Victor Hugo Kindles Some Thoughts

Prejudice can be terrible to behold and worse to experience. In its most virulent forms – such as sexism, nationalism, ageism and racism – it can destroy communities and erode relationships. Sometimes its Medusa-like coils seem determined to wrap around every aspect of our lives. Prejudice helps lay the foundation for religious intolerance and class envy. Prejudice colors discussions of politics and sometimes renders problematic the most well-intentioned attempts at problem-solving. Even minor irritants like social snobbery and cliquish behavior have a soupçon of  prejudice stirred into their mix. All of us are prejudiced, it seems, but in a wonderful bit of irony, none of us wishes to appear so. It’s simply who we are. 

On the other hand, not every bit of prejudice is necessarily destructive. The world is filled with pre-judgments that serve as a kind of human shorthand and they’re often quite humorous.  American football fans think soccer is “wussie”. Soccer afficionados contend American football is thuggish and unskilled.  Sailors refer to powerboat sorts as “stinkpotters” while those making way with the help of gasoline or diesel make disparaging remarks about the “rag haulers”. 

Country bumpkins may regard city slickers with disdain, but Mrs. McMansion is scandalized by the Bag Lady on her corner.  When high-school dropouts makes smart remarks about highly educated folk who “pile it higher and deeper”, they’re no better or worse than PhDs who dismiss a high-school graduate’s “common sense” as useless and irrelevant. 

Fortunately, such stereotypes can be overcome and often are – by shared experience, new information or personal encounters. Even so, far beneath our pre-judgments and stereotypes, at the very bottom of the prejudicial heap lies a response so unthinking, so immediate and pure it seems instinctive, a primordial rejection of the fearful, the unfamiliar or the odd. Take, for example, my first experience with the venerable Brussels sprout.

I wasn’t a fussy eater as a child, but I had my preferences and I was willing to express them.  One day my mother showed up at the table with a bowl of Brussels sprouts. “Would you like some?” she asked. I was polite. “No, thank you.” “Why not?” “I don’t like them.”  Thinking she knew the answer to her next question, she asked it anyway. “Have you ever tasted them?” “No.” “Then why don’t you try one?” “I don’t like them.”

Never one to give up easily, my mother persisted. “You like cabbage, don’t you?” I allowed as I did. “Don’t they look just like little cabbages?” “Yes.” “Aren’t they cute?”  They were cute. “How about you try just one?”  It didn’t happen.

Years later I ran into Brussels sprouts at a friend’s house, where they were being grilled with lemon, butter and garlic.  When they arrived at the table in their pretty yellow bowl, dressed with lemon wedges, I decided the time had come. I put three or four on my plate and tried one. In an instant my childhood prejudice was confirmed. Sing their praises if you will, but from my point of view, those sprouts were the worst veggie to come down the culinary pike since grass. I’ve never tried one since.

Over the past months I’ve remembered my reaction to those Brussels sprouts as I’ve watched e-readers flood the market: Nook, Kindle and iPad particularly, but also second-tier products trying to scramble their way onto the bandwagon.

When a friend suggested, “You ought to get one,” the first word out of my mouth was “no”.  “Why not?” she asked. I rattled off the reasons. 

*My books always are “on” – they function perfectly well without batteries. 
*There’s more information per page in my books.
*No one will hack my bookshelf.
*I can keep a book as long as I want without having to worry about it being supported.
*Books don’t break, and a book that’s been dropped in the water can be fished out, dried off and read.
*Books smell good; plastic doesn’t.  
*I can press flowers or leaves in books.
*I can turn down the corner of a page. 
*Doing research, I can have three, or six, or fifteen books lying open at the same time. 
*Each time I re-read a favorite, I can add comments in the margin with differently-colored ink, creating a palimpsest of response.

When I stopped for breath, my friend said, “But you can put a thousand books on it.” I suggested I wouldn’t read a thousand books of any kind before my death. She pointed out I could make the text bigger. I pointed to my reading glasses. She told me about the variety of free books available, and I told her about a place called “the library”. “Well,” she said, “it’s a flat fact you can prop it up more easily in front of a cereal bowl.”  That stopped me. Of all the advantages a Kindle or Nook might have, that one seemed most compelling. But, it wasn’t enough.

“Listen,” I said. “Just tell me. What makes your Kindle better than a book?” “It’s not better,” she said. “It’s just different. They’re great. Everyone loves them. I’ll loan you mine for a week. Don’t you want to try it?” Clearly, I appreciated her willingness to share her new toy.  But still, the answer was “no”.

Thinking about it later, I began to see the Nooks and Kindles of the world as strange “e”-quivalents to that passel of Brussels sprouts I passed on as a child. My objections to them sound vaguely rational, but my opposition is tinged with irrationality. The fact is I’m prejudiced against them, in a way I’m not fully able to explain. 


Victor Hugo might understand my confusion.  He spent much of his life pondering the significance of an earlier technological revolution – the use of movable type – and its implications for human culture. I doubt Hugo was prejudiced against books in the same way I’m prejudiced against e-readers. After all, writing and publishing were his business and his passion. Still, reflections embedded into his novel Notre-Dame de Paris make clear he was able to imagine the discomfort of standing at a juncture in history where the old is in process of giving way to the new.

Early in Notre-Dame de Paris the antagonist, Claude Frollo, encourages two visitors to lift their gaze from a book lying on his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame.”This (the printing press) will kill that (the cathedral),” he declares. 

Frollo’s point of view is the conviction of Hugo – that the history of architecture is the history of writing. Before Gutenberg, culture was communicated through architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, from The Alhambra to the soaring grace of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, stories were preserved in “books of stone.” With the invention of the printing press, everything changed.  In Book Five, Chapter Two of his own grand story, Hugo dives directly into the depths of his argument.

