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Have a lover, have friends, read books. Montaigne was right about one thing | Germaine Leece

We think we are escaping ourselves when we read literature, but we might be going deeper into our interior worlds through the therapy of reading.

The understanding that literature can comfort, console and heal has been around since the second millennium BC; it is no coincidence that Apollo was the god of medicine as well as poetry.

As a bibliotherapist, I’m interested in the therapeutic value stories have to offer us, particularly during times of stress. Here the intent around reading is different; the value of the story lies solely in our emotional response to it.



One of the greatest arguments for using literature as therapy was posited by the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, who believed there were three possible cures for loneliness: have a lover, have friends and read books. But he argued sexual pleasure is too fleeting and betrayal too common, and while friendship was better it always ended with death. Therefore, the only therapy that could endure through life was the companionship of literature.

Why were the ancient Greeks and Romans right to suppose literature heals the soul? Why did Montaigne trust we could endure loneliness through a lifelong relationship with books? Why, despite all the distractions of modern life, do books still get published and writers festival events get sold out? The answer lies in the power of stories.

Stories have been around since time began; they tell us what it is to be human, give us a context for the past and an insight towards the future. A narrators voice replaces our stressed, internal monologue and takes us out of our life and into the world of a story. Paradoxically, we think we are escaping ourselves but the best stories take us back deeper into our interior worlds. Freud, who believed the reading cure came before the talking cure, once wrote that wherever he went he discovered a poet had been there before. It is difficult to access emotional language and this is why we have writers. They remind us of the universality and timelessness of emotions, helping us better understand our own.

What stories have shaped you? It’s a question worth reflecting on, as this shaping is often subconscious. The act of making it conscious will allow your future reading to perhaps have a different intent; you will be reading your life from now on, allowing you to live it more fully and better understand it.

Recently, more studies are telling us what the ancient Greeks and Romans already knew: reading improves our mental health. In 2009, research out of the University of Sussex found reading could reduce stress levels by 68%, working better at calming nerves than listening to music, going for walks or having a cup of tea. Subjects only had to read silently for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in muscles.

A 2013 study found reading literary fiction can help you become more empathetic, by giving you the experience of being emotionally transported to other places and relating to new characters. Other studies have shown reading can improve sleep quality and ease mild symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As a bibliotherapist, I am continually reminded that all forms of literature can help people in all sorts of ways. A person who is grieving may need a predictable plot and an ordered fictional world; a man searching for direction or coming to terms with retirement may need a novel that reflects and explores the transience of life; a mother of young children may reach for a novel that illustrates the arc of life and reminds her she is in just one albeit messy and tiring chapter for now.

Sometimes it is not the content of the stories themselves but just knowing you have control by choosing to read or listen that provides the calming effect. All stories offer a safe, contained world with a beginning, middle and end. We have the power of when to start or stop and choose how long we stay in this story’s world.

Time spent listening to authors talk about their work and their own understanding of the power of literature also allows us, as readers, to reflect on stories that have shaped us.

:Why do stories matter so terribly to us, that we will offer ourselves up to, and later be grateful for, an experience that we know is going to fill us with grief and despair?” questions Helen Garner in her latest collection, Everywhere I Look.

Robert Dessaix, in his memoir What Days Are For, explores narrative as an optimistic form: “Is that why I’m reading a novel in the first place? It’s not a Pollyanna-ish form, it’s not devoid of unravellings and pain, but it’s optimistic in the sense that you keep turning the pages, one after the other in the hope of something transforming happening. Isn’t that it? In the hope of a transforming answer to your particular questions.”

Both authors are exploring their identity as readers and the impact reading can have. The writers festival is more than an event celebrating authors; it also celebrates the power of literature and the power of you, the reader.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/24/have-a-lover-have-friends-read-books-said-montaigne-he-was-right-about-one-of-them

How one woman harnessed people power to save old New York

New film tells story of Jane Jacobss battle’s against the wealthiest developers in the city.

She was a beaky, bespectacled architecture writer, hardly a figure likely to ignite protests that changed the shape of one of the worlds great cities. Yet such is the legend of Jane Jacobs and her bitter struggles to preserve the heart of New York from modernisation that a film charting her astonishing victories over some of the most powerful developers in the US is set to inspire a new generation of urban activists around the world.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City tells the story of Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who made herself the bane of New Yorks powerful city planners from the 1950’s to 1970’s. Her nemesis was Robert Moses, the city’s powerful master builder and advocate of urban renewal, or wholesale neighbourhood clearance what author James Baldwin termed negro removal.

Moses dismissed the protesters as a bunch of mothers, and attempted to ignore their efforts to attract wider attention, which included taping white crosses across their glasses in the style of Jacobs.

But through a combination of grassroots activism, fundraising and persistence, Jacobs blocked Moses and successive city overlords from running Fifth Avenue through the historic Washington Square, tearing down much of SoHo and Little Italy to make way for a billion-dollar expressway, and building a six-lane highway up Manhattans west side.

