Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting

At lunch Sunday in the shade and breeze of a large oak beside the cow-punctuated hills that keep the summer air in Bluemont so dry, I gave a friend a copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. Rocket Scientist Friend (hereinafter “RSF”), who was eating with us, took the book, turned at random to the article “Steak and Chips,” and read the first paragraph out loud.

“Pure unsubstantiated bullshit,” he reflected.

“Yes,” I said, “Barthes backs up nothing. His observations alone are sufficient.”

“Not for me.”


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From The English Patient (again):

There was a time when mapmakers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Someone seen bathing in a desert caravan, holding up muslin with one arm in front of her. Some old Arab poet’s woman, whose white-dove shoulders made him describe an oasis with her name. The skin bucket spreads water over her, she wraps herself in the cloth, and the old scribe turns from her to describe Zerzura.

No commentary to make me feel better about quoting it. I’m not up to it.

I just finished Crime and Punishment (second read). I’m really enjoying All The King’s Men (first read) and, yeah, John’s gospel. And, very slowly — sometimes backwards — The English Patient.

It sounds so modern

From “Samuel Johnson on Pope,” which appeared on The Lives of the English Poets (1779-1781):

Poetry was not the sole praise of either; for both excelled likewise in prose. The style of Dryden is capricious and varied; that of Pope is cautious and uniform. Dryden observes the motions of his own mind; Pope constrains his mind to his own rules of composition. Dryden’s page is a natural field, diversified by the exuberance of abundant vegetation. Pope’s is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe, and leveled by the roller.

That is criticism, I believe!

Exclusive interview with Robert J. Ray

Robert J. Ray is the author of The Art of Reading, the Murdock mystery series, and the Weekend Novelist series.

How did The Art of Reading come about?

I had been teaching an advanced exposition class at Beloit College in Wisconsin. I used that class to field test my ideas about reading and writing, and I came up with exercises to use in the class. The exercises turned into a book. I was talking about it to a classics professor at a cocktail party one night, and he happened to be an acquisitions editor at Blaisdell Publishing.

So you never marketed it?

No. I didn’t know anything about marketing back then.

How would you describe The Art of Reading‘s approach to reading and writing?

Using colored ballpoints, the reader circles words. If you’re reading for structure, you circle words that repeat. If you’re reading for content, you circle nouns and verbs. Nouns in red, say, and verbs in blue. When you draw connecting lines, the patterns jump out at you. Seeing the patterns takes you into the style and mind-set of the writer. I still circle words.

Has your approach to writing changed since The Art of Reading was published?

Yeah. When I took a seminar with Natalie Goldberg, who is the guru of timed writing. It’s so simple. Set the timer. Write until it beeps. Read your writing aloud. Set your timer, write until it beeps. The timer distracts the left brain editor-critic-judge. You zone out on the writing.

I guess that takes care of writer’s block.

Yes. You escape the editor in your brain. After you write, you let it sit, and then you take it up again and edit it. You might look at her book, Writing Down the Bones.

Maybe you could write a book combining your approaches – your slow reading and her fast writing.

That’s not a bad idea.

What are you doing these days?

I just quit teaching. I’m revising The Weekend Novelist series. And there are more weekend novelist books in the pipeline. One on rewriting. Another on the personal memoir.

The Weekend Novelist concept seems like a good draw for writers who are in no position to quit their day jobs. People love the concept. They can no longer wait for the proverbial “block of time.” Writing a novel is possible if you do writing practice and follow the steps.

What is your philosophy of reading and writing?

Whether you are writing or reading, you do a better job if you get a feel for the words. Most people skim. They don’t see syllables. Unless they are trained actors, they read without rhythm. If you circle words, you slow down. If you slow down, you read deeper. When you read deeper, you go deeper with the writing. Going deep helps you escape the world of screens. TV, computer, movie theatre, PDA. The great poets felt the words. Our job as writers is to help readers go deep.

“Language is a kind of play!”

