‘What happens to one happens to us all.’
Lately we’ve been thinking about our relationship with world news, specifically the balance between being informed and being well. It can be tricky to find the sweet spot of learning and showing compassion while also looking after our minds, hearts, and nervous systems. Given the endless string of stressful, upsetting events that enters our orbits these days, this search for equilibrium is something that deserves some time and attention. Perhaps setting personal boundaries and assessing what’s helpful and what’s harmful is a good first step.
This month, as well as recognising and removing the harmful from our lives, we’re also going to let go of other things that no longer serve us; it’s the last hurrah of spring and we’re intent on cleaning out our homes and our minds ready for the new season!
Cover image: Bagan, Myanmar, being
Cover quote: Robin Wall Kimmerer
G O O D S T U F F
Listen (and be enchanted!)
If you’re a Potterhead (or are interested in becoming one), we heartily recommend listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks read by Stephen Fry. Each book is available for free online (hpaudiobooks.club, among other sites). With Fry’s comforting, evocative voice and, of course, the inimitable stories themselves, the exploits of Harry and pals take on a totally different quality; perfect for many-time readers (we’re on our fourth read!) and those who prefer listening to reading.
Protect your plants
Here’s a simple, sustainable way to keep pests away from your beloved plants: pencil shavings. Yep, pencil shavings are the ultimate guardians of your green gang. They’re not made of lead but rather cedar, which is a real bummer for pests as they aren’t fans of that particular wood. Pencil shavings are non-toxic and compostable, meaning you can poke them into the soil around your plants or put them straight into your compost bin after your next meditative colouring-in sesh.
Letters of Note was started by Shaun Usher as a website, re-publishing letters from well-known figures, and in the founder’s words ‘celebrating the humble letter’. It grew from a website into two gorgeous coffee table books (the first of which was crowdfunded), and then into mini books around themes such as music, art, and cats. The whole Letters of Note collection spans time and place; expect missives from the desks of Galileo, Virginia Woolf, Nick Cave, and beyond.
N O T E S O N
There is perhaps no item more ubiquitous with the ‘80s than the boombox (see: Fame, Flashdance).
Dutch techno giant Philips (who invented the cassette) developed the boombox in the mid-1960s, although they called it the ‘radiorecorder’. In the ‘70s, the idea caught on in Japan and, as a result, a variety of models with different features appeared, overtaking the European market and soon arriving in America. But it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the boombox really took off, thanks in part to the widening scope of popular music. The large rectangular device was battery-operated and thus portable — hence the trend of hauling it around on one shoulder. It had both a radio and cassette player and, on later models, a CD player. It was known for its bass-tastic speakers — the ‘boom’ in ‘boombox’. As demand for more powerful speakers grew, so did the size and weight.
The boombox wasn’t just a device; it was a cultural signifier. It was integral to the rise of hip hop music during the ‘80s and early ‘90s and was favoured by artists like The Beastie Boys, Biz Markie, and L.L. Cool J (who even penned an ode to it, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”). The boombox, widespread in metropolitan areas like NYC and Los Angeles, was particularly synonymous with street rap battles. Due to racism and general fear of alternative cultures, many cities banned the use of boomboxes in public. This very same racism led to the coinage of ghetto blaster, an alternative term for a boombox used predominantly by those campaigning against hip hop culture.
In the ‘90s the boombox began to disappear in favour of the Walkman, a much lighter, less cumbersome portable music device.
A L B U M S F O R W H E N E V E R
The Desired Effect
“Between Me and You”
“Still Want You”
“Never Get You Right”
We know him best as the frontman of The Killers, but Brandon Flowers’ solo records are notable too, especially The Desired Effect. The album is tricky to pin down — there’s a soft ‘80s vibe, an anthemic quality, a pleasing pop-rock aesthetic, and Flowers’ signature unique musical style (think pan flutes and sound effects). This mix makes sense when you see the assortment of artists who worked on the album, from HAIM’s Danielle Haim to ‘90s pop and bluegrass singer Bruce Hornsby. It’s an impressive, consistent collection of songs that moves seamlessly between the big and the intimate. The production is crisp and compact, and lyrically, it’s a hit too; Flowers offers charm (“Crime is on the rise, I still want you. Climate change and debt, I still want you”), and vulnerability (“Between me and you, I think I’m losing it now”) in equal measure.
The Desired Effect is Flowers’ second solo record. He released Flamingo in 2010.
D I V E I N
There’s a famous line in A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin that goes, ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.’
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We’ve been reading for 5,000 years. The birth of writing (visual signs that represented spoken sounds) and reading began in ol’ Mesopotamia. Markings in clay developed into a highly complex script (each syllable corresponding to a specific sign), which was used to document laws and official king business. Trained scribes paved the way for early authors of fiction, and public readings became a form of entertainment — so much so that ‘silent reading’ (or to us today, just reading) was considered curious until around the 13th century. With the invention of the printing press shortly after, ‘silent reading’ became the norm and so literacy grew.
* * *
It’s both shocking and humbling to be reminded that not everyone can read. Around 700 million people on our planet are illiterate. In most cases it’s due to poverty; past or present. Years ago, I asked my dad to forward a letter I had written to my grandma who, at the time, lived 6,000 miles away. I was surprised (and later, embarrassed at my oblivion) to discover that my grandma couldn’t read her native language (or any written language). My grandma, a girl in rural southern China, was never taught to read. (Fortunately, she still received my sentiments — my dad read the letter to her over the phone.) Today in China and her adopted home Hong Kong, literacy rates are almost at 100 percent. Her illiteracy was a product not only of poverty but societal norms. In African countries south of the Sahara, the current high illiteracy rates are mainly due to poverty. Times may have changed, but in many nations poverty, and thus education, has not.