Human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression… the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable.  Architecture was dethroned. The lead characters of Gutenberg succeeded the stone characters of Orpheus.
In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, elusive, indestructible. It mingles with the air. In the days of architecture, thought had turned into a mountain and taken powerful hold of a century and of a place. Now it turned into a flock of birds and was scattered on the four winds occupying every point of air and space simultaneously.
We repeat: who cannot see that in this guise it is far more indelible? Before, it was solid, now it is alive. It has passed from duration to immortality. You can demolish a great building, but how do you root out ubiquity? Come a flood and the mountain will long ago have vanished beneath the waters while the birds are still flying; let a single ark be floating on the surface of the cataclysm and they will alight on it, will survive on it, and, like it, will be present at the receding of the waters; and as it awakes, the new world which emerges from the chaos will see the ideas of the drowned world soaring above it, winged and full of life.

Hugo never pretended architecture would disappear, or that it would cease to communicate in its own, particular way. He knew that in the age of printing, the age of building would survive. But architecture would no longer be “the social art, the collective art, the dominating art. The grand poem, the grand edifice, the grand work of humanity will no longer be built: it will be printed.”  It was to be a “both/and” world.

Today, even those within the publishing industry who are most enthusiastic about the transition to e-readers are not contending that printed books, the heritage of Gutenberg, will disappear.  But where a system can support them, where electrical grids and wireless networks and chips make them possible, e-readers will join the printed page to keep the richness of culture soaring above a new world, winged and full of life.

 This leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. Over the years I’ve become very much a “both/and” kind of person.  And yet in this matter of digital vs. print, I’ve been quite firmly “either/or”. In fact, I’ve been so adamantly “either/or” I don’t even need someone pointing to the hem of my mental skirt and saying, “Pardon me, Ma’am. Your prejudice is showing” to know I’ve been a little sloppy in putting together my thoughts.

Whether or not I become a fan of e-reading, I clearly should give it a try. If I truly don’t like it, preference still beats prejudice every time. It would be a bit of fun  to download Notre-Dame de Paris for free, and read about the consequences of new technology on – well, on a new technology.  And who knows? I might discover a Kindle or Nook  props up very nicely in front of a bowl of brussels sprouts. 

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Published in: on September 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm  Comments (24)  
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  1. Perhaps there is some irony in the fact that it was molten lead (the stuff type is made of) that rained down from the gargoyles on those who would breach the sanctity of “Our Lady of Paris”. (Or maybe it was only molten lead in Hollywood’s version?)

    For more kindling, read Henry Adams’ observations in “The Dynamo & The Virgin”.

    And, from a brittle, yellowed newspaper clipping that’s been above my desk for decades, here’s a thought from David Macaulay, author of “Cathedral” (1973):

    “I don’t feel close to God going into a cathedral. Instead, I feel proud to be human, proud to be part of the tribe that 800 years ago organized their energies to create something of this magnitude. What overwhelms me is not the spiritual but the degree of human endeavor, the commitment.”

    Al Cyone,

    I’d not heard of “The Dynamo and the Virgin“, nor of Henry Adams, so I thank you for that. When I searched it out, I was rather taken with the first line my eye fell upon: “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” It reminded me of a line from the poet Yeats I’m rather fond of: “Education’s not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.”

    When I refreshed my memory about “Cathedral”, I noticed Macaulay has a book in his series entitled Mosque. He dedicates it to his children and his childrens’ children, but given current debate on the subject, I suspect there are a few adults who might profit by a read.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore the relationship of “book and building” in Islam, comparing it to Hugo’s “Bible of stone and Bible of paper”? Well, at least I think it would be. ;-)


  2. I was positioned, chronologically, to experience first-hand the transition in the newspaper industry from the lead-type technology that had served for more than a hundred years to a rapid succession of transitions from optical scanners, “cold” type, and paste-up, to an entirely digital process from first draft to press plate.

    In the 1960s, when what now seems like the primitive process of using perforated paper tape to drive a Line-o-type keyboard, veterans in both the newsroom and the composing room predicted that the craft and the profession of making newspapers were doomed. They were doomed, it turned out, but not because of paper tape or any other innovation within the newspaper business.

    I remember very well the names of those reporters and editors who had contempt for electric typewriters — to say nothing of the word processors that shortly followed them into the newsroom. I, for one, never found the romance others perceived in pounding on a mechanical Royal or Underwood for eight hours a day, or in literally “cutting and pasting” a story and then impaling one’s hand on the spike when storing the carbon copy. It seemed to me that one could be a far better writer or editor — a far better artist — by using electronic tools to make refinements that both deadlines and fatigue would have precluded in the Golden Age.

    Meanwhile, although I read many books, I have so far found no reason to try a Nook or Kindle, but I expect I’ll live long enough to both find a reason and use the technology.

    And I have already lived long enough to justify my refusal, long ago, to eat beets. I don’t like them, even though I’ve never tried them.


    I’ve always found the “romance” of the past to be a bit suspect, no matter whether the subject at hand is the newsroom, the classroom, the farm or the family. It never was as “pure” or as simple as we like to imagine, and our nostalgia often is a longing for a world that never was.

    Like you, I remember some of those technological transitions. The first time I encountered an electric typewriter with a “correction tape” that allowed you to go back and erase your errors, I was astonished. And I still remember my first days with a computer, when the impulse to hit “carriage return” could be overwhelming. Now, I wouldn’t trade my computer for anything, although I do keep the manual typewriter in the closet, just in case…

    I’m no Luddite, I just happen to believe the old aphorism – “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” – has been stood on its head, and we live in a world where the inventions multiply and the marketing departments find ways to convince us they’re necessary for a full and happy life.

    The truth is, these gadgets are tools, and if I need one, I’ll use it. I’ve never texted, and so far haven’t experienced that as a problem. I’m on Twitter, but left Facebook. My cell phone makes life much easier for me, but I’ve no need for a “smart phone” (particularly one that might be smarter than me).

