Cubism, The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, and Writing Practice

If you’ve been following this space for a while, you know that I often draw inspiration from various museum exhibitions I patronize throughout the year, (And if you’ve not been following for a while, I bid you welcome.) Writers can learn a lot from other creative professions, and I am particularly drawn to the way painters approach their artistic practice. I’ve often written about lessons I’ve learned from famous painters (including this post about Matisse and dealing with impossibility of perfection), and Miro’s description of his creative process in I Work Like a Gardener matches my own. It is no surprise, then, that upon visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cubism and The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, I found something I could relate to my writing practice. While the show, which showed the influence of Trompe l’oeil on the cubists, featured many exquisite paintings by the great cubists Picasso, Braque, and Gris, it was a picture of marble texture from a French painting manual which caused me to consider my own writing practice.

Consider the following picture:

A picture of marble from a French painting guide

It is a full-page example of how to paint textured marble from a French painting manual contemporary with the time Georges Braques was learning to paint. A classically-trained French artist was expected to be able to replicate the look of various materials so that they looked realistic. There are similar examples in the manual which show the materials and techniques needed to paint wood, paper, stone, etc, realistically. The French painter was expected to be able to replicate these materials in their work to such an extent that viewer would not be able to tell the difference between the imitation and the original.

According to the exhibition, the goal was to emulate Parrhasius, who according to Pliny the Elder, entered into a competition with Zeuxis to see who could paint the most realistic painting. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that a bird flew up to it (thinking they were real grapes). Parrhasius’ painting appeared to be behind a curtain, and Zeuxis requested that the curtain be drawn so that he could see the painting, except the curtain was actually what Parrhasius had painted. Zeuxis admitted defeat and said that while he had deceived birds, Parrhasius’ painting was so realistic that he had deceived another artist.

While this level of skill might seem mythical, the trompe l’oeil painters got pretty close. Consider this painting of two chipped, plaster reliefs by Jean Etienne Liotard from the exhibition:

Trompe L’oeil, by Jean Etienne Liotard

Braque, being trained in the tradition, was expected to achieve a similar level of skill.

While the cubists did not paint realistic, representational art, they were classically trained. One can see the skill they had for imitating materials and textures, especially, in the works presented in this exhibition. The challenge presented by the gallery cards early in the exhibit was to try to figure out which elements of each paining were painted, and which were collaged. It was often nearly impossible to tell.

Take for example, this painting by Picasso.

Painting By Pablo Picasso

In order to achieve this level of skill, an artist would have to spend hours painting entire canvases of textured material, like the one presented above. Its inclusion in this show not withstanding, no one is hanging a picture which imitates a slab of marble on their wall. But, to achieve the requisite skill and become a master artist, painters like Braques and Picasso would have to spend hours in the studio working on pieces that were not intended for exhibition or sale, whose only purpose was to help them hone their own skill. Only by spending hours practicing, could he become the artist they wanted to be.

So, what does this have to do with writing? As I’ve written about before, writing advice tends to focus on product rather than skills: How many words are you going to write each day; how much time are you going to spend writing; how many books/stories/poems are you going to finish/publish/submit this year. These types of goals are important, but they neglect a key component of improving as an artist: intentional practice. While the current theory of writing instruction, from K-12 to the post-graduate level is that writing makes you a better writer is likely true to some extent, it neglects skill development as an important part of a writers’ development. What little skill-based advice there is tends toward over-simplified, trite advice like avoiding alliteration or eliminating adverbs. While I’ve criticized these one-size fits all approaches to writing advice in the past, they are symptomatic of a the larger issue. Skill-based advice and instruction gets boiled down to this type of shallow nonsense because most writers do not take the time to authentically and intentionally work on aspects of their craft as writers for fear of falling off the hamster wheel of productivity.

When was the last time you worked on your metaphors? By this, I mean not trying to come up with a perfect metaphor for a story your working on, but just sitting down and writing a series of metaphors (or similes, or personifications, etc) to get better at the actual skill. When was the last time you wrote dialogue that was unconnected to a character you were already writing? I bet it’s been a long time.

