Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
I'm a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Seattle. (No, not that one.) I'm used to people having bad taste when it comes to books, but every time someone buys an adult coloring book from me, I become irrationally mad. It's getting so I can't even look them in the eyes anymore. I think they're a disgusting fad for rich people with way too much time on their hands. On the other hand, sales of adult coloring books are putting a roof over my head, so I probably shouldn't complain too much. How do I choke down this bile?
I think adult coloring is supposed to sassy and therapeutic, like playing adult kickball or attending your coworker's cosplay divorce party. But I don't really get it either. I've received two adult coloring books as gifts and have had to fight the urge to say, "thanks but this isn't a real book." I suppose I know now how those "one man, one woman" marriage purists feel.
What I'm saying is, since we're losing this battle we might as well try to understand its appeal. Coloring seems to be therapy for adults who don't know how to address conflict with their words, so this week, I jotted down a few phrases that I said while in conversation with my neighbor and spiders, respectively, that I could tell irritated them but they were too polite to call me on.
Then I drew pictures of the phrases and gifted them to the offended parties, along with some chewed crayons I found. So far, neither has colored their drawings but I'm sure once they do, they'll feel much better. And they will thank me for it.
I encourage you to try it, Juliet, and see if it helps with your bile issues. I'm including copies of my drawings for you to practice on. Enjoy and remember: Get sassy with it! Those breasts don't have to be chicken colored, they can be any ol' color you choose!
P.S. For all you eagle-eyed art connoisseurs out there, yes, that is a Georgia O'Keeffe vagina on the back of that heifer.
P.P.S. And yes, several spiders already pointed out that I don't know how to spell "heifer."
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have any opinions on sexy-librarian porn? I'm kind of flattered by the trope, but I also wonder if maybe it doesn't raise expectations to an uncomfortable level with my prospective girlfriends.
I'm glad you asked! I have stronger opinions on porn than all the right hands in Gary Herbert's public health department combined. Generally, I'm pretty positive about the sexy librarian trope, and here's why: People who objectify librarians find their brains as sexy as (if not more so than) their physical appearance. Librarians are intellectuals. Gatekeepers of knowledge. Curators of imagination. Smart people pant over stuff like that. They swoon. And isn't that a refreshing change in porn?
Of course, if prospective girlfriends are making you uncomfortable with their objectification – if they demand you collect late fees while wearing a ball gag or read them Goodnight Moon while sitting on their face (and you're not into it), I suppose that's problematic. Maybe you should remind them that you're not just a sexy brain stuffed inside a sexy body with the entirety of modern thought harnessed at your fingertips, you're a real person with nonbookish interests who sometimes wants to sit in sweatpants, eat Muddy Buddies and watch Real Housewives punch each other in the Fake Tit.
My husband died. It was a few years ago, so the shock is over and I'm used to the idea of living my life on my own — I keep busy and have lots of friends and hobbies.
But his library, I just can't face. He was a scholar, and his discipline was very narrow, so it's probably one of the best libraries on his subject in the world, some 400 volumes collected over his 50-year professional career.
A few of his colleagues have dropped hints, and I know I could sell the whole collection, or donate to a library (I've gotten nice sympathy notes from his undergraduate and graduate alma mater, and also the University where he spent his career).
But Cienna — this seems more him than anything else. More than the smell on his old sweater, or the memories. This is where he invested himself, what he truly loved. How can I just let it go?
And yet, how can I keep it? It's selfish for a single woman to keep such a resource hidden away. I go and dust them every few months, but I never read. What should I do?
Broken in Bellingham
You can’t rush grief. When my grandmother passed away, the chair she died in remained in our living room for seven years before we finally burned it. Conversely, when my dad died, I left his ashes in a dog crate in the back of my Subaru because I didn’t want him in my house or fucking up the upholstery in my car. I’m sure some people found the former display creepy and the latter callous; fortunately, most people are aware that telling another individual they’re grieving wrong pegs them lower than a snake’s butt in the animal kingdom of assholes.
