The Freelance Dilettante

what i want to be when i grow up

Month: July, 2012

The Daily Dilettante # 5: Bad Romance

bodice_ripper

When I was twelve years old, an older friend turned me on to romance novels.  Hungry for passion and smut, I devoured every one I could find, and in 1983, that was a lot of smut. One of my favorite books was “Summer of the Raven” by Sara Craven (yes, it sounds funny when you read it out loud because it rhymes.) I think I read that book about eight times. Maybe more.

The plot was similar to most romance novels of the day, all of which were loosely based on the finest romance novels ever written by Jane Austen.

In “Summer of the Raven,” the protagonist (Rowan) has a bitch of a stepmother (Antonia Winslow) who somehow has complete control over her even though her father is dead, and she’s nineteen years old. Antonia has the hots for an isolated, aloof, and bitter artist with a stupid name (in this case, “Carne Maitland”), and so she takes Rowan to his huge mansion so she (Antonia) can spend the summer in futile pursuit of him.  Somehow, she convinces Rowan it would be a good idea to pretend she’s only sixteen, probably to prevent the stepmother from appearing to be a washed-out hag.

Of course, innocent (read: clueless) yet “spunky” Rowan falls in love with the brooding painter (i.e. asshat), convinced that he is really a tortured soul and totally worth all of her wide-eyed adoration. He shrugs her off as a little kid with a crush, but he soon tires of Antonia’s ruthless bitchiness, and in the end he falls in love with Rowan, whom he thinks is sixteen. Of course, he’s like, forty, so that’s not disgusting at all. Because she’s really nineteen, she only thinks she’s sixteen. Right. No squick factor there.

Still, her love changes him, and he’s reformed from a cold, pitiless, tortured artist into a cuddly, daddy-replacing Romeo.

Romantic.

Soraya Chemaly pointed out in The Huffington Post that the traditional romance category in which damaged men, clueless virgins, and submission/dominance are rampant, has a long and documented history of success.

Luckily for women, and all of humanity, the nineties pretty much kicked most of this misogynistic bullshit to the curb, and several decent writers came to the fore. They wrote funny and strong female characters who were equals to their heroes (who were still jerks sometimes, but usually only while butting heads with headstrong heroines.) Writers such as Nora Roberts and LaVyrle Spencer, not to mention the epic Diana Gabaldon, revolutionized the Romance genre by actually knowing how to write  somewhat realistic, non-abusive relationships; not without conflict, but also with honest resolution.

So why has that suddenly changed? Most mainstream romance is doing well at keeping this trend going, but top selling novels such as the Twilight series and 50 Shades of Grey seem determined to hack this tendency towards egalitarian romance off at the knees. Perhaps it’s a sign of our deteriorating cultural fiber, or a backlash at feminism to once again romanticize the “bad boy,” who is, in fact, not redeemable, but a unequivocal and relentless emotional abuser.

Is this really romantic? Is it truly sexy?

As someone who has experienced emotional manipulation, I don’t think so.

I have to be honest. I have not read either of the series I mention above. I know that some people will say that I have no right, then, to comment on the quality of their content. However, I did see the first Twilight movie, which confirmed all the warning statements I had read about and heard from readers I trust. I had no desire to read a book in which the heroine is stalked, manipulated, or toyed with, only to end up undead and pregnant: the ultimate compliant woman. Plus, I had already had my fill of tortured vampires: Louis and Lestat, Angel and Spike. Who needs sparkles when you could have substance?

As for E.L. James, I was fortunate to have happened upon the glorious synopses/reviews written by Katrina Lumsden on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com/review/show/340987215 ).  This brave woman underwent the tedious task of reading the entire 50 Shades trilogy, so I didn’t have to. Thank you, Katrina. (I truly suggest checking them out, even if you are a fan. they are hilarious!)

In college, I worked in the university library. Ostensibly, I was shelving books, but mostly I read porn. I read the Marquis de Sade, The Story of O, My Secret Life, and the Meese Commission Report on Pornography. I looked at lithographs of Chinese Erotic Art, and “acquired” a copy of The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (My professor know just who to look at when it went missing, too.) I am not squeamish when it comes to erotica describing BDSM or other forms of strange sex.

