Thoughts Under an Indolent Sun

There is no point to this piece, dear reader, so you should politely excuse yourself now.

I completed reading a novel by Alberto Moravia, Boredom. He is an author who embodies the modern-day author whose work has only one common requirement: the work cannot stand alone. The body of work needs to be taken in as a whole, instead of one artifact speaking for the man. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, dear reader, to decide. But the orientation of the novelist is not readily legible without acknowledging that fact and, even, placing him at the headwaters–along with Italo Svevo–of the Italian untouchables. Untouched by war, untouched by compassion and untouched by Italian upheaval following 1945. Boredom stands alone, but only weakly. His quality grows as you read him. But unlike modern writers he is not modern, and thus the typicality of his work is instead prophetic. He wrote what he could. The rest would be left up to others, perhaps those like Calvino, perhaps not. For that I admire him whereas some modern writers, given everything, still refrain.

Here is a nice quote from the Paris Review, which interviewed him: “Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives despite his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.” The Art of Fiction VI: Alberto Moravia. Paris Review, (6), 16-37.

What a restricted view of agency! We cannot help but read Dante, Lawrence and Moravia. What an interesting thought. Continue reading

Visiting a Feminist Book Shop

I love bookstores. My love is a simple one. Uncomplicated. There is no bookstore that does not deserve one visit. The thought is in my heart and there is no reason for it. In the small hours of the night when every one is shuttered the world seems colder, sadder and tenuous. Unbalanced. I trace some of these thoughts, more like detritus, to the common thread of my childhood. There were sadder things, certainly. There were events that carried more weight and finality. But nothing competed with the dull ache of not being able to find a good book, in a store, before I had to leave. Before it closed. Such a busy life I led, even as a child, but somehow my departures, as I turn the memories over, are without purpose. I look for a reason. There is none or at least I cannot remember. I like to think there was a reason for all those early departures. When I left I knew the store would close. The world would be a little quieter and yet, without all the hushed tones floating in the air above the stacks, louder. Louder but with less purpose, with less meaning.

In the Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges writes of the Wufniks. “There are on earth, and always were, thirty-six righteous men whose mission is to justify the world before God. They are the Lamed Wufniks. They do not know each other and are very poor. If a man comes to the knowledge that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and somebody else, perhaps in another part of the world, takes his place. Lamed Wufniks are, without knowing it, the secret pillars of the universe. Were it not for them, God would annihilate the whole of mankind. Unawares, they are our saviors.” There is no doubt in my mind that the Wufnikes, as a general rule, are the operators of small bookstores. Independent ones, perhaps, but keeping in line with the canon (“they… are very poor”) the bookstores are not very popular. They are not necessarily well-maintained. I have my own evaluation rubric for a good bookstore. Coincidentally it more or less mimics my rubric for Mexican resturants but that’s a story for another time, dear reader. Good bookstores only have so much energy: they must spend this amount of energy one three things. The first is order. The second is selection. The third is price. In this sense my grading evokes ideas of virtually anything else: quality, quantity, price but adapted for book-buying. To that I say mea culpa. You got me. I still find it useful. The best bookkeepers of these stores are our saviors.  Continue reading

Choosing What Books to Keep

Choosing What Books to Keep

The novelist Nicholson Baker is perhaps the most vocal critic of deaccessioning in libraries, first in 1996, in a much-discussed exposé of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) published in The New Yorker, and then in a book called Double Fold. Concerned initially about the disappearance of card catalogs and the way that enthusiasm for information technologies was damaging the traditional culture of libraries, he sued the San Francisco Public Library for access to their old card catalog, which had been replaced by an electronic one as the library moved into a new building. What he discovered went far beyond the issue of paper versus electronic cataloging. He found that there were many books noted in the card catalog that no longer existed in the library. Between the time the SFPL left its old main building and the time it moved into its high-tech, built-for-the-future, and supposedly more roomy new one with its electronic card catalog, somewhere between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million books were removed from the collection.