It’s not selfish to want to preserve and cherish your husband’s life’s work. There’s nothing wrong with keeping his library for a few years or the rest of your life. If his colleagues would like to use it, and you feel comfortable giving them access to your house, you can work out a case-by-case agreement to let them visit his library in your home. If that doesn’t appeal to you right now, give yourself permission to leave it alone and maybe revisit the question again in a few years.
And if his colleagues are bold enough to continue to drop hints about the future of his collection, just politely mention you’ve been having very vivid dreams about burning their houses to the ground, house pets and all. I’ve found this is a great way to stop unwanted conversations in their tracks.
I ride the new Link light rail from Husky Stadium to Pioneer Square (it's pretty great). I've seen this same girl on the train nearly every day, our schedules are so close. And she's always reading the best books. Seriously, like this manga series I've been following for years, that I thought nobody else was into.
But, I know that harassing women who want to be left alone in public isn't cool, and she's probably just going to work. Is there something I can say to her, not a line, but just a little opening, to see if I get any response? I mean, is it out of line to say something about our shared tastes?
Tremulous on the Train
Everyone who reads enjoys being complimented on their taste in books. Many years ago I was flipping through a copy of one of my favorite books, A Confederacy of Dunces, at a garage sale and a shirtless man with a chest tattoo of a swastika knifing a black panther (one of the swastika arms was an actual arm with a knife in it) said to me, "That's a great book," to which I smiled and thought, "what a nice man." Such is the mighty power of literature.
Striking up a conversation with a woman is not harassment if you follow basic social cues:
Wear something non-psychotic, like a shirt and pants.
If she's got headphones in, leave her alone.
If she's not making eye contact with anyone around her, leave her alone.
Wait until there is a natural interruption to her reading, such as when you're both disembarking from the train. Then it's fine to tap her on the shoulder and say something like, "That's such a great book! Have you read TKTKTK?"
If all goes well and you get her contact information, do not send her an Evite for a party in your pants.
My aunt and I are avid readers and tend to trade books back and forth. If my mom (her sister) is there when my aunt returns one of my books and hears us talking about it, she always says "sounds interesting, can I borrow it?" But every time, sure enough, if I stop by my mom's house, the books are sitting in her front door staging area... you know, the spot where she puts things that she wants to remember to take with her when she leaves. She will keep my books for up to 3 months then return them and admit she "never got around" to reading them. The last time she did this I said "Mom, let's cut out the middle man here"...and I wouldn't let her borrow them. My aunt thinks I should apologize. What do you think?
Georgina, Federal Way
I met a woman once – let's call her Jaustiny – whose mother sat her down at the tender age of 14 and told her that she was leaving the family to go find herself. Not only was she tired of being a mother, she'd decided that she really liked the name Jaustiny so she was legally changing her name to the name she'd bequeathed on her daughter. Then New Jaustiny peaced out to San Francisco, bought herself new tits and realized her dream of being a childless waitress/artist named Jaustiny with sexy breast-induced back issues. The psychological mindfuck of that aside, her mother's new identity created a lot of weird burdens in Original Jaustiny's life as she grew up – her mother developed a criminal record stemming from a brief career as a meth chef and had most recently stolen OJs identity and ruined her credit by buying matching Harleys for herself and her new boyfriend, all of which OJ had to account for.
OJ told me this story at a bbq. Ten feet away stood my own mother, who was evaluating some cowboy she'd just met for the quality of his sperm (for me. Always for me). As I watched her inspect his gums for disease I thought, "that old broad ain't so bad."
Your complaint is that your mother borrows books that you and your aunt have already read but she doesn't read them, correct? How does this actually impact you if you've already read the books? Your mom wants to feel included in the conversations and closeness you share with your aunt but she sucks at the follow-through. That is a harmless annoyance stemming from love.
Be sweet to your mom. Apologize. Let her borrow all the books she's guaranteed to never read and be thankful she's not a Harley-riding meth chef named Georgina.
