Jul 19 2018

Thursdays with Hobos

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Thursdays with Hobos

My great-grandfather’s autobiography mentions that he was a hobo in North Texas during the early 1920’s. While researching some of his claims, I came across some wonderful illustrations by Gregory Orloff in Thomas Minehan’s Lonesome Road (1941), a kid’s book about the dangers of hoboing:

*****

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Jul 8 2018

A Sociology of Texas, 1978-2018

Western book stack

A Sociology of Texas, 1978-2018

I’m very excited to have my review of Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas: a Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State (2018) published in the Berlin Review of Books!

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National Austrian Library


May 1 2018

Book Treasures from Germany

typewriter

Book Treasures from Germany

This translation of Dickens’s Oliver Twist comes from 1927, