“No,” Monsieur Perdu said again the following morning. “I’d rather not sell you this book.”
Gently he pried Night from the lady’s hand. Of the many novels on his book barge—the vessel moored on the Seine that he had named Literary Apothecary—she had inexplicably chosen the notorious bestseller by Maximilian “Max” Jordan, the earmuff wearer from the third floor in Rue Montagnard.
The customer looked at the bookseller, taken aback.
“Max Jordan doesn’t suit you.”
“Max Jordan doesn’t suit me?”
“That’s right. He’s not your type.”
“My type. Okay. Excuse me, but maybe I should point out to you that’s I’ve come to your book barge for a book. Not a husband, mon cher Monsieur.”
“With all due respect, what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry, ma chère Madame.”
She looked at him through eyes like slits.
“Give me the book, take my money, and we can both pretend it’s a nice day.”
“It is a nice day, and tomorrow is the start of summer, but you’re not going to get this book. Not from me. May I suggest a few others?”
“Right, and flog me some old classic you’re too lazy to throw overboard where it can poison the fish?” She spoke softly to begin with, but her volume kept increasing.
“Books aren’t eggs, you know. Simply because a book has aged a bit doesn’t mean it’s gone bad.” There was now an edge to Monsieur Perdu’s voice too. “What is wrong with old? Age isn’t a disease. We all grow old, even books. But are you, is anyone, worth less, or less important, because they’ve been around for longer?”
“It’s absurd how you’re twisting everything, all because you don’t want me to have that stupid Night book.”
The customer–or rather noncustomer—tossed her purse into her luxury shoulder bag and tugged at the zip, which got stuck.
Perdu felt something welling up inside him, a wild feeling, anger, tension–only it had nothing to do with this woman. He couldn’t hold his tongue, though. He hurried after her as she strode angrily through the belly of the book barge and called out to her in the half-light between the long bookshelves: “It’s your choice, Madame! You can leave and spit on me. Or you can spare yourself thousands of hours of torture starting right now.”
“Thanks, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“Surrender to the treasures of books instead of entering into pointless relationships with men, who neglect you anyway, or going on crazy diets because you’re not thin enough for one man and not stupid enough for the next.”
She stood stock-still by the large bay window that looked out over the Seine, and glared at Perdu. “How dare you!”
“Books keep stupidity at bay. And vain hopes. And vain men. They undress you with love, strength, and knowledge. It’s love from within. Make your choice: book or…”
—Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop
It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn’t been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentleman in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn’t been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, How it was not to be done. It is true that the debates of both Houses of Parliament the whole session through, uniformly tended to the protracted deliberation, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech at the opening of such session virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have a considerable stroke of work to do, and you will please to retire to your respective chambers, and discuss, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech, at the close of such session, virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have through several laborious months been considering with great loyalty and patriotism, How not to do it, and you have found out; and with the blessing of Providence upon the harvest (natural, not political), I now dismiss you.
—Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit
Some things never change! Here in Canada we are now experiencing some let-down after replacing both federal and provincial governments, hoping for an overhaul, and finding out that a lot of what was promised apparently cannot be done.
Culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without-intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind or body but not both. A common allegory that teaches women this lesson is the pretty-plain pairing: of Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament and Mary and Martha in the New; Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Anya and Dunyasha in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard; Daisy Mae and Sadie Hawkins in Dogpatch; Glinda and The Wicked Witch of the West in Oz. Veronica and Ethel in Riverdale; Ginger and Mary Anne in Gilligan’s Island; Janet and Chrissie in Three’s Company; Mary and Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show; and so forth. Male culture seems happiest to imagine two women together when they are defined as being one winner and one loser in the beauty myth.
Women’s writing, on the other hand, turns the myth on its head. Female culture’s greatest writers share the search for radiance, a beauty that has meaning. The battle between the overvalued beauty and the undervalued, unglamorous but animated heroine forms the spine of the women’s novel. It extends from Jane Eyre to today’s paperback romance, in which the gorgeous nasty rival has a mane of curls and prodigious cleavage, bu the heroine only her spirited eyes. The hero’s capacity to see the true beauty of the heroine is his central test.