    The one thing that’s seemed a true plus for me is using the Kindle or Nook in the context of a hurricane evacuation. Instead of telling Mom we have to leave the silver at home so I can put my box of favorite books in the car, I could have all of them on that little machine. But then I’d be leaving behind all those comments in the margin, and I don’t know that I could bring myself to do that.

    Beets, huh? Don’t worry. You’re not missing a thing.


  3. I’m with you on the electronic “readers.” I do, however, enjoy listening to books on my iPod while I walk the dog, etc.

    And I’m completely with you on the sprouts, too. Ate an olive once. Hated it and there’s no reason to eat another one simply to confirm my prejudice. I also hate cooked cauliflower though I do like it raw. Parsnips suck pretty bad, too, and turnips…arrrgghh! Right up there with hard boiled eggs as far as I’m concerned. My dad was a chef and we certainly ate well at our house. But he used to put turnips in the beef stew. But I figured out how to deal with them. I’d eat the first bowl, except for the turnips. I’d then leave the dining room to get a second bowl of stew, flip all the turnips back into the pot and then when I was finished eating the bowl would be empty.


    The creativity of children (and others!) when it comes to circumventing hated foods is remarkable. We all laugh at those Norman Rockwell illustrations of the kid feeding the dog under the table because we’ve been there – at least in spirit.

    One of my worst food memories is running up against poached figs in some kind of sauce – brandy, perhaps? – when I was in high school. I was in Washington, DC, at a dinner in Georgetown (more about that someday) and I was a kid from Iowa. I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated, but I was about to gag. An attentive dinner companion saw the distress and said, “Don’t worry – it’s perfectly fine to leave them.” And she left hers, as well, in what may have been one of the most compassionate gestures of the century. I still remember her fondly.

    But I never, ever would leave a single one of those onion rings your dad turned out ;-)


  4. As a race, do you think that it is possible for anyone to be totally without prejudice? It seems to me that we get influenced by our experience. Such things such as TV or friends may influence us one way but then our experience tells us that they were wrong. But, if your experience is that every person with a PhD you’ve ever met was a jerk, would you not be predisposed to look at the next PhD holder with a raised eyebrow?

    I once tried to see if prejudice was in animals…like if a herd of brown horses were not nice to a pinto. Didn’t hold water. So..what do you think? Is it learned or a natural human condition to have some pre judgements about those who look different from us or were raised in a different socioeconomic status?

    Personally, I find that those who think of themselves a tolerant behave differently or don’t give the same consideration to those who are overweight, not physically attractive or from a lower socioecnomic strata as they are. We get so hung up on prejudice from a ethnic or racial standpoint yet overlook other aspects of judgement.


    Clearly, experience plays a huge role in shaping expectations of people. And, in the absence of personal experience, that gap gets filled by a variety of things: television, movies, news sources or others’ accounts of “this” kind of person or “that”.

    I grew up in an Iowa town of about 20,000 people. There was one Black person in town – a postal carrier. Then, he was called “colored”, and he and his family lived in Des Moines. He was the only Black person I saw until I left home to go to college. Everything I “knew” about Blacks came from books, radio, movies or tv. Since I grew up in the era of Amos n’ Andy and Stepin Fetchit, you know what that meant.

    As you can imagine, when I got out into the world and began meeting living, breathing Black people, it took me a while to stop being uncomfortable and start seeing them as individuals. In the beginning, all I saw was their “blackness” – their superficial difference from me. Then, as I began looking for qualities that supposedly characterized Blacks and didn’t find them (laziness, lack of intelligence, etc.) I had some adjusting to do.

    The irony is that later, working in the West African bush, I had the experience of being the first white woman the children of an up-country Liberian village had seen. Their reaction was similar to mine when I began meeting Black people – curiosity, hesitance, awkwardness and a little fear. When I was given my Kpelle name – Nenkweli – I was terrifically pleased to learned it means “bright woman”. Then, I discovered the truth. “Bright” simply means “light colored skin” or “white”. It was my appearance that was being noted, and not my intelligence!

    Do I think it’s possible to be without prejudice? No, I don’t think I do. But I do believe it’s possible for us to make “pre-judgments” and have “pre-dispositions” without them turning into the sort of prejudice that causes so much trouble. I also think that requires self-awareness and effort, which may help to explain why there is so much prejudice – of all sorts – in the world.


  5. The Kindle probably has a better chance of winning you over than does the baby cabbage.

    I have always been called a fussy eater, a term that still drives me crazy. I’m not fussy; I eat what I like. I believe brussels sprouts taste the same to everyone — just as a painting looks the same, or a piece of music sounds the same, or hurtling down a steep hill of snow on two sticks feels the same. The difference is simply that not everyone likes those sensations. Your reaction to the ebook readers may be in this category.

    On the other hand, you might find that they do serve a purpose in certain situations. I listen to audiobooks in the car, not because I enjoy the experience of sliding in a CD, but because they allow me to listen and learn while I’m driving. As much as I love real books, when I’m behind the wheel I need to find an alternative. Not so at the dinner table: why eat beets if you don’t like them? And why try them if you already know you don’t like them? I’ve never tried bullfighting, but I know I wouldn’t like it.


    Yep – you’ve just made my point again. All of these gadgets are tools – for learning, for convenience, for enjoyment – and we’re the ones who determine how they’re used. As I like to say, a hammer’s a hammer – we determine whether it’s used to pound a nail or crack open a skull.

    Last week I was told by an acquaintance that she spends two hours a day on Facebook, updating her status and such. Yesterday I walked through Target and noticed fully half the customers were buried in hand-held devices as they moved through the store. The number of accidents caused by inattentive drivers who are not only talking on cell phones but watching videos, texting or googling “risks associated with Brussels sprouts” is rising exponentially. Audio books are a little different, although I’ve found I’m not able to listen to them while working or driving because I get so wrapped up in the book I don’t pay attention to what’s going on around me.