Exclusive interview with Patricia T. O’Conner on grammar, Woe Is I Jr., and her new, preadolescent readers.
You’ve worked as an editor for more than twenty years, including fifteen years with The New York Times editing book reviews.  It seems obvious that working as an editor would improve one’s grammar, but I’m curious about how editing other people’s work helped to shape your ideas of how people could learn grammar better.

Working with reporters, reviewers, and essayists made me familiar with the kinds of grammatical difficulties that even the brightest, best-educated writers face every day.  These are the kinds of problems I used as a basis for writing Woe Is I.  What’s more, I found that on the job I had to explain the solutions in simple, plain English. This is what I tried to do in the book as well.

You wrote your original book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, in 1996 at the request of a book editor who wanted a lighthearted grammar guide.  Why do you think the book became a bestseller?

I don’t think anyone before me had ever tried to address grammar problems without using the complicated and intimidating terminology of formal grammar. And the book was funny besides, which was a novelty for a grammar book then.

What lead you to write Woe Is I Jr., a similar book for middle-graders?

When the original book came out, parents and teachers told me they found it helpful in explaining grammar to children, and suggested that an edition especially for kids would fill a niche. But I never acted on their suggestions until Susan Kochan, a very gifted editor at the Penguin Young Readers Group, pressed me to do an edition for fourth- through sixth-graders.

You seem to get middle-school kids: their reading level, their capacity for understanding grammar, and their humor.  What did you have to do to prepare for — and to adjust your writing for — what I suppose is your first children’s book?

I corralled the children of my friends, and I asked dozens of kids from my neighborhood school as well as young library patrons to answer questionnaires designed for ages 9 through 12. The responses were priceless! All the kids who helped are getting free copies of the book, as well as thanks in the acknowledgments.

What would you like to see children come away from Woe Is I Jr. with?

I’d like to encourage a love for language and a fascination with words. Words, after all, can be a lot of fun, and language is a kind of play! Too many kids find grammar intimidating, and that’s a real tragedy.

In the book’s acknowledgements you mention a particular fifth-grade class in Roxbury, Connecticut, as well as about thirty individual children.  Tell me how they assisted you, if you would.

They helped by telling me about the books and movies and television shows and musical groups they enjoy. This told me a lot about the way they interact with their culture and what kinds of examples I should use to illustrate grammatical concepts. It was important to me to make the book child-friendly and child-centered. Teachers and school administrators also helped tremendously.

What kinds of things did you enjoy about writing this book?

I loved thinking like a 10-year-old. I’m still trying to resume my adult persona!

The book contains delightful poetry that illustrates your points.  What gave you the idea to include poetry, and did you enjoy writing it?

I’ve always loved silly poems, and it was a treat to be able to write some.

You conclude Woe Is I Jr. with a chapter on online writing.  You seem encouraged that instant messaging, email, and blogging are getting young people to write more, but you are concerned that students may not transition their grammar and usage to fit their audience.  Is the chapter a summary of You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online, a book you co-authored with your husband, Stewart Kellerman?  (You sound like an editor when you write about that book on your web site: “The important thing is that we’re writing again, and it’s better to write badly than not at all.”)
No, the online writing tips in Woe Is I Jr. don’t exactly echo those in You Send Me, which was written for adults. Children approach e-mail and instant messaging and text messaging differently than adults do. For kids, it’s play, and for the time being I think we should allow it to be play, with certain guidelines of course. The good news is that kids are sitting at keyboards and writing—putting words together and making sentences. Hurray!

Where do you think English grammar will be in fifty years?  How, if at all, do you think it will be taught?

I think grammar—that is, the systematic study of how words form sentences—will make a comeback as a legitimate part of the school curriculum, not just a token “unit” inserted into the Language Arts curriculum. The same thing, I believe, has to happen with math. A society whose people don’t know how to compute, to read, or to write is not going to remain a world power for long.

