How can love survive? Many think love happens willy-nilly, but some authorities believe they should control the emotion.

lovelocksLove at first sight. Many of us, at least the very young and very naïve, believe it happens. But whether love occurs with the speed of lightning or following long and complex efforts at a relationship, most agree romantic love exists. Being humans our expressions of love, our fascination with romance take many forms, most of them relatively harmless. We shower gifts of jewelry on our beloved, share preferences in food and wine, proclaim our feelings on social media. We search for examples of love in films, music, art, and enjoy emotions vicariously.

Recently on opposite sides of the globe, however, authorities are intervening in physical demonstrations of attraction. First up, Vietnam, where the Publishing and Printing Department is cracking down on “clichéd, useless, obscene and offensive” works that are “poisoning” the youth. This same claim has been used off and on in the U.S. during various censorship battles. Furthermore, “government needs to regulate an activity related to culture and people’s way of thinking so that it can benefit people.”

If only. If only all of humanity could agree on a method to truly benefit people. Unfortunately, down through the ages, this activity always seems to include punishing, even destroying those who don’t concur with authorities, like Nazis and various religious fundamentalists.

Let’s move on to Paris, where the city is removing locks from the Pont des Arts and other bridges on which star-struck lovers have attached fixtures as symbols of their relationships. A book and film started the craze in about 2006, and thousands of visitors adopted the fad. However, now sections of fencing on bridges are crumbling under the weight, posing a safety risk as well as “degradation of property heritage,” not to mention problems associated with graffiti, pickpockets and street vendors.

At least in this example of anti-romanticism, official action carries some weight. The equivalent of some 20 elephants to be accurate.

Other cities face the problem ways different from removing locks. In Rome city officials created official spots—steel posts with chains on the bridge—to eliminate damage to the infrastructure.

I’m not optimistic either activity will control the interest in and demonstration of romance. Humans are nothing if not creative. We’ve been dodging censors for millennia and finding creative ways to express emotion even longer. However, the attempts at restraint are ever-changing and as entertaining as the many paths of love.

love, censorship, Paris, Vietnam, locks, bridges, books, romances

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What’s a Family?

familyfriends2A generation ago, defining a “family” was easy. Husband, wife, children, occasionally along with close relatives as peripheral subjects. Today, not so easy. We have same-sex parents, single parents, substitute families that include friends, many families that include no children at all. I have to wonder if, in the past, we just ignored those people who didn’t fit into our template of “family,” for I know there were half-orphans and orphans as well as pairs of “good friends” whose exact relationships went undefined.

Now people are stepping up and speaking out to create their own families. The best definition I’ve heard, although the least exact, is a family is whatever we define as “family,” much the same as “art.” While this vagueness makes categorization a challenge to non-members of a family (so do I hug my second cousin’s roommate as if he were a blood relative or politely shake his hand?), and certainly hasn’t been adequately dealt with by insurance benefits officers, it seems a wise move in a time when we need every connection we can lay our hands on.

We no longer have tribes on whom we can depend to provide routines, rituals, safety nets. I have a number of single friends getting along in years who face difficult decisions about their own care as well as eventual disposal of their assets and ashes. Even more important for day-to-day living, who celebrates our birthdays and holidays with us? A Facebook greeting is an inadequate substitute for a glass of cheer. So we cobble together our own families out of whichever acquaintances have something in common with us and can tolerate us. And vice versa.

Which brings me to a novel I read recently about an unusual family comprised of an older sister who suddenly becomes her eleven-year-old half-brother’s guardian after the death of his mother. In Fin & Lady, by Cathleen Schine, set in the 60s and 70s, these two manage to create a real family, supplemented by three suitors for the sister’s hand, and eased by the relative wealth they’ve inherited. I really like novels that feature families, maybe because I’m still trying to figure out my own. The tribulations brother and sister face rise in the main from their own struggles to grow up and learn who they are, in the end trumped, as we all are, by the vagaries of dispassionate fate. If you’re looking for a book with fascinating, real characters writing their own life stories as best they can, this is it. It may give you hope about your own path.

A Kiss Is Still a Kiss

eBook reader with girl_360 The fundamental things apply, says the old song, “As Time Goes By.” And this seems to be true of book reading, too. A book is still a book, regardless of its shape or format. USA Today and various studies used in its articles are tracking book reading by electronic and hard-copy means. They say that owners of e-readers and tablets actually increase their book buying. Other trends are those to be expected: younger people use electronics more, and they tend to discuss their choices more on social media.

What does this mean for the book world at large? Predictions of the death of the book are waaay premature. The packaging of books is certainly changing. Marketing may be a bit harder because mass media like newspapers are devoting almost no space to books. But word of mouth, always the most important method to convey your excitement about a book, continues very strong, actually enhanced by social media.

