Oct 11 2017

The Life of Books in 18th Century Autobiography

porticos in Bologna, Italia

The Life of Books in 18th Century Autobiography

From the Autobiography (1795) of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794):

It is whimsical enough, that as soon as I left Magdalen College my taste for books began to revive; but it was the same blind and boyish taste for the pursuit of exotic history. Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved—to write a book.

From the Autobiography (1731?) of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744):

In a conversation which he had with Vico in a bookstore on the history of collections of canons, he asked him if he were married. And when Vico answered that he was not, he inquired if he wanted to become a Theatine. On Vico’s replying that he was not of noble birth, the father answered that that need be no obstacle, for he would obtain a dispensation from Rome. Then Vico, seeing himself obliged by the great honor the father paid him, came out with it that his parents were old and poor and he was their only hope. When the father pointed out that men of letters were rather a burden than a help to their families, Vico replied that perhaps it would not be so in his case. Then the father closed the conversation by saying: “That is not your vocation.”

The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, translated by Max Harold Fisch & Thomas Goddard Bergin, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1944) 134-35.


Aug 21 2017

An Open Book Beside an Empty Plinth

An Open Book Beside an Empty Plinth.

“Every scripture is to be interpreted by the same spirit which gave it forth,” — is the fundamental law of criticism. A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.

–Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature (1849), “Ch IV: Language.”

And:

“‘I, too,’ he said, ‘have closely studied this man’s soul; but, unlike my learned friend for the prosecution, I have found something there. Indeed, I may say that I have read the prisoner’s mind like an open book.’ What he had read there was that I was an excellent young fellow, a steady, conscientious worker who did his best by his employer; that I was popular with everyone and sympathetic in others’ troubles.”

–Camus, Albert. LÉtranger. (The Stranger.) 1942. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. NY: Vintage. 1954. p. 131.

 


Aug 4 2017

List of Books I Read in July

London - Georgian Apartments

List of Books I Read in July

It’s July. It’s too hot. Gonna just stay inside and take it easy by reading some books.

Americana

Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (1987) by Jack Kirby

The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (1992) by Edward Ayers

The Growth of Southern Nationalism, 1848-1861 (1953) by Avery O. Craven

The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains and Rust Belt (2016) by Mark Athitakis

Lone Star Land: Twentieth-century Texas in perspective (1955) by Frank Goodwyn

Philosophy

Intention (1957) by G.E.M. Anscombe

Old Europe

Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City: I-V) (27-9 B.C.) by Titus Livius

The Final Pagan Generation (2015) by Edgar J. Watt

Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse (1340s?) by Richard Rolle

The Maid of France (1909) by Andrew Lang

The Virgin Warrior: the Life and Death of Joan of Arc (2009) by Larissa Juliet Taylor

Joan of Arc: and Sacrificial Authorship (2003) by Ann W. Astell

The Life of Thomas More (1557) by William Roper

The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More, Knight (1582?) by Nicholas Harspfield

John Bull’s Other Island (1906) by George B. Shaw


Jul 26 2017

Works of Art versus the Art of Hard Work: Some Recent (& Not So Recent) Examples

typewriter

I don’t know where the cliché “Are you working hard or hardly working?” originates from, but it recently came to mind as I was reading Frank Goodwyn’s Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective (1955) where a few passages made me huff:

As in the case of older Texans, their faith was bolstered by a strong equalitarian outlook. They scorned all aspirations to identify themselves with the self-styled elite by cultivating a fondness for deliberately complex musical, artistic, and literary patterns. Their basic philosophy prevails to this day, coloring the political and cultural life of the state. Their blanket endorsement of plain labor and their suspicion of all exclusively intellectual activities are well depicted in the answer that one West Texan gave when I asked him whether his town had produced any successful artists, writers, actors, or musicians. “No, sir,” he said. “None ever had time for such things. All have tried to work and make an honest living.” [1]

I suppose all work and no play means West Texas has no “complex” music, at least it didn’t in 1955. Perhaps it’s why I (being born in West Texas) never learned how to properly read (and therefore never bother to attempt to write) poetry. Continuing with Goodwyn:

Most Texas versifiers are still too busy being poets to write good poetry. Anxious to excel in the literary world’s critical eyes, they adopt the classic poet’s manner without capturing his fire. They follow his metrical rules without fully feeling their powers shying from clichés and baying the moon in accepted bardian style. They think they have to speak in terms of Greek mythology and cosmic dreams, treating the seasons as if they were lovelorn spirits and the heavenly bodies as if they were rational creatures. The task of expressing these trite ideas without using the trite words which have traditionally conveyed them is too much for the average Texas poetaster, as it would be for anyone else. He hence emerges with little more than a few lame lines in slender books printed at his own expense. [2]