This was weeding on a scale—and in a time frame—that suggested reckless destruction more than considered selection. Many books that existed in no other copies, many books arguably with historic value, had been simply thrown away and buried in landfill. Partly this had been done because the new library, while boasting great architectural flourishes and lots of architectural space, did not have enough shelf space. Partly it had been done because the current librarian had a view of what books belonged in the collection that differed from that of previous librarians. He saw the library as serving the general reader, as opposed to researchers and literary professionals, arguing that with the Berkeley and Stanford university libraries nearby, there was no lack of research libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area. He conceived of the SFPL rather as a library for a current urban population and therefore saw an opportunity to pare its collections radically.

How Dante Saved My Life

How Dante Saved My Life

The Inferno is not an exhaustive taxonomy of sins (though it sometimes feels like it), but rather an allegory of the condition of sinfulness. For Dante, the worst sins are not those of the appetite—Lust and Gluttony, for example—but sins against the things that make us most human. In Dante’s spiritual geography, Hell is like a vast pit mine, with least corrupt sins punished near the top, the middling sins—sins of Violence and sins of Fraud—punished in the central regions—and the foulest sin of all—Treason—punished at the bottom, where Lucifer dwells.

Too Busy Reading

Excuse me, dear reader, for not regaling you with what happens inside this head. I am too busy reading. I hope you understand. 

Until we meet again I do want to direct you to some interesting articles and assorted links. 

Boorish, Venal and Brilliant. 

A brilliant little documentary about a former Marxist turned monk. A little reminiscent of a cross between Thomas Merton mixed in with some Terry Eagleton if either of them could learn the ability to be quiet. 

Vice Media is crushing it. 

I can’t really explain what this but I like it. 

If I am not mis…

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here. 

My Bookish, Puritan Habits

To anthropologists of the future my book buying will look as much like a sinister cult as a commercial triumph (for the bookstore, of course). Book-buying, after all, has all the basic lineaments of a religion. When I walk through the shelves I am an adherent, and when I seize upon a book I am as much motivated by feelings of guilt as anything more constructive. For when I walk through all those words, winking shyly at me, my hand never leaves my side without a twinge. There are so many, how can I only choose one? And then, right alongside, is the urge to atone for fleshly sins. ‘I can read this book,’ I assure myself, and in the process relax. It will be treatment for those long hours contorted into office chairs. My back shouts in triumph. I have neglected the finer things in life and with a bit of book all will be forgiven.

Another sign of puritanical, religious beliefs? Regularity. Many visit their places of worship with a fanatical regularity: a third of LA Fitness members, for instance, go virtually every day. Once there, believers are led by sacerdotal instructors, who either goad them into mass ecstasy during aerobics classes, or preside over the confessional tête-à-tête of personal training. Similarly, I am led by my greatest instructor: my nose. Otherwise, I am led through, confessional style, by a tightly clutched list of titles urging my not to stray too far from the path, but also indulging my tendency to get lost among the trees.

I can see your eyebrow raised, dear reader. ‘You are led by your nose!’ I’m afraid so. There is no other way to describe it. My only hope is that you, too, dear reader are a member of the (secret?) book-sniffer guild. Surely I cannot be alone. When I wander through the aisles of books I wish, or at least lie, that my buying habits were motivated by a curious but pleasant mix of knowledge, taste and refinement. That is simply not the case. The situation I am in is that of a slave. I am a slave to smell. The smell of a good bookstore has the same effect as that of, well, something appropriately illicit. Would it be fair to say that it is a fetish? I am not sure, and frankly I do not want to dwell on the subject too long. But there is something intoxicating about the right balance of glue, age and love that is the exclusive domain of pre-owned books.

What always surprises me about book stores is how transparent the books are. What I feel for any single book, like Alice’s Cheshire cat, threatens to disappear if I stare at it too long. Gradually and then all at once. I pick up a winking, colorful book with a title and cover art that promises so much. But then I am left with nothing but a disembodied smile. The book is not a thoughtful meditation, or even a frothy adventure. Instead it is something dully and duly pushed by an obscure publisher. I have tendency for picking up shallow devotionals. Scripture for the young, thirty-something entrepreneur. Sigh. Another book, which promised to be a riotous adventure through medieval theology, is at best something that gets placed on a coffee table never to be loved. The editors and publishers have done too much damage. Where is the substance? It prevents no one from seeing right through.