You seem to have a dynamic philosophy about English grammatical rules, one more associated with Merriam-Webster’s reference book editors, say, than American Heritage’s.  Do you offer any principles or guidelines for when we may safely discard grammatical rules (e.g., ending sentences with prepositions and splitting “infinitives”) that earlier generations (such as my own) were taught as gospel, but now have often come to be seen as the inventions of centuries-old grammar textbooks?
Those so-called “rules” never were legitimate! They were the inventions of Latinists who felt English (a Germanic language) should more closely resemble Latin (a Romance language). Contrary to popular opinion, the true “rules” of English are eminently reasonable (subject and verb should agree, for example). The wacko, unreasonable ones are mere superstitions.
I’m sure schools will be interested in Woe Is I Jr., perhaps as a supplement to their grammar textbooks or perhaps as the centerpiece of their grammar curriculum.  How do you think schools might use Woe Is I Jr.?
I’m not an educator myself, and I didn’t intend the book to be used as a curriculum model. But it might be a helpful supplement for teachers wishing to explain certain concepts in plain English and with entertaining examples. Otherwise, parents and kids might find it helpful to keep around the house as usage issues crop up. I hope so!

How did you find such a wonderful illustrator for Woe Is I Jr.?

My editor, Susan Kochan, found him. Thank you, Susan!

You dedicate Woe Is I Jr. to your sister, Kathy Richard.  Are there any particular associations between her and the book’s subject matter?

Well, this is a book for kids, and since my sister and I spent our childhoods together, I wanted to make the book a tribute to her and to those years.

What plans do you have for marketing Woe Is I Jr.?  I missed your appearance on Oprah for the first Woe Is I book!

I’ll be doing broadcast appearances, but more important, I hope to meet lots of kids in book signings and talks. And I hope they’ll let me know how I can make the book even better. It’s their book you know!

Posted May 11, 2007.

Studdy to be quyet

Because some men study to have learning rather than to live well, they err many times, and bring forth little good fruit or none. — The Imitation of Christ

I like the feel of the purposeful study that Thomas à Kempis recommends to his fellow monks, at least as it comes across here in Harold Gardner’s version of Richard Whitford’s 1530 translation.

Study to live well. Does that mean study (apply myself to knowledge) in order to live well? Or does it mean, as the OED has it, “To endeavour, make it one’s aim, set oneself deliberately to do something” — in this case to live well?

I’m tempted to answer as the kids do today: “Yes.” But “study” here almost certainly means something like the OED definition I quote. Still, I like the ambiguity the word “study” affords. I want the word to mean both things at once. If I can’t have a denotation that is stronger than the sum of two of the word’s definitions, then I want at least one of these definitions to permit a strong connotation of the other.

That’s why I like older English Bibles. You’ve already got the problem of a translation, and now you have to consider the text in a language that it almost, but not quite, your own. You might even find something that was never there and live in it. There are more straws to grasp, and straw makes nice nests.

I know no Greek. I’ve looked up philotimeomai in two Bible dictionaries. The word more closely fits the above “endeavour” definition from the OED. The King James translates the word as “labour,” “strive,” and “study,” depending on the word’s context. The modern English Bibles I have looked at do not translate the word as “study,” probably because the “endeavour” definition is, of course, archaic.

I like “Study to be quiet” from First Thessalonians. It’s part of a string of verses tied among several epistles in which Paul tells his readers or his readers’ charges, in so many words, to follow his example and get a job. But none of the modern versions say anything like “Study to be quiet.” The Revised English Bible, for instance, says, “Let it be your ambition to live quietly. . .”

I lived in a similar verse for years, the more famous “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

[photo of William Faulkner]At the four-times-a-week Bible studies I attended in my youth, we assumed that study meant study. (We understood that Paul wrote in Elizabethan English, and we understood Elizabethan English as well as he.) This verse from Timothy was one of the ones we used to justify our group study. But here’s the New American Standard’s take: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” “Be diligent” is not “study” as we normally use the word today.

But part of diligence in such a context might be what we call study today, no? I’m all the richer for my linguistic ineptitude.

Perhaps you see why I like Tindale, Geneva, King James, and Webster?