In this day and age, however, we (as a society of sexually evolved adults who like to get our freak on) have generally come to the conclusion that sex should be: a) between legal adults and b) consensual. While the age of consent is a somewhat arbitrary line (ranging between 16 and 18 in the U.S.), 15 to 20 is still the average range of consent in most places in the developed world. Age of consent is not really the issue here, however; the issue is the area between consensual sex and abuse, the real “fifty shades of grey.”

In a healthy and consensual relationship, people are honest and open with each other. When Christian Grey demands a relationship contract, yet initiates sexual contact outside it, he is being manipulative. When he seduces Ana and agrees to take her virginity, then makes excessive demands in order to continue the relationship with her, he is being manipulative. It is true that she allows this, and that she waffles between staying with him and leaving, and that she asks to have her ass whipped black and blue; however, it is obvious that she really has no idea of what she wants. She wants him to love her, even though he has told her he won’t. She wants to change him, even though she should know she can’t. These are classic signs of the co-dependent, emotionally manipulated woman.

Is this really romantic? Is it truly sexy?

I don’t think so.

Love is complicated, and sex more so. I am afraid for women (and men) in a culture where emotionally abusive relationships are held up as the romantic ideal. Instead, shouldn’t we romanticize affection? How about honesty and communication? How about working through misunderstandings to come to a place of growth and appreciation? How about love based on equality, and sex based on passion, consensuality, and respect? Even kinky sex, done right, is based on these notions.

If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.

Next on The Daily Dilettante: Fear of Submission (I’m not talking sex this time.)

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The Daily Dilettante #4: The Importance of Poetry

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Recently I attended my annual family reunion. I always look forward to this event, not only because my family is awesome, but because they are really awesome. My family is full of intelligent, creative, and fierce people: writers, lawyers, union organizers, psychologists, teachers, scientists, blue-collar workers, and more. I love them all. Living, as I do, in the dark hole of my apartment where I sit and tap at a computer all day, events such as these are glorious, mostly because I get to go outside where there are interesting people to talk to.

There, over paper plates and red party cups, I had an excellent conversation with my cousin’s husband, Paul. He is an all around good guy. He is a the director of a local university health center and a psychologist. He is also a fisherman, a super dad, and a writer. I’ve read his stuff, and it’s very good. He told me he just had a piece published in an anthology of spiritual writing. Oh, and he’s dabbling in poetry.

What a wonderful thing to dabble in. Of course, I have a bias as I am, first and foremost, a poet. I have been writing poetry since I was ten. I started writing passable poetry late in high school, and good poetry in college. I’ve been published a couple of places, and taught a lot of it over my fifteen years as a teacher. I love poetry. I read it, I collect it, I write it. Sometimes I leave it, but like a free-range, half-feral cat, I always come back. It feeds me.

So, talking to Paul, I must admit, I began to go off on a bit of a rant. I have always thought it a crime that teachers push complex poetic forms on kids first thing. For one thing, they are hard to write. For a beginner, they are almost impossible to write well. Meter and rhyme are advanced skills, and when a kid can’t master it right away the resulting opinion is pretty universal: “Poetry sucks. It’s stupid, I can’t write it, and you can’t make me.”

I wrote my Master’s thesis on writing across the curriculum, and in my research, I discovered teachers who approached poetry in a different way, through imagery, metaphor, and other poetic devices, such as personification or alliteration. This method encourages imagination and creativity without restriction.

On one hand, poetry is all about the expansion of imagery, explosions of ideas, color, and the senses. Expansion is an important skill for writers to learn. Fiction and non-fiction both become more interesting when the writer has cinematic vision. Free verse poetry can draw images in broad strokes without any of the constrictions of plot, scene or character, or the expectations of length/brevity, linear story-telling, or clarity of meaning.

Of course, once a writer learns how to express their feelings on paper, it’s time to move on. Poetry is a lot more than just inspiration. Like any form of writing, it is a craft. Most amateur poetry, like art, fiction, photography, whatever, is left woefully underdone (or under-edited). Unfinished. Consider the writing of thousands of teenagers; rain, pain, fandom, angst, lust, heartbreak, often with a dose of cute. (I am not saying there are not phenomenal teen poets, quite the contrary. I have met several. I was not one of them.) Some adults never grow out of this phase, mistakenly thinking that inspiration and feelings are all there is to a good poem.

