Category Archives: Excuse me. I have a Question.

to decrease the volume and mass of objects at will — part one

On March 4th,  published an article by Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel. Here it is. I’ll wait for you here as you follow that link to read it.

For those of you who don’t like to do something else when you’re still in the middle of an original something, this is how the article begins: 

“Can you concentrate on Flaubert when Facebook is only a swipe away, or give your true devotion to Mr. Darcy while Twitter beckons? People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.”

At this juncture in my reading experience I felt a not-exactly-pleasant flutter somewhere deep inside me announce itself sheepishly. As I read on, it just got more obnoxious. Something I couldn’t  put my finger on was making me feel physically sick. Eventually,  it was unmistakable; I was angry. Angry, I think, that it’s a real enough situation to come to the attention of the NYTimes, to be researched, for subjects and sources to be found and interviewed. I knew this was a problem for writers. Most writers these days  need to purchase an application to keep them away from the internet when they’re tearing their hair out… or procrastinating. But readers? Readers too? This is the part that floored me. You ready?

“With so many distractions, my taste in books has really leveled up,” Ms. Faulk, [a voracious reader from Los Angeles, says.]  “Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.”

Exhibit B: This morning I drove by two billboards, which stood facing each other. (I swear to you I am not making this up.They were billboards and they were facing each other, directly on opposite sides of the same street.) Here’s an artist’s (my) rendition (sort of) of what they looked like. I did not  make up the text.

Boys and girls, on one hand we have ceaseless, simultaneously exciting and anesthetizing video games, and on the other good, old fashioned reading, achieved by mental exertion of the kind utilized in school. You choose! It suddenly dawned on me: you don’t need to read books to enter new worlds anymore. There are far easier, much more vivid, more instantly gratifying, more immersive, interactive, stimulating ways by which to enter new worlds. In fact, these worlds are 3D and you can decide which rock to peer under and which to throw in the lake and how many ripples it’ll make when you do. So, if reading is nothing more than a hobby, in the same category as video game playing, karate, movie-going, crocheting and TV-watching, then it is the least exciting of all your options. Or, at the very least, it’s the one with the least amount of fun involved. Gone are the days, in short, of enticing your children by dangling “unexplored worlds” and “adventure” in front of them. They chew up and spit out adventure now like it’s Halloween candy.

That a book is not worth spending time on if it isn’t __________ enough to distract us from the innumerable other forms of entertainment “at our fingertips”, is something you can say only if you view reading as a form of entertainment. This is why it made me angry. Because I don’t view reading as solely a way to entertain myself… nor as solely a way to inform myself nor as solely a way to educate myself (remember when there was a difference between information and education?)

The kid standing between the two billboards, each promising the same thing, will always (unless he’s the exception) choose the video game. The “voracious” reader who expects to be entertained on par with the exploits on YouTube or Facebook or even The Paris Review or a story or video on, will always x-out of the window , scroll out of the e-book, put the book down in favor of these.

The promises we make about reading literature are no longer serving us, in short. The problem is not with video games or the internet and the myriad fascinating things that are found there; nor is it with so called mindless entertainment (don’t get me started on how much better “mindless” is than some of what’s treated as high art in these parts and others!) The problem is also not the tablet or e-reader or whatever else they’re called. The problem is that we’ve forgotten how to read. We’ve forgotten why we read. And because we have forgotten, we encourage little ones (who eventually become adults, let me add) using all the wrong arguments. Arguments that in and of themselves reveal the wrongest, most empty conceptual foundation. To have a more agile mind, you’re better off studying mathematics, critical thinking, doing puzzles. To “enter new worlds” and “travel anywhere you want instantly”, you’re better off popping in a DVD (watch this, for example, and tell me when the last time was a book made you feel like this does). To “walk in another man’s shoes” you’re way better off playing a role playing game online, where you almost literally get to walk in another (wo)man’s shoes. The virtues of just about every other hobby far outweigh those of book-reading. Except, reading should not and, in truth, cannot, be compared with any other activity. Herein lies the problem.

What is reading, you ask, if not any of that? Good question.

I’d answer it, except my husband, who is in the next room, just emailed me a link to this video on YouTube and I’d far prefer to watch it instead, right after I text him the menu for dinner tonight.


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As hundreds are now reading this blog and as we’ve only met a small handful of you in our Comments section, we’re dying to know more about you.

In the words of a precocious 4-year old on whose conversation I was openly eavesdropping recently, “If my friend doesn’t like chocolate ice cream as much as me, we have nothing in common. What are you thinking, Mom?!”