    I’m fascinated by your contention that paintings look the same to everyone, music sounds the same, Brussels sprouts taste the same, and that the only difference in our experience of them is personal preference. My immediate response is “Gosh, NO!” But I don’t know why I think that, or feel it so strongly. Now I’ve got something new to ponder!

    Well, that, and my list of “things I’ve never tried but know I wouldn’t like”.


  6. It occurs to me that you are actually writing an “E-Book” here.
    I get to enjoy the first draft.


    Can you see me grinning? Good. ;-)


  7. Maybe this solves a puzzle I have been working on for some years.

    Since first touring England, Scotland and Wales I was impressed with the architecture and came home to wonder just what we have built (besides highway interchanges and super malls) that could compare to a ruined Hadrian’s wall or a well preserved castle near Loch Lomond. I guess the most modern architecture that I liked was the Monuments to the King and Queen of Thailand built on Doy Inthanon. So most buildings and ruins I admire were certainly built long before the printing press.

    It comes to mind that the Bas relief at Angkor was a form of writing/printing and (if it ever existed) Ozymandias’ Plaque could well be “comment # 1″ on Ra’s Blog.


    I’m laughing even more now – love the thought of Ozy’s Plaque as a blog comment!

    Your comment about Doi Inthanon reminds me how much of a “closed book” parts of the world are to us. Of course, geographical proximity doesn’t always help with that. I once knew a woman who lived outside Victoria, Texas, who’d never been to San Antonio, let alone Houston. She saw no need to go because, as she said, “I have everything I need here.”

    And of course, there are inner-city Houston children who’ve never been to see the buildings on Galveston’s Strand and people in Houston’s suburbs who never have been to the 4th Ward to see the shot-gun houses and “read” the history there. Thank goodness there are those who’ve dedicated themselves to preserving these “texts” and restoring them for all of us to learn from and enjoy.


  8. Hi Linda,
    Another very thoughtful and enjoyable story. I am sitting on the fence on this one. I still get the “paper” newspaper delivered every day to my home, and when I have time I enjoy holding that newspaper and reading it….when I don’t have time I catch a few of the headlines on the computer. Best of both worlds.

    I have a full wall, floor to ceiling built-in bookshelf in my living area and it is full of books. I used to read so much, maybe 3-4 books a week if not in the past 20 years it has been hard to read even a few “pleasure books”. So I grab my “pleasure reading” when I can get it…like when I come here and read your stories! (Pleasure reading as opposed to reading I must do for work or for “self improvement”) I will always enjoy the Printed book like I enjoy the printed newspaper.

    I think I could imagine eventually trying out one of the new reading gagets. But buying one of those is so far down on my “to buy wish list” it will never happen.. It is not even close to being a priority. Plus, expensive equipment tends to get destroyed easily… I was about 5 years behind everyone else in getting a cell phone! Then I destroyed a few of those before I got the hang of not getting it wet, dropping it or losing it. I still do not have a lap top computer; I am attached to my big desk top. LOL

    And I have never like Grits and still do not like Grits and I tried them a few times and could not change my mind. And for a Southern Girl not to like Grits is the same as a Southern Girl not liking Ice Tea which I do not enjoy either. That is almost a sin in my family. And I have tried tea many times.
    I will not eat Brussel Sprouts either.. and never even tried one.

    Thank you so much for another interesting read.


    See – you’re a “both/and” person, too! I remember that you read the Sun-Sentinel in the mornings – that’s how you always know about Ken’s great articles. From what I’ve seen of the SS online, it might be a better paper than our Houston Chronicle. I get most of my news online now, just because the Chron has become so watered down over the years – and their point of view has taken over their reporting in many areas.

    I sympathize re: your gadget motality. When I’m working, I keep a truly cheap, Radio Shack AM/FM radio around. I can’t tell you how many of those have gone in the water over the years. People have told me I need an iPod, but I can tell you I don’t. I need something I can put three feet away. I know one guy who thought he’d solved the problem by taping his iPod to his arm. Then, he fell in the water. ;-)

    When I finally tried grits, I was astonished that people eat them and seem to enjoy the experience. I did try them several times – with gravy, with butter, salt and pepper, etc. Nothing helped. But you’re right – your “Southern Girlness” is at risk if you’ve turned your back on grits and iced tea!
    (I don’t think anyone puts anything at risk by not eating Brussels sprouts!)

    Thanks for stopping by – so glad you enjoyed the read!


  9. “I’m fascinated by your contention that paintings look the same to everyone, music sounds the same, Brussels sprouts taste the same, and that the only difference in our experience of them is personal preference. My immediate response is “Gosh, NO!” But I don’t know why I think that, or feel it so strongly.”

    I think you would agree with me if I had done a better job of saying what I meant. If you and I are listening to a piece of classical music, we hear the same notes — the sound waves moving through the air and into our ears are identical. What happens after that is subjective, and maybe unique for everyone. If we’re looking at a painting, we see the same colors and shapes; what those colors and shapes trigger, including how we feel about them, might be completely different. I think it’s the same with food. If you like crawfish and I don’t, the difference isn’t in what they taste like, but rather in our reaction to that taste. At least that’s my current theory. Check back tomorrow.

    By the way, I love this post, especially the “books of stone” imagery.


    Hmmm… I take your point. But it still seems a bit mechanistic to me. Let me give it another try.

    The first thing that strikes me is that word: “if”. “If you and I are listening…” “If we’re looking at a painting….” That makes clear that being in the presence of music or painting doesn’t guarantee receptivity.

    Remember the famous experiment, where Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten asked Joshua Bell to give a little concert in a Washington, DC subway station during morning rush hour? At 7:51 am on January 12, 2007, a few months before he won the Avery Fisher Prize, Bell, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, took out his 1713 Stradivarius and began to play. More than a thousand people passed by, and few stopped to listen. Even fewer recognized Bell. As Weingarten wrote his his Pearls Before Breakfast,

    “No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

    The article’s always worth a re-read, and it’s relevant here. Some stopped to listen, most of the thousand who passed by did not. One woman recognized him and tossed a $20 into his case, but his take from other folks was $32.17. The same notes were echoing around all of those people, but that doesn’t mean they “heard”.