* * *
As humans are wont to do, those of us who can and do read have categorised ourselves as such. ‘Are you a reader?’ a stranger might ask at a party. ‘I’m a reader’, someone might say, faux apologetically, shoulders shrugging, as they balance a teetering stack of books in their arms. Unfortunately, as with most things, the reason for asking or declaring seems to have nothing to do with the actual act of reading. Reading has retained the reputation it had many moons ago: education, intelligence, wealth, and status.
Yep, old-fashioned snobbery continues to exist in all arts, including literature. It’s not only if you read but what you read that seems to matter an awful lot to other people — and not always because they’re looking for a recommendation. The coinage and usage of ‘chicklit’ is a prime example. This portmanteau of the late ‘90s refers to popular, female-centric, light-hearted fiction read by young women. There’s a pejorative undertone to the use of ‘chick’, which suggests that the readers of such books are frivolous or less intelligent than those who read classics or ‘serious’ stories. Luckily, the word faded out of the zeitgeist a few years after its emergence.
Yet the pressure to read the ‘right’ things is still alive and well thanks in large part to social media. Today it’s likely that being seen to be reading a specific book is reason enough for some to read. Of course (thankfully), all of the ‘old’ reasons still exist too. Some of us read to escape or find salvation. We lurk in inconspicuous cafes on spy missions, embark on unexpected romances with unexpected strangers, and discover places riddled with secrets or abundant with possibilities. Then there are those of us who read primarily to learn something specific; how to tie different knots, the history of the Mediterranean, why it’s called ketchup. Perhaps somehow straddling the two are the people (myself included) who open a book in order to relate. We gravitate towards characters or real-life people we share a commonality with — a circumstance, an ethnicity, a location, a career title, an illness, a desperate desire to travel or bake. Of course, some of us read simply to pass the time.
Somewhat unbelievably, if you read, what you read, and why you read aren’t the only categorisations that exist in the book world.
* * *
When e-books emerged on the scene, readers were bisected: physical book-ers and e-book-ers. Internet arguments ran amok. Suddenly, there were debates about eye strain and metacarpal health, romance versus convenience, and the increase or decrease of books bought in different formats. For the most part, the important stuff in any type of book (including audiobooks, which rose in popularity shortly after e-books) is the same: the words, the author, the title. But there’s something else, something that can’t be measured or quantified, that stands between mediums: feeling.
Science tells us that there’s energy in every object. It stands to reason that the energy in an orange will be different to that of a crisp, and thus, an old book to that of an iPad. It’s also fair to say that the reading medium itself likely affects the way you experience a book. The mustiness of an inherited book or the grainy feel of the pages in your hands probably has an impact on both the act of reading and your opinion of what’s being read. Just the same, the uniformity and clarity of words on a screen and further, the tablet in your hand, might subtly colour your experience.
The physical book vs. e-book debate has mostly lost its spark now (we have more pressing issues to be divisive and snipey about online), but looking back, it’s surprising that humanity was rarely mentioned in the assessment. When we consider the human element, physical books seem to acquire a new edge. The woman in the bookshop who recognises you and recommends titles based on your last conversation or the badge on your coat. The book that has travelled all the way from Nina’s bedroom in ‘70s Naples, according to the scribbled letters in the front, and ended up here in your hands. The sales assistant whose professional façade disappears when you mention your love of Dorothy Sayers; both of his hands pressed on the customer service desk, wide eyes, body bent forward, like he has found his person at last. The people without technological devices who are able to access books in libraries or bookshops or community centres.
* * *
Recently, a friend sent me a meme about reading that sums it all up.
List of Books to Read Before You Die:
1. Any book you want
2. Don’t read books you don’t want to read
3. That’s it
4. Congratulations you did it
R E A D S F O R W H E N E V E R
Heartburn — Nora Ephron
Everything from Nora Ephron is gold (You’ve Got Mail! When Harry Met Sally! Every single essay!), and that includes Heartburn. The main event of this short fictional read actually happened to Ephron, but names, subplots, and certain details were changed and added. Always able to find hilarity, irony, and joy in heartbreak and devastation, Ephron sees her protagonist trying to keep her life together when her relationship falls apart. A collection of recipes are woven throughout, too. It’s easy to read, totally charming, and a serious contender for your go-to book when you need comfort, joy, or just a little laugh at the insanity of people, relationships, and the world itself.
R O O T S
‘Awkward’ has taken on a specific life of its own in recent years (exhibit A: awkward turtle. Exhibit B: ‘awks’), but it can be applied to an array of situations or people, from embarrassing to fussy. In fact, our understanding of it today doesn’t stray far from its origin: it was coined in 14th century Middle English as a combination of awk meaning back-handed and weard/ward, a directional suffix. Thus, it meant ‘in the wrong direction’. In the 1500s, ‘clumsy’ was added to the mix. A century later, Shakespeare used it to describe an ungraceful action. ‘Awkward’ continued to develop; in the 1700s it meant ‘embarrassed’ or ‘ill at ease’, and in the late 1800s, it referred to someone or something that was difficult to deal with (such as a client).