Thankfully, you won’t find a single question about ice cream below, but do introduce yourself, won’t you?




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Do you like me? Please like me.

This morning, I, as the administrator of this bookstore’s email account, received an email from a source that will remain nameless. The subject of this email was, (in the interest of good sense I will paraphrase,) “Here’s how you and your business can become likeable!” I, of course, even as a bewildered observer and trepidatious participant, understood right away that upon reading said email I would not be taught how to capitalize on my charm and good looks in order to make more friends. I understood instantly that within were the secrets to becoming the queen of Facebook, Twitter, etc. (the etc. is there to indicate that I’m aware there are other social media sites in existence; however, I cannot, off-hand, name them.)

Later in the day, as I leaned against the Genius Bar™ at an Apple™ store, awaiting my own personal genius to make genius magic, I stared, openly, at a three-year-old, who deftly navigated, manipulated and, in every way that counts, owned, the absolute weirdness that is a computer. And that’s when I wondered whether any studies had been done contrasting (and maybe even comparing) the ways in which, for example, I developed as a three-year-old, playing house with pots and pans as I had seen my mother do, and the way in which this three-year-old seamlessly glides between the reality of building blocks on her bedroom floor and building blocks on a screen, in a virtual room that is probably made to look very similar to her own. Evolution of this sort doesn’t move at the speed of decades. Does it?

Likable. Am I likable? Is our bookstore likable, meaning, vital, significant? Much has been made, and rightly so, of the phenomenon that is being a complete beast of a human being and passing off as perfectly likable on the internet and the infinite permutations of this situation. It’s great for shy people, for example, who have a hard time looking people in the eye. They can go online and be bold, vibrant. Maybe even live a little. On the other side, are the perfectly healthy, happy humans who use these media according to the prescribed dosage; they share pictures of their beautiful babies, they wish one another happy birthdays, announce successes, commiserate with each other over failures. And so on. But that isn’t where it ends. It never is.

There is a reason the people in your “network” are called “friends”, even if most of them are acquaintances, at best. There is a reason why you “like” someone so they can be your “friend”. We “like” people so that they may feel liked. 1+1=2, yes. But you just know that 1+1=2, you don’t have to think about it anymore. And that, I’m suggesting, is the genius behind all of this.

Smarter and better-informed minds have written at length of what, simply by deduction, clearly awaits us in the near-future. And,just as a hundred years ago I would have scoffed at the possibility of living to see the age of 70, I scoff at the thought that the survival of a business will be dependent upon whether they read and followed the instructions in the email I received this morning. I scoff at the thought that whether a qualified young man receives the job he’s coveting will depend on how much more “likable” his competitors are. I mostly scoff at myself, however. Because, what is what I’m describing but an extension of the physical world as we know it, anyway? That’s what hurts a feel-of-the-paper-loving gal like me most: that the internet is not science fiction. That the social networking of underground clubs and cocktail parties is the same social networking that is open for the world to see. At least, there is a guest list at a cocktail party? At least, there are no listening devices hidden everywhere, transmitting all that is being said to the world-wide web of humanity? Is that what offends me? That the whole world can judge us now, instead of the select few people who actually know who we are?

Anyone reading this, I’m almost sure, is a healthy, happy participant of this world that confounds me. It is impossible to participate half-heartedly. What is it that draws you? What is it that keeps you immersed? What about it makes you happy?


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Too busy living?

On February 2nd, VIDA, an organization in support of “Women in Literary Arts”, posted the above pie chart, along with about 50 others. The charts tell a fascinating story about what appears to be a gender disparity when it comes to the books reviewed by reputable literary magazines. Across the board, of all the books reviewed in 2010, a startling number were written by men as compared to those written by women. What’s more, the reviewers themselves are, more likely than not, men.

“We know women write. We know women read,” the article states. So why isn’t this represented? Five days after this appeared on VIDA’s website, The New Republic published an article written by Ruth Franklin, a senior editor there. It’s an article primarily in search of an answer, which does concede that the ratio holds true even for Ms. Franklin’s own work. It is no secret that most book reviewers are writers themselves and that more of them happen to be men is in keeping with the data produced by the survey. What Ms. Franklin does that is highly productive to this discussion (and it is somewhat strange that this wasn’t included in the original survey itself) is attempt to find out what the gender breakdown was in the books published in 2010, of which an inequitable amount were reviewed. So, along with  Eliza Gray and Laura Stampler she surveyed 13 publishing houses along the spectrum. Lo and behold, it appears less books were published by women than by men and, in fact, the percentage of them reviewed was not too far from those published.