    As far as paintings – well, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, here. Maybe I should do both, since I’m such a both/and kind of gal. Last week I was diagnosed with fast-onset glaucoma in my left eye. If I look at a photograph, a painting or the world outside with my left eye, the colors are washed out, with no vibrancy whatsoever. I looked at a friend’s photo last night and with my right eye the cirrus clouds were lovely. With my left, I couldn’t see them at all.

    If my two eyes can’t see the same color and shapes…. Well, you take my point. ;-)

    Now, I’m just laughing – and thanking you for bringing this second comment. I never imagined I’d find a way to put my glaucoma to use so soon and in such an interesting context! I’m hoping new glasses and medication will help my poor left eye’s perception. We’ll have to find some different ways to work on those folks who cruised past Joshua Bell!


  10. Did you know taste buds have memories? Your mention of my family’s onion rings brought the flavor to the tip of my tongue just now.

    They were rightly famous. When my brother, Jeff, was running the place and going through a ton to a ton and a half of onions a WEEK you know you’re doing something right.

    Probably the biggest “name” to enjoy them had to be Jackie Kennedy and her kids. When they were on the Cape they made the 30 mile drive with the Secret Service agents several times for the rings and fried clams.

    Another name people of our generation will remember who loved them was Ted Mack of the Original Amateur Hour. For several years he and his wife rented a place in Chatham and every day, if it wasn’t raining, he’d come over for onion rings. His wife would never get out of the car, though. He always ordered the same thing each day…an order of onion rings, a small coke, a box kite and two balls of twine. He’d take his order to the small dunes behind the stand, eat his rings while flying his kite. When he was finished he’d find a child and give them the kite, get in his car and leave. I don’t think his wife ever ate a single ring. Her loss.

    Of course all of us kids learned how to fry them, too. In the summer of ’64 I had my own place up in Wellfleet near the harbor. It was a horrible summer for rain that year. One day I had sent my help home and was just getting ready to shut things down and leave, myself, when an elderly woman came in and ordered a half-pint of fried clams. These were REAL clams, bellies and all. Not the strips most people are familiar with. She ate the first one and said, “You know, I’ve only had clams as good as these one other place in my life.”

    “Where’s that?” I asked expecting her to say my dad’s place.

    “The White Spot, in Woburn, Mass.”

    “You’re not going to believe this,” I said, “but I learned how to fry clams from my dad, and my dad learned to fry them at the White Spot.” The amazing thing is I watched the White Spot burn to the ground in ’52, but a dozen years later this woman’s taste buds remembered.


    I love your stories of life on the Cape, and understand perfectly the taste of memories. I do remember Ted Mack, and the show, and that combination of onion rings and kites seems to fit him perfectly. I love that he’d give kids the kites when he was done playing.

    What’s truly amazing is that woman. Apparently there’s a gastronomical analog to oral-tradition story-telling – the taste can get passed down from generation to generation. Don’t you know she had to be thrilled to discover a favorite taste again?

    All of this reminds me of the famous passage from Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past“:

    But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

    And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.

    For you, onion rings bring back the Cape. For me, lemon chiffon pie brings back Iowa. It’s wonderful.

    By the way, I was interested to see a good bit of Chatham when Hurricane Earl was roaming around. The Weather Channel had a reporter there, doing the usual Weather Channel thing – breathless interviews at the water’s edge, etc. But it was fun to see.


  11. Linda, once again I marvel at the way your mind works, and wends its way from sprouts to Victor Hugo to e-readers. Reading your posts is a bit like taking a walk through wonderland, never knowing what’s going to show up next! And I mean that in the best possible way :)

    In terms of e-readers, I, too, was a total nay-sayer when the Kindle first appeared. Never! I declared emphatically. Give up the paper and ink I love so much? Heresy.


    One of my dear friends (who is 20 years older than I, by the way) has fallen in love with her Sony e-reader. We had occasion to travel together, and it was there that I came to see the value of these things – at least for me. I do travel a good bit, and it’s so nice to have five or six books stocked up to take with me, rather than hauling a suitcase full or having to buy more while I’m gone.

    However, when I’m home, I’m still hooked on the old fashioned version.

    As for sprouts – well, I love ’em, and your description of those cooked in garlic and served in a pretty bowl with lemon on the side made my mouth water. For real.


    My poor mind does tend to bump around a bit. I still like the image of a kaleidoscope for creativity. All the bits are there – it just takes a bit of a twist to find them arranged in a new pattern. I came to the kaleidoscope image myself, but later found the concept expanded and developed by the terrific management expert, Rosabeth Moss Kanter. There’s a nice article here that you might enjoy. I’ve found all of her writing simulating and encouraging, and herLeadership Tips from Tony Hayward in the Harvard Business Review is a classic.

    I certainly can see the value of e-readers for folks who travel a good bit – and, as I see Arti’s pointed out down below, for those books you know you’re not going to want to keep. The ability to enlarge text is of value, too, particularly for books which aren’t normally published with large text. See? All of that is rational… But, still…. ;-)

    Luckily, using e-gadgets doesn’t make a person “better” than others, and not carting around a Kindle isn’t a moral failing. We’ll all sort it out in our own way and time – but isn’t it fun to talk about?

    And yes, garlic and lemon is a pretty good combo. If you like Brussels sprouts, I think you’d be a fan!


  12. The phantom of Roland Barthes emerges here again. If you’re just looking for the ‘text’, then the eReader is sufficient and convenient. You can store hundreds of texts in their digital form to retrieve any time. Further, there are lots of ‘airport paperbacks’ that only warrant one read and be thrown into the donate box, then the eReader may be a practical alternative. You’ll save a lot of trees too.

