I recently met Steve Leveen, who, along with his wife Lori Leveen, founded the company Levenger. They make “tools for serious readers,” like great reading lights and leather journals. Steve is elegant in person, a gentleman who engages in gentlemanly pursuits, like staying happily married to his first wife, searching out the perfect dictionary stand, and writing a book about how to thoroughly enjoy books.
His book, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, is a smallish hardcover book with a matte dust jacket that has on it an illustration of a fountain pen next to a book with notes scribbled in the margins. Steve generously inscribed my copy “with admiration for Red Room,” which of course made me read the book immediately.
The book is a practical one, giving simple suggestions of how to fit more and better reading into your life and how to enjoy it more. For example, he encourages people to listen to audio books while you’re washing the dishes. One of his best tips is to keep a list of books not as a “To Do List” but as a “Candidates List” which is more fun and less guilt-provoking if you don’t really read them all. He says not to finish books just because you started them, and not to worry if you hated a book other people loved. Your life as a reader must be as self-directed and authentic as your life in general.
Leveen also weighs in on a debate that he framed in a series of columns before writing the book, about people who write in the margins of books (“Footprint Leavers”) versus those who don’t (“Preservationists”). He is firmly in the camp of leaving notes for loved ones to find, along with leaves and ticket stubs, making the book a legacy of the person who read it. Of course, then the library won’t accept it as a donation (a good point on the side of the Preservationists), but your family will treasure it when you’re gone. Or, they will resent you leaving them with all of this crap they have to sort through after you’re dead that the library won’t accept. Depends on the family.
He says to read about the place you’re in, as he read Emily Dickinson while visiting her historic home (and pressing a leaf from her garden into the book). I once read a book—if anyone can figure out the title or author, I would appreciate it—of a famous Greek playwright who was interred at a Nazi concentration camp in WWII, while I was on the tiny island of Hydra in Greece. It was a touching memoir of how the author fell in love with another camp survivor during the liberation. Reading it in Greece, seeing the faces every day of the Greek men who were his age in the book, made the experience of reading it much more vivid.
Leeven says being in the middle of a great book is like being in love, because traces of that other world linger on the hands that held the book. You wind up inadvertently tracking a little pixie dust into the house or office as you attend to quotidian matters.
The book also advocates writing to your favorite authors. (Leveen scores more Red Room points). He received precious letters back from Ray Bradbury, and he became close friends with a couple of authors he wrote to, including Stanley Marcus, of Neiman Marcus, who became a mentor to him.
Sometimes I think about how before reading glasses, if you were over forty, you had to have some kind younger relative read to you. Before books, there were stories and storytelling. Audio books are more like storytelling. As an editor, I always say that your writing is bad unless it sounds good read aloud.
Leveen shares some of the gems he unearthed while researching the book, like that there’s a book group in Boston that lasted one hundred and twenty-eight years. He also explains a little about the cultural history of books. Priests used to read to the parish and it was considered possibly very odd for them to read alone. The first books were meant to be read aloud in church, like a musical performance, but spoken.
When Abe and I were on our honeymoon in Paris we found a tiny little shop overrun with old books and a French proprietor who spoke no English. We bought a huge poster-size sheet of Spanish choral music from the sixteenth century made of vellum, which I’m told is sheep guts. The scribes used both sides of the large sheet, and scripted large, because it was in a book meant to be read by the whole chorus, from as much as twenty feet away.
We forget about the history of libraries, too. One of my favorite things to remind people who are terrified of the publishing industry is going to be destroyed by the internet is that people used to be afraid that the invention of libraries would destroy the publishing industry.
In The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, Leveen describes the noted columnist and scholar Thomas Sowell, who had a poor background, and was taken by a friend to a library as a child. Thomas didn’t understand what the building was or why they were there, since they had no money to buy books. His friend had to explain it. That was the beginning of Sowell’s education.
Let’s never forget our shared and individual history, which is the history of books.