Rabid Anti-Smoker (Or Pro-Smoker?) Defaces Isaac Asimov Book

Not too long ago I went through a phase where many of the books I checked out from the library were…strange. Previous readers had made odd annotations, added funny markings, or stuck weird things between the pages.  This is the first in a series of posts documenting Weird Things in Library Books.

The first one was a book of short stories by Isaac Asimov. I read happily along until about page 75, where someone had done some underlining in a certain paragraph. Underlining in library books is pretty common , but this person had underlined just individual words, among them “cigarette” and “pack.”


I looked closer and realized the previous reader had, indeed, marked every single reference to a smoking device–including pronouns (“it” and “its”)–in a somewhat angry looking red pen.


I flipped forward in the book and found other paragraphs that had gotten the same odd treatment. In one or two places, there was just a single “it” marked on a page, and an examination of the preceding text revealed that it was, indeed, a reference to smoking.

While I’m never in favor of defacing library books, I could perhaps understand this impulse if the book had a lot of gratuitous smoking in it. For instance, in Looking for Alaska, one of my favorite books, the characters do seem to be lighting up every time you turn around, and the centrality of smoking to the characters’ friendships and coming of age kind of makes you want to go buy a pack yourself.

But that wasn’t the case here. The Asimov book was 400 pages long, contained 30+ stories, and had perhaps 7 or 8 scenes in which someone was smoking. Smoking was just part of the background of the story–for instance, in the middle of a conversation, someone lights up a cigarette and smokes it thoughtfully. Poor Asimov was just using a talking head avoidance device–a writing technique where a conversation among characters is broken up a bit with details about them cooking dinner, or taking a bike ride, or whatever. Especially for a book of stories written in the fifties through the seventies, the amount of smoking was not notable.

And yet someone read the entire book and carefully marked every single reference to the cancerous weed with an angry red pen.

Why the attention to detail? Why the implied accusation? Was it an assignment for an anti-tobacco class? A nervous parent assessing the book for suitability for their child? Or maybe someone who had just stopped smoking and was going through a nicotine fit?


The world may never know.


Armchair Fashionista

The book I’m writing–and with any luck, will finish in the next few weeks–is about fashion. If you saw me, that would probably surprise you. I have a small, mostly nondescript wardrobe. I rarely go shopping. I wear the same pair of shoes almost every day. Every once in a while I’ll shake things up with a metallic top that makes me look like a flapper, or my floor-length MaxMara coat, but on an everyday basis, I look like someone who doesn’t give a toss about clothes.

Yet I used to worship VOGUE. In the nineties, when I was a teenager, I knew what was going on at all the major fashion houses. I loved Prada’s deliberately ugly shoes, Louis Vuitton’s padded raincoats. I followed the careers of the top high-fashion models of the time: Shalom Harlow, Amber Valletta, Stella Tennant, and Kirsty Hume. I plastered my room with ads from Calvin Klein and Versace.

Some people are armchair travelers. I was an armchair fashionista.

At the time, there were a lot of things that prevented me from wearing the clothes I saw. I didn’t have a lot of money. I lived in small towns that didn’t have branches of the stores those magazine clothes came from, or even trendy knockoff stores. There were school dress codes, parental rules, and my own body (short, short legs, not skinny) to contend with. But wearing the clothes wasn’t really the point.

What I loved were the stories. Every runway collection, every fashion editorial, every ad was a story. A model could be a story, too: the character she took on in a particular photo shoot, the overall character she took on throughout her career. A particularly beautiful shot of, say, John Galliano’s latest collection for Christian Dior could conjure up an entire world, satisfying as any novel.

And, of course, the clothes were beautiful, too. They introduced me to new worlds of color and shape and texture. Or, because it was the nineties, they taught me that beauty didn’t always have to be beautiful: sometimes it could be frumpy, or stark, or even deliberately frightening.

Part of me still wants to have a fabulous wardrobe someday. Someday, I’ll spend entire weekends combing thrift stores for gorgeous bargains. Someday, I’ll dress like a punk one week, like a Victorian doll the next.