As Mark Athitakis has recently pointed out in The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2016) one of the reasons Laura Ingalls Wilder focused on hard work, particularly in her first work Little House in the Big Woods (1932), is because, when one is living in a frontier environment as she did in her childhood, one quickly appreciates hard work’s relationship to survival. Wilder’s emphasis on the relationship of hard work and survival is part of what made it a hit with Depression-era readers when the book was first published. [3]

Athitakis then goes on to show that some contemporary writers of the Midwest have been much more hesitant in their enthusiasm for portraying hard work, even when portraying hard work as it relates to the act of writing, as in Athitakis’s example of Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother (2013), which I have yet to read. [4]

Now when it comes to the concept of hard work and contemporary nonfiction writers of the Midwest, J. D. Vance has recently observed in Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016):

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false. The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought. The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work[5]

The concept of hard work (and sometimes the mere appearance of hard work) was very much accompanied with that of survival for most non-whites in the early and mid-twentieth century South. As Isabel Wilkerson shows in The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) with the example of Robert Joe “Pershing” Foster:

The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. “Sometimes,” he said, “You have to stoop to conquer.” [6]

For Pershing, survival eventually meant leaving the South. But others were determined to stay (and they did), like the parents of actor Wendell Pierce as he, a native to New Orleans, writes in The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken (2015):

It’s hard for people today to understand it, but for black folk back then, a strong will like Mamo’s and Papo’s, joined to a rock-hard sense of discipline, was a tool of survival. [7]

With regard to hard work and Southern whites, consider the nonfiction writer Rod Dreher and his family situation. Even though his father Ray Dreher graduated from LSU, “he was a man who had no business confined to a desk. It wasn’t in his nature,”[8] because “Paw had not wanted to go to college; he thought he belonged at trade school, where he could improve his mechanical skills, which were his passion.”[9] In contrast, Ray describes his son Rod as a child who “had your head in books all the time,” unlike Ray and Rod’s sister Ruthie who “loved nature, and being outside.” [10] Later on when Rod and Ruthie attend LSU:

Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied…. [11]

We were both straight-A students, but Ruthie earned her grades through hard work and grit; academics came much more easily for me. [12]

Ruthie and Ray revered hard work in a way Rod (at the time) did not; they even defined the concept differently than he did, where in a sense, physical accomplishments were valued more than mental feats. At times, for Rod, even something as physical as preparing a dinner for his family ended in resentment, because, frankly, concocting a hoity-toity bouillabaisse just ain’t the same as stewing plain ole gumbo. [13] Rod describes his father’s worldview:

To him, preferring the world of ideas to the natural world was no mere aberration on my part. It was personal, and constituted a failure to love. If I loved as I ought to love, I would desire the things he desired. [14]

If that wasn’t enough his sister and her husband felt similar to their beloved patriarch:

Hannah [Rod’s niece] said she and her sisters had grown up with Ruthie and Daddy disparaging me as a “user”––my father’s word for the most contemptible sort of person, one who gets things done craftily, usually by taking advantage of others. [15]

Rod’s hard work as a writer was never fully accepted by his family.

As I attempt to bring these thoughts to closure, let me contrast these contemporary American concepts of hard work, and their relation to survival, and their relationship to creative output (particularly writing) to the life and work of James Joyce––an Irishman who worked hard on his writing—some might say too hard, at least some of the time, because it is hard work to learn to read him properly, no matter what they say in West Texas.

As his biographer Richard Ellmann acutely observed:

We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter….[16]

He does not wish to conquer us, but have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.[17]

At one point Joyce confessed:

“My literary work during the last eleven years has produced nothing. On the contrary my second book Dubliners cost me a considerable sum of money owing to the eight years of litigation which preceded its publication.” [18]

NOTES

wood

[1] Goodwyn, Frank. Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective. NY: Knopf. 1955. p. 239.

[2] Goodwyn 339.

[3] Athitakis, Mark. The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing. 2016. pp. 37–39.

[4] Athitakis 39–43.

[5] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 57.

[6] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 131.

[7] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. p. 21.

[8] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. pp. 3–4.

[9] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 63.