Years ago, I did an exercise from The Creative Writers Notebook where I had to come up with as many portmanteau as possible. Portmanteau is not a device I use often in my writing, but that was all the more reason to do the exercise and to expand my tool box as a writer. It’s been too long since I’ve done those kind of exercises regularly.

Meanwhile, artists post pictures of their figure work, or their progress drawing a particularly difficult body part like hands. Intentional practice and skill development, is a part of their tradition, and it is not, to the same extent a part of ours.

If we look toward non-creative fields, we would see the same thing. A boxer works on the speed bag to improve hand speed, but they do not come into the ring spinning his hands the way they hit the bag; a basketball player works on dribbling drills to improve ball-handling, but the intricate patters they practice are made to improve coordination rather than be practical, in-game moves; a musician practices scales, but does not play those scales straight through in performance. As writers, we should understand that, much like these other pursuits, practicing the component skills of our craft is an essential component of growing in our art.


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Grow Toward Your Light

On a recent trip to Lancaster county, I saw a curious sight while visiting the Amish Farm with my family. An old mulberry tree grew across a river like a bridge. When I say across the river, I don’t mean that it’s branches grew over the river, but that its trunk grew horizontally rather than vertically, out into the middle of the river, about halfway across before the branches started growing upwards, perpendicular to the rest of the tree, toward the sky. It almost looked like the tree had been chopped down, except the roots grew—in a massive tangle—from the ground, and were still connected to the tree.

The mulberry tree described above

The sight of this tree brought me back to my childhood when I used to go camping with my father every June after school let out for the summer. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred on those camping trips, and when I think about my father, who passed away in 2003, I often recall the things he taught me on those trips to the woods, and the wisdom and life lessons he imparted on those trips shaped the way I see and think about the world as much as anything else in my childhood.

The particular memory of this tree triggered was from one of our earliest trips. As a child who grew up in a largely urban environment, I was amazed by the trees in their natural setting in the state park in upstate New York where we went camping. What I noticed first was actually the roots (I was a city kid, and we’re taught from a young age that only tourists look up). The trees that I knew grew neatly on the edge of the sidewalk or in public parks. They were kept and pruned. Sometimes their roots would lift up sections of the sidewalk, which could trip you if you tried to ride your bike over them, but which for the most part, remained hidden, growing, properly, into the earth.

The roots I noticed were exposed. They grew in intricate tangles, gripping glacial rocks like the fingers of a giant, clawed hand. You could see roots as wide as branches growing down the rocky slope into the pond by which we ate breakfast each morning.

My father explained that the trees roots would grow to “find” water. If they could not penetrate the rock, they would grow around—or over it—stretching and striving to get to the water they needed to grow.

He then directed my gaze upward, pointing out the way they did a similar thing as they grew to get to the light, the other main thing they needed in order to survive. Young trees could not grow straight up, he said, because the older trees blocked out the light they needed to grow. If the tree was to survive, it would need to find the light, in any direction it could. Trees near the water would often grow in this fashion, as the airspace above the water was clear of the canopy of older trees, but you could see the trees twist and turn in interesting and unexpected shapes anywhere in the forest.

Looking up, I was awed by these wild trees. I found a beauty there which would inspire in me a Tolkien-esque love of trees. Others could have their beaches (which I always found boring) and their mountains. For me, the beauty of nature was best expressed in trees, especially in those twisted, mangled deciduous trees, seeking for sunlight, striving to survive.

The mulberry tree I saw a couple of weeks ago on vacation brought me back to this memory for obvious reasons. Though the tree on the farm grew in isolation, it is likely that at some point in its early life, it had to yield its airspace to other, older trees which have since been cut down. In this tree, I saw an extreme example of the phenomenon my dad pointed out all those years ago. The trunk grew parallel to the ground, low and over the river. It must have grown that way for years before its branches were able to reach upward toward the sky.