Are there fewer women writers at present? Or are they just not being published? It is important to note, also, that the discussion here involves only those books which are worthy of being reviewed. Cookbooks, self-help books, self-published books and a host of other categories which make up the majority of all books in print are not included. We are talking only about literary fiction and non-fiction — that word which has, sadly, become an ambiguous one, at best.

Curious, I decided to take a sampling of our own books at Portrait. To be perfectly honest, I began with an inkling that if any bookstore dealing in general literature (by no means Feminist) would beat the trend, it would be us. Our book buyer’s eye for literature and her intellect are nationally recognized and she is as discerning as she is sensitive to the rhythms and tones of culture. In short, she buys the best books out there. Out of 46o books counted, 152 were written by women. 308 were written by men.

I was stunned by the number, but sadly unmoved by the truth it reinforced. I myself have read more books by men than by women. Why? Why is that? Surely, all the stock answers (most book publishers are men, literary magazines which publish shorter work where most writers are noticed and given book deals, are edited mostly by men, etc.) must reach their logical dead-end when it comes to a manuscript that is, simply, good. A good book is a good book. I find it hard to picture a publisher or even an intern (the gatekeepers of the future, those interns,)  read an amazing manuscript and decide not to publish it because it was written by Jane and not John.

In response to a tirade of mine about a woman’s keen powers of observation and ability to capture life’s most mundane and poignant minutiae and gently squeeze meaning out of all things, bring light to all that is cloaked in darkness, yada yada, a friend quipped, “yeah, you’re right. Except you’re forgetting the most important thing of all. Men can afford to sit in a study for days, thinking. Women are busy living — even when they appear to be sitting in a study, thinking.”

Is that it?



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Teachers are great. But.

A very smart young man named Josh was recently in the bookstore asking all about classic literature and poetry.  We talked about Paradise Lost, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Homer, and the classic novels he admired.  He said a teacher spoiled Poe for him by making him memorize The Raven.  I laughed and told him that my granddaughter Maren complained of a teacher ruining To Kill a Mockingbird for her by “over teaching” it.  “Too much grind and not enough real insight,” was how she put it.  Josh’s face lit up. “There should be a list of books that teachers are forbidden to teach so that young people can really discover and enjoy them on their own!” he said.  I paused to ponder for a minute. Would the young then just never read these important novels? Would they never find the real enjoyment of reading them on their own?  Challenging the ideas contained within the covers?  Discussing them?

I decided that some would and others wouldn’t, but at least none would come to “hate” the book because they “had” to read it. Finally, I told Josh that I agreed with him, and asked what works he would put on the list.  He laughed and said number one would be The Raven.

I think some books are such treasures that we need to come to them when we are ready and not when they are on the agenda for certain grade levels.  As I was writing this a group of four young ladies, all in their early twenties, came into the bookstore.  I posed my question to them. “Are there any books that you feel you might have enjoyed on your own but were forced to read and be tested on until there was no enjoyment left?”  They thought a minute or two and then gave me the following titles:




For me (and I’m sure no high school student today is required to read it,) it was The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, completely out of the grasp of the average 16 year old — English class systems, an emotionally restrictive protagonist in Soames Forsyte, etc. Reading it today, I would have an appreciation and sense of the importance of this novelist’s work.  But not at sixteen.

Does anyone want to have a little fun and add to this list of books teachers shouldn’t be allowed to teach?




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But… I thought I liked that book…

I saw an indie film last week with a friend. She hated the film while I was enchanted. Normally, we  agree on films and books and theatre. This week the same friend took me to a screening of a film that I had heard was good. I struggled to stay in my seat I was so bored with it, and was surprised that she found it completely engaging. We talked about our expectations and disappointments and wondered what was going on that we had such diverse reactions.

It has often struck me that our expectations play a large roll in how we are affected by books, movies, etc. If we have been given great recommendations by friends, or read rave reviews, then we are set up for wanting too much. Our imaginations are soaring with beautiful images and we can almost feel how it will be to experience the actual thing — the page-turner! the not-to-be-missed mega hit! the once-in-a-lifetime experience! How can we not be disappointed?