What’s the protocol for weaseling out of a relationship with someone over a book they own? I just discovered that my new-ish girlfriend has Jonathan Livingston Seagull steadying a wobbly sideboard in the basement of her apartment building. She oozes a snobby nastiness regarding her otherwise excellent taste in books that really turns me on, and I suppose there’s a chance that the sideboard isn’t even hers, but those facts are irrelevant. I don’t want to do the whole “it’s not you; it’s me" thing because it’s obviously not me, and I do believe that she deserves an honest explanation. I'd prefer a recommendation for action that doesn't make me look like a jerk.
Pavel, Capitol Hill
Here is what you must do:
Invite yourself over to your newish partner’s house and ask her to take a seat on her own furniture.
Tell her you have something to say, and you hope she doesn’t judge you for it because you’re rather insecure and even though what you have to say will definitely make you seem like a jerk, you hope she is mature enough to keep those thoughts to herself that because maintaining the illusion that you’re not a jerk is very important to your half-baked ego.
Tell her that you spotted Jonathan Livingston Seagull sitting in her communal basement propping up piece of broken furniture that may or may not belong to her.
Explain to her that this has killed your boner for your fledgeling relationship. Since your previous few statements may seem nonsensical to her, you may wish to use an analogy to explain yourself: Your boner is like a whistle pig – a speed racing copulator that’s suspicious of its own shadow and absolutely terrified of top- or even bottom-level predators like seagulls and women who may or may not read books it disapproves of. Explain that your rodent boner for her is dead now and its carcass is being carried off by metaphorical seagulls to a new plane of existence that is not unlike heaven, yet isn’t heaven (if she’s actually read Jonathan Livingston Seagull these words may comfort her).
Finally, shit your pants. This will ensure she’s too busy getting you off her furniture and out the door to care about what a jerk you are. Months, even years from now she will remember you with confusion and pity. Your story will become the fodder of legendary happy hours, which may be the best thing she gets out of this abbreviated relationship.
Sometimes when I buy books from used bookstores, I feel bad, especially if they're from small presses. Authors get royalties, however small, on each book sold new in bookstores. They get bupkis from used book sales. Maybe this doesn't matter so much for James Patterson, but when I buy a used copy of an indie title with a tiny print run, that sale could have gone a long way toward benefitting an author, or at least helping their self-esteem. Am I being too sensitive? Or should I only buy copies of bestsellers in used bookstores from now on?
Ingrid, Crown Hill
I like readings. The one problem is I feel guilty if I go to a reading and don’t buy the book. What’s the etiquette here? Is there a rule of thumb? There are so many variations to this theme: sometimes you like the book and will considering buying it later; sometimes after a reading you decide you don’t like the book; sometimes you like the book but it’s too expensive.
I keep coming up with other examples from my life. Is it okay to tell an author you’ll get their book from the library? And what if the author at the reading is your friend?
My anxiety grows by the minute, Cienna. Only you can help me.
Dear Effie and Ingrid,
Guilt should be reserved for religion and select situations that deserve it, like telling a Girl Scout you have a tumor just so she will give you a free box of Thin Mints. To answer your questions:
Buying any and all books from used bookstores is fine. Authors also get nothing when you lend a book to a friend or check a book out from the library. Think of it this way: If those books weren't being recirculated, they'd be rotting in basements, used as coasters in bars or burned by people like me.
First and foremost, writers are thrilled to have butts in seats at readings. You are basically doing a very specific community service for one very grateful individual when you attend them. That said, you shouldn't ever feel obligated to buy a book. If your misplaced guilt overwhelms you, however, there is a compromise: When I attend readings and the book doesn't grab me but I really liked the author, I try to think of a senile aunt or friendly shut-in who might enjoy its content and buy it for them as a gift.
That said, yes, you are absolutely required to buy your friends' books if they are published authors. It is a $20 investment. If you are not willing to invest $20 in friendship, you do not deserve to have friends.
Finally, I would encourage you both to ruminate on the nature of guilt. I am concerned, based on the tenor of your questions, that neither of you has truly experienced this proverbial shit stain in the rich tapestry of human emotions. Guilt, when done right, should feel like running a coal mine marathon: You should be sweating more than normal and overwhelmed by a claustrophobic sense of hopelessness.
