Saturday, May 16, 2009

With Respect to Books

For a long time, I thought books were one of those things that were completely impenetrable. Fortresses. I'm not saying I didn't read or understand books - far from it, I was an early and voracious reader, and continue to read almost everything I can, all the time. I'm that spacy-looking girl on the subway, really getting into Lavalife ads and trying to read over people's shoulders. (Sidebar! Okay, true story: once, on my way to catch a train, I surreptiously read three pages of what, for all intents and purposes, was erotica, over someone else's shoulder. Caveat: the "porn" was about werewolves, and I could only read the pages that faced me. Racy stuff, though. The reader also did the rest of the subway car a favour by utilizing the classic study-hall trick of swapping in a less titillatilating cover, but I [to this day] think that she should have just owned it. Can you imagine the hilarious discomfort of trying to ignore cover art featuring gross wolf porn? Brrr.)

However (and seriously, a first-paragraph sidebar that devolves into porn? Who >am I?): books. Books, I love. Books, I admire. And I'm not talking about the 100 Books You Should Read But Won't, or Top Ten Books of 2008, or whatever. I'm talking about the actual physical specimen. I'm not sure if it was taught or innate, but books were one of those things, unlike my sister's Polly Pockets, I have always respected. They are ideas, they're entertainment, they're other worlds and worlds that I create. As a lonely, bad-at-friends child, books saved me. I respect them. I would be a very different person without a constant influx of the written word.

So, in adult life, people who underline freak me out. It's like walking up to a childhood pal and drawing a Sharpie mustache on their lip. I am a re-reader, and to return to a tome and find it riddled with clues ("Wow! Insighful!") makes me want to die of embarrassment, or angry that I can't enjoy it again for the first time. I know that marginalia is one of those obscure categories lauded by literary scholars, but for the longest time, I was all, "Quit markin' up my books, jerk!" Even writing my name in them seems tacky. Books seem like animals, not entirely domesticated. They don't belong to me; they belong to themselves.

Regardless of how some people feel about Salman Rushdie, something I admired about him is that his childhood home loved books as much as I do. "If I dropped a book, and I was a clumsy child, I had to pick it up and apologize." I think that's spectacular. I inherited a paperback copy of The Stand from my dad when I was fourteen - much too young, in retrospect, given that whole post-apocalyptic thing - and read it over and over, until the cover fell off. For some reason, it felt like both a sacrilege and an honour to have defiled the book like that, even though I'm pretty sure my dad bought in an airport in 1990. Ties that bind, you know?

In any case, I've recently become a book-writer. Not an author (maybe someday, Mom!) (wait, seriously, I love my mom), but that weirdo who underlines and writes in margins. I hated those folks in the past. I'm still not totally comfortable going there - there's still that gasping moment of breaching a border best left alone - but now when I flip through books, I feel like there are three of us: me as I flip through, me as I first considered it, and the book. The book is the hinge on which both me's turn, and it's a gift.

That sounds sappy and lame, but this is the reason I'm skeptical of digital replacements for the book. Books are living documents in ways with which your iPhone just can't compete. Writing in the margins, jotting down a vocabulary list on the end pages, taking a desperate phone message with an eyeliner pencil on the back cover (don't front, we've all been there)...books are living things. Salman was right: when we knock one over (here I'll put in the usual disclaimer regarding chicklit, in that wedding/relationship/shopping paperbacks written by moonlighting Vanity Fair editors don't fall under this respect-deserving heading) they deserve our respect. Think about that when you repurpose your hipster-required copy of Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as a doorstop.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's Hard To Hold A Candle In The Sweet...May?...Rain

Man, not to be all obvious or anything, but I LOVE SPRING. I feel like people who are really into ice cream, or who love friends, or shiny money. It's pretty much a "duh" situation.