    But if you love a particular title, yearning to touch its soul in tangible form, the object d’art itself, pages, spine, design art, and the relational and affective experience, then you’ll need to get hold of the ‘hard copy’, no, the ‘hard original’. Just like some books you’d borrow from the library, read and return. Yet there are some you’d want to have a personal copy to keep and cherish, and a good copy of that too, that you’d look for your favourite edition, buy it and keep it so you can relate to it as if it has life on its own, to handle it, touch it, smell it, write on it, underline it by hand, make works of art in its space… as you’ve passionately pointed out.

    So it’s not either/or, but it’s definitely a choice or preference regarding the book itself and how much you treasure that particular title. Barthes may be the best person to write the manual and ad for the eReader today.


    So interesting. And I think I agree with you. I’d be happy, for example, to put Strunk and White on an e-reader. It’s a resource, to be consulted as needed. I’d be more than happy to put “airport reading” on a Kindle. Although I enjoy Tom Clancy, for example, I’ve never read one of his books more than once.

    But I’d never put Annie Dillard on a Nook, or Durrell on a Kindle. It just doesn’t seem right. Your analogy with the library is spot-on. Many times I’ve read and re-read a book, and then purchased my own copy.

    But here’s a question: what about a “new” book, one we’ve not read, and that we aren’t able to categorize as e-book material or bound-leather quality?
    Is it possible that first coming to a book on an e-reader, as pure text, might actually affect our reading and response to the book? Would such a spare, stripped-down experience mitigate against experiencing the richness of the writing and the pleasure of the book? To put it another way, could we be prejudiced for or against a given text by its digital or print context?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions – but I do wonder about them. Here’s one of the reasons: when I was in grade school, I read the Readers’ Digest condensed version of Kathryn Hulme’s “The Nun’s Story”. I’ve nearly forgotten the story, although I do remember that Audrey Hepburn starred in the movie.

    For years, I’ve also remembered vividly a scene which took place after the Sister had been diagnosed with TB (?) As I recall, her physician recommended she be given two egg yolks daily. Whatever she received, it was brought to her in a fine crystal wineglass, which certainly surprised her convent-shaped expectations. When she asked about it, the good doctor looked at her and said, “Sister, for an invalid, presentation is everything.”

    And presentation may be more important for readers than we realize, too. I truly do suspect that the same words, presented as plain text in plastic or beautifully printed and bound, will be received differently. Five years down the road, there’s a thesis in them-thar propositions!

    Welcome home, by the way – wonderful to have you back and I can’t wait to read about your other adventures!


  13. Many thanks to my reader SP, who sent along this wonderful video. It’s such a delight I just had to insert it here as a treat for you.

    And, as these things happen, one video led to another, which I also had missed. So, compliments of Al Cyone, the medieval helpdesk!

  14. You are so right about the Brussels Sprouts – Jake described them perfectly when he said putting a Brussels sprout in your mouth is like eating a fart.
    I’d love a Kindle though – just for fiction, I could download, read and discard. I simply don’t have space for any more novels in this house.


    Ah, Jake. Dead-on, he is. The only description I’ve come across that might equal his is the suggestion that the lowly sprout resembles a monkey brain. Apparently they truly are a love/hate sort of veggie.

    One thing I’ve learned through all this is to ask lots of questions that most people would think just too basic for words. Like, “What does this thing do?” I’ve just discovered the Nook also is an mp3 player. Whether that’s true for the Kindle, I don’t know. Apparently the days of single-function gadgets is over, and I need to get with the program. Imagine – I still think a phone is for making telephone calls! ;-)

    The thought of being able to read and discard things you have no desire to keep around is tempting. And the ability to enlarge text is good, too. Not everything worth reading comes in a large-print edition!


  15. Linda: Another great read! I was already grinning about the “I don’t like them” from the “teaser” at WUG. Then, after reading and enjoying the journey you provide in your post, I was rewarded with the “Book” video clip! All of it – your writing, comments, and special links – “I liked it!”. Thanks!


    I couldn’t ask for anything better than you “liking it”! Poor “like” and “nice” keep getting shoved aside in this age of superlatives – I say, bring them back!

    I keep saying it but I suppose it bears repeating – one of the best things about blogging is the give-and-take. I probably never would have found that video on my own, but there it is, and it’s perfect. Shoot – I’ve still got a sand-painting video that keeps nagging to be used somehow. I imagine I’ll get that done one of these days!

    Thanks so much for stopping by – it’s always a pleasure!


  16. My wife has a Kindle. She made a big deal of it when it was new. She carried it on a trip to Europe touting its ease of use while traveling. How else could you pack a thousand books?

    It has a really clear screen, to my eye virtually indistinguishable from a printed page. Yet I notice my wife reads regular old paper books since she returned home. There must be a reason.


    I do understand how wonderful the e-readers must seem to folks who read while traveling – or read voraciously while traveling. Out of curiosity I went over to check the available titles list to see if the books I’d want to take with me on a next trip to Mississippi or Louisiana were available. The books were, but many of the older monographs and such weren’t. That’s not really a surprise, and hardly an inconvenience as they’re only a few pages each.

    A book like John Barry’s “Rising Tide” would be handy on a Kindle – it’s a big, hefty book. But “using” a book is different than “reading” a book. It’s funny – over at WU, someone indicated a preference for using the Nook for research, but reading light fiction in “real book format”. I’m just the opposite. I’d rather read something I’m not likely to want to keep on an e-reader, but have “real” books for research. Part of it may be that I’ve not become comfortable with search and notation functions with an e-reader. When I’m using my books, I can go directly to what I want with little difficulty.

    I can imagine that kids raised with e-readers would be as comfortable with them as we are with books. I suspect that’s one reason I feel more comfortable with books – using an e-reader feels like work!


  17. I have absolutely NO interest in a kindle or a nook or an ipad or anything of the sort with which to read books. Firstly, I LOVE books, the smell of them, the feel of them, the ability to turn the page, etc – some of my very best memories are of books and I do not care – I firmly believe there is NO WAY an e-reader can replicate the feel of a book in my hands. Besides, you will never convince me they are better for the environment – as soon as some hot new e-reader comes along these will all go into landfills emitting their electro-crap currents.