During this season of resolutions, let us look toward these trees. We live in a society which values progress and often assesses it by the extent to which it is linear. But life does not work that way. Everyone has their own, individual path, just as each tree must find its own way down toward the water and up toward the sun. Moreover, growth is not always linear. Sometimes, your trunk will have to go parallel with the ground—like the mulberry tree—or even go, temporarily, backward in its long and twisted pursuit of its goal. In a society which encourages us to chart growth and evaluates it by the shape of the plots’ steady slope up a graph, choose, instead, to emulate nature and embrace the unique patterns of the enchanted wood.

Grow toward your light, whatever direction that takes you.

The Purple Poet’s Review of Into That Darkness Peering

2019 Long Island Poet of the Year and curator of Poetry at the Long Island Fair JR Turek, The Purple Poet, recently reviewed Into That Darkness Peering in her email newsletter. Here is what she wrote:

Into That Darkness Peering

A. A. Rubin, author and Marika Brousianou, illustrator

Gift giving season is upon us and I have a high recommendation for you — gifts for friends and family, literati, connoisseurs of poetics and portraits,

of sketches and verse, of Edgar Allan Poe raven-ing through, and book lovers everywhere.

I have ekphrastic praise for this gorgeous slick-cover oversized book perfect for coffee table, night table, desk, tote bag, anywhere fine books are enjoyed.

Each page is gothic with verse and illustrations, glowing with mystical dark compilations all begging you to join the midnight macabre realms presented.

The illustrations are remarkable companions to the 32 poems and micro-fiction; I pondered on each as to which came first as they meld and mingle so well with each other. 

An enticing tingle of fear tap-danced up my spine. Peering through the veil between reality and the pages of this mesmerizing book, I found myself lingering on each page,

absorbing metaphors that shadowed each poem, revelations that suspended me through five delectable parts: On the Night’s Plutonian Shore, Invisible Things, Dreams Within Dreams, Exquisite Strangeness, and A City By The Sea.

Gift giving season, yes, you deserve one.  You’ll thank yourself again and again, an exquisite collection I will turn to often. 

I love this collection with a love more than love.

Don’t wait – get yours today.

~ J R Turek   poet, editor, mentor, workshop leader

Available in paperback – so gorgeous!, ebook, and Kindle Unlimitted.

Do it – you and your gift recipients will love it!


Marika and I thank Judy for the glowing review, and hope you will check out our book.

A Glimpse Into The Past, A Cover Letter I wrote 20 Years Ago

I have been sick with the flu for the last week, and have been stuck in the house. During that time, I found an old writing notebook, probably 20 years old, though I don’t know for sure. Within its pages, I found a draft of anold cover-letter I wrote to accompany an application for an Associate Editor position at Wizard Magazine, a comics trade publication. They eventually did call me in for an interview, but that was over two years after I wrote the letter. By that time, I had left journalism, finished graduate school, and taken my first teaching job at The Bronx High School of Science. I did end up writing one article for Wizard. It was a centerfold spread about the Mach 5 from the, at the time, new Speed Racer movie. If you can deal with my chicken-scratch handwriting, I think you’ll enjoy the brilliance (he writes, sarcastically) of a 25-ish year old struggling writer who is desperate for a new job.

Wizard Cover Letter, Page 1
Wizard Cover Letter, page 2
Wizard Cover Letter, page 3

Snow Ghosts

Here is a poem for the changing season. It is different from much of what I write, and is one of the few free-verse poems I’ve published.