Allow me one quick aside, dear reader. A well replicated Borges critique: “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” In the same sense I feel that the best bookstores, and the best trips, modify my conception of the past. The best book stores burden my future, in the best possible sense, and brighten my past.

Each devotee has his or her own rituals, though most rely on the principles of self-mortification and delayed gratification. My own are simple. I must carry everything I buy in one armload or not at all. It is my absolute barrier. I do not do two trips. Perhaps this habit started out of hubris. But now it is a fail-safe that prevents my wallet from being emptied in a particularly riotous afternoon. I do not apologize for myself or provide excuses. Yet when my arms strain under the pounds I feel some sort of joy. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I suppose I do something similar and in some perverse sense my arms are straining under the time they hold. In short, my aching muscles represent a perfect bridge between self-mortification and delayed gratification. There is nothing more gratifying than a book, and nothing dilates time like trying to herd my books from some obscure back table, to the front, to my car, from my car and to my book shelves.

That my grunts, sighs and quiet mutterings through this whole process provides a liturgy is only an excellent bonus. Perhaps they reach the firmament above? God I wish I was worshiping right now.

They Have One Book

Some days I think it would be terribly romantic if I became someone of one book. Assuming I don’t succumb to my romantic dreams about being an alcoholic I’d be a grouch, but a well-loved one. I would always carry that one well-loved book with it’s tired pages. In this daydream I imagine myself like some sort of latter day Jonathan Edwards. But instead of the Bible it is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance and you all are unbalanced chakrahs in the hands of an angry God world. Perhaps it could be some Third Wave Feminist pink handbook or Mao’s red one. The book is not as important as the habits and the accomplishments. I’d be the Robert Graves of Aztec literature. Or the Robert Graves of Robert Graves–his works can sustain and even flourish with multiple readings.

Aquinas created the aphorism ‘a man of one book,’ or so I believe. Wikipedia confirms which is almost a reassurance. What I would like, and perhaps I should store this seed away for future efforts, is a book like Robert Merton’s. But instead of tracing the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ I trace ‘a man of one book’ used in the appropriate context. That would be scholarship of the most frivolous and fun kind.

Isaiah Berlin, in his frothy essay about Russian literature, had this to say about the phrase: “[Aquinas’s] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor glitters. I love it. I would be the best hedgehog the world had ever known! Or so I reassure myself.

A few people have attempted to become a man of one book (how interesting is it that I have not found a woman or two to soften this list? Not very, as my ‘research’ skills are not without their blindspots but worth mentioning). Michael Dirda owned, at last count, nearly twenty books by or about E. F. Benson as well as a few by the brother Robert Benson. E. B. White carried Walden around everywhere he went. The grandmother in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had the letters of Madame de Sevigne. Even Alexander the Great never left Asia without Homer’s tome, bejeweled with the conquests of nations.  Samuel Johnson admonished novice writers to devote themselves to Addison’s essays. There’s that well-worn anecdote that Francis Bacon always chatted about Aeschylus, almost obsessively, and his writings make him a first ballot ‘man of one book’ shoe-in. John Wesley also claimed to be a man of one book.

An interesting note: the scholarship that surrounds Wesley is, in brief, a rough mimic of the popular and academic esteem one gathered (or missed) by being a ‘man of one book.’ He was loved when he was a man of one book, the Bible, during the early scholarship but as that idea became more archaic to those who care about his reputation (or, to be honest, those who know about him at all) scholarship has changed accordingly. It’s a prime instance where there was one set of agreed on facts that were “papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place.”  If I ever write a book about the phrase, I think he would be a nice pinnacle.

Perhaps I’m already someone of one book, or at least one author. I manage to throw Vidal’s name out therefrequently. But it would be another animal entirely if I peppered my posts, not to mention daily chats, with Augustine’s Confessions, or Georg Misch’s impossibly well researched History of Autobiography in Antiquity and–wait for the gasp–its two volumes. If I’m honest, and I had to commit myself to one book, I would attempt it with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truth and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truth in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truth that made the people grotesques.”