I’ll never discover new planets. (I’m quite nearsighted, and my discoveries usually come from tripping over large objects most people see from a distance. This tendency alone takes me out of the running.) But finding evidence of another definition of “study” in college while reading The Sound and the Furymade me feel as if I had discovered another planet adorning my bright “study” star.

In the idiot’s presence, one of Luster’s companions denies Luster’s suggestion that perhaps he had secretly discovered Luster’s missing quarter. “I aint studying no quarter. I got my own business to tend to,” the companion says. (“And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business. . .”: more of that verse in First Thessalonians.) A page later, the same companion denies any interest in the show Luster apparently wants to gain admission to with the quarter: “I aint studying that show.” Later in the book, Luster himself uses the word to deny Dilsey’s charge that he broke a window: “I aint stud’in dat winder.”

These black characters — Faulkner’s angels sent to live among the disintegrating Compson family — helped me in my darkness, too. These dialogs introduced me to “study” as something like “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon. Obs.” (from the OED again). Never mind that this definition doesn’t generate a quotation in the OED from later than 1603.

Luster’s and his acquaintance’s use of “study” may have something more to do with “To think intently; to meditate (about, of, on, upon, in); to reflect, try to recollect something or to come to a decision. Now dial. and U.S. colloq.” (OED). Faulkner is even quoted in the OED using “study” in this sense, though the word’s context in that quote sure points to this last definition more than the context in which Luster and his companion use it.

So, not knowing a thing about linguistics or etymology, I go with the “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon.” I throw in some “endeavour” and some normal study, too. But of course I use the word in this amalgamated sense usually only when I talk to myself. I think I limit it to that.

I attach meaning to words from their contexts. Shoot first; open the dictionary later. This is a wonderful tool for learning vocabulary, I am told. Few of us learn new words by looking them up straightaway in a dictionary, anyway. And even when I do look up words that are new to me, I often forget their meanings. But maybe I’ll become influential, and my misuses will germinate into new definitions in a future edition of the OED. Why discover planets when you can grow them?

So I use words incorrectly, or at least imprecisely. When I peck through all of this straw, I usually get something wrong — the original or the translation or both. At the same time, something is gained in the translation. I slowly build a nest I can live in.

Posted October 2006.

Starting poetry

[This is from a letter I wrote to one of my ninth-grade students last week in response to her questions about what novels to read. She’s quite bright and insightful, and after I gave her a list of novels (which I may share with you later), I started in on poetry. I apologized later in the letter for unloading the poetry stuff on her sua sponte, but I was on a roll.

How would one advise a willing reader to approach or re-approach poetry? Perhaps you have a suggestion or two.]

You also may be ready to experience poetry in a new way. You might try the Beat poets (the Beats were the precursors to the hippies), particularly Jack Kerouac. I think you may like Kenneth Patchen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson . . . maybe William Blake, Gary Soto. Look at Sylvia Plath again.

Here’s how I would deal with poetry. Go to a new or used bookstore’s poetry section and browse. Look mostly at small volumes. Don’t get a big anthology at first: they can be good reference books, but they have no soul. (Many of the smaller, themed anthologies have soul, though.) Don’t even get a poet’s “collected works.” Not yet. You want something you can carry around like a snake stuffed down a little kid’s pocket. Just the kid and the snake know about it for a while, though people may eventually get suspicious.

Get a volume the poet and a caring publisher thought would best complement some poems. Maybe it has only a few poems the poet thought would go nicely together. Look for paper and a font style that please you. Look for spacing of words and verses on the page that pleases you. Spend more than you planned to if you have to.

Which poet? Probably someone recommended to you or a poet you know from English classes. Find a poem you like in one of her books, then flip around to see if the other poems have any potential. If they do, consider buying the book.

Read poetry books differently than you’ve been trained to read novels. Don’t read a book of poetry cover to cover. Skip around and read what you like over and over. In fact, it’s better never to finish the book out of respect for the poems as well as your own heart. Maybe read a poem every day or two or three (maybe a poem new to you; maybe not), and wait for the day when one of them catches fire. Read that one out loud all kinds of ways: crazy, soft, with an accent – however. Screams, anger, laughter, and tears should not be discouraged.