“Some issues you fight with lawsuits and buy time that way,” she later wrote. “With others, you buy time by throwing other kinds of monkey wrenches in. You have to buy time in all these fights. The lawsuit is the more expensive way.”

Little
Little Italy, in New York, saved from demolition for a $1bn expressway. Photograph: Maremagnum/Getty Images

Jacobs warned of the dangers of mixing big business and government, and called them monstrous hybrids. She warned, too, that huge housing projects favoured by developers from the school of Le Corbusier would only bring social dislocation to the poor while making developers wealthy.

Jacobs’s method of prevarication, says Citizen Jane director Matt Tyrnauer, wrote the manual for activism. Speaking truth to power was her great strength, and she was fearless, but she was also a great strategist and analysed how to get to politicians and threaten them in ways that were going to be effective.

Robert Hammond, who produced Citizen Jane and co-founded the High Line, a significant renewal project along Manhattan’s west side that turned an elevated rail track into a garden and walkway, says key to her protest was targeting lower-tier elected officials because they depend on you for their jobs and they know it. She understood that fighting government is a slog, and no matter how powerful you think people are, things can be changed the value of individuals coming together and working as an organism, which today we call crowdsourcing.

Those lessons, in particular Jacobs’s later studies of economics, helped shape The Indivisible Project, an umbrella organisation for thousands of protest groups that have sprung up in the US in the aftermath of the presidential election.

Tyrnauer, who previously directed Valentino: The Last Emperor, considers that Indivisible’s activism, which includes berating local officials and challenging congressional leaders at town hall meetings, is cut from the Jacobs playbook. Late last year the group’s founders, four congressional aides moved to act by the election of Donald Trump, published suggestions that have become central to democratic resistance. Six thousand groups have registered so far, seeking to follow Indivisible’s basic, Jacobs-esque credo: localised defensive advocacy; recognition that elected representatives think primarily about re-election and how to use that; efforts to build constituent power through organically formed, locally led groups; and a focus on congressional representatives via town hall meetings, district office visits and mass phone calls.

Jane
Jane Jacobs won many victories over her nemesis Robert Moses, the powerful master builder. Photograph: Library of Congress/Sundance Selects

In her academic and personal life, Jacobs looked at the power individuals have in their own communities, says co-founder and executive director Ezra Levin. Indivisible is fundamentally about constituent power, and we recommend that people assert that power on their own turf, in their own communities. But the connection runs deeper. Jacobs maintained cities are best left to be self-organising. Too much control and they become lifeless. She believed they should be messy something old, something new and warned of the concentration of money and too little diversity. Crucial to Indivisible’s success is an individual group’s basic autonomy. “It’s crucial that this is not a franchise operation. We’ve created a platform but the decisions these groups are taking, or their exact form is fundamentally driven at a local level.”

Jacobs, who died in 2006 and whose centennial falls this year, used to tell an anti-authoritarian story about a preacher who warns children: In hell, there will be wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“What if you don’t have teeth?” one of the children asks.

Then teeth will be provided.

“That’s it the spirit of the designed city: teeth will be provided for you,” she told the New Yorker in 2004.

In Citizen Jane, the documentarians seek to apply the lessons of Manhattan in the 50’s to the urbanisation of China and India. The results are inconclusive.

Many of the challenges cities now face, at least in the west, are reversals of the clearances that affected cities in the last century. “The suburbs are where the poor people are moved to, and they’re becoming more impractical than cities to live in,” says Hammond.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/apr/22/jane-jacobs-people-power-saved-old-new-york-architecture-grassroots

Can you judge a book by its odour?

Cocoa, wood, rusks every book has a distinctive smell. And each smell says something about how and when it was made, and where it has been.

What does it mean to experience a book? To a bibliophile such as Alberto Manguel, smell plays an important part. In a talk at the British Library this week, the one-time protege of Jorge Luis Borges and director of the National Library of Argentina said he was particularly partial to old Penguin paperbacks, which he loved for their odour of fresh rusk biscuits.

Audience members responded with their own sense impressions. Peter, a pensioner, said he experienced books as smelling of salt and pepper that dryness when you open the cupboard with a touch of the sea, while 46-year-old Donna confessed that she had recently bought a book for her young son partly because it smelled of the rain.

To conservators and historians, smell has always played an important role in assessing the origin and condition of historic books, and in working out how to look after them. I have no vocabulary to define this, but there is a curious warm leathery smell to English parchment, unlike the sharper, cooler scent of Italian skins, wrote the Cambridge University don and librarian Christopher de Hamel in his bestselling Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.