One of the best and worst parts of living in a Canadian city is the endless, interminable winters. Worst: because how many people really love terrible weather? Best: nonstop conversations about how tough we are for putting up with it. (Plus, sledding.) Southern Ontario is lucky, because we get a real fall, and a real spring, and a real winter. Our summers are about 45 degrees Celsius and kill people, and our winters are the opposite (minus 45 degrees...Celsius) and, you know...kill people! But man! Spring! Fall! Delight.

My favourite part of seasons are the two or three weeks where things are in flux: the first snowfall, the buds on the trees, the first few evenings of sweater weather, and so on. Slogging through the snow in March, just hoping you get run over by a snowplow in order to end it all...that's not inspiring. Neither are the Days Of Endless Suffering in August, when couples get divorced just so no one has to touch each other in bed. If we could cycle though the seasons 16 times a year instead of four, that would be radical. Alas, rotation of the Earth! It's just not meant to be.

I'm writing on the first rainy day of spring; sitting outside sans jacket wasn't going to kill me. I'm wearing a minidress and flip-flops, and the jacketless existence didn't mean forty-five trips to the bathroom to warm my feet under the hand-dryer (which is fun, but not socially appropriate in a place that serves $17 beers). Spring is a promise that summer, that long-lost Canadian child, is fast returning; we forget that summer also brings with it heatstroke, dehydration, terrible bike-seat-related sweatiness, and sausage fingers.

Spring is summer's mellower, more awesome sibling: spring brings us flowers and occasionally showers with us. Summer gives us a rash. Summer? Pfft. Spring is falling in love, rediscovering ice cream, beers on the deck, hot showers in warm houses, the start of action movie season, season finales on TV, good hair, prom, getting to choose between tea and iced tea, and tans. It's flux, it's rebirth. It's awesome. And in Toronto, it's a lot of girls in plaid shirts with Keds. I'll take the good with the bad, I guess.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Leah McLaren Is Boring! There, I Said It.

Edward Greenspon, editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and proud owner of a fun-to-say name, needs to do me a solid and ditch Leah McLaren. Nothing against McLaren directly; her weekly lifestyle column is readable, and while she's not out curing cancer, people like to read about bike-riding and speed dating. Her column is one of those forthy little reads that is supposed to be about young, urban, single life. I guess it's sort of like Sex and the City, but with less, um, sex.

So? A girl's gotta eat, right? While jaunty essays about the Kindle aren't precisely hard-hitting newsjournalism, my problem with Leah McL. is that her assignment was supposed to be writing about young, single, urban, and Canadian. She's now on an English farm with her live-in boyfriend. My question is: What the hell is that? That's 180 degrees away from what she should be doing. I am young, single, urban and Canadian. I am the things that L.M. claims to be. She may have, at one point, been those things, but honey, she ain't any more. Hence, my request for Greenspon to phase her out and you know, give me her job.

I would forgive her if her column displayed a shred of humour or self-awareness, but McLaren is notoriously self-involved. Her social commentary is passable, but she rarely thinks critically about why she's paying attention to the things she writes about; it's all "daffy observations!" and "kooky complaints!" Plus, her penchant for writing about herself makes me mental. Sorry Leah: you're just not that interesting.

I'm fully cognizant of the fact that I'm writing about her kind of makes her "that interesting," but she's really no great shakes, either as a cultural force or as a writer. Her Mother's Day column this year was all about how kids aren't fun. Not only in bad taste (a simple "I love my Mom" piece would have been passable; a tirade about how kids make every situation worse was lame on multiple levels), the article focused pretty much on her and her boyfriend, which made it a total snore. Not even a simple shout-out to her own momma. For shame, Leah.

Anyway, I'm done with Leah McLaren. I'm not mad at the Style section (I have a secret weakness for the Knockoff column), but I can't read her any more. It's boring, it's self-obsessed, it's fluffy without being fun, and if she's going to insist on injecting herself into her work, I'm going to insist on not liking either the column or its author. So. Greenspon. Sleep on it. You know where to find me if you want to make room on the masthead.