[10] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 9.

[11] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 35.

[12] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 8.

[13] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 78–79; How Dante 19–20.

[14] Dreher How Dante 10.

[15] Dreher How Dante 27.

[16] Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford UP. 1959. p. 1.

[17] Ellmann, James Joyce 4.

[18] Ellmann, James Joyce 404.


Jun 24 2017

Deep Reading and Deep Book Collecting

Deep Reading and Deep Book Collecting

Read about deep book collecting in “10 Famous Book Hoarders” by Emily Temple at LitHub, June 22, 2017.

Then read about deep reading in “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader?” by Danny Funt at Columbia Journalism Review, June 14, 2017.


Jun 24 2017

Non-Books, Counter-Books, and Not-Books

mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Non-Books, Counter-Books, and Not-Books

Sometimes book-lovers start imagining books beyond books. First, take Larry McMurtry:

I take it that a non-book is a publication in book form that need not and should not be read. Life is, after all, short, sweet, and uncertain—the last thing it should be wasted on is a non-book. The publishers who subsist on non-books recognize this truth and design their publications in a manner guaranteed to minimize such vagrant readability as they might have. Weak typefaces prevail, and a lavish use of well-printed pictures carry the entranced looker past whatever text there may be.[1]

This reminds me of a passage from Borges:

The books themselves are also odd. Works of fiction are based on a single plot, which runs through every imaginable permutation. Works of natural philosophy invariably include thesis and antithesis, the strict pro and con of a theory. A book which does not include its opposite, or “counter-book,” is considered incomplete.[2]

And finally from Albert Mobilio’s recent piece “The Bookness of Not-Books” in The Paris Review:

Our reaction to these artists’ books moves along the continuum between seeing and reading. Included are Barry Moser’s wood engravings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which could be said to fall into the more common category of illustrated books. These images serve to enhance the text, to make our reading experience more literal, more detailed, and perhaps more comprehensible. (Of course, many argue that such visual aids, like film adaptations, in fact encumber the imagination.) This sort of book—at least in its mass-market edition—is meant to be handled and read, its images checked against our own visualizations. When the art part of the book—the possessive in artists’ books is telling—becomes increasingly salient, the experience of the text can become subordinate to the experience of the visual and even end up almost incidental. (In The End of the World as Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame, Blaise Cendrars’s words, when exploded in a variety of typefaces and colors, are hardly distinguishable from Fernand Léger’s colliding shapes, which appear throughout the collaborative volume.) These are books and pages intended to be seen but not necessarily read.[3]

NOTES

[1] Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood. NY: Simon & Schuster. 1987. p. 76.

[2] “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Translated by Alastair Reid. Ficciones. 1941. NY: Grove Press. Evergreen Edition. 1963. pp. 28-29.

[3] “The Bookness of Not-Books.” The Paris Review. June 22, 2017.


Jun 17 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part I)

(Part I: pp. 1-78.)

Of all the reviews I’ve read thus far, only Joshua Rothman’s profile in The New Yorker last month of Rod Dreher and his latest book The Benedict Optiona Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017, NY: Sentinel) explained the context of the book in its relation to his previous ones.

There has been much criticism, most of it unfair, about the book. Perhaps because:

“It is the talent of our age and nation to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule.”

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)[1]

And:

“The world is ashamed of being virtuous.”

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) [2]

Or maybe I’m being overly sympathetic toward Dreher and not enough toward the criticism of him because:

“Almost nothing is inherently miserable, unless you think it is.”

Boethius (480-524 AD) [3]

And:

“We identify ourselves with the under dog, just as we always think of ourselves as more oppressed than oppressing.”

Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) [4]

So there is no need for me to engage in a typical book review, which I have no habit and little experience of doing anyway, because, in  general, I believe:

“Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private, without perplexing his neighbour or disturbing the public.”

–Jonathan Swift[5]

Instead I can only compare Dreher’s book to thing’s I’ve recently read, including the above-mentioned criticism.

In his summary of Christian history in the West, Dreher mentions:

“The [Protestant] Reformers quickly discovered that casting off Rome’s authority solved one problem but created another.” [6]

And I wonder: if the Benedict Option does indeed solve the problem it states in its subtitle, will solving that problem simply create other problems? For often when we think we’ve solved one of society’s problems, all we’ve done is pass the buck and given ourselves a new set of problems. Perhaps we’re enchanted by the novelty of new problems, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as a problem-free life. So an arresting question begins to emerge early in the book and it is a question of balance. It has something to do with Emersonian compensation:

For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something….