But that lack of vocabulary could be about to change, thanks to a groundbreaking project by researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, who have devised a way of relating such apparently subjective descriptions directly to the chemical composition of books. In a paper published this week in the journal Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strli describe how they analysed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a historic book odour wheel, which connects identifiable chemicals with peoples reactions to them.

Using fibres from the novel, they produced an extract of historic book, which was presented to 79 visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Chocolate, cocoa or chocolatey were the most frequent words used to describe the smell of a copy of French writer Bernard Gassets 1928 novel Les Chardons du Baragan, followed by coffee, old, wood and burnt.

From the analytical perspective, and given that coffee and chocolate come from fermented/roasted natural lignin and cellulose-containing product, they share many VOCs (volatile organic compounds) with decaying paper, wrote the researchers, who combined the results with those of earlier research projects, such as studies of a 1940s visitors book at the National Trusts Knole House in Kent. Their study also took them beyond books themselves, to the places in which many of them are read: libraries. In another experiment, they asked visitors to the Wren Library in St Pauls cathedral to describe what the library smelled like to them. Everyone described its smell as woody, while 86% also experienced it as smoky, 71% as earthy and just under half (41%) reported the scent of vanilla all smells associated with particular chemicals in old books.

researcher
The smell of heritage researcher Matija Strli with his nose in a book Photograph: Supplied

The project originated in Strlis observation of the importance of smell to conservators and librarians. Librarians have told us that its the smell that hits readers first. Its the way libraries communicate, before people even get to the books; but what the books communicate through smell is also interesting. The idea is to propose a large theoretical framework of which smells hold cultural value for us as a society, he says.

Strli, a professor of heritage science at UCL, is a chemist by training. We know very well how to analyse the chemicals, but what they mean, and the emotions they trigger, is a completely different matter. For that, you need a multi-disciplinary study, he says. It wasnt until the arrival of Bembibre a PhD student with a background in communications that the project began to acquire an anthropological and cultural breadth.

Libraries such as St Paul’s, dedicated to historic books, smell different to those housing more recent literature,” says Strli. “We know that books produced before approximately 1850 have a different smell to those produced between 1850 and 1990, and that’s because late 19th- and most 20th-century printing was dominated by acid sizing the process to which pulp was subjected to reduce the water-absorbancy of paper, so that it could then be written on.”

The life of individual books also affects their smell: how far they have travelled; whether they have been kept in damp or dry environments. As De Hamel points out, some manuscripts have hardly stirred from their original shelves since the day they were completed; others have zig-zagged across the known world in wooden chests or saddle bags, swaying on the backs of horses or over the oceans in little sailing ships, or as aircraft freight.

The medieval manuscripts De Hamel was dealing with were created by hand on long-lasting parchment made from animal skins which also have their own distinctive smell. Industrialised publishing from the mid 19th-century created less-hardy books, prone to a fate that every secondhand book collector fears: foxing, the brown blotches that appear on so many old volumes. Foxing happens when small impurities left by the metal beaters used to process the paper pulp combine with fungal growth on the ageing paper.

Many people assume the blotches themselves give old books their familiar musty pong. “In fact,” says Strli, “the smell is due to the release of chemicals such as furfural and hexanol as the paper itself decays.” Hexanol is often described as smelling farmlike or of old clothing or old room, which the odour wheel consigns to a category labelled earthy/musty/mouldy.

Bembibre
Bembibre investigating the science of book smells in the lab. Photograph: National Trust/James Dobson

But foxing itself is likely to be less prevalent as manufacturing changes. In the 1980’s, the technology changed because of environmental concerns about the chlorinated chemicals emitted through the manufacture process. The happy consequence of that was that the paper became more stable again, says Strli.

The researchers believe the historic book odour wheel could become a useful diagnostic tool for conservators across a wide range of areas, helping them to assess the condition of objects through their olfactory profile. If a book smells chocolatey, its likely that it is releasing vanillin, benzaldehyde and furfural three chemicals associated with the degradation of the cellulose and lignin in paper. But the study also has wider implications, as the heritage industry grapples with a new interest in the historical importance of smell. By documenting the words used to describe a heritage smell, our study opens a discussion about developing a vocabulary to identify aromas that have cultural meaning and significance, says Bembibre.

So what can the odour wheel tell us about Manguels description of Penguin books as smelling like fresh rusk biscuits? Biscuits is a word that often comes up when describing books. Two compounds in particular: furfural (smelling of sweetness or bread) and vanillin (smelling of vanilla) could be responsible, says Bembibre. His words might indicate that the books themselves are deteriorating, but they also reveal his pleasure in them. The gift industry has long wised up to this. The British Library shop, a few metres from the theatre where Manguel was speaking, sells a candle that purports to smell of library.

“This is not just about the composition of smell itself, but about human sensibility,” Bembibre says. “By reconstructing the smell and assessing the human reaction to it, we will be able to work out what it is that we want to preserve.”

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/07/the-smell-of-old-books-science-libraries

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