What I’m reading these days

For a number of years after becoming a librarian, I actually didn’t read much. One reason was the amount of time and effort I was expending on learning Scottish Gaelic, and then my changing eyesight after age 40 also put me off. Lately, though, I’ve been reading a lot. Over the past two years, I’ve become intensely, almost obsessively curious about a number of subjects. There are always a dozen books piled up on my desk and next to the sofa. I’ve even been dipping into fiction again, after more than a decade of disinterest.

The first John Murray and the late eighteenth-century book trade, by William Zachs. Over the holidays last December, my efforts to make some progress in family history led to the discovery that my 4x great grandfather was a famous London bookbinder. Famous in some circles, anyway. For a librarian, that’s a pretty big deal. Especially if you originally went to library school with a big interest in rare books. Publishers, printers and booksellers have left some records behind, but bookbinders not so much, except the artifacts themselves. So any books that focus on the late eighteenth century book trade in London are really important for understanding the life and times of my ancestor. This is also one of the most interesting periods in the history of London. John Murray was a Scot who entered the book trade almost randomly. His shop was not far from my ancestor’s shop off The Strand. The lucky thing for historians is that Murray’s archives remained intact, and provide enough material with which to set out his biography and provide a detailed checklist of his business partners and complicated business arrangements throughout Britain.

Defending the faith: nineteenth-century American Jewish writings on Christianity and Jesus, by George L. Berlin. This book is on my sofa at the moment due to one of those odd bits of thought that gets into my brain and, while not occupying too much time, never really goes away. In broad terms my interest is in the question of the Jewish response to the appropriation of their religion and scriptures by another faith that grew much more powerful and dangerous. In the twentieth century, Christians seem to have decided on the whole to respect and support Judaism and Jewish people (never more so than after Hitler and the Holocaust). At the same time, mainstream society remains biased and in many ways disrespectful. Standard library terminology, just to take one example, still denominates the Hebrew scriptures as “The Old Testament, (O.T.)” This book deals with an additional issue: that of Jewish people living in a republic that has struggled since its founding with a difficult question. How much freedom of conscience and belief is its Christian majority willing to tolerate? These questions are still very timely.

The Taste of Brussels Sprouts

A few quick notes on the results of my DNA analysis from 23andMe

23andMe got back to me a couple weeks ago, my account automatically loaded with information about health and haplotypes. There’s been a lot to digest, and a weird sort of social media experience, like being on a facebook where people only care about surnames and SNPs and only poke you to suggest sharing genomes.

And oddly, my main recurring thought has been, « but I like Brussels sprouts! »

The first thing I checked was the Y-DNA haplogroup, the clue to my paternal ancestry across the millennia. Haplogroup R1a1a. Spent the last glacial maximum in the Black Sea refuge. The most common haplotype in Eastern Europe. No surprise there, but a lot of material to cover in future posts. Since I spent most of my life not even knowing what my father looked like, I tend to be obsessively curious about his background.

Then the traits – that lactase question. Genetically, milk has no quarrel with me. If there are issues when I eat dairy, it’s not my ancestors’ fault. Bitter taste sensitivity was a surprise, because I’ve always loved broccoli, and at least as an adult, I’ve been a fan of Brussels sprouts. It’s true they can be bitter. In fact, I realized that they taste a lot like a pint of Guinness. That this trait is genetic has actually been understood since the 1930s, and actually used to be used as a paternity test!  What doesn’t make any sense to me is the absence of discussion about olives. People with this bitterness sensitivity can’t possibly like olives, but certain green vegetables are always held up as the main victim of this trait. I actually feel guilty about not liking olives, because they’re supposed to be so good for you, and it’ll be a relief to blame this on a genetic trait.

Finally health, or really, threats to health. 23andMe won’t let you see the Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s risk until you read yet more info and deliberately « unlock » the file. My risk for Alzheimer’s is 4 in 100, as compared to your average American’s 1in 100 risk. That was the worst of it. With a pretty clean family record in dementia of any kind in my long-lived grandparents and near relatives, it’s not something that will worry me. There were slightly elevated risks for Parkinson’s, heart disease, and Type 1 diabetes. Thankfully, most of my lifestyle choices are ones that should allow nurture to offset nature. Coffee drinking, for example, has been found to correlate with later onset of dementia, and better memory retention even if it does set on. And my doctors are always happy with my calm heartbeat and healthy blood pressure.

Where is the less than average risk? Most of the conditions my hypochondria throws at my imagination when I’m not feeling well. So much for that.

The last category of information, the least relevant to me since I don’t have kids, is the part about what your genes carry and may pass on. In my case, zilch. No congenital defects, no quirks, none of the stuff that made House so fascinating to watch (hemochromatosis, for example).