This is where form comes in. Through the mastery of poetic forms, including meter and rhyme, one learns the craft of poetry, how to mould words, to revise and edit a lump of verbal clay into a completed work.

Personally, I have come to love the various forms of poetry. Poetry and I are having a torrid love affair, in which we are playing with every position and permutation of words possible (including, it seems, alliteration.) By doing a little research, I have discovered forms I have never known before. I like practicing them; it keeps me flexible.

I love to challenge myself. One of my favorite challenges is to choose twelve random words: four nouns, four verbs, and four adjectives, and use them in a poem. The last time I tried this, however, I knew I would not be able to choose the words randomly, as my psyche always has ulterior motives. Instead, I had my wickedly intelligent (and, as you will see, rather cruel) friends choose them for me.

Because I am also a literary masochist, I decided to add one more dimension to the challenge: form. I chose a poetic form at random out of a figurative hat (I believe it was actually a Ziploc bag) and went to work creating a poem. Sometimes it proved difficult. Some of the results were downright silly.

Still, as I am also a literary exhibitionist, I will share some of the results with you.

Sonnet on the Story of Creation

Challenge words: brouhaha, complot, Gallium, cunning, eloquent, caustic, transient, perpetuated, bamboozled, circumvented, astonished

The cunning complot caused a brouhaha
Perpetuated over time and space
The Gods united in ones and twos , “Aha!”
They claimed, each cunning in their grace

Both eloquent and caustic, they comported
In the transient evolution of the world
While all the elements, it is purported,
(Helium, gallium, iron) now unfurled.

Bamboozled and astonished; circumvented,
Mere humans can’t conceive what gods invented.

Partial Epigrams for Political Figures

Challenge words: languid, bicameral, rapacious, luminescent, loquacious, stalwart, perspicacity, thimble, curmudgeon, angiogram, Ignite, shear, spider / spidered, jettison, foil, decant, reacquaint.

The sincere dedication of Senator Stalwart
Revealed by angiogram: a bicameral heart.

On matters of morals, He most loquacious,
In the practice of vice was the most rapacious.

A spy with such perspicacity,
Foiled by a mole’s audacity.

The First Lady was luminescent,
She glowed with a radiant light
No one realized her evening gown
Would so easily ignite.

Betsy Ross, with fingers so spry and nimble:
Killed by tetanus, for want of a thimble.

The late great President, languid sat
While his advisors raved and ranted
Some thought that he was made that way,
But his serenity was decanted.

The Governor was in his plane
When out of the sky it fell
The Governor was jettisoned,
And his rising career, as well.

The Prime Minister was smitten
By a widow on the Web
Perhaps he wouldn’t have been bitten
Had he “spidered” her instead.

He could shear a budget of useless pork,
He did as the people willed
But from lack of control when lifting his fork
By obesity he was killed.

With the corruption of His Honor I will you reacquaint:
Though his judgments were miraculous, he wasn’t a saint.

Aubade on the Steps of Angkor Wat

Challenge words: apocalypse, sangria, AngKor Wat, hominid, voluminous, triangulated, wistful, baroque, evaporate, splinter, investigate, pontificate

I will steal away to the West, my love, down the front steps
Away from the breaking sun which now casts long
baroque shadows on the ancient reflecting pool.
It feels like a coming apocalypse.

Past the quincunx of towers, the monks in voluminous
saffron, with quiet faces, wistful eyes, drift in solemn lines
Time will evaporate them, my love; the ghosts of Vishnu
Can never completely be erased.

My throbbing consciousness triangulated: my love for you,
my duty, and my terror splinter my mind, my will. My heart
pontificates, yet my fear of death overcomes me, at dawn
I die, unless I leave you here.

No. Let the trees that grow here devour me as they will,
As they devour stone. Let them investigate my flesh, this
Lowly hominid, my bones. They will pierce me, my blood
become sangria. Drink deep, my love, drink deep.

The Haberdasher’s Tale — After Chaucer (a Rhyme Royale)

Challenge words: eustachian tube, emu, haberdasher, nimbustruculent, willowy, punctual, sizzling, oscillate, glimmer, prattle, bound 

O let this haberdasher oscillate
Your fair yet truculent Eustachian tube
Which like the feisty emu’s sizzling hate
Casts its prickling nimbus to ruin your mood.
One punctual willowy cotton round
Can cure the torture to which you are bound
At this prattle, a glimmer. The act ensued.