This tradition pits beautiful, vapid Jane Fairfax (“I cannot separate Miss Fairfax from her complexion”) against the subtler Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma; frivolous, blond Rosamond Vincy (“What is the use of being exquisite if you are not seen by the best judges?”) against “nun-like” Dorothea Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; manipulative, “remarkably pretty” Isabella Crawford against self-effacing Fanny Price in Austen’s Mansfield Park; fashionable, soulless Isabella Thorpe against Catherine Morland, unsure of herself “where the beauty of her own sex is concerned,” in Austen’s Northanger Abbey; narcissistic Ginevra Fanshaw (“How do I look to-night?… I know I am beautiful”) against the invisible Lucy Snow (“I saw myself in the glass… I thought little of the wan spectacle”) in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette; and, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, vain Amy March, “a graceful statue,” against tomboyish Jo, who sells her “one beauty,” her hair, to help her family. It descends to the present in the novels of Alison Lurie, Fay Weldon, Anita Brookner. Women’s writing is full to the point of heartbreak with the injustices done by beauty—its presence as well as its absence.
But when girls read the books of masculine culture, the myth subverts what those stories seem to say. Tales taught to children as parables for proper values become meaningless for girls as the myth begins its work. Take the story of Prometheus, which appears in Sullivan Reader comic-book form for third grade American children. To a child being socialized into Western culture, it teaches that a great man risks all for intellectual daring, for progress and for the public good. But as a future woman, the little girls learns that the most beautiful woman in the world was man-made, and that her intellectual daring brought the first sickness and death onto men. The myth makes a reading girls skeptical of the moral coherence of her culture’s stories.
As she grows up, her double vision intensifies: If she reads James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man, she is not meant to question why Stephen Dedalus is the hero of his story. But in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles—why did the light of description fall on her, and not on any other of the healthy, untutored Wessex farm girls dancing in circles that May morning? She was seen and found beautiful, so things happened to her—riches, indigence, prostitution, true love, and hanging. Her life, to say the least, became interesting, while the hard-handed threshing girls around her, her friends, not blessed or cursed with her beauty, stayed in the muddy provinces to carry on the agricultural drudgery that is not the stuff of novels. Stephen is in his story because he’s an exceptional subject who must and will be known. But Tess? Without her beauty, she’d have been left out of the sweep and horror of large events. A girl learns that stories happen to “beautiful” women, whether they are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to women who are not “beautiful”
—Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
It seems obvious after reading this, but I was never before fully conscious of this great divide between men’s and women’s writing. Of course I rolled my eyes at Dickens’ beautiful and virtuous models of pure womanhood, but I didn’t link them with Tess and all the other “beauties” who sustain damage and devotion in men’s novels, or oppose them to the more active and substantial heroines from Austen, Eliot, the Brontës, etc. Is this the real source of the latter authors’ enduring popularity, that they explode the beauty myth under which all women labour? Do we love these novels because they give us the hope that someday we will not be judged by the clarity of our skin but by the content of our character?
Alan Rickman, 1946-2016. Requiescat in pace.
Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?
—Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby” (via Brain Pickings)
Leisure without books is death, and burial of a man alive.
The first thing we did once I knew my leg might get cut off was Mom took me to the public library and we looked at a microscope that looks like a TV. Then Mom read out loud the number that were written beside the titles of the books on black shiny plastic that we put under the microscope and I wrote them down on a piece of paper. Then we walked around the library to find the numbers. And once we found the numbers, we found the books. Mom said this is the best and cheapest way to solve the problems in your life: come to the library and check out all the books about your problem and read them.
—Josh Sundquist, “Just Don’t Fall”
I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense. I don’t want a big house or a big bank account; I don’t give a rat’s about those things. I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself. But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know. I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.
I just started this novel but I think it has to be a must read by anyone who loves books. The narrator is a book conservator trying to uncover the secrets of the famous (and endangered) Sarajevo Haggadah in the tense aftermath of the war in Bosnia. It’s a tricky thing reading a novel based on such recent history. I’ll have to read more about the book itself to find out what is truth and what is fiction.
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Sounds like a job for Mrs. Weasley’s magic knitting needles!