    Brussel sprouts, though? I do like them roasted…


    It just tickles me to death – these Brussels sprouts. People do seem to either love or hate them. I just discovered last night, compliments one of my readers, that there are genetic components involved here. Some people experience vegetables from the family cruciferae as bitter, others don’t. Very interesting.

    And now you’ve introduced another issue for discussion: the need for technology to support these e-readers, and the problems with disposal. Having lived up-country in Liberia, where the thought of having “a” book and being able to read it was quite a big deal, I wonder about areas of the world where there’s simply no infrastructure to support Kindles, and the people couldn’t afford one if there were. Groups like Geekcorps are working on solutions, but it’s going to take time.

    As far as the next hot thing – you’re exactly right. Planned obsolescence – it’s the American way!


  18. I understand (second hand) that acquiring software, i. e. books, for the Kindle is easy. You download it. You must pay a nominal licensing fee for material encumbered by intellectual property restrictions. Costs for works that are out of copyright are negligible. My wife acquired a sizable package of the latter.

    Just now I learned that Rising Tide is available in electronic form, thanks to Google Books. You won’t need a Kindle to read that, if you have internet access. Of course, you will need a computer, and most computers — even laptops — are more wieldy than a book.

    The appeal of the e-reader is a matter of form factor and interface. The size and weight means you can tote an entire library in your carry-on luggage. All content is searchable. The interface provides options for display orientation, typeface etc.

    Earlier this summer we visited the family of my wife’s godson, Sam, who is about nine years old. Sam played for a while with the Kindle. He turned it all around, pushed all its buttons, explored all its menus and functions. He did this with no preconceptions, just fiddled with the thing to see what it would do. He did not read a manual. After about half an hour he had it pretty well figured out. He was able to demonstrate functionality that I had not seen before. Kids — they’re going to take over the world!


    Uh…. I know a few people who contend most of our problems today are rooted in the fact that kids have taken over the world. Let’s hear it for the adults, that’s what I say. ;-)

    But I take your point. The young-uns don’t experience the same fear of technology that many of us oldsters have – or do – experience. It’s simply part of their world, and easily accessible. When I got my first computer, it took nearly a month for me to stop walking around the thing like it was going to bite. Then, it took a while longer to figure out I wasn’t going to break it the first time I hit a wrong key.

    All of this discussion has helped clarify why the “you can tote a library in your carry-on luggage” argument leaves me a little cold. When I travel, I tend to read only on planes. Waiting in airports, etc., I don’t read, I watch. Just my little quirk, I suppose. The world as book, etc.

    Despite the Google-is-taking-over-the-world fears some people express, I do appreciate what they’ve done with Google books. The ability to find such things as Notre Dame de Paris online is a terrific thing!


  19. Oops, I was mistaken. The link I provided to Google Books points to a collection of excerpts from Rising Tide. You’ll still have to buy or borrow the book to read it in its entirety.



    Been there, done that, as they say. All I have to do to read it is get up and walk across the room. It’s smiling at my from the bookshelf.
    See? There’s another advantage to having print copies of book-friends. They’re always there, visible, reminding you of the treasure they contain!


  20. A bowl of brussel sprouts could, even for this sprout eater, be a bit much. As can all the tech stuff. But, I can’t stand to be left out because the way of multi-techno gadgets also hugely impacts language. And I can’t stand not to know/understand language, including acronyms, slang, etc.

    So having dissed the e-reader, I also flirt with it. And it flirts back. There’s plenty to like on either side; the “real” book and the e-book.
    All that notwithstanding, I enjoyed your confession and your inclusion of the good and veritable Mr Hugo, whose lengthy Notre Dame I read in toto. And so here, in your blog, read the entire entry you wrote of his.

    And then I laugh, thinking of how you refer to my cell phone as “that little pink thing” when it shows up in a picture!!! Mine’s a phone, primarily; but the family is swimming above me on this with their smart phones. What does it all mean? I’m with you – let’s kick back, stay aware and work with what works…

    A lovely bit, this one…and please pass the brussel sprouts, just a few, thanks.


    Work with what works – how I like that! You always find a way to focus on the heart of the matter. After all, use or non-use of any of these gadgets isn’t a moral failing, and we are the ones in control. Or, we’re supposed to be!

    As for the acronyms and slang, thank goodness for such delights as the Urban Dictionary, glossaries of text terms and leet-speak translators. I confess it does bother me when I read stories about the state of Oregon allowing spell-check in their 7th grade writing assessments, or Texas teachers allowing texting abbreviations in class assignments. The diminishment of language is the diminishment of our world, and the gadgets are leading the way. That’s not what you’re advocating, of course – but it’s a slippery slope. The old advice holds true here – learn the rules before you break them!

    I must say – by the time all these sprouts lovers get done waxing rhapsodic over their veggies, I may have to give them another try. I’ll be happy to share!


  21. Linda,

    I haven’t taken the plunge on Kindle either. But I did watch one woman on a 2 hour bus ride to Seward enjoy reading her book — it didn’t look as heavy as the book I was reading — and the print looked larger. Having seen it work in real life, I’m more open to the idea of buying one — especially as I think about traveling light, in life and travel.

    My youngest son is going to publish his first book with Kindle — or is it Amazon? I only know there will be no hard copy, which minimizes risk for publishing houses. I recall one author bemoaning the fact that publishers never want to take chances anymore on something ‘novel’ — that they want to stick with a best-selling genre, one that they know already has an instant market. Making her point, my friend commented that “The Lord of the Rings” would never be published in today’s publishing environment.

    It will be interesting to see how my son’s experience plays out — I only know he’s excited about the opening.