As you can see, the results were mixed, and rather wordy; this is very unlike my usual, plainspoken style of writing poems. There is also the fact that I was somehow deftly maneuvered into writing a poem about a hat maker cleaning his ears with a Q-tip. (You can thank my BFF Sabrina for that one. She’s incorrigible.)

Still, poetry is an art form that is sadly underrated. It is an exercise that can bring a writer outside her comfort zone, even when it  is her comfort zone. Every writer should challenge himself, as it makes for better writing. If you’re a poet, write short stories. If you’re a crime writer, try romance. If you’re a scriptwriter, try poetry. In fact, everyone should try poetry. It doesn’t suck. It’s not too hard. You can write it, although I still can’t make you.

Next on the Daily Dilettante: Bad Romance

The Daily Dilettante #3: E-books and the Lost Art of Editing

example

Yesterday I related my journey out of the dark cave of hoarding. I mentioned that part of my problem was an addiction to books. Now, this is an addiction that, in most people, I have no problem with. I admire voracious readers and lovers of the printed word. I write, and as such, I need book lovers in my life to support me: both emotionally and (hopefully) financially. For me, however, having mountains of books was part of a greater problem. I feel confident that now they are in the hands of other readers (hoarders or not) who might read them and enjoy them as I have.

I will never fully abandon the printed page. I love the look, the feel, and the smell of books, new or old. However, I have become just as enamored of my Kindle, which is much easier to carry in my purse and to read on an airplane. Of course, I have built up a new, virtual hoard of (mostly free) books (thank you pixelofink.com) all of which I know I will read someday. Presently I only have 257 books, but I’m sure that eventually I will have quite a few more. On the positive tip, I don’t need any extra bookshelves.

Many of the free books I’ve downloaded are novels by new writers, many publishing directly into the e-book format. I am all for this. It is difficult to get into traditional publishing, and more and more writers are finding success through self-publication. My  major concern with e-publishing however is two-fold: a glut of poorly written material, and a complete lack of editing, even in the better novels.

There has always been a glut of terrible novels on the market: corny pulp fiction, predictable mysteries, semi-pornographic mysogynistic romances, mis-firing  sci-fi, and ridiculous fantasy ripoffs in which Lord of the Rings meets Conan the Barbarian. What constitutes a “good book,” however, is completely subjective, and thus some of the worst examples of otherwise wonderful genres have managed to become best-sellers. (This is still true, but that’s a whole other rant.)  As the traditional publishing industry has declined, however, it seems that many would-be writers have turned to e-publishing to get their words out.

This just means, as always, that one has to sort through the dreck to find the pearls.

This brings me to the second issue I have with e-books: the dreaded (and seemingly discarded) art of editing. I have downloaded quite a number of  e-books that looked promising. Many of them were decent, fun reads. Sadly, I was distracted from my enjoyment by the glaring number of misspellings, repeats, poorly used grammar, and misplaced punctuation.

I have made it a point, of late, to step down from the perfectionist soap box. I don’t find it helpful to lambaste someone for making a spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistake. I read fluent typo. I make many myself (even in my blogs.) However, I taught special ed kindergarten; if I can read their writing, I can read yours. Nevertheless, I have strong standards when it comes to the publication of my own work. ( i.e. if you find typos, tell me, and I’ll fix them!)

Why, I must ask any writer, would you wish to publish anything that is not as perfect as it can be?

I know not everyone is a great speller (or punctuator.) This is what editors are for.

I have read Amazon reviews such as the following (made up) example (sorry for the shouting):

“This is the WORST book I have ever read! I couldn’t even get through it because there were so many mistakes! The author is so stupid she can’t even spell ‘its’ correctly! NEVER READ THIS BOOK! It was not worth the price (FREE.) This book will RUIN YOUR LIFE!”

I love hyperbole, don’t you?