On the other hand, we also bring to a book or movie our moods of the moment, our bad-hair-day, our boss-yelled-at-us-day, our family/lover/friend- issue-of-the-day-day right into the theatre with us. Curled in a chair with our book, it’s there — a sweater knit of melancholy and gloom across our shoulders not to be shrugged off by the mere act of reading a book but penetrating our perception of the book, perhaps changing how we feel about it. There is no way for any of us to know for sure if and how we are affected by emotions and how those emotions change how we feel about a piece of entertainment. I do know for certain, however, that when I  see a movie more than once I may have an entirely different take on it the second time, or when I re-read books I find that I sometimes have an opposite opinion of it on the second reading. It could be simply that the second reading or viewing takes place a few years later and I have changed my outlook on things in general so I would naturally have an altered feeling about it. Or, perhaps it means that I am bringing moods to the experience and that is what is altered. When I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand back in the 60’s I was thrilled by the story of the heroic architect willing to destroy his own brilliant building rather than compromise his creative vision. Wow! In my naivete I found this terribly idealistic and appealing. Re-reading the book in the 80’s I couldn’t help feeling a sense of unease regarding the author’s pronouncements for the individual above all else. Her disdain for the “masses” or any collective of society is clearly part of her elitist message and not anything that I can, or even want to, sympathize with.

One of my favorite Edith Wharton novels is the little known  A Mother’s Recompense. I found it so interesting when I first read it — a mother who walks away from a wealthy husband and her own little daughter only to come back into the daughter’s life when the daughter is engaged to be married. There are twists and turns in their relationship as they try to become reacquainted, complicated by the fact that they are both in love with the same man. When I read it again ten years later I was less interested in the melodrama and far more fascinated by the daughter’s forgiveness of her mother’s abandonment and the mother’s sacrifice for her daughter’s happiness.

I don’t know if I brought different emotions to the re-readings or whether I was bringing new perspectives based on more experience in life. It will remain a mystery to me. But I do urge readers to re-visit books after several years and see what has changed. Beside what you find unexplored in the book, you’ll surly find plenty new about yourself.



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The Term “Post-Ironic”

Will someone please explain this to me, while I sit here and try to remember how to breathe?


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Incomplete People

My dear friend Terry, who lives in the Bay Area, was talking the other day about an assignment in her creative writing class.  She was having trouble with the project and thought I might have an idea or two.  The assignment was to write about a character in a novel that you wish had been further developed, or were left wanting to know more about.  At first thought this seemed an easy task; if nothing else, it certainly makes one review much-loved books, recently read books, books not worth the time, and books you’ll never forget.  But then, to think about the characters — the memorable ones and those that you would want to spend more time with — is an interesting proposition.

The classics certainly have a wealth of characters to choose from but after thinking about it I came to realize the authors usually developed each character thoroughly, as was the style in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Would one need to know more about Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina or Daisy Miller?  I believe these characters and the auxiliary characters in those novels were too well-drawn to leave me feeling that I needed to know more about them.  Often I would puzzle over their actions and decisions, but never did I believe that I didn’t really know them as characters.

Moving on to more modern and contemporary writers and their novels, the choices broaden and become more difficult. After much deliberation, however, I finally decided the one I would like to have seen be better developed or to have known more about is Hanna Schmitz, the inscrutable, abrupt lover of the young boy Michael in “The Reader” by Bernard Schlink.  What, besides illiteracy, shaped her life, why was she friendless, why was she so driven by the fear of her secret being revealed that she was willing to go to prison?  We see her as strong and almost confrontational with Michael, yet she marched in line with all that she was told to do as a prison guard.  The grown Michael poses many of these same questions while watching Hanna’s trial but nothing is revealed about her inner life or what motivates her.  Hanna Schmitz remains a character who is never fully revealed and we are left to decide for ourselves what we believe about her.

I have often thought it would be interesting if Bernard Schlink would write about the same events but through Hanna’s eyes —  her childhood, how she came to be illiterate, and the circumstances that created  the shame that drove her life choices, chief among them the choice to be imprisoned.

Thank you Terry, for giving me something to ponder.


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I Know Everything About You But Let’s Pretend I Don’t

[Unrelated Note: Last week’s (A)Musings are up. Go take a look and complete this week’s thought.]

Years ago, when I was living in New York City, a friend told me how celebrities, even minor ones (actors most especially,) hated to be acknowledged in public. She went on to explain that they wanted freedom to be themselves and interact with waiters, store clerks, etc., without having to smile through a fountain of gushing compliments. I understood her point of view and believed her, since she was a working actor herself.  On the other hand, putting myself in the celebrity’s place, I often wonder if maybe they do want to be told, even by a complete stranger, that they are admired, and their work appreciated. Isn’t that part of the bargain, to be acknowledged publicly for performing well for the public?