Poetry, like drama, is often best read aloud. Speaking of drama, you might read certain Shakespeare characters for good fun. I used to love reading the lines of certain favorite Shakespeare characters to myself. (Hmm . . . I’m not sure why I stopped. Gotta check into that.) Lincoln’s staff found him reading Shakespeare out loud to himself many nights at the White House as the war raged on. I think reading Shakespeare out loud gave Lincoln a feel for great language and helped him write and deliver some of the best speeches ever given. I like Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I, and I love King Lear. If you’re in a villainous mood, read Richard’s lines in Richard III.

Posted April 2007

Slow reads on Good Reads

Several friends have invited me to discuss books on  I tried, but my reading doesn’t fit there.  On Good Reads, you shelve all of your books as “read,” “currently reading,” or “to read.”  You may create other shelves, but you may not delete any of these three shelves.  And your books may be on no more than one of these three shelves.

Books I have read weren’t worth reading.

My books whisper to me like Jesus: “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.”

I like dictionaries.  Nobody says, “Have you read this?”

What am I reading?  I suppose my most important read is a book I have long forgotten.  In a way, I am still reading it.

Czeslaw Milosz calls to me from my upstairs bookcase: “Your writing is no longer honest.  I can help you.”

The books I am currently reading are my remaining books and the trees and publishers they came from and the clouds that rained on them all.  I don’t keep books I’m not currently reading.  My wife thinks my books are taking over the house.

I have no intention of reading any particular book.  It is too stressful to make such a commitment.  So my “to read” shelf is empty, too.

My books whisper to me like Jesus: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.”

I can’t separate my devotional book from my classroom reading-time book from my early-evening magazines from my nighttime poetry volume from my longer summer reading.  How can I write about a book?

I read only reference books anymore.

Czeslaw, may I start with the one-sentence paragraphs and just pretend to be honest?

I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.  There is no first reading to get through because there is no plot.  So it’s an easy read.

I have read, am reading, and will read New and Collected Poems 1831 – 2001 by Milosz; viz., I have read, am reading, and will read pages 268-270, 271, 269-270, 269 and 269, 269, 585-588, 269, or 741-743 of that book.  Some of the pages I have read twenty times.  Most of the pages I have never read.  I will never read them all.  So I have and have not read New and Collected Poems.

The previous paragraph is my shelf title for New and Collected Poems on Good Reads.  I’ll have one shelf per book, at that rate.  Oh, never mind: Good Reads shelf titles may contain no more than twenty-five characters.

Milosz calls from the other room: “I have and have not read you, Peter.”

My faith teaches me to read reference books.  In the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus’s chronicles save the Jews.  Why does no one play the chronicles in our Purimshpil?

Aubrey/Maturin novels don’t have plots.  Well, sometimes they do, and the plots are awful.  But the novels are no worse for them.

Milosz calls from the table: “I can teach you something about growing old.”

I have never read the pages of a reference book in numerical order.

Chuang Tzu says, “Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?  He is the one I would like to talk to.”

All books are reference books.

Milosz calls from my wife’s side of the bed: “I can help you stop being such a smart-ass.”

Abbot Hor says, “Take care that you never bring into this cell the words of another.”

Milosz calls from the downstairs bookcase: “So you do like plot.”

When I cross-reference, I feel his pleasure

All I can remember of Chariots of Fire are the endless slow-motion track meets and a single line: “When I run, I feel his pleasure.” I had a similar feeling a couple of years ago one morning while happily cross-referencing two or three of my books. I became aware that I was made, in part, for God to enjoy my cross-referencing.

My cross-referencing is usually the first part and sometimes a large part of my devotions. It makes up most of the lectio and the meditatio of my Lectio Divina.

Do you read this way? I mean, how weird is this?