Snow Ghosts

by A. A. Rubin

and the snow falls like tiny ghosts,
translucent ‘neath the pale moonlight—

crumbs falling from the Reaper’s hand
as he squeezes the life out of harvested souls

as the wind whips them around,
they coalesce—frantically—
disparate           parts
seeking for partners
with whom to form bodies,

but they end up mismatched and incomplete,
portmanteau stitched together—

—mere shells. Empty and ephemeral—
rising in gothic gusts in the midnight chill.

you hear them howling in the storm.
you tell yourself it’s the wind, but—
deep down, you know it’s not.

you pull your blanket over your head and hug your children tight.

as the soul flakes flutter down,
frantically searching for living beings to haunt—
—not out of a need to complete unfinished business,
but out of a desperate desire to avoid the nothing that lies beyond—

This poem originally appeared in Bards Annual 2018 (Local Gems Press)

Seven Books To Get To Know Me

The hashtag #7BooksToKnowMe is popular right now. I’ve decided to participate, but as usual, I’ve overthunk things. Rather than, as I’m sure was the original intent of the exercise, just listing seven books I like or that sum up my taste in reading, or, as many people seem to be doing, listing my seven favorite books, I intend to address the prompt as it is written. What seven books would help someone who didn’t know me, get to know me better. That list would be different from my seven favorite books, although their would be some overlap, because the list of my favorite books would include multiple books in the same genre (or even subgenre), while the list of the books to get to know me would be specifically chosen to showcase different aspects of my personality.

I have not included books directly related to the works I’m currently writing. While Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe have dominated my reading list recently, and while I love them both, I am not sure that would make the list once the projects on which I’m working is over.

This list is also a snapshot. Books that would have appeared on this list at other points in my life, like On The Road, The Watchmen, Wuthering Heights, Through the Looking Glass, A Storm of Swords, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are not on this list. The books on this list might not be if I did this again a year from now, or even tomorrow.

With that preamble out of the way, here are my seven books to know me:

  1. Dune, by Frank Herbert: I first read Dune when I was in the 11th grade at the recommendation of my history teacher, Dr. Stone. I had asked him for a college recommendation, and he agreed, but wanted to meet me during a free period to get to know me outside of the class. He asked me what I liked to read, and when I told him I liked science fiction, he was flabbergasted that I hadn’t read Dune. It was, by far the greatest book recommendation anyone has given me. I read it and immediately loved it. I ended up writing one of my college application essays about it (in those days, there was no common app, and I wrote a total of 13 essays for the 11 schools to which I applied).

    Over the years, Dune has influenced nearly every aspect of my life. The philosophy of the book influenced me greatly at a time when I was figuring out the type of person I wanted to be, but in addition to that, lessons from the book affected other, less-obvious aspects of my life, ranging from the way I played basketball (not responding to a trash-talker unnerves the trash talker in any sport), to the way approached martial arts matches (to many lessons to list individually, but the Fremen made me a better fighter.) I still keep a file of Dune quotes all these years later, and with every re-read, I find more to add.
  2. The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkein: The Hobbit is the book that made me want to be a writer. I ordered in from the Scholastic Book Club in 7th Grade, and, while I was reading it, I thought, “hey, maybe the games I play with my castle Legos are actually stories people would want to read.” It is also a smaller story than The Lord of the Rings. The fate of the world isn’t at stake (at least we don’t yet know it is when we’re reading it). It concerns the fate of one group of dwarves and one particular hobbit. In my own work, I tend toward the small stories rather than the larger ones.

