Mirabile Considers the Reading Life, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, & Nook Discrimination at “Web Proof!”

Woman Reading by Gyula Bencz
“Woman Reading” by Gyula Bencz

I have a very odd reading life.

I usually have six books on the go. This eclectic style of reading seems to go with blogging.

I call it  “reading like a bookseller.” The best booksellers have the “multiple reading” habit so they can chat to customers about the latest books.

My most cherished ambition is to own a bookstore and sit around and chat like the charming Linda in  Nancy Mitford’s  The Pursuit of Love.  When she takes over the Communist bookstore every weekend so the Comrade who runs it can get drunk,

An extraordinary transformation would then occur.  The books and tracts which mouldered there month after month, getting damper and dustier until at last they had to be thrown away, were hurried into the background, and their place taken by Linda’s own few but well-loved favorites.  Thus for Whither British Airways? was substituted Round the World in Eighty Days, Karl Marx, the Formative Years was replaced by The Making of a Marchioness, and The Giant of the Kremlin by Diary of a Nobody, while A Challenge to Coal -Owners made way for King Solomon’s Mines.

I can imagine a similar transformation if, say, Leonard Riggio became my best friend and I worked at Barnes and Noble.  My charming, humorous, eclectic favorites would sit on a shelf labeled “Charming, Humorous, Eclectic favorites”:  Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred, H. G. Wells’ Kipps, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Julie Hecht’s Do the Window Open?, Nora Johnson’s Coast to Coast:  A Family Memoir, and Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year.

A former student was the most personable bookseller at Borders and was also a “multiple reader.”  The Borders culture, he explained, was based on staff interactions with the customers:  he recommended George R. R. Martin’s novels, though I never got into them, and quoted the opening sentence of The Shadow of the Wind to persuade customers they ought to read it.  (“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”). When I bought the new translation of Kristin Lavransdatter, he said he’d always intended to read it.  (I told him he might prefer The Master of Hestviken.)

My fellow bloggers sometimes complain about the strain of multiple reads (i.e., reading like a bookseller). I ask myself, Where is the pressure coming from? Why are we reading so many books?  Are we reading to blog?  Are we blogging to read?  Are we reading for our readers?

It occurs to me we are readers of the 21st century:  we have grown used to interruptions and juggling many tasks at a time. And so we organize our multiple readings in our online writings.  Mirabile Dictu is the equivalent of the journal I used to keep.   I write a few bookish posts every week, but I positively discourage readers from expecting me to “review” books every day.

Ursule Mirouet by BalzacDespite the fact that I am plugged into the internet, despite the fact that my Nook now interrupts me when I have a new email, despite the fact that I have read hundreds of book reviews this year, I go through long periods when I ignore modern life and contemporary books altogether.  I have read many books by Balzac this year, though I have blogged about only a few of them.  Ursule Mirouet is the oddest of his novels I’ve read to date, and definitely the worst.  It begins, as is typical with Balzac’s novels, with a long, rambling exposition of the town, Nemours, and the many branches of an anxious family who worry that the wealthy agnostic Dr. Minoret will leave all his money to his goddaughter Ursule.  At the beginning of the novel, when the non-believer Minoret accompanies Ursule to Mass, the incident triggers malicious gossip about her power over his money.   But  we learn that Minoret converted to Catholicism after a friend challenges him to open his mind to mesmerism: a medium in a trance was able to describe exactly what Ursule was doing back in the village, and when he checked with her, every detail of was correct.

Balzac was a believer in spiritualism and mesmerism, and this very odd novel combines the typical inheritance and thwarted love themes with elements of supernatural communications and interventions.  Donald Adamson says in the introduction to the 1976 Penguin:

To those who poke fun at Balzac’s belief in animal magnetism it should equally be stressed that Mesmer’s theories produced a sensation toward the end of the eighteenth century and commanded the support of many intelligent men.  Balzac merely echoes the opinion of his many contemporaries when claiming in Ursule Mirouet that Mesmer’s findings would revolutionize therapeutic medicine and that ‘rationalist’ methods of healing were ill-founded.

Ursule is fascinating as an example of Balzac’s belief in the supernatural, but it is not a very good novel.

This summer I reread Cicero’s beautifully-written philosophical treatise on the immortality of souls, Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream) .  Honestly, despite the rhetorical beauty of the language and the utter simplicity of the doctrine, it is trite:  the New Age ’70s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets Plato’s Republic.

But even if you read it in English–I read it in Latin, but have copied a few English paragraph from the Fordham University site below–a little of the power of Cicero’s graceful, deftly balanced prose comes through.  Scipio Aemilianus, military tribune of the fourth legion, spends an evening with King Masinissa, an old family friend, in Africa, who reminisces about his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War.  This dialogue inspires a dream of a conversation with Scipio Africanus.

 And during all this time the old man spoke of nothing but Africanus, all whose actions, and even remarkable sayings, he remembered distinctly. At last, when we retired to bed, I fell in a more profound sleep than usual, both because I was fatigued with my journey, and because I had sat up the greatest part of the night.

Here I had the following dream, occasioned, as I verily believe, by our preceding conversation—for it frequently happens that the thoughts and discourses which have employed us in the daytime, produce in our sleep an effect somewhat similar to that which Ennius writes happened to him about Homer, of whom, in his waking hours, he used frequently to think and speak.

Simple and down-to-earth, but you really need the Latin.

I promise to catch up with “bookish writing” soon.  Summer is winding down.

And now for my experience with contemporary books.

There is a certain  website where you can sign up and request digital advance copies of new books from publishers.  I will refer to this site as “Web Proofs!”(its real name is something similar, and many of you bloggers probably know it).

This summer the Web Proofs! publicist sent me a catalogue.  Before I knew it, I had requested seven books to review at Mirabile Dictu, figuring I would be okayed for one.  I was astonished when I was okayed for all except for the one I wanted, Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming novel.

But do you think it was easy to download these free books on my Nook?  No, it was impossible!

If you have a Kindle, you can download the books directly from Web Proofs!  If you don’t you have to download Adobe Digital Editions.  Fine.  Then you have to plug in your Nook and download from Adobe Digital Editions.

Transatlantic colum mccannIt didn’t work.  Both my husband and I tried repeatedly.  A message appeared saying that I was not approved to copy the contents.

I tried to read Colum McCann’s beauitfully-written novel  Transatlantic on Adobe Digital editions on my computer, but it gave me a headache.

I went out and bought the book.

All the books I was approved for expired on their expiration dates.  Sorry, publicists, I’ve failed you again!

2 thoughts on “Mirabile Considers the Reading Life, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, & Nook Discrimination at “Web Proof!”

  1. I read several books at a time too — three decidedly devoted at night. I’ve felt I must be peculiar though on line I’ve seen other confess or in effect reveal this. I feel better that you have said it aloud (so to speak). Lots of us. Anyway enough.

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