The most enjoyable aspect would be the great irony of becoming a character in Anderson’s book. My one truth would be the bookwarning me away from letting a single group of truths monopolize my attention.

Even still I wouldn’t mind reading one book to death. I just never have. As it is I don’t know if I’m much better than those that have. Christopher Howe, over at the Guardian, has a long list of reasons for why it’s never a problem to have too many books. Who is he trying to convince himself except for himself? When I scan my books there are not any convincing, or even defensible, reasons for why I should not read every one of the forlorn friends. This book is for a more patient me, I assure myself, than the one that woke up today. I pick up and read the back cover of another. This one I quickly put down. Poetry! I am too patient for poetry. I want the meaning to bite me in the ass. Another book is about the English—bah! Too frumpy. Another is about peasants. I have no time for the working class.

Perhaps this worrying forgets why I read in the first place. To Professor Borges his message was always that the study of literature is about appreciation, not context or theory much less romantic ideas about how my universe would revolve around some mulch and ink. “Reading should be a form of happiness.”

Let’s Get Lost in the Woods

I have noticed, dear reader, a recent tendency for the whimsical. Perhaps it is because I am still finding my blog legs. Perhaps it is because I notice the popularity my posts have so quickly attained. Am I too a slave to clicks and views? Bite your tongue.

One of my favorite passage from John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown: ‘you can uncover powerful, hidden things if you let yourself get lost in the woods.’ Steinbeck was not limiting himself to shrubs and glens. Unsympathetic critics might point to Steinbeck’s appetite for description that teased (crossed?) the line between elegant and florid. For now, I only ask that you revel in the perversity of getting lost in books! Treat yourself to those books you have read and forgotten or, even better, never read in the first place.

“Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption,” groused the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought.” That is, I feel, also the main thrust of Steinbeck’s greatest paragraphs. It was not his plot lines, which were affably straightforward. The beauty was in the naturalistic descriptions. He disappeared into a few details. He disappeared into the descriptions of the land and the people on it. He got lost. There was no noise and that is the only way I think anyone could describe his writing for good or bad. I wish I had someone more intelligent and interesting to quote to corroborate this feeling. I do not and for that, dear reader, forgive me. But when I read Steinbeck with a vista as my firmament there is a certain unity of intention and execution that becomes readily apparent. It’s such a tragedy that he’s taught in classrooms.  

The greatest part of getting lost is spontaneity. Everyone has their favorite stories, but some of mine were by Ernst Hemingway who wrote one May afternoon in a Madrid pension, when a snowstorm forced the cancellation of a bullfight at the feast of San Isidro. Those stories, he told George Plimpton, were ”The Killers,” ”Ten Indians” and ”Today Is Friday,” and all three are him. Authentically Hemingway because he writes exactly as he is. Sometimes unforgivably so but in those stories he could create the worst excesses–I would still love him all the more for it.

Getting lost also has its challenges. It gives writers, and people, too much freedom. Freedom from responsibility. Perhaps this is why some do their best work ignored. Not because of the lifestyle or misery or something similarly tragicomic. But because the freedom from responsibility is a catalysts for creativity. In this category I would put the French thinker, writer and hero (thank you for allowing me that last word, dear reader) Albert Camus. I remember the most tragic line he ever spoke. “I speak for no one: I have enough difficulty speaking for myself. I am no one’s guide. I don’t know, or I know only dimly, where I am headed.”

What he was reflecting on was his refusal to carry his moral authority, established by his editorials in the post-war publication Combat and his efforts in the Resistance, into the uniquely fragmented (for France as much as the rest of the world) 50s and 60s. He had been lost for so long in the woods that when he stumbled out of them, saw the world’s begging eyes, he simply shut down. Perhaps this has as much to do with the sad reality that he could neither imagine a French Algeria without himself (and those like him) nor an effective policy to create a viable European-Arab Algeria. But in any case I do not think that the reasons were ever clearly demarcated, much less by Camus himself.

Luckily for me, I do not have such responsibilities. No one looks to me. So I can write and hopefully charm. Perhaps just grouse at the world and throw some bitter notes out there. In either event, thank you for reading.