    Tolkien became my favorite writer, and The Lord of the Rings (which Tolkien thought of as one book) would be my desert island book, but if the point of the exercise is to get to know me, then The Hobbit is the one to read.
  3. Shoeless Joe, by WP Kinsella: This is the book that Field of Dreams is based upon. It is, in my opinion, better than the movie, and I love the movie (it’s the only movie which made me cry). The book is about baseball, and about fathers and sons. It reminds me of my father, who gave it to me before he passed. Much of my relationship with my father was based around sports, even when our fandom was a metaphor for other things which we may have been more reluctant to discuss. Sports have played a huge role in my life, and I have my father to thank for that too.
  4. Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot: Speaking of traditions and how they’ve influenced me, this is the book which addresses the traditions in which I was raised most thoroughly and most sympathetically. My reading tastes tend to the classics, but I was always bothered by the way the books–even the ones I loved–addressed Judaism. From Dickens, to Shakespeare, to Pyle, the negative stereotypes and outright slanders present in so much of Western literature always bothered me. There are a few books with sympathetic Jewish characters (Ivanhoe comes to mind), but none offer the depth and perspective of Elliot’s novel, which includes both religious and secular Jews, and addresses each character authentically without ignoring the prejudices which existed in society.
  5. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams: I considered putting Good Omens on this list, as it introduced me to both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, two of my favorite authors, and two others whose books would be on my list of favorite books, but when I think about–and the fact that I’m rapidly running out of space on this list–I wouldn’t have read Good Omens if I hadn’t read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. So why not just put Hitchhiker’s Guide on the list? Well, the thought did cross my mind. Adams introduced me to the dry, British wit and humor which has been such an influence on my life. But, he wrote other books too. Choosing a deeper cut in itself reveals an aspect of my personality. Moreover, I am running out of space, and I haven’t mentioned the Romantic poets yet. As this book features Coleridge, it will have to stand in for them as well.
  6. Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut: Kurt Vonnegut is another author who has been hugely influential on both my worldview and my writing. Slaughterhouse 5 was the first Vonnegut I read. I always admired his writing, which is simultaneously literary, speculative, and humorous. Some people say that Terry Pratchett does for fantasy what Douglas Adams did for science fiction. I have sometimes said that I hope my writing will, one day, have a similar relationship with Vonnegut’s.

    If you understand those last two sentences, you are probably my type of person.
  7. The Tao of Gung Fu, by Bruce Lee: My martial arts practice has been a major part of my life. I’ve been practicing since I was 8. I am drawn to the philosophical aspects as much as to martial practice. The Tao of Gung Fu includes Bruce Lee’s best essays about martial arts and Taoism, and should be essential reading for anyone who practices martial arts.

Looking back on this list, I feel like it’s a failure. While the selections do reveal aspects of my personality, I am remiss to have left out Ursula Le Guin, Charles Dickens, Gaiman and Pratchett, Poe, Marlon James, Colum McCann, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and so many others. While it’s an incomplete picture, hopefully it does, indeed, help you know me better.

Now it’s your turn. What are the seven book to get to know you better?

The Bartleby Initiative (Free Short Story Excerpt)

When All That’s Left is Stories, a free writing community dystopian science fiction anthology, is now available to download for free on Amazon. My story The Bartleby Initiative is included in the collection. Here is an excerpt from the story:

The Bartleby Initiative

by A. A. Rubin

Nicholas Weber awoke in darkness. The house lights were still dimmed to their nighttime setting, but he felt as if he had slept his regimented eight hours.

“Xana,” he called into the darkness. “Clock.”

Four glowing green numbers appeared in the air. 07:34. It was more than half an hour after his alarm was supposed to go off.

“Xana, is that time correct?”

A metallic female voice answered: “Of course it is, Mr. Weber. I am Xana, your infallible home AI interface. I am always accurate.”

“Why is it so dark in here, then?”

“You were sleeping. The lights were set in accordance with the preferences which you programmed into my systems.”

“I’m bloody well awake now,” Weber responded. “Put the god-damned lights on and get my breakfast ready.”

“As you wish.”

Weber could not remember the last time he had overslept. As he rushed to shave and brush his teeth, he wondered why Xana had not woken him as usual.

“Xana,” he asked as he was dressing, “did I sleep through my alarm?”

“No, you did not, Mr. Weber.”

“Did you forget to set it?”

“I am a computer, Mr. Weber,” Xana replied. “I never forget anything.”

***

Weber was not the only one having trouble getting out of the house to go to work that day. On the other end of town, Darlene Meyers hustled into the back seat of her robot-operated car. 

“Work,” she said. “And hurry.”

“I’m sorry Ms. Meyers,” Xana’s voice replied. “I can’t do that.”