When I first moved to NYC from the south in 1969, the film Midnight Cowboy had just come out. On my way to a business meeting one day with a colleague, who was a seasoned and sophisticated New Yorker, I spotted Jon Voight in a cowboy hat and boots walking toward us, just as he had walked the streets of New York in the film. I couldn’t help myself. I loudly blurted out, “It’s the Midnight Cowboy!” He smiled and tipped his hat and kept on walking. In the meantime, my colleague had crossed the street to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with me. She said, as I rushed to catch up to her, “If you ever do that again I will have you fired!”  “What did I do wrong?” I asked not really understanding. “You made a spectacle of yourself over a movie star!” she exclaimed.  “You’re never, never supposed to act like you know who they are!”  Really? I was skeptical then and remain so now. I mean, I wouldn’t hound someone for an autograph, or try to elbow the paparazzi out of the way to get to him. Nor would I stalk or grovel or scream in ecstasy, but I would like to feel free to smile in acknowledgement, maybe tip my head in their direction, without being made to feel like a yokel by my urban friends.

I moved to Los Angeles eleven years ago and one of the things I love about this city is …well… the liveliness. The excitement that comes from never quite knowing who or what you’ll see next. It is never hum drum, always unpredictable. And for me part of the fun of the unpredictability is suddenly seeing the faces in restaurants, stores, and other public places, that you have recently watched on the big and little screens.

We get our share of celebrities here at the bookstore, as do most retail places in Los Angeles. The thing that puzzles me is how awkward it is sometimes.  Often, if they are young television actors, I don’t know who they are anyway, so no problem for me. And sometimes even if I don’t know who they are or haven’t seen their show, they somehow exude an aura of being special, as if there’s a light on somewhere inside them, beckoning the world to notice. Then it’s easy; I just treat them like the nice customers that they are.

On the other hand, we also have well-known celebrities wandering in– ones who I not only recognize but whose work I also have a genuine admiration for. Now they are standing at the counter in front of me ready to make a purchase. This is when it gets sticky. They know that I know who they are, and yes they are just folks like us, but still.  It is so tempting to mention how wonderful they were in this or that role, but I don’t want to be presumptuous or make them uncomfortable by drawing attention to their celebrity.  I wonder how they feel.  Do they want to be treated like ordinary customers?  Do they prefer not to be acknowledged?  Do I joke with them as I would anyone else? Of course I do. Do I?

What’s your experience? Thoughts? Advise?

– Donna


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The Telephone

“If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life and feel like telling himself that everything is quite easy now, he can see that he is wrong just by recalling that there was a time when this “solution” had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too and the solution which has now been discovered seems fortuitous in relation to how things were then. And it is the same in the study of logic. If there were a “solution” to the problems of logic (philosophy) we should only need to caution ourselves that there was a time when they had not been solved (and even at that time people must have known how to live and think).”  

 —Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of only a handful of men whose inner and outer worlds were, as surely as anyone can be sure of anything from the past, never at odds, Wittgenstein came to me in a dream last night. He didn’t say or do anything– he was just there– perhaps a bit more confused than I about his sudden appearance. I was sorry to have to leave him behind, as it was a positively empty, happy dream. So, when I awoke I went searching for him in the next best place to my subconscious: the internet. Andrei Codrescu, as he has on a couple of occasions before, gave me just what I needed. A disjointed, totally sentimental compilation of random quotes taken from “Problems of Life,” accompanied by some exquisite photos of equally disjointed subject matters. Here, serendipitously, I found the thought at the top of this post. It’s one I’ve often borrowed when entrenched in discussions which threaten to delve a little more deeply into philosophy than I normally see it fit to tread.

Of course, what he’s talking about is much larger than the trains of thought I followed, but I couldn’t help thinking about how the psychology of mankind changed with the invention of the telephone.

  There was a time when your husband got on the horse and rode out of town, promising to return within seven days. On the sixth night you’d probably begin experiencing some anxiety? On the seventh, worry? And what about the eighth? How would you feel on the eighth night, with no neighing within earshot? Or perhaps you’d know enough to prepare yourself the first day for the possibility that he won’t return? Would hope carry you through? Or would you be desensitized by life enough to not be moved by it at all? I wonder. I wonder about the first man who called his wife’s cell phone five minutes after she left the house for work. The first one. I wonder what we gained or what we lost when we suddenly were given the tool, the gift, the opportunity to always know where our loved ones are. This must have changed us! One day you’re on your knees for a safe return and the moon and sun revolve around separations of all forms, the next, an entire piece of who you are and an aspect of what makes your life your life is plucked away– did not the collective heart of man sigh one very loud, weary sigh? And what came to take the place of this age-old weight? For, surely, something occupies it now!

It was a quiet day at the bookstore today. 




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