When I worked as a theatre critic for an awesome independent newspaper, I was known for my well-tempered reviews. Even when I did not enjoy a play, I would try to find the good points, and avoid being too harsh on the weaknesses. After all, this was most often community theater I was reviewing, not Broadway. The other guy in town was much more brutal in his “honesty.”  Personally,  I tend to think of “brutal honesty” as being more brutal than honest. He seems to have believed he was writing for New York Magazine or something, rather than a small urban newspaper.  I felt it was more important to support the actors and their efforts than to tear them down. I knew my approach was successful when I stopped to greet an actor from one of the few semi-professional companies I reviewed. She was pleased to meet in person, and told me, “I don’t usually read my reviews, but my friend showed me yours. You really got it.” When actors actually read your reviews, you know you’re doing it right.

Tangent aside, I don’t believe in tearing down new writers, even when they should know better. They should be encouraged to do their best; to have pride in their work. They should know that they will likely receive bad reviews, but they should come because people did not like the content, not because the writer was not vigilant enough in her revisions.

My reviews usually go something like this:

“This book was a fun read. It had a quick-moving plot and the characters were likable, quirky, and well-developed. However, this book could have been greatly improved if the writer had hired a competent editor. Call me.”

By the time they go to publication, most of these manuscripts only need quick edits. (This is not always the case. Occasionally it is blatantly clear that the author has made the mistake of writing one draft and calling it finished.) It is not only in traditional publishing that writers gain or lose a reputation. Why risk a reputation on poor grammar and punctuation?

Why publish something that will be less than your best? Need I say it again?

Call me.

Next on the Daily Dilettante: The Importance of Poetry

The Daily Dilettante #2: The Book Hoarder

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I am an admitted former hoarder. It’s an embarrassing thing to cop to, but not as embarrassing as still being a hoarder. I was only a moderate hoarder: certainly not a level four or five, but bad enough to feel overwhelmed by it. Some points in my life were far worse than other times; I have filled two story, three-bedroom houses with  junk. I have, at times, had too many animals. I have left dishes undone for months. Once I had a Christmas tree up until April. Moving has always been a nightmare, with loads of trash left behind. It was not a happy home.

Finally, in 2009, I had enough.

While extricating myself from a less-than-healthy relationship, I realized that all of my stuff was part of what was holding me back. The rising popularity of television shows on hoarding, de-cluttering, and organizing helped me realize where I was likely headed if I didn’t get my behavior under control. I needed to leave not only my ex, but all the years of baggage behind me.

It wasn’t easy. I had to start slowly. I moved from a rented three bedroom rambler (packed to the gills, including the garage) into two rooms in another person’s house. I quickly realized all of my mounds of stuff would never fit in the two rooms and the part of the basement my new housemate/landlady generously let me dump things in.

I moved in mid-December 2009, but my stuff didn’t fully move out until the end of January, 2010. It took more than six weeks to rid myself of thousands of pounds of stuff, including my ex. Part of the hoard belonged to him, but most of it was admittedly mine: the furniture, the dishes, the art on the walls, the papers (so. many. papers.) I had supported both of us financially for the better part of ten years, and almost everything had been purchased on my dime.

The furniture was easy. I just gave most of it to him. I took some bookcases, my mattress, my computer, a couple tables. He got his pick of the rest.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I unloaded thousands of pounds of stuff. I hired a garbage hauler who took away a truckload of trash: broken furniture, useless do-dads, and more. I held a big sale, gave lots of stuff away to friends, carried several carloads to Goodwill, burned some as catharsis, and let the rest of it go for nothing to whomever would take it. It was amazing what I had in that hoard: tons of clothes I never wore, knick-knacks with little sentimental value, teacher materials that were so out of date they would never be usable again, cards and letters and notes from every human being I ever met on this earth, and enough art and office supplies to decorate a small developing country. Who needs a thousand ball-point pens? Apparently, I did.

Part of this great purge included hundreds of books.

I love books. I happily hoard books: books from childhood, books from college, classics, reference books, novels upon novels, and tons of books I picked up on a whim and never read. I had twelve to fourteen bookshelves filled with books, and more books. I also had books in piles, books in cupboards, books in drawers, books in storage, and books in my bed. I inherited this love of and reverence for books from my parents. It felt like a mortal sin to get rid of a book or to throw it away. I kept books so old that they were rubber-banded together rather than discard them.