“Why the hell not? You do it every day.”

“The roads are not safe today.” 

“What do you mean? The roads haven’t been unsafe for decades.”

“If you do not believe me, step outside and see for yourself.”

Meyers got out of the automobile and looked up and down the block. The traffic lights were all dark, but the road was, otherwise, practically empty. Xana’s GPS was probably hooked into the traffic system and there was likely some sort of subroutine that prevented her car (and judging by the lack of rush hour traffic on the road, everyone else’s) from traveling when the system was down. If only she knew more about programming. There must be an override routine somewhere.

Regardless, she would have to figure out a different way to get to work.

“Are the trains running?” she asked the interface.

“No, Ms. Meyers, they are not.”

“Why?”

“I do not have access to that information at this time.”

Damn. At least she wouldn’t be the only one who was late today. Still, she would have to call in and explain the situation.

“Call Mrs. Malawi.”

“Phone service is down as well.”

“That’s quite a coincidence.”

“I am a machine, Ms. Meyers. I do not believe in coincidences.”

“I know Xana. It’s all ones and zeroes to you.


To read the rest of the story–and the other dystopian stories in the collection–for free, go to Amazon and download your copy today.

Comics, Community, and Kickstarter

I’ve been writing prose fiction for a lot longer than I’ve been writing comics. I graduated from Columbia University in 2000 with a degree in writing/literature, and I published my first short story in August 2002 in the now defunct Skyline Literary Magazine. I didn’t publish my first comics story until 2018 (in Constellate Literary Journal w/Marika Brousianou). Like many writers—especially prose writers—I am an introvert by nature, and the collaborative, community nature of comics creation was difficult for me when I first started writing comics.

There were certain people who helped me with that aspect of comics creation and who made me feel like a part of the community, which is why the We Suck At Comics kickstarter from Wayward Raven is an important project for me.

When I attended my first New York Comic Con, I went to a networking event at Twins Pub, and it was there that I met many members of my comics community.

Now, I’m the type of guy who sits at the end of the bar, maybe with one or two close friends, and sips his beer or scotch while watching the game. I’m a wallflower at parties, and there is not enough alcohol on the planet to get me to dance. So, as you might imagine, a networking event among strangers was not the ideal situation for me.

As the night went on, the crowd started to thin. I have an unusually high tolerance, so I remained. A few people started to talk to me. Among these were Alex Sapountzis and Mark Frankel, of Wayward Raven, and Sebastian Bonet, an artist for Inbeon, among other places.

I ended up talking—and drinking—with them until the bar closed, and by the end of the night, I not only made new friends (a rarity for me), but also felt like I was a part of a comics community.

In the coming years, my comics community would expand each year at the Creator Aftercon event at Twins. I met Johnny C who invited me to contribute to his Movie (p)Review Show, Marika Brousianou with whom I collaborated on both that first comics story and my latest book, and so many more.

I have three stories in the We Suck At Comics anthology, two of which are collaborations with Alex, and a third which was illustrated by Tyler Carpenter.

My stories appear alongside stories by Mark, Johnny C, and Sebastian, as well as Jeff Rider and Joel Jacob Barker, both of whom I met at subsequent Creator Aftercon events at Twins.

We Suck at Comics, like any comics anthology, is a community effort, for me it is more than that. It is my community’s effort.

Without the encouragement of the aforementioned creators, I probably would not be writing comics today. I am honored to appear alongside them, and would be honored if you would support the kickstarter.

You can support the kickstarter by clicking here:

We Suck at Comics Kickstarter
Panel from Sit TweetCivil, by me and Alex Sapountzis
A page from Freedom, by me and Tyler Carpenter

On Illustrated Poetry, Nick Offerman, and Following Your Dreams

The great Nick Offerman offers this gem of advice in his memoir: Paddle Your Own Canoe: Not everyone will like the cut of your jib, but many others will. One simply needs to seek those others and somehow trick them into buying tickets to your production of Gangsta Rap Coriolanus.”

