BOOKS by Janice Van Cleve

Tune:  These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

IPADs and Kindles and other devices
Electric wonders that work without mices
Entire libraries held in your hand
Could anything possibly be better than?

Nothing is quite like a good solid book
Turning real pages in some quiet nook
Holding the whole thing instead of one screen
From such satisfaction I’ll never be weaned.

There is something special about a real book.  It is physical, tactile, and possesses a sense of weight and permanence.  It does not disappear in a power outage or fade out when batteries are low.  It is not “licensed” to me nor is it dependent on some wi-fi hotspot.  It will not cost me a bundle if I spill coffee on it.  Best of all, when I dive into it to find something, I often come across other things for which I wasn’t looking but which are intensely interesting and maybe even pertinent to my search.

This is why I like real libraries over virtual ones.  In a virtual library, the computer can only find what I ask it to find.  Its
algorithms can suggest other items that may or may not be related, but they will never find the surprises.  In a real library, I can plop my backpack on the floor between the stacks and browse the shelves at leisure.  I can stumble upon a reference or discover another resource whose initial attraction was nothing more than a colorful spine or catchy title.

In a real library like in my office, I am not confined to an oscillating screen.  I can lay books out side by side.  I can flip
back and forth to footnotes and leave them open while I compare facts with another book.  I am not “fed” by some corporation delivering to me only what it has for sale, but can wander freely to any section, any shelf, any time and make my own connections.  I do use computers, of course, but for extended reading I really prefer settling back in my papazon, surrounded by my books, with one convenient shelf near at hand for a glass of wine and a plate of cheese and crackers.

My favorite reading is biographies.  To delve into the life and character of a single actor on the stage of history engages me far more than the most comprehensive list of names and dates or dry collection of official documents.  A biography makes history human – a person to whom I can connect on an emotional as well as an i ntellectual level.  A good biography takes me out of the role of observer and into the very shoes of the actor.

Even better than a biography are the words of the actors themselves. I’ve been to Pompeii and I’ve read numerous books about the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried the city in 79 CE.  These books and my personal inspection certainly have given me a great deal of information but both are far distant from the actual eye witness account left to us in the letters of Pliny the Younger.  It is the same with the ruins of Greece.  I have been to Delphi and Eleusis and Troy yet it was the travel guide written by Pausanius in the 2nd Century that put me back to the time when these buildings were still standing.

So it will come as no surprise that I was thrilled in the last year to acquire some really tantalizing first person accounts from history. My first score was the Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  Here, translated from his own diaries and those of his son, are the day by day accounts of his four voyages to the Caribbean.  There are letters from the king and queen instructing Columbus before he sailed and a last will and testament
from one of his servants.  The appendices even contain a roster of the crews on board for the 4th voyage, with their names and ranks, and what they were paid!

One intriguing item in this volume is a safe passage letter from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to Columbus that he could show to any Portuguese captain whose path he crossed.  It is just one example of the competitive scramble that these voyages of exploration had already become by 1502.

Browsing in the dusty corners of used bookstores I found another treasure – the Letters from Mexico by Hernan Cortes.  Who would have thought that the great conquistador would have taken time out from his busy days beating up the Aztecs to write almost 500 pages of text back to Emperor Charles V?  I had already read the account of the conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz, a loyal soldier of Cortes, whose descriptions of the dangers and hardships of the men are most vivid.
In contrast, Cortes appears to be much more concerned about other conquistadors muscling in on his “territory” than any concerns for his soldiers or the natives.

The biggest find, however, was two volumes of the first and second trials of Joan of Arc.  Here in these books are the actual questions by the evil Bishop Pierre Couchon and the inquisitors at Joan’s first trial of condemnation which ended in her being burned at the stake. Here also are her answers in her own words, struggling alone in that medieval courtroom surrounded by her sworn enemies.  Not all the books about Joan of Arc nor the movies about her bring this young peasant girl to life more realistically than her testimony at this trial.

After her death, Joan’s mother badgered the French government for twenty years to rehabilitate her daughter’s reputation.  Finally King Charles VII ordered a second trial to clear Joan from the stigma of heresy.  Ultimately, almost 450 years later, Joan was canonized as a saint.  Here we read the actual testimonies of Joan’s neighbors, childhood friends, her mother, her soldiers, and her confessor.  All these people come alive as in their simple vernacular they tell their own stories.

What a thrill to hold these treasures in my two hands; to reach them down from the shelf any time I want.  How reassuring that I am not dependent on batteries or fuzzy screens but can relish these adventures even by candle light.  True, book publishers are gatekeepers to what gets printed just as those who control IPADs are gatekeepers to what gets on line.  Yet there are many more print publishers than on line publishers and once a book is printed it cannot be censored or altered with the click of a mouse.

I like my books.  They are to on line media as comfort food is to a diet shake.

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Janice Van Cleve is a writer with several books of her own in print.
Copyright 2013.


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