Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Where are the Good Books?

One of the books I bought during my recent foray into local bookshops was Alain de Botton's little collection of observations written while spending a week as the writer-in-residence at Heathrow's massive Terminal 5, A Week at the Airport (Vintage 2010). He could write about the workings of a food distribution plant and I'd read his words willingly (oh wait, I did, his last book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, contains just such an essay), so this was a must-have for me. All of his books speak about the contemporary human condition in such a friendly, gentle, intelligent, accepting, yet despairing manner. Which is to say, his books speak to me in just the way I most like to be spoken to as a reader - as if I were actually thinking about and concerned with the major issues of the human condition - which I am. A friend of mine used to call books such as these the Good Books. You know, you go into a bookshop and want to ask, Where is the Good Book section? Usually the staff picks - but I digress. This most recent book of de Botton's can be read in one sitting, at just over 100 pages, and many of those pages are full of color photographs. So the text is thin, but it's still a thoughtful look at a crossroads we sit at, a literal and a metaphorical one. The back cover sums it up: the airport is "...a showcase for many of the major crosscurrents of the modern world - from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our global interconnectedness to our romanticizing of the exotic."

The book consists of small sections that reflect a traditional mythic journey - essentially departure and return - and begins with a note about the fact that he has been hired to write this, in other words he has a patron for this work. He justifies this in part by thinking "...of impatient ancient Greek statesmen who had once spent their war spoils building temples to Athena and ruthless Renaissance noblemen who had blithely commissioned delicate frescoes in honor of spring." (p.11) The reader may draw his or her own conclusions about whether or not the resulting book honors the strength and beauty of the airport or points to any darker underlying messages not entirely compatible with frescoes about spring. Though I think it does both, in that generous and inclusive way that de Botton has with words.

He visits and describes many of the airport personnel at work, and I must mention part of his conversation with the manager at the WH Smith airport bookshop (p.59):

"I explained - with the excessive exposition of a man spending a lonely week at the airport- that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange."

Again, those are the kinds of books I too most want, the kind I consistently seek out, and those that somehow seem to find me even when I'm not seeking them. Books such as Alain de Botton's. Needless to say, the WH Smith had none of his books in stock. But, as long as he continues to write them, I will continue to find them, and to read them.

Dear bookfriend,

DeBotton books are quite popular in Greece (I have near me an-alas- unread volume on architecture)

Want to write lots of things to you, about Mrs. Thrale, "the lability of time" etc. etc., but I think perhaps a paper and ink letter is more appropriate.

Keep posting!
Thanks, Antony dear! I hope you will like "The Architecture of Happiness" when you get around to reading it - one of his best efforts and a perfect example of his style.

Regarding Mrs. Thrale - one of the most interesting things about Boswell's "Life of Johnson" is the little war he wages against Mrs. Thrale and her memoir of Johnson. This war is largely carried out in the footnotes, but then at the end of the book he takes the gloves off and really lets her have it, showing point by point what he calls her exaggerations and mistakes. Bracing stuff!

Just when I start to think no one is reading this blog, and perhaps I should call it a day, I receive a comment from you, or from another long-time reader, and I say to myself, oh okay, I'll keep posting for a while longer. I really do enjoy writing here, not just in my private journals. Years, it's been! I am a little old lady in the blog world.
Yes - please do keep posting. You are a breath of fresh air in the blog world. I, too, am a little old lady, who loves your blog.
Kathleen, thank you - when I had the bookshop sometimes I'd post twice a day, now I'm down to maybe once a week, but I still love it. The writing, and the connection with other readers of like mind. I'll be around for a while.

Right now I'm sick with a cold, and this weekend I couldn't do anything *but* read, it seems. So, some new books to talk about shortly...
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