi Serafini.

Xu Bing and Luigi Serafini are both authors of books written in fictitious languages. Xu Bing’s book is entitled A Book from the Sky and is composed of what-looks-like-Chinese but is nothing more than unintelligible scrawling.  Luigi Serafini’s book is entitled Codex Seraphinianus and is a mock encyclopedia which features hundreds of surrealistic drawings surrounded by a fictitious language that is supposedly explaining them. Both of these texts are intriguing as they present the reader with an impossible task, yet each with a different purpose.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est.
Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est.

I love irony. As a child I would always love reading or watching Tales from the Crypt because so many of the deaths that occurred within the stories would be ironic. The soap maker would fall into a vat of chemicals and be turned into bars of soap, a butcher will be shoved into a meat grinder and be sold as sausages, a baseball player would be dismembered and used as sporting equipment, and, well, you get the idea. Anyhow, I bring this up because today I will be writing about a very real author who ended up being the binding for his very own book.

The technical term for binding books in human skin is called anthropodermic bibliopegy and there are far more cases of this than you would think. The most common books to be bound in human skin were medieval human anatomy books. It turns out that people were far more literal back then. Another famous example is a copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine et Juliette bound in “tanned skin from female breasts.”  And as truly disturbing as this all is there is still something undeniably fascinating about it. Currently, Illinois libraries are holding their summer reading programs under the theme “reading is delicious.”  And for a final event many libraries are holding a competition where patrons construct edible books. If there were a book about sandwiches written in salami, mustard, and wheat bread I assume I’d be equally as fascinated with it as I am with a book about the human anatomy bound in flesh. There’s probably a good cannibal joke in there somewhere.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: The Enemies of Books

Enemies of Books
Enemies of Books

The practice of book burning has been around since, well, books have been around. Sometimes a book is burned purposefully, usually by some jerk, in a form of political or intellectual censorship. Other times a book is burned without purpose as the result of a natural disaster. Mainly though it’s been jerks; just look through Wikipedia’s “List of Destroyed Libraries.” Crusaders, Nazi’s (of course), England, America (yeah, us too), and almost every other country has at one time or another gotten so mad that they just burnt a library to the ground. On one hand, when we consider all of the information that’s been lost in these fires it’s simply devastating. On the other hand…

Before I get into this other hand I want to make it clear that I, Lucas Sifuentes, do not condone, encourage, or participate in book burning. For evidence, look to the previous paragraph where I call people who burn books a bunch of jerks. Also, I work in a library.

… a burnt book does afford us some rare and unique opportunities. Two authors who explore this issue within their own writings are Thomas Browne, with his tract Musaeum Clausum, and William Blades, with his book The Enemies of Books.

Continue reading

Bibliophilia: Wunderkammers & Carbonated Swamp-Warblers

Carbonated Swamp-Warbler
Carbonated Swamp-Warbler

This past week the popular trivia website Mental_Floss ran an article on one of my favorite topics, fictitious entries in encyclopedias and dictionaries. Just what is a fictitious entry? A fictitious entry is an untrue piece of information that‘s inserted into dictionaries and encyclopedias to maintain copyright over the entire book. But I don’t really care for the business or legal sides of fictitious entries; rather I’m concerned with their implications. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are books we look to for indisputable truth; and to know that somewhere in that sea of fact there is an untruth just fills me with excitement. And where some might see this as a sort of mean trick I read it more as an encouragement to wonder.

To digress from books for a moment we can see that fictitious entries actually have a long standing history in intellectual society. In fact, the earliest institutions known to harbor these imposters of truth are institutions we still hold in high regard today; museums. Before we had The Field Museum or The Museum of Science and Industry we had wunderkammers, or cabinets of curiosities.  These were either large cupboards or entire rooms built to display the true wonders of our world. In these cabinets you’d find works of art, “curious items from abroad,” and taxidermied animals. But not all of the items were, well, what they were. For instance, it was popular to display the horn of a narwhal but label it the horn of a unicorn.  But is this purposefully misleading?  Is the purpose of a museum to display undisputed fact? The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a contemporary harkening to wunderkammers, would disagree “In its original sense, the term “museum” meant “a spot dedicated to the Muses, a place where man’s mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs.”

Continue reading