I’ll start reading a new book, or rereading an old one. It doesn’t have to be a devotional book, or even a “Christian” book, though it may be both. It may be the Bible or The Book of Common Prayer. It may be late at night and I’m reading a biography or maybe some poetry by Basho or Blake or Ben Zen.

All of a sudden, something in the book reminds me of something else in the book, or of something in another book. And I’m driven to link them with notes in the margins. I study the passages side by side. If it’s really going someplace, I type up something and save it on the computer.

I start spreading the books in front of me on the floor. Sometimes I have more than ten books out along with a few pads, a highlighter and a pen. And I’m excited. “My heart overflows with a good matter…” (Psalm 45:1).

And I’m often excited about the same thought I’ve had over several mornings over several years. My notes on the subject keep piling up, like sand on a drip castle. I sometimes interrupt my meditation with visions of writing a book on the subject.

I’d be tempted to, except my cross-referencing, like my reading, is not that extensive. I read a little at a time, and I stop and move into meditatio or oratio when I’m full enough with reading. It’s not like I’m deliberately researching or anything.

The number of books connected by my cross-references is relatively small. I have lots of books with a few cross references, and I have about twenty books with loads of cross-references. So all of the phantom books I would author would cite the same principal sources.

My method is pretty simple. I collect all references to a particular subject (or thought, if the subject is too broad) in the margin of the book that reminds me most about that subject or thought. Passages on the same subject or thought in other books are cross-referenced to that “central reference.”

I thought I’d give you a sample thought, starting with its central reference.

Thought: Our hearts can become our treasure — the playground God and we share.

Central reference: “Your heart, if it is totally surrendered to God, is itself that treasure, that very kingdom you long for and are seeking.” (Jean-Pierre deCaussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment (New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1989), p. 30.)


“Watch over your heart with all diligence, / For from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23, NNAS)

“He becomes to them a sensible presence Who follows them and envelops them wherever they go and in all that they do. . . . and when they have to be absorbed in some distracting work, they nevertheless easily find God again by a quick glance into their own souls.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), p.276-77.)

“Once the intellect has accomplished its task
of discovering the place where the heart resides,
it will immediately see things
of which it was previously ignorant
and could never have hoped to find.”

(Symeon the New Theologian, quoted in The Book of Mystical Chapters, John Anthony McGuckin, trans. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2002), p. 106.)

“The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, / But a good man will be satisfied with his.” (Proverbs 14:14, NNAS)

“All God’s creatures invite us to forget our vain cares and enter into our own hearts, which God Himself has made to be His paradise and our own.” (Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1983), p. 115.)

“Soul, you must seek yourself in Me / And in yourself seek Me.” (Teresa of Avila, “Seeking God.”)

“Isaac of Nineveh likewise used the image of Jacob’s ladder as an image for the ascent to God through descent: ‘Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure.'” (Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), p. 21.)

“On one hand, the soul, moved by love, becomes the object of its own knowledge. On the other hand, the soul, touched and inflamed and transfigured by the illuminative flame of God’s immediate presence, is no longer the object of knowledge but the actual medium in which God is known.” (Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company 1979), p. 278.)

“…[W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21, NNAS)


Buying used books online

Note: this 2007 post got a facelift in 2013 here. I’d start with that later post and then, if necessary, return here.

It may not be a Web 2.0 activity, but finding and buying used books is still the best thing on the Internet – a little better than blogging, and way better than email.  You can find most any book on the Net and buy it for cheap, sometimes for pennies (plus $3.99 shipping).  This phenomenon doesn’t even destroy the small bookseller, since she probably has set up shop at two or three giant used book sites:,,, and  She can’t beat them, and either can you.

The Internet offers effective tools for learning about what’s been published on your topic or by your author, for locating the right edition and binding of the used book you’ve found, and for finding the best price for the book.  My strategy is to find out what Amazon can tell me, and then to shop Amazon’s price on  I’ll demonstrate some of the specifics through my immersion this summer into Robert Bly’s poetry.