There is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others….

There is a crack in every thing God has made. It would seem, there is always this vindictive circumstance stealing in at unawares, even into the wild poesy in which the human fancy attempted to make bold holiday, and to shake itself free of the old laws, — this back-stroke, this kick of the gun, certifying that the law is fatal; that in nature nothing can be given, all things are sold….

We cannot stay amid the ruins. Neither will we rely on the new.[7]

If the Benedict Option succeeds in rebelling against modernity[8] (something daring, audacious, and ambitious enough for at least some non-Christians to perhaps champion for their own interests), what will the counterbalance be? Resentment? Respect? Utter apathy? Intrigue?

More thoughts on the book to come.

UPDATE: See “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II).”

NOTES

[1] Swift, Jonathan. “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff.” 1709. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. NY: Oxford World Classics. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Angus Ross and David Woolley. 1984. p. 216.

[2] Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1756–1767. NY: Oxford World Classics. Edited by Ian Campbell Ross. 1983. 1998.  VIII, xxvii, p. 468.

[3] Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy 524 A.D. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 2008.  II, iv, prose, (2008) p. 40.

[4] Murray, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition in Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1927. p. 61.

[5] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. p. 185.

[6] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation. NY: Sentinel. 2017. p. 32.

[7] Emerson, “Compensation,” Essays: First Series. Boston, MA. 1841.

[8] Dreher writes:

Young men taking up a tradition of prayer, liturgy, and ascetic communal life that dates back to the early church—and doing so with such evident joy? It’s not supposed to happen in these times. But here they are: a sin of contradiction to modernity. (The Benedict Option p. 76)


May 27 2017

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

The other day I was driving to a friend’s home, and, while I was in line at a stop sign I saw a flat-bed trailer and two teenage girls and an older man, probably their father, dragging cut limbs of brush and tree trimmings and tossing them onto the trailer.

Such a mundane scene would not have stayed in my memory except that I noticed the girls were not wearing any gloves, which I prefer to wear when I do that kind of work, but perhaps the things cut down contained no thorns, perhaps the bark and the rest of the biomatter was smooth and could be handled in a carefree way.

Amid getting carried away in these carefree thoughts on tree trimmings, the ghost of Jonathan Swift (who has been haunting me since my return from Ireland, and, in particular my strolling through Swift’s old stomping grounds in Trim, County Meath) urged me to meditate on the brush piled on the trailer in Austin, Texas–and I tried to do what the ghost told me, but I felt inept.

But then I remembered that the best way to think about something is to try and forget about it. So I tried that, and after a while I began to realize: what are my bookshelves at home but a collection of trees dismembered and re-glued together into a Frankenstein-forest?–one that furnishes me with knowledge and escape, wisdom and entertainment, answers as well as questions?

No words to describe this perfect place #Ireland #travel #meath #castle

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NOTES

The eighteenth century #books #Gulliver #london

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Surely some this was inspired by the ghost of Swift, particularly his idea in The Battle of the Books (1697) that all libraries are cemeteries, and the ingenuity of his A Meditation upon a Broom-Stick (1701).


May 14 2017

Recent Online Reading: 5 Pieces

Recent Online Reading: 5 Pieces

Since returning from Ireland, I’m still trying to catch up on my reading. Here are five interesting pieces I found this weekend. Some are recent; some a few months old:

How Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ Anticipated the Holocaust,” by Anne Roiphe, The Forward, May 9, 2017.

What’s Ressentiment Got to Do with It,” by Martin E. Marty, The Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago, February 6, 2017.

Does Creativity Breed Inequality in Cities?” by Emily Matchar with an interview of Richard Florida, Smithsonian Magazine, April 28, 2017.

Joyce Carol Oates explores both sides of the abortion rift in A Book of American Martyrs,” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times of Singapore, April 11, 2017.

From Kubrick’s dystopia to creative hub–London’s new town is reborn,” by Joanne O’Connor, The Guardian, May 13, 2017.

And here are some recent reading acquisitions I got in Ireland:

Book treasures from Ireland, #Ireland #books #travel #celtic

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Apr 1 2017

Typography and Error

typewriter

Typography and Error

From Irish writer and critic Frank O’Connor (1903-1966) comes an interesting specimen circa 1967:

Never come across a double-line typo before, Frank O’Connor (1967) #Ireland #Literature #typography

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