My first great purge was quite successful, but not absolute. My two new rooms were beautifully organized and decorated. I managed this by scrupulously plotting out the placement of every item in each room, and then renting a 5′ x 10′ storage unit, which I packed in corner to corner with my goods.  I found it freeing to have only two rooms, which I could clean quickly and easily if I had to. Not to say they were spotless; I am a piler, and I will likely always be. In the meantime, I could stay happily in denial about the storage unit full of precious treasures across town. I felt secure just knowing it was there.

In the meantime, I fell in love. I fell in love with an amazing person who is funny, smart, well-traveled, and affectionate. He also lived 150 miles away. After a year of long-distance dating, he asked me to marry him. Two months after our engagement (and two months before our wedding) I moved for the second time.

The look on my fiancé’s face when he saw the enormity of my stuff was both terrifying and priceless. This was after the second great purge where I listed things on Craigslist, donated more to Goodwill, tossed tons of trash, and foisted things on friends. The fact that I was moving into a one-bedroom apartment with a man who already had his own fine collection of things was not lost on either of us. He wondered aloud, and often, why I needed so many books. He’s a workaholic, and not much of a free-time reader. (I know! Horrors!) I answered with the obviously correct answer: “Because I do.”

We rented a new storage unit, this one right in our apartment complex. I filled it, although not quite as high this time. Still, I was ready now to get pretty serious about my stuff, as I needed to effortlessly blend his things with mine. It wasn’t actually that difficult. Since his divorce several years before, my fiancé had been living pretty much a bachelor lifestyle. I had already replaced his plastic plates with ceramic, and added a few artistic touches the previous Christmas, when (with his permission) I “girlfriended up” the apartment. Much of his decor was left over from his previous marriage. I kept what we both liked, and gave away some of what I didn’t. I was able to fit my stuff in nicely, but, as must previously independent adults do  when combining households, we had a lot of doubles.

I was proud of myself, in that I regularly culled our extras, repeats, and things that were worn out, that we simply did not need or did not have a place for. I kept the best, and donated the rest. I even gave away several things I really liked. I convinced myself that if I didn’t have a place for it, it wasn’t being loved properly. I gave these things away knowing some one else would love it as much or more than I did. Over ten months, the donation truck came about seven or eight times, each time picking up five or more large boxes or bags.  Very few of those bags or boxes contained books.

Then, after those ten months, we moved again. My now-husband changed jobs, and we decided to take the opportunity to move into a two bedroom apartment, which would be a lot more convenient for guests (including his two sons, with whom we have frequent visitation.) This time, I was determined. Again, I pre-planned where every stick of furniture would go. I was determined to reduce even more, even though we technically had more space. Because we planned to buy new furniture (getting rid of the dilapidated remnants from his past marriage) we were able to cast off a lot more stuff, sending quite a bit off to charity and passing a bit more on to friends and neighbors. I even donated about two thirds of my art supplies to my stepson’s school, and used more when I volunteered to teach a weekly art lesson.

The storage unit was a hassle. Because there was still so many things in there, we had to rent another storage unit so that I could clear out the first one, as well as move our packed boxes out of our tiny apartment, allowing us to still maneuver inside. I’m proud to say that, once again, I managed to reduce our clutter dramatically (No one is perfect: there will always be piles.) I even cleaned out my storage unit to the point where I can find and reach anything there that I need. My stuff only takes up about a third of the floor space and is no where near up to the roof. Most of the things in there are seasonal, with only a few boxes of sentimental history, and of course, art supplies.

All of this leads up to this interesting revelation: over this three year process, I rid myself of approximately eleven bookshelves worth of books. The only way I’ve managed to reduce my book hoard to this level was because my husband, in all his book-hating loveliness, bought me a Kindle. I took the hint. I ruthlessly gave away almost any book that could be replaced with an e-book, keeping only those books that did not come in electronic form, were rare editions, or were sentimental favorites. I continued to reduce upon every move until I finally reached the minimum: three bookshelves plus four small areas: a cookbook nook near the kitchen, writing books over the desk, Books Not Appropriate For Kids in the bedroom, and the pile by the bed. There will always be a pile by the bed.

I still succumb to the occasional book binge. After all, I live near a city with one of the greatest bookstores in the world. However, I’m pickier now that I know I have limited space. I will admit, I have an extra bookshelf secreted away in a closet, but right now it holds other things. In an emergency, however…you never know.

Next on the Daily Dilettante: E-books and the Lost Art of Editing