Learning about what’s been published

A poetry anthology introduced me to Robert Bly this summer, and now I own six of his books, all used.  The anthology (Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems) contains four of Bly’s poems and a decent blurb on him in the back.  I also learned some about Bly’s work on Wikipedia and on Bly’s own, informative web site, but I learned the most about it on Amazon.

Find any book by Bly on Amazon, click Bly’s name, and you get every book Amazon can sell to you by or about him.  (You also get every book by Robert W. Bly, another author who apparently teaches business writing, so you have to be discerning.  Other sites can tell you what Bly wrote; just bring the list to Amazon.)  Amazon has fair-sized excerpts of Publisher’s Weekly reviews, and Amazon often has its own reviews, which aren’t always complete puff pieces.

Amazon has way more customer book reviews than anyone else.  Though there’s a lot of chaff in all of that wheat, many of the customer reviews are worth more to me than the professional reviews and the excerpts from the publisher.  Also, if the thumbnail of the book’s cover is marked “Look Inside,” the publisher has permitted Amazon to show specific pages in the book, including the back cover, a random page, and most of the front matter.

You get far more information if the cover’s thumbnail is marked, “Search Inside!”  You find links to pages in other books that cite the book, and, best of all, you can search the book.  If you’d like to see more than one sample page in a book, search a common word (e.g., “then,” “what”).  You get only a few pages per book per visit to the site, but poking about in this way generally gives you a good sense of the book.

(“Search Inside!” is also a helpful research tool since you can find quotes you didn’t think to jot down before you returned the book to the library.  You can also find the quote’s context and page number.  You can’t copy and paste from Amazon’s Online Reader, which is where they send you to see the pages, however.)

Most of the other information that you can get on “Search Inside!” is both amazing and silly.  You’ll find three indices of “readability,” for instance, and you’ll find the book’s average syllable count per word.

Typical of poetry books, Bly’s books have no “Search Inside!” permissions, but one book, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, an anthology Bly edited in part, does have the “Look Inside” feature.  Neither of these features helped me with Bly’s books, I admit.

Locating the right edition

You’ve found your book (or books).  Don’t order it yet.  For one thing, if you’re not sure you want to buy it or if you’re waiting for funding (often my situation), it’s just as easy to click “Add to Wish List” in the right column.  (The only painful part of the list is how long it takes to delete books from it.  You must delete them one at a time, and it seems to take the server more than the average amount of time to delete each page.  Still, I always have over a hundred books on the list, so I have to delete for a while sometimes to make the list manageable.)

A book may have several editions, of course, and Amazon has a separate link to a list of used books for sale for each edition.  Amazon lets you know the difference in price and years among the editions, and it usually also provides enough information on its pages for you to know what the difference between the editions is between the covers.  You may decide that the change(s) that went into the latest edition are not worth the greater price.

Subsequent printings of the book are not subsequent editions – that is, nothing inside the book changes to a book when it is only reprinted – so you can generally ignore information on the printings.

You also haven’t examined all of your options if you haven’t compared paperback and hardcover prices.  Believe it or not, the hardcovers are often cheaper than the paperbacks for the same edition of the book. I prefer hardcovers because the paper is less likely to fade over the years and the binding is generally stronger.  Amazon will tell you the lowest price for every edition of the book and for every form the book comes in (hardbound, paperback, CD-ROM, etc.) on the main page for every edition of the book it sells.

As I’m writing, a used paperback of Bly’s My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy sells for as little as $2.22 on Amazon, but the hardcover of the same book sells for $1.55 there.  So I got the hardcover (though I got it at Alibris – more on that in a moment).

(By the way, some great books go for pennies, plus shipping.  Sometimes, if Amazon itself stocks the used book, they’ll pay you to take it.  (In other words, they’ll give you a break on the shipping.))

Once you arrive at the edition and binding (hardcover or paperback) you’d like, copy the book’s ISBN number (the ten-digit version will do) into your computer’s short-term memory.  You’ll use the number to shop Amazon’s price.  The ISBN number travels well because a publisher must use a separate ISBN number for every edition of the book and every type of binding.  (A subsequent printing does not entail a new ISBN number.)