    I just went over and looked at the publishing guidelines for Kindle – they seem rather straightforward, although I certainly don’t have the knowledge of code to do something like that myself. I’d have to study up for a year just to learn the process! I suspect that’s not an issue for young ones who’ve grown up with all this. I’ll be interested in your son’s experience.

    Actually, I’d think “The Lord of the Rings” might get snatched up today – but I take your point. The publishing houses are being assaulted in any number of ways, and profit’s the name of the game, even in books. I can’t blame them for the way they approach their work – although I must say every trip through Barnes and Noble leaves me shaking my head at much of what I see there.

    You did touch on one great advantage of e-readers for those of us who are approaching “a certain age”. That larger text is all good! I’m still doing all right with regular-sized text, but I do think about it from time to time, and it’s a fact that many books my mom would like to read don’t come in large print. Maybe I should get her a Kindle and then borrow it ;-)


  22. Linda, how do you do it? How do you start in one spot, twist my brain totally about to another (filled with laughter, I might add) and then twist it around again to something related yet not, then close the circle? You do it every time, but this time really dazzles me.

    I was quite convinced by your opening paragraphs that you would move into the Ground Zero mosque story, clearly the biggest bit of prejudice I’ve seen on a national scene lately. But when you twisted it into Brussels Sprouts, I laughed out loud. You see, I had the BS thing, too. As a child, my mom would open a can of them (I’m sure they were canned; maybe they were fresh, but “fresh” wasn’t as easy then. Or frozen.). Didn’t matter. After boiling them up and dumping half a jar of Cheez-Whiz on them, they were profoundly awful.

    Granted, at that age, I doubt the fresh ones would be much better. But the result of all that was years of self-induced Brus. Spt. deprivation.

    A few years ago, one of my cooking magazines arrived, and there was a feature on the dreaded sprout. One recipe looked mildly plausible — you cut them in half, sauteed them with other yummy things I liked (including pecans and a splash of white wine). Another roasted them. Why not? I’m so hooked. Rick had never had them before. He’s hooked now, too!

    About the e-readers… I’m with you. But my friend Kate, whose opinion I value above most others, is so high on hers, I may need to give it a try. These eyes aren’t getting any younger! (Gorgeous shot of Notre Dame. Just Stunning!!!!!)


    Oh, my gosh. Cheez-Whiz. Didn’t we love that stuff? Poured over veggies, added to soups, used as a base for sandwich spread, it was Velveeta 2.0 for my generation!

    As I mentioned to Janell, above, that large text is a real plus. I just was diagnosed with cataracts and glaucoma last week, so all things eye-sight-ish are on my mind, and knowing that larger text is out there is a bit of comfort, even though I don’t need it now. Truth to tell, I’ve gotten so much good information and feedback as a result of posting this I’m almost ready to borrow my friend’s e-reader and give it a go.

    It’s a fact, though, that cost is also a consideration. The initial cost isn’t so awful, but the books I’d want to put on it first aren’t free, and I’m just not in a position to do a lot of discretionary spending right now.

    In the future – perhaps. Maybe. We’ll see. ;-)

    Thanks for the kind words re: Notre Dame. There’s nothing like a cathedral to make the spirit soar!


  23. Linda,
    I agree with you about the e-readers. I have a vision problem and everyone keeps telling me to try an e-reader. I tell them I’m thinking about it, but I’ve been thinking about it for over a year.

    Loved your story about Brussels sprouts. My son came home with a list of questions on his first day of second grade. The teacher obviously wanted to get to know the children. “What do you hate?” was one of the questions. He wrote “Brussels sprouts”. When she returned the papers to the class, she had written “ME TOO” after his answer. He loved that.


    You know, when I was shopping for groceries this afternoon, I stopped in front of the fresh Brussels sprouts. I looked them over pretty good, too. But I didn’t pick one up. I just looked.

    Maybe because we’ve just passed the commemoration of 9/11 I found myself thinking of President Bush. Remember when he proclaimed his own distaste for broccoli? As I recall he said something like, “I’m the President of the United States and I don’t have to eat broccoli.” Never mind politics – on the basis of our common humanity I’m cutting him some slack on that one. ;-)

    I was messing about with my computer this weekend, testing out some of the accessibility features like larger text. It occurred to me at the time that if you were to enlarge the text on an e-reader, you’d be flipping pages about every two paragraphs. But to be fair, I need to actually test that out. I’m still speaking from prejudice, here…..


  24. I giggled a bit, because guess what the only way I’ve ever read your blog is? A little iPod touch I can hold in one hand while holding a nursing baby in the other arm! My wonderful Hubby got it for me for Christmas and it’s been a wonderful way to maintain contact with the outside world as I facebook my mom and instant message my sister-in-law. And read blogs and send e-mails and play on Twitter.

    That being said, I don’t read books on my iPod touch except on trips. I still prefer the printed word, the smell of an old book as you turn the pages. I hate that with these devices you have to turn the page every few paragraphs because not much fits on the screen.

    As for food, I’ve found that I inherited many culinary prejudices from my parents that turned out to be silly-namely an opposition towards onions and labelling bell peppers “green yuckies”. Now I love salsa, fajitas, stir fry, & all sorts of other delicious dishes with onions & peppers!
    I still hate green beans.

    Maman A Droit,

    What a wonderful use for a gadget! It makes me smile and smile to think of you reading my words in such a way. It reminds me, too, of my own mother reading to me when I was a very young child – long before I could understand a thing of what I was hearing. She says I didn’t care what it was. Shakespeare, limericks, Ladies’ Home Journal – I loved it all.

    Now that I think of it, many of the functions of the iPod you mention are simply a different way of doing what some of us do with our computers – email, blog-reading, Twitter and so on. I’ve thought about this a lot, and it still seems to me that treating such things as tools is the best approach. If it makes life easier, if it meets a particular need, if it does something well that nothing else can do? Then use and enjoy!

    My goodness – onions and bell pepper are necessities in this household. I’m glad you’ve come to enjoy them!

    So nice to see you. I hope all’s well in your life!


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