The taste of olives

23andMe sent an email to say that they received lots of kits at the same time as mine, and it will take them longer then usual to get around to the processing. Must have been a popular Christmas present.

While I wait for analysis, I’m invited to familiarize myself with the 23andMe online experience by means of the Mendel family. This is a real family (but hidden behind Gregor Mendel’s name) of European extraction, whose DNA analysis serves as a typical sample of what the customer should expect to find when their data is loaded into their account.

I find that Greg Mendel is probably lactose intolerant, but his spouse should not be, at least not for genetic reasons. This is what I looked for first, because it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to the most. This information is listed under Traits, along with a lot of other things that are interesting, but not life-changing. Well, that depends on how you feel about ice cream. Or eating broccoli (perception of bitterness). These are all things you already know about yourself when you’re 48. Or do you? In the case of lactose, you may be genetically OK for it, but have other issues preventing its digestion. If I’m lactase typical (and therefore lactose intolerant) it will be time to just stop torturing myself with the possibility of trying that new gelato shop around the corner from Helms Bakery. If it turns out lactose shouldn’t be a problem by virtue of my genes, I can try to find out what my limits are. Maybe it’s really beano I’ve been needing lately, not lactaid?

There are lots of things in the Traits section I didn’t know about before. One’s level of caffeine addiction, for instance, and whether ear wax is wet or dry. I suppose some of this stuff would be good for parents to know. Why force kids to eat Brussels sprouts if the taste is truly offensive to them? Personally I was hoping to see olives listed somewhere, they are a food that really tastes disgusting to me, while my mom will happily eat a whole can during a holiday dinner. One of my cousins likes them, another doesn’t. That has to be a gene thing. Instead of olives, the list said “dark beer.” I love dark beer, even though it is unarguably on the bitter side. Maybe I can get 23andMe to add the olive question to one of their surveys or experiments. Not liking olives makes me feel guilty in a way that avoiding milk does not. Olives are supposed to be really delicious and good for you. On the other hand, broccoli and Brussels sprouts rank really high on my list of delicious, eat-raw-right-out-of-the-garden vegetables.

So all these traits you can learn about are good for chit-chat over lunch. The next two categories of genetic destiny are a little more serious. I’ll save those for next time.

Back to Roycemore

After my “gap year” in Bergamo, I returned to the refuge of my little prep school in Evanston. Somehow this schedule for fall semester 1980 has survived until today, hidden away in the agenda that I had bought for school in Italy, and continued to use that fall. Looking at the classes listed makes snapshot, or better, gif-like memories appear. They are few in number and play in short loops. If the locations of the classes weren’t also there, I’m not sure I’d even recover those.

Bergamo dream journal

As usual, I remember very little.

Mom and I were in England; we were going to see the Queen open parliament. First we were watching her go by, in the street; we were at the front of the crowd. Her vehicle (a bus) stopped; the crowd surge forward, the doors opened for a moment, then closed; on me! I was for a moment trapped; I looked up and the Queen was standing before me. Then the doors opened, and out I went.

The Persian Boy’s Army

When I got back [from a summer vacation trip], I took up THE PERSIAN BOY, a novel about Alexander the Great, in first person, through the eyes of Bagoas, supposedly his lover. It was extremely well written. I stayed up late (very late) Sunday night to finish it, and the end found me crying. It has been the only book that has ever done that to me.

Daniel Mendelsohn, noted classicist, author, and critic, is only a little older than myself, and I think he’s the only member of the PBA who has explained what the PBA is (I’m probably wrong about that, but I don’t get out much, you see). Ralph Gillies, of all people, gave me my copy of the Persian Boy when we were in 7th grade, though I’m pretty sure he hadn’t read it. He just thought I should have it because it was about the Alexander, but I could be wrong about that, too. Ralph was perceptive, and complicated. Also complicating my recollection is the fact that I didn’t actually read the book until the week before 9th grade. Mendelsohn first read Mary Renault six years earlier, and began a correspondence with her that more than entitles him to be the army’s leader for life. Like him, I went on to read most of her other work, and we were finally in sync when Renault published Funeral Games. Unlike Mendelsohn, I had no strong attraction to the classical world other than my namesake and a liking for history and historical fiction in general. Beginning with Andre Norton in 5th or 6th grade, I veered into fantasy and science fiction. But, both of us do share this: unrequited boyhood crushes, and our attempts to write fiction and keep a diary both petered out in our early twenties. I wonder how many other boys joined the Persian Boy’s Army, given how many letters Mary Renault received. Mendelsohn wrote, I asked where all these letters were and what had become of them. Owen said that they had been destroyed after Mary’s death, in part to protect the men who had written them. I thought of my onionskin pages, blackening and curling in the flames. At what age did the book find them, and how did it affect them? What I realized, reviewing my diary, is that I had read it just before meeting the unfortunate object of my first intense infatuation.