Finding the best price

The best place to find the best price on the Internet for used books in English is  BookFinder keeps tabs on over 125,000,000 books.  (I didn’t know about this site for the first few hours after I had this post up.  My thanks to Dave at Via Negativa for pointing it out to me in a comment to the post.)  If you’re settled on the edition and binding you’d like, click “Show more options . . .” in the search window and type in the ISBN number.  If you would like to see the possibilities in both hardcover and paperback, enter the book’s name instead.

BookFinder’s search results are laid out in two columns: the new books on the left and the used books on the right.  Sometimes the new books are as cheap or cheaper than the used books, so don’t look only in the right column unless you must have a used book. BookFinder also saves links to your last five searches on its home page, which can be handy if you don’t buy right away.

One of the coolest things about BookFinder is that all of the prices include the cheapest shipping.  That way, you’re comparing what you would actually pay for each copy of the book.  If you’d prefer to compare the books without the shipping charge, you can do that, too.  You can also compare the shipping charges for faster delivery by clicking through to the online sites where the books are sold.

Perusing the left column of your BookFinder, see if Amazon’s or’s price for a new book is even close to the winning bid.  If it is, and if you’re going to order at least $25.00 in books, check to see if Amazon or Books-a-Million (a.k.a. is competitive with the other books, too.  Why?  Because Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million all offer free shipping if you order at least $25.00 of most new books.  (Be careful at the shipping page of the checkout, though, to keep the free shipping selected.)  (Barnes and Noble’s web store ( also offers free shipping on orders of $25.00 or more, but its prices are rarely competitive.  Their bargain books are worth browsing in, however, just as they are in their bricks-and-mortar stores.)

The free shipping on these three sites takes a little longer than the standard shipping, generally, and Amazon generally now sticks to its free-shipping warning that it won’t ship until all of the books in your order are in stock.  (I have found that will ship my books separately as it receives them even when I select the free shipping method.)

Many used booksellers that use Amazon also use one or more of three other websites:,, and  Booksellers use different names on each site they use, but it’s not hard to see who’s who by using the information the sellers give, if you ever need to when comparing prices.  When a bookseller sells a book on two or three of these sites, his prices on the various sites are generally within a couple of dollars of one another.  Sometimes, though, you can find a great deal on one of these four sites that you can’t on the other three.  Most often, seems to be the least expensive of the four.

All of the sites offer information from their booksellers about the condition of each book sold.  I have probably purchased over fifty books online through these three sites, and I have found the descriptions to be almost always accurate.  The sites email you after the shipment and ask you to rate the booksellers, and the booksellers want a high customer rating.  So the sellers are reliable.

The sellers will usually bend over backwards for you, too.  Last year, a seller mailed me the paperback version of a hardcover I had ordered.  When I emailed him and complained, he mailed the hardcover and did not ask me to return the paperback.  (Good thing, too, since I was not going to take the time and effort to do it.)

I usually order the cheapest book that’s in good or very good shape.  I’ll pay a few pennies more for a slightly higher rating or for a closer seller (figuring that I’ll get the book faster).  I don’t mind a few marks – I actually like it on many books – but spine problems are, of course, trouble.

Amazon generally gives more information about the reliability of the sellers, making good use of Amazon’s advantage in soliciting customers’ feedback.  All four of the sites navigate well.


Alibris gives a significant cut on the shipping if you buy more than one book from the same seller in the same order.  Alibris and Amazon encourage their used booksellers to set up storefronts on their respective sites, and these storefronts are searchable. When I bought My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy, I wondered if the seller – Kudzu Book Traders – also had Bly’s The Winged Energy of Delight.  It did!  I got both books in hardback for a total of $10.69 delivered. Amazon does not offer anything similar. They charge $3.99 for standard shipping per used book: no exceptions.  (Shipping sometimes is a little higher on AbeBooks.)

Sometimes the price of a used book goes down after delivery.  I discovered a dollar bill in one of my used books today, apparently left by a previous owner as a bookmark.  How often does that happen with a new book?