I recommend that you explore this feeling, either by looking someone in your life in the eye while you tell them that you love them and then taking it back 10 minutes later, or by actually running a coal mine marathon. Then you both will be better equipped to tackle slightly uncomfortable social situations, like how to conduct yourself at a book reading, in the future.
Maybe you covered this before, but, if not, I need help. My husband and I read The Poisonwood Bible, and I loved it and he hated it. Sure, you know, individual tastes and whatnot, but it’s more than that. I mean, we disagree over movies all the time and manage to keep it light. But my goodness, he hated it. To me, it read as an affirmation of life and the struggles women have faced, and so when he gets all aggro about how much it sucks and there are no good men in it, so it’s sexist, it’s kind of like he’s attacking me. So, that’s weird. How can I get over myself?
Molly on Magnolia
My apologies. I have avoided your question for weeks, much as I avoid questions like “Why do you blame your daddy issues on your mother?” and “What’s the capitol of Minnesota?” — because there is simply no easy answer. You see, I also harbor an irrational hatred of The Poisonwood Bible. Intellectually, I can appreciate Kingsolver’s mastery of having five unique female narrators and, as you pointed out, her focus on the plight of women (not just in this book but others). But yeah, I can’t stand any of her books. I think I suffered a rage blackout for the entirety of Prodigal Summer. I have brought Mrs. Kingsolver as my guest to quite a few book burnings over the years.
That said, your husband’s justification that The Poisonwood Bible sucks because it’s sexist is a hot load of horeshit. Tell your husband books can’t discriminate against fictional men. He can dislike a book for good reasons or no reason at all, but inventing nonsense reasons just makes him look like a turd. (Also, how many popular books, television shows, movies, etc. feature absolutely no relatable, wholly-developed, “good” women in them? Too many to count. If your husband can’t relate to a book simply because of the gender of its main characters, he’s the sexist one.)
But to your question: How do I get over myself? I don’t think you should have to. Your emotional response to the book is what all writers hope for from their readers. You get to treasure that feeling. Your husband didn’t respond to it that way, much as I didn’t. So now he needs to do the polite and loving thing, which is fuck right off and not ruin your afterglow.
A few weeks ago in her Help Desk column, Cienna Madrid responded to a question from Alyssa about tidying up the neighborhood Little Free Library. Today's Mail Bag is from an actual librarian. You can always read more of Cienna's columns on her archive page, and reach out to us if you'd like to comment on anything we publish.
Dear Cienna —
I greatly enjoy your column. Your advice to the person who wrote in about inappropriate stuff in the local Little Free Library and wanting to clean it out was right on, except for one aspect I disagree with: she should not tape a note to the LFL about her plans to clean it out.
Here's what I've observed as a professional book person: other people tend to believe books are sacred objects, and that all books have worth and must be preserved. That's not true. Look, I love them, but after a certain point books are just rotting piles of paper giving off weird smells and luring roaches to your house. Boxes of books that have been in the garage for 25 years have no monetary worth and little intrinsic usefulness, yet people persist in believing someone else will want to read a brittle, smelly paperback by some dead author. As a librarian, part of my job is assuming their recycling guilt. I accept this.
I don't know what kind of weaponry one brings to a neighborhood book fight, so best sidestep all together. Let the neighbors believe that someone from the future came across the Windows 99 user books and took back to sell or crack Bill Gates' files, and the original letter writer should pat herself on the back and hide the culls under a pizza box.
You are absolutely right: people place too much importance on books as sacred objects. That is why I am a firm believer in, and advocate of, book burnings. There's nothing more heartwarming than a community bonfire filled with musty books, hosted somewhere roomy like the parking lot of a generous church. They turn the solitary act of reading into an activity the whole family can enjoy!
Seattle people are especially fussy about their garbage. (That is why everyone now owns at least three trashcans.) The note was a formality to buffer the sender, Alyssa, from getting yelled at by fussy people who don't want their tiny garbage temple messed with. But in an ideal world, that note would be unnecessary, librarians would curate top-notch book burnings on top of all the other great work they do, and I would have my pinkies replaced with rattlesnake rattles.
Thank you for writing, Kerry, and for your service.