But there are many parts of fashion I know I’ll always admire only from a distance: high heels, tiny skirts, pixie haircuts. Those things just aren’t my style. Even if I someday expand my horizons to include other pairs of shoes and donning more than one piece of jewelry at a time, wearing high fashion isn’t really my style, either. What I love about fashion is the fantasy. For some people, that fantasy becomes a creative, fabulous part of reality. But for me, it’s a place I’d rather visit in magazines–or in books.

Epic Projects

It’s probably no shocker that I have an affinity for epic projects. I’m a novelist, after all. Novels are projects that often take a year or more and god-knows-how-many hours of work before anyone reads them, plus another infinite amount of work before they’re decent enough to show to the general public. And I’ve never been very good at writing short stories: even the paragraph-long documents on my computer are mostly intended to be the beginning of novels.

As if that process weren’t punishing enough, I have a tendency to take on epic projects in other areas, too. When I was 12 or 13, I was sitting around bored in a genealogical library somewhere waiting for my parents to get done researching when I came across a book called Reading Lists for College-Bound StudentsThis book included a list of 100 of the “most often recommended” books. At the time, I was planning to go to Harvard (I had no idea what Harvard was really like, but I was smart, and Harvard was where smart people go). I figured I should get on that. I copied the entire list out into a notebook and spent eighth grade reading spectacularly age-appropriate books like  The Glass Menagerie and The Stranger by Camus. (I also read 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, so it wasn’t all a baffling trip down existential lane.)

I actually did quite well on this list, eventually. By the time I graduated high school, I’d read more than half, and a college career that included Great Books courses and English classes knocked out a lot of the rest. The very last books on the list–five or six, including Native Son and Don Quixote–are still on my reading list today. I fully intend to read them someday.

When I was in college, the American Film Institute released its “100 Years…100 Movies” list, and I decided I needed to expand my cinematic education. I’d probably seen 20 or so already. Thanks to the college library, some understanding roommates, and a lucky Film Club showing of Birth of Nation (abridged, but close enough when you’re talking about a silent Ku Klux Klan epic), I watched all 100 before graduation.

A year or so ago I decided it would be fun to listen to all the number-one Billboard songs from 1942 forward. When I have a slow day, I add some more songs to a YouTube playlist I’ve put together. So far, I’ve made it to the mid-eighties. I watch a few videos when I wake up in the morning, or play them in the background while I do a task that doesn’t require full concentration. The forties were eye-opening (you wouldn’t believe how many songs I thought were just children’s songs were actually the top of the charts during World War II), and the seventies were a slog, but now that I’m into an era I remember, I’m sure I’ll finish this one eventually.

This attraction towards epic projects also has a darker side. Several years ago, stuck in a job with too much down time, I decided to transcribe my diaries. All 28 volumes.  That one was an epic waste of time. Though it was enlightening to really read them all through, if I’d just read them–and scanned them into the computer–I could have cured cancer by now.

And way back in fifth grade, when I was going through my first bout of depression, I designed what has to be the weirdest, saddest epic project of all. When I was 10, we moved from a small town in Minnesota to an army base in Germany. A year later, I still ached to go back, to a town that I remembered as safe and stable, unlike the constantly changing, unfamiliar world of the army. When my Minnesota best friend sent me a yearbook from what would have been my fifth-grade class, I sat down with all five of our elementary yearbooks and made a big chart. The chart tracked which kids had been in the same class together–for instance, Jeremy, Misha, and I had been in Mrs. Sutherland, Mrs. Lindquist, and Mrs. Blomme’s classes together before being split into different classes in fourth grade. It took forever, but eventually I came up with a small list of pairs of kids who had been in the same classes five years in a row. I guess this project was partially inspired by my budding love for math and statistics, but mostly it was a pathetic grasp towards continuity, an attempt to find a piece of this world I could understand. Looking at little black-and-white pictures of my old classmates was a lot easier than trying to mend the fights I was constantly getting into with my two current best friends.

The secret about my epic projects is that most of them (well, except the novels) are easy. They take persistence, and they may expand my mind, but they aren’t difficult to actually do. They’re something to turn to on the days when my to-do list is too daunting, when even the simplest tasks are turning out much more complicated than I thought. They’re a way to feel like I’m accomplishing something without really moving forward. They’re comfort tasks. And as long as I can keep them in their place, on the fringes of my life but not at the center, I’ll keep taking them on.