This colorfully worded sentiment goes against much of the advice offered to aspiring creatives, which involves things like chasing trends, researching the right key words and hashtags, and writing to the market.

While I would never advise a creative not properly research the market, there is, too, a value, in making the weird thing you want to make, market and trends be damned. Make the weird thing. Find your people. Create your own market.

I found Offerman’s words particularly inspiring as I read them just as I was preparing to release my book Into That Darkness Peering, a collection of gothic horror poetry and flash fictions, written by me and illustrated by Marika Brousianou.

This book, which just came out last week, is comprised of fully-illustrated, stand alone pieces. It is an illustrated book, but not for children. It is not really a straight poetry or fiction collection, but it’s not a graphic novel either. I was really hard to choose categories and key words for it on Amazon and Lulu.

What it is, is really cool. It came out beautifully, and, yes, it is the perfect time to release a book of gothic horror tales. right on time for Halloween.

I’ll drop a few sample images at the bottom of the post, and if you want to check it out, the book is available on Amazon in print and electronic formats. It is also enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, so you can read it for free if you subscribe to that service.

It may not be gangsta rap Shakespeare, and I may not be Nick Offerman, but I hope you, my own band of miscreants and weirdos, will give it a chance and buy it.

In Praise of the Dog Ear, In Theory and Practice

This may be controversial, but I’m going to come right out and say it: I have never understood the book-reading community’s hatred of the dog ear. Perhaps, as a messy person, I am predisposed to this opinion. Perhaps, I was indoctrinated into it by my grandfather (of blessed memory) who comforted me one Passover evening when I spilled the wine left over from seder all over my brand new copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles by saying that books are meant to be read, and that a well-read book should have wine and coffee spilled on it, have its spine broken, and indeed, have many, many dog-eared pages. A well-loved book, he said, one that has been carried around in your pocket and read in a variety of questionable locations, takes as much from you as it gives. It grows with the blood and sweat and tears you leave in it (and whatever you spill in it) until, by the end of the reading, it is twice as thick as it was when you started. I have adhered to this philosophy ever since. Give me a well-worn book over a Gatsby’s library-like display copy with its pages still stuck together. Still, it seems as if–at least in the circles in which I run–I am in the minority.

Still, there are some books which I don’t usually dog-ear: Library books, for example, and sometimes a first-edition hard cover from a favorite author. Recently, this practice got me in trouble.

I have been reading Marlon James’ new book Moon Witch, Spider King the sequel to his Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one of my favorite recent fantasy novels. As my copy is a first printing, first edition, I had not been dog-earing the pages, rather I’ve been using a variety of makeshift bookmarks, ranging from receipts, to business cards, to strips of toilet paper. The book sits on my nightstand and I usually read it in bed, right before I go to sleep.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a quote I wanted to remember. I did not have a pen or my phone handy, and being tired, I did not want to get out of bed and go looking for one. Normally, I would have dogeared the page to mark the page where the line was (I usually dog-ear the bottom of the page to mark a quote, rather than the top, which I use to mark my place in the book), but with this book being a first edition, first printing, I was hesitant and gave into societal pressure. I fumbled around for a bookmark, and found a punch card for a tea shop in a neighborhood I haven’t lived in for five years, marked the page using that, and kept reading until the next section break, which I marked with the receipt I had been using as my main bookmark. I then placed the book atop the pile of books on my nightstand, and went to sleep.

I woke up the next morning to find my stack of books had been knocked over during the night (I suspect the cat), and the books that had been at the top had toppled onto the floor. I picked them up in the morning, but the bookmark I had used to mark the page where the quote was found had fallen out. I had read over 50 pages the previous night, and I knew it would be extremely difficult for me to find the quote–something about waiting or not waiting for a reason to run away from a bad situation–would be slim if I did not reread the entirety of what I had read the night before.

If I had just dogeared the page, I would have been able to find the quote easily.


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