A co-worker and I often trade book recommendations. She has more seniority than I do but we are both in management. She recently went on a vacation and borrowed two of my paperback books that I had recommended to her. But she only came back with one of the books. She said the other one had fallen in the pool and then she ended up giving it to one of her fellow vacationers. She half-heartedly mentioned that she'd look for a used copy of the book to replace it. It's been a few months and she hasn't. Any advice?
Feeling Burned in Ballard
You are never going to get that book back. We both know that. What you need to do is suck it up and do the adult thing: drop it. Keep lending her books. Likewise, return her books in pristine condition. Smile at her in hallways. Volunteer to partner with her during team building exercises at work. Eventually, ask your spiders to make themselves scarce for an evening and invite her over for dinner. Over a bottle or two of mid-range wine (don't go cheap, she's not a monster), ask her searching questions about her life's goals and ambitions. Press her about family or her partner, if she has one. If she doesn't have a partner, ask her why she thinks she is not worthy of love? When she's ready to leave your home at the end of the night, brush your fingertips down her arm, look deep into her eyes and tell her that you admire her. Continue cultivating her friendship. Invite her to happy hours, birthday parties, book readings. Invent inside jokes. Trade family recipes. Text emojis apropos of nothing.
Then, months from now, when the book she failed to replace is a distant memory, invite her to join you at a weekend Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. The sales are popular and a ton of fun, especially for two best friends who share the same passion and taste for literature.
Offer to drive.
Pick her up.
Tell her you need to make a quick detour before hitting the book sale.
Drive her to the desert.
Tell her to get out of the car.
Then, leave her for dead with nothing but a Danielle Steele novel and 6 inches of garden hose.
Consider it your own version of Naked and Afraid, Book Stealer Punishment Edition.
There are downsides to this plan – if she survives you will likely be written up by HR. But I think we can both agree it will be worth it.
The Little Free Library closest to my house is often full of crap. I'm talking outdated programming books and collections of VHS tapes and other things that stay in the LFL for weeks and weeks because no one wants them. The structure is not in someone's front yard, so it's unclear who is responsible for it. I'm tempted to weed the LFL myself, tossing the old crap and filling it with newer novels, audio books on CD, hardback non-fiction titles. (I just KonMari-ed my bookshelves, so I have lots of goodies to contribute.) Would that be overstepping?
Alyssa, Capitol Hill
I admire your “go-getter” attitude. Personally, I’ve never been convinced of the community benefit of those tiny libraries. To me, they are what you’ve experienced: twee trash cans adored and installed by middle- and upper-class individuals who believe that their poorer neighbors will treasure their garbage.
But I’ve been wrong about many things lately. For instance: take the ghosts haunting my vagina. Most contemporary researchers agree that the best method for dispelling ghosts is to ask them politely but firmly to leave. If that doesn’t work, leading studies show that asking a ghost what it wants – like a ham sandwich, for instance – and then satiating it will do the trick.
I consider myself a woman of science, unmoved by superstition, so for months I have faithfully followed the scientific method.
“PLEASE LEAVE,” I scream at my vagina on a near-nightly basis. Followed by, “DO YOU WANT A HAM SANDWICH?”
Still, the hauntings have continued. So last weekend, I purchased an amethyst dildo from a serene wiccan named Goshuhn. Now, I’m not one to believe in the healing powers of crystals, but Goshuhn assured me that ghosts really hate amethysts because the crystal is known as a sobering agent and ghosts love to party (bizarrely, they also love ham sandwiches so I might’ve just been encouraging them to stick around).
Despite my skepticism, the amethyst dildo appears to be working. I have noticed a 50 percent reduction in paranormal activity in my vagina over the past week.
This is all to say, while I’m skeptical that a little free library can work, I am willing to put my faith in you, Alyssa. Tomorrow, tape a sign to that tiny library that says something like,
Spring cleaning! I’ve noticed our pickings have become a bit stale, so on TKTKTK (this is where you fill in a date/time) I’ll be tossing old items and replacing them with new stock. Please feel free to stop by, say hi, and contribute a book that you love and think others will enjoy. If you have questions, contact me at TKTKTK (this is where you put your email address, if you want).