How much can we believe reports like this? Seems like every study on the positive side has a matching study on the negative, like the one from the National Endowment for the Arts. While 54.5% of adult Americans say they read a book voluntarily in 2012, the percentage who read a work of literature went down from 50.2% in 2008 to 46.9%. As usual, women are far and above bigger readers than men.

My own theory is that the public has much more access to books and reading material nowadays than any time in history. In early centuries, many people were illiterate or close to it. Even as you approach contemporary times, reading wasn’t necessarily an activity for everyone. My maternal grandfather dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support his family, and I’ll bet many people have ancestors who were in the same boat.

Despite hysterical predictions that reading is going to die out, people use these skills all the type, just electronically. Plus consider this—maybe too many people are reading. Maybe we should be restricting or discouraging access to books, since people seem to be picking up some hair-brained ideas from it. Perhaps we should aim for only 25% reading decent literature, if they’re the right 25%. Of course, those individuals should be only ones who agree with me.

Battle of Sexes Moves to Books

books The battle of the sexes is fun, challenging, and never-ending. A recent combatant, perhaps fighting with a bent lance or a broken sword, is David Gilmour, a Canadian author and professor at the University of Toronto, who refuses to teach women authors. Despite Alice Munroe’s Noble Prize for literature (http://tinyurl.com/l6cvavl) and the presence of talents like Margaret Atwood (www.margaretatwood.ca), he feels there’s a lack of excellence in the majority gender.

He said he “teach[es] only the best” writers, which does not include women. “I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.”

As a writer and book lover, searching for excellence myself, I’ve spent my life, book open on my lap, desk, table, under or over the covers, entranced and entertained and educated by volumes of all types. I never distinguished between male and female authors, perhaps because I was assured repeatedly by teachers that English uses “he” and “everyone” as general terms for BOTH sexes in the collective. So if someone says, “Every great writer uses his talents,” I take this to include men and women.

When a child and teen I tended toward male writers because their work seemed more complex and interesting to me. As I grew older, I veered more and more toward women. The distinction I see now is that women writers seem to be somewhat more interested in character and internal, psychological growth, than many male writers.

I do admit I feel some questioning, some slight resentment when a male author has a strong, central female character. Just because book reviewers, publications, editors have a bias for male writers and provide much more attention to them than to women. Although most readers and book buyers are women, those in charge (still strongly male) emphasize men.

Gilmour continues to try to explain his remarks, saying they were tossed over his shoulder while conducting another conversation in French and they were meant “jokingly.” Gilmour has a new novel out called Extraordinary, and in his apology, Gilmour notes that the book’s protagonist is a woman, and he hopes his apology will help smooth over any hard feelings.

My theory, having heard a remark at any number of seminars and conferences recently, is that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Certainly Gilmour must be sincere when he says you must teach what you love. But perhaps he and his publisher quickly realized his public profile is strengthened by the controversy. That women, like me, who have never heard of him, now will read his new novel, if simply out of curiosity.

Unfortunately for him, his book will have to go on the bottom of my list, which, at last count, included 13 titles by women and 12 by men, not counting the 24 stacked up on a table, again, fairly evenly divided by gender. Some are even collections or co-authored by women and men. Imagine that.

To see The Atlantic’s take on the discussion, go to http://tinyurl.com/n93jpf6
To see some of the original interview, go to Hazlitt online, http://tinyurl.com/nqak86r
To see a follow-up interview on the topic, go to National Post online, http://tinyurl.com/n7s7rtv

Nosy Nelly Snoops With No Shame

The books that stick in my memory are those that have real people in real life situations, even if they’re fantasies or mysteries. They face problems, defeat them or are defeated by them, live, learn, change. I love immersing myself in their stories, and I laugh or cry with them. Years ago I rode the bus while reading A Tale of Two Cities, and tears streamed down my face when Sydney Carton faced the guillotine. I bonded instantly with a woman pouring over The Joy Luck Club while waiting for car repairs.

In other words, I’m a Nosy Nelly. This antiquated term means someone who’s so interested in other people’s business that she sticks her nose in everywhere. Since I don’t dare indulge myself by peeping in my neighbors’ windows, I restrict myself to books. Since my life has a finite limit and I’m not a time traveler, books let me make endless trips to fascinating eras and equally entrancing personalities. Since I’m not a millionaire, I don’t spend a penny on my voyages through books.

Visual artists enable their viewers to see things in a new way. They open their eyes. In the same manner, writers enable their readers to think about the world and life in new ways. They open their minds. So my cupidity* for knowing about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people brings me rewards in addition to entertainment. How could I learn how a soldier in Viet Nam dealt with the armed conflict except through The Things They Carried? Catch a glimpse of a future I hope we can avoid in The Hunger Games? Get a sense of an immigrant’s situation in London in the course of White Teeth?

I’m neither limited to a single lifetime nor restricted in any other way. That’s why I read.

*Cupidity: greed, strong desire