Give me your tired your poor your books

It’s no secret I love old books.

I cry over them like they’re wounded, abandoned puppies crouching behind a garbage bin in the rain.

Sometimes I rescue them, but then have no use for them. (Again, like puppies.)

Often there’s a story behind the compulsion to save them.

I’ll save any Little House on the Prairie book I see, simply because I lost my original set of them in a flood. (For the same reason, I’m drawn to Choose Your Own Adventure.)

I’ll save many an illustrated children’s book from the 1960s because the art makes me want to shake my hips in a way I don’t know how.

I’ll save a book inscribed to Marty or to Catherine. Especially if it was inscribed before I was born.

I’ll save, on the rare occasion I find one, a COUPLES or a SISTERS or anything by Christopher Pike with the express intent to read them with my daughter when she’s 12.

I like old books.

I like to imagine the shelves they once sat in, the boats they traveled by, the author, the editor, the sweat poured into their being.

Which is why, when I discovered in the kibbutz giveaway pile a year ago a Scholastic Book of Poetry edited by Ann McGovern, I snatched it up and placed it on the saved books shelf on the top floor of my house.

It was a triple threat, quadruple even, the 1960s publication of a Scholastic book club book with its retro cover, with its pages filled with poems by ee cummings and Langston Hughes and Maxine Kumin and Basho, and peppered with adorable little one-color illustrations. For the cherry on top, there was editor Ann McGovern: a goddess of children’s books and someone I remember from my days as a young assistant at Scholastic. (What I didn’t know until after I completed the project below is that serendipitously McGovern also enjoys creating collage art.)

I’ve been meaning for some time to take a book from my saved collection and turn it into something new. So it serves a purpose other than collecting dust on the shelf. I got the idea after visiting a gallery in Jaffa last year. Passing a wall of framed art, I noticed one was simply a circa 1950s Dick and Jane book cover torn out, framed, and priced at 200 shekels. After I got over my shock that someone tore off a vintage book cover, put it in a frame, and priced it at 200 shekels, I realized, “Wait a minute. I just might buy that. I am someone who would buy something like that.” And if I would, others (with a lot more money to spend) would, too.

I didn’t decide then and there to start my own recycled books-as-art business, but I filed away the idea of it. I liked the prospect of saving old books from doom and turning them into new art. Thinking about it made me happy.

I’ve always loved creating collages. Looking back at old pictures of my childhood bedroom recently reminded me of this. Why not create collages with the old books I’ve saved?

Today, I dug in and created my first.

The process, I learned, is an art in and of itself. It was impromptu and yet fluid. I didn’t know exactly where I was going when I started, but when I went to the old books shelf and saw the Book of Poetry this morning, I knew that was the book to start with.

And so I sat in front of the patio door where the sun shines in brightest, and I read Frost and ripped.

Poetry Collage by Jen Maidenberg

Poetry Collage by Jen Maidenberg

 

I positioned Edna St. Vincent Millay and pasted her next to Paul Bunyan.

I made sure, too, Ann McGovern still got credit and that bits and pieces of the lovely retro cover remained.

And the result makes me happy. Like a rescued puppy brought in from the rain.

 

 

 

Is blogging the new MFA program?

Before I was in high tech, I was in publishing.

At Scholastic, I worked in the creative marketing department, not directly with authors, but with their work; trying to make their work appeal to the largest audience as possible.

My claim to fame is that I wrote responses to fan letters for R.L. Stine and K.A. Applegate. So if you came of age in the late 90s, we were probably pen pals.

I also was a part of the exciting marketing campaign surrounding the release in the U.S. of the first Harry Potter book.

Good times.

After I left Scholastic, I spent a few years in other publishing jobs: in the promotions department at Parade Magazine and as an assistant editor for a Jewish newspaper.

I soon became expert in making other people’s work better.

Of course, through this experience, my work became better, too.  In addition to assigning and editing stories to freelance writers at the Jewish newspaper, I would report on local happenings and sometimes interview C-level Jewish celebrities for features.

Every time my boss, the Editor, would hand me back my first draft, I would grimace at the red marks in the margins.

But the marks, when implemented, always made my stories better.

In time, I became a confident writer of short form non-fiction. Your work becomes better the more you write and the more heavily you are edited.

I imagine the process is similar for any form of writing; especially in fiction and poetry, two genres in which I am experimenting and want to improve.

This is why so many emerging writers and published novelists come out of MFA programs.

They’ve dedicated themselves to writing, yes — but they’ve also committed to being publicly criticized for two years in the hopes of improving. In the hopes of one day being so good they will be noticed. Noticed like a misused metaphor, like a dangling participle.

This element of the writing program — the communal critical eye — is missing from the fantastic writing community that is the blog-o-sphere.

I never — or hardly ever — publicly criticize a blogger’s work. If I add a comment to a blog, 99% of the time it’s a positive comment. If it’s a negative comment, it’s finely worded so as to not offend the author.

I’m not talking about political blogs, where trolls feel completely uninhibited to offer their frank opinions about how the author is a stupid, naive right-wing psychopath. I’m talking about the community of essayists that have sprung up through the popularity and ease of the blogging platform.

Mommy bloggers.

Aspiring novelists.

Flash fiction writers.

People who feel the need to chronicle the every movement of their cats.

Everyone can be a published writer now.

A published author even — thanks to Amazon.com and a host of self-publishing software.

And, yes, this is awesome.

Really awesome.

And … not so awesome.

I like to read good writing.

I like to pay for good writing.

I’m annoyed when I read bad writing, especially when I’ve paid for it.

I want the books I read to have been written by people who cared enough to become better writers. I want those books to have been through at least one, if not five, careful revisions by an editor.

I say this not just as a writer, but as a consumer of the written word.

Maybe I hold myself up to too high a standard. (That sounds obnoxious, I know. )

Maybe if I didn’t, I would already be a published author myself now. (I’m not counting The Fantastic Adventures of Me & My Friends or the two other activity books I wrote for Scholastic. That also sounds a bit obnoxious, doesn’t it?)

Maybe I’m worrying for nothing.

Maybe the world is a happier place because more people are writing and finding their own audiences.

But I think there is room for criticism in the blogging world. Perhaps we would do more to support each other by not just commenting when we think a post is good, but when we think a post is almost good — when something could be just a little bit better if only it was rewritten once or twice.

It irritates me when I write a post that I think is really good and a commenter writes something simple like,

“Lovely.”

This happens a lot. Which should be a good thing.

But I want to follow up on that “lovely.” I want to know, “Why?”

“Why do you think this is lovely?”

Did it strike a chord?

Was it my careful phrasing?

Was it how elegantly I described the herd of goats by the side of the road?

And how could it be better? How could I rewrite it into something you’d be happy you paid for? Satisfied you spent your time on?

This is what is missing from the blogosphere. And why, at least now, blogging in community will never be as serious as a writing program.

Most of our comments are just blatant attempts at trying to attract new followers.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Are you a blogging writer who seeks comments like this? Who wants more than just a

“Great post!”

If so, let me know — perhaps we can build a more critical commenting community together.

Help each other… emerge…from red marks in the margin.