I believe in you,
I absolutely love Tintin. I have since I was a kid, and still just fall for his outrageous antics. But oh my god, is it racist. So horrible! And, you know, all about white conquest. Do I have to give him up?
Let's not be histrionic. Lewis Carroll was a monogamous pedophile, Flannery O'Connor was a devout Catholic and Ayn Rand claimed to be human. Even beloved children’s entertainer Ernest Hemingway believed that women have more holes for plugging than spiders have eyes, an old-fashioned but tenacious belief that has been empirically proven untrue without the aid of a high-powered drill.
My point is, if you start eliminating books, ideas, and people whose views make you uncomfortable, what's left? Whale sounds, cottage cheese, and more corpses than a bullfighting birthday party, that’s what.
Sure, Tintin is racist. It's certainly not the most racist thing to come out of 20th century entertainment, and even as it makes contemporary, less racist (fingers crossed) audiences uncomfortable, it's an important historical marker of the sentiment of the times. Ignoring our racist history doesn't erase racism, so feel free to keep cringing your way through Tintin in the Congo. And if you want to assuage your (presumably) white guilt, try tithing to a nonprofit group geared towards battling entrenched racism, groups like Dream Defenders or Black Youth Project 100.
Help! My boyfriend and I are both serious readers. We spend most of our nights in working through our piles of books. We even got rid of our TV.
But we didn't get rid of our stereo, and he insists on having it on while he reads. He listens to the most awful club music, all "oonce oonce oonce oonce”. It drives me crazy. I literally cannot concentrate while all that racket is on. He says if it’s too quiet, something feels wrong to him, and he can’t focus. It's like he has a second person in his brain, who he needs to distract so that he can read.
We've been alternating nights, one with music, one without, but the person who can't read that night just ends up on the goddamnned computer, cranky because they’d rather be reading their book. What can we do to address this?
Mark, on Harvard
You know who else hates "oonce oonce oonce" music? Spiders. Nothing saps the serenity of a bookish night at home more than seeing hundreds of spiders skittering about, angrily drumming thousands of tiny legs on your walls as if to spell in morse code T-U-R-N-T-H-A-T-F-O-U-L-S-H-I-T-O-F-F.
Fortunately, Valentines Day is upon us. Call me old fashioned but I can't think of a more romantic gift to get your bf than a pregnant wolf spider. If you were not aware, wolf spiders are agile hunters (with positively buxom abdomens, if you're into that sort of thing) who dislike music of any sort – even Buena Vista Social Club, a universal spider favorite! – and are known to release venom when provoked.
Alternately, you could buy your bf a quality pair of headphones. Or buy yourself a quality pair of noise-canceling headphones. What you cannot do is buy your spiders headphones. The technology simply is not there.
I love to read. I love to smoke pot. I can't smoke pot and read. I can get high and watch movies, but words on a page get all swimmy when I've had even just a single puff. But I have friends who love to smoke and read, and they make me so jealous when they talk about sitting down for a night with a book and a joint and reading two or three hundred pages at a go. Can I make my dream a reality, or is my own brain chemistry working against me?
Jean in Shoreline
I find your friends' claims of reading (let alone retaining) hundreds of pages of text while high incredibly suspect, perhaps because I have trouble with basic tasks while high, like peeling fruit, blinking, and telephones. What in the Oxford-loving fuck are your friends reading and how could it possibly be more fun than rubbing your belly and chanting the word "velocity" under your breath in a dark closet?
To your question: Instead of reading books, give graphic novels a try. Ignore what little text there is and focus on the beautiful illustrations. I'd start with Black Hole and Bottomless Belly Button – both of which, if memory serves, are pretty light on text. Another option is to pick up Weathercraft or Congress of the Animals by local genius Jim Woodring. Most of his books are wordless, beautiful and weird.
Once, I met an author I loved and it was a total letdown. She was narcissistic and bored by all the people who came out to hear her read, and I disliked her so much it made my skin crawl. Now I can't enjoy her books because it reminds me of how unpleasant she was. Should I bother going to readings anymore? I don't want to lose any more favorite authors, and the risk of them being jerks is scaring me away.
