Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tools for serious readers?

I like Levenger, sort of. It's a source for beautiful furniture, reasonably-priced fountain pens, and dazzling (and, yes, unaffordable) watches. I'm sitting at a Levenger carrel as I'm typing.

The problem with Levenger though is its tendency to turn any human endeavor into a sham--a mere exercise in conspicuous consumption. Consider its new product line: Bookography™, an array of reading-journals and accessories.

The company slogan--"Tools for Serious Readers"--looks pretty ironic in light of Bookography™. "It's never too late--or too early," the catalogue encourages us, "to start keeping a journal of the books you've read and are planning to read, and the truths and pleasure you take from them. We've found [sic] a new and satisfying way to do so, which we call your Bookography."

Oh, my very own Bookography™.

The Bookography™ Journal must be seen to be appreciated (by clicking here). It's a ring-binder with removable pages ($20, Junior; $24, Letter). An optional leather jacket will cost you $78 or $94. There's also Electronic Bookography™ ($50) and a Deluxe Electronic version ($84, for books, "music," and "video"). A scanner ($14) is available to gather online information via barcodes (I'm not kidding).

Each book is allotted a single page, which travels from section to section of the Journal. The page begins in the "List of Candidates" (books you want to read). Note that a true list would gather many titles on a single page. With Bookography™, you've already devoted a page to a single book you might never read (you get only fifty pages, with "refills" available).

In an ideal narrative, the page travels to the "Library of Candidates" (books you've "acquired"), then to the books you're "Now Reading" (with a section for "Castaways," "proof of your sampling enough good titles"), then to "Après Reading" (while you review the book "a few times at lengthening intervals"), and, finally, to your "Living Library" ("most pages will live here").

The fill-in-the-blanks layout of the book page itself reminds me of the pages my children were filling out not too long ago in elementary school. To wit:

"My reason for wanting to read it": One of the imaginary people whose handwriting graces Levenger catalogue photos has written, in ladylike script, "Sounds like fascinating history."

"Notes as I go": Three lines, with an arrow to the back of the page.

"My review notes": Another three lines, another arrow.

(And here I'm really reminded of elementary school: "Use the back if you need more space!")

"I'll recommend this book to," "I'll buy this book for," "This book led me to these books," "This book led me to these experiences or interests": These prompts are each allotted a single line. (All that's missing is "I liked this book because.") There's no arrow next to "This book led me to these experiences or interests." Levenger customers must be pretty darn succinct (or else they write more about their experiences in their leather-bound journals).

Here's a different approach to keeping a reading-journal. Keep a list of books you might want to read (an index card, text file, or Palm memo will do just fine). Buy a notebook. Buy or borrow some books. Read. Write.

It surprised me at first that the Levenger catalogue gives away the whole idea of Bookography™ by showing the page format in a large, easy-to-read photograph. There's nothing to stop someone who really wants to do a Bookography™ Journal from typing out a reasonable facsimile, printing copies, punching holes, and getting started. But Levenger must know its customers well enough to know that what they're really after is the feeling that comes with possessing this, uhh, tool. A tool for a serious reader? A tool for a serious dilettante, I'm afraid.

An aside: For several years I asked students in my classes to keep reading-journals--tremendously rewarding for them to write, tremendously exhausting for me to read. The minimum entry was 400 words per class (in college classes meeting three times a week). I graded journals on length, relevance, and completeness. A finished journal typically filled one or more two-inch looseleaf binders. That's what I call a tool for a serious reader.

comments: 6

Tony & Jennifer Reeley said...

I remember doing writing journals in college, but it's a habit I no longer use. I like the topics and structure Levenger suggests, I'll have to get started again. Thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

In six months, you'll be able to pick up the "Bookography" kit for about 25% of the current catalog price, from their "Sale" area on the Web site. If you really can't live without it.

Levenger does have some nice stuff, not all of it aimed at people with more money than sense. Some of the items I've bought from them, such as the Reader's Table, have turned out to be things I or my family use every day. However, you have to be careful. I was once on the verge of buying a Project Box from them, when I found the (virtually) identical item in Sam's for $25.00. "Bis dat, si cito dat", wasn't it?

My rules for buying from Levenger:

If the item (or something equivalent) is available elsewhere, buy it elsewhere and save at least 10%. Their markup is larger than other Web retailers, and their shipping charges are higher than most. Order a pen from them along with other items, they will charge extra for their "Pen Express" -- and ship the pen in the same box with the rest of your order.

If it's a unique item, like an Editor's Desk, check eBay before you buy from Levenger. Let eBay watch for the item for you for a few weeks.

If it didn't turn up in an auction, check Levnger's "Outlet" (Sale) area.

After all this, if desire for the item hasn't disappeared, go ahead and buy it from Levenger directly.

Anonymous said...

I read "The Little Guide to your Well Read Life" and found it to be pretty high-brow. Library of Candidates indeed, people don't need an excuse to buy more crap.

On the other hand, I do keep a good-sized collection of hardbacked books. I am a hardback book snob for many reasons including long-term durability and the feel.

Yeah, a special journal for keeping track of reading seems like something for someone with too much money in their wallet.

I've purchased a few Levenger items including their angled leather-covered writing desk hutch:


I use it and I enjoy it, but not a day goes by that I don't remind myself that Quinten Tarrantino wrote Kill Bill with $2 pens in a $2 notebook on his kitchen table.

Fancy pens, notebooks, or writing desks won't make you a better writer or help you write more.

Fancy lap desks, reading lamps, nice chairs, or Bookography's won't help you read more.

It's easy to fall into the trap of buying more junk to help us read and write when what we really need is to simply spend more time reading and writing.

Writer/Consultant said...

I love Levenger's too. The only product I've purchased are the Circa notebooks (which I am now informed Staples and Target are carrying) though I've been perusing the drool enducing catalogs for years.

My version of at least part of "bookography" is to save my library "receipts" which I tape in my journal (an old book, see here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mizkcreations/448762821/in/set-72157600052420376/).

Ohio has an amazing library system. I never go to the bookstore without a notebook and always check the library for it for free. Some books I must own but I find this to be fewer and fewer.

Levenger would be my first lottery store if I ever played...

Michael Leddy said...

Kelly, thanks for reading and commenting.

I could be wrong, but I think Staples and Target must have knock-offs of the Circa notebooks. I've seen other Levenger-like products at Target.

Drool is right. I sometimes look at the Levenger catalogue when I need to get inspired to clear my desk. All those Zen work surfaces! (My desk though is not from Levenger.)

I liked seeing your journal pages and altered pages. Do you know Tom Phillips' A Humument?

Anonymous said...

Levenger's "Page Points", thick and rather unattractive little clips for marking passages in books without harming the page, are available in a thinner and much more elegant form, for a lot less money, from the originators, Book Darts.