Mary, Bainbridge Island
Once, I was invited to a fancy literary party full of very impressive people – best-selling authors, sitcom writers, actors, comedians. I couldn't throw a fork without hitting someone whose work I admired. As parties go, it was normal: People sipped champagne, talked child rearing, traded jokes and were surprisingly tolerant of me sweating on them. I should say, it was normal except for me. Intimidation, my natural dearth of social graces and a near-painful desire to make a good impression rendered me mute – that is, until the hosts' daughter, a sweet-looking girl of about 12, emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and began offering them to guests.
“Mmmm, is there anything better than a cute little girl handing out warm cookies?” One actor asked rhetorically.
That is the moment I found my voice. “Only if she's stripping,” I said.
The actor stared. The child proferred her plate to me with pity in her sweet brown eyes. There was a moment of silence as everyone in the room wished my place were filled by someone who could pass the very low bar of not sexualizing children in casual conversation. That was the day Paul Constant learned that bringing me as his date to parties is like reading Proust to a pig.
I bring up this story, Mary, to illustrate how awful some writers are at interacting with other people. Others are just awful in general (Norman Mailer was a notorious misogynist who once told a crowd of fans that “a little bit of rape is good for the man's soul.”). Either way, you have to separate the person from his or her work and be generous enough to pity them when they act like dicks in public, as all those people pitied me years ago.
Because by their nature, books are a private obsession, both for writers and readers. So attending an author's reading is, to me, an unparalleled act of public intimacy that can go horribly wrong or beautifully right. Personally, I think it's worth wading through a few assholes to experience the beauty.
Have you ever tried to get somebody to change by offering a book that you think might affect them? I have a friend who is drinking himself to death. He listens to books, but not people. Books have changed me, maybe one would change him. Any ideas?
Seth in Georgetown
As a teenager I received at least seven copies of How to Make Friends and Influence People from a bouquet of well-intentioned dickheads. I read the damn thing at least twice. It did not make me better at making friends, or even better at making eye contact with strangers. It did nothing but make me resent the fact that I was too old to be cute and too young to drink.
That said, I’d caution you about gifting a book with the hope of changing someone. In my view, books are not topical salves prescribed to fix personal flaws, they are the simplest form of love letter – you give them to people you love because you believe their content will resonate with them on an emotional and intellectual level. Whatever personal change occurs because of that connection is secondary.
Fortunately for you, I have a ton of heavy drinkers in my life and I love at least half of them. Here are three books I’ve read about addiction: Drinking, A Love Story; The Night of the Gun; Dry. I gave the first two as gifts to friends (I didn’t love Dry, to be honest, but I know quite a few people who did). The books did not change my friends’ drinking habits at all. But it did create an avenue to talk about addiction and we’ve had a few good conversations about alcoholism since then. Usually while drinking.
So: I recommend you read those books and see if any of them remind you of your friend. If you have the time and interest, you should also read this fascinating article published last year in The Atlantic that critically challenges the efficacy of AA.
More importantly, I’d like to point out that I have lots of friends now, even if most of them are only half sober.
Suck it, Dale Carnegie.
In my house, all I hear is my son humming the Imperial March. Stars Wars coming back is like the second coming (the seventh coming?) for him. He’s read all the Star Wars books, so I’m hoping I can expand his horizons a bit by some other science fictional universes. Any recommendations?
You're in luck: Because I have a womb deemed "clinically resentful," I've resolved in this new year to be a better parent to other people's children in lieu of trying to fashion one myself. Think of me as a well-endowed, biblio-centric wet nurse! I am figuratively leaky with ideas.
Here are a few: Dune, The Dying Earth, the Shannara novels, and the Wrinkle in Time quintet. Those should keep your son busy for 2016 and if not, huffing paint will! (HAHAHA, JK. Don't let your child huff paint, Jean – unless you do it as a dare to teach him a lesson about the stupidity of accepting dares.)
As a bonus, here are a few other parenting tips for you, from practiced non-parent to parent:
At dinner, do not allow your child to eat directly from the can. Encourage him to use a bowl, instead (i.e. a fancier form of can).
Avoid making direct eye contact while saying, "I love you" lest your child develop an over-inflated sense of self. It's better to always look just beyond his right shoulder. Then, if/when he accomplishes something noteworthy with his life, he will have earned the combination eye contact and praise.
My granddad died in the spring. He left me all of his books. The gesture meant a lot to me. He used to read to me when I was a baby, and I remember spending hours in his study when I was a kid, flipping through his books. So now they're my books. But there's a problem: they stink. My granddad was a heavy smoker and I'm not. His books reek of cigarette smoke. I've looked around online and the solutions for this are complicated and seem like they might not work. Am I a terrible person if I give these books away? Will anyone even take them? They really, really smell bad.
I empathize. When my grandmother, Berta, died on Christmas Eve a few years ago, my mother inherited the chair she died in and I inherited her death suit: a fuzzy blue robe and dog-hair enhanced red slippers. Everything smelled like ham and stale Easter candy. So loud was the candy-ham stench that cats and men in camouflage named Rufus started showing up asking vague questions, or mewing, with shifty eyes. I took up not bathing just to mask the odor.
Have you considered not bathing? It frees up a lot of time for reading!
Most babies have shit taste in books, so I hesitate to guess what your collection could entail. Still, I suggest going through and choosing one or two that have sentimental value. Carefully pack those books in a drawer with aromatic soaps (or a candy-ham combo), which will help the smoke smell dissipate after a time. Then, organize a party (New Year’s is a fine excuse) and sacrifice the rest of your grandfather’s collection to a roaring bonfire. I know book burnings are still gauche everywhere except church parking lots and the odd Trump rally, but still: donate books in such terrible shape and they’ll end up in the dump anyway. You might as well celebrate in style with friends, family, and a smokestack worthy of your grandfather’s memory.
Has there ever been a movie adaptation that's better than the book it's supposed to be based on?
Douglas, West Seattle
That's like comparing apples to Amtrak. While they've got plenty of flash and money, movies can never hope to encapsulate the depth and imagination of books, let alone best them. The two mediums are as vastly different as a fortune cookie is from my favorite psychic-slash-preschool-teacher, Raven Moonwhisper. Sure, the cookie is momentarily satiating and its simple platitudes vaguely pleasing, but is a cookie ever going to charge me $50/hr to tell me which of my spirit guides is too drunk to trust and whether I should quit my job to pursue a career in animal husbandry? (Through trial and error I have discovered farm animals find my presence unnaturally arousing.)
At best, a good movie can enhance a great book experience in much the same way that playing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon enhances silent screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Schindler’s List.
But to answer your question: Ben Hur is definitely more entertaining than the Bible.
Please settle a bet. My friend says our culture is spiraling toward illiteracy. He thinks we're devaluing language to a point where we'll soon only communicate through pictures, or video. I think we're more literate than ever before. I read more every day than I ever have in my life. Of course I read more websites than books, but I'm of the opinion that reading is reading. So who do you think is right? Are we becoming illiterate, or are we more literate than ever?
Sure, more people may be able to fulfill the most basic definition of literacy but I disagree with you that "reading is reading." Like butt implants and Bible interpretations, reading varies wildly depending on the source. Is it great that a higher percentage of Americans can functionally read words, a necessity formed by our texting, emailing culture? Yes, but that doesn't mean they're critically engaging with what they read, or that the writing our culture is currently producing inspires intellectual curiosity (I'm specifically thinking about the sad state of journalism, which would best be encapsulated by a gif of people eating popcorn at the site of a grisly car crash. Also beautifully summed up today by this debacle). As for your friend, please tell him or her that their argument is based on a false premise: words are not a cash commodity that can be devalued or replaced. For instance, there will never be a picture that can convey specific words like "lugubrious" and "malady" or even "uranium," which in pictorial form just looks like moldy bread. Since you are both wrong, I win your bet. You owe me a critical 500-word essay responding to an interesting article you've read recently and your friend owes me $20 and a gif of people eating popcorn at the site of a grisly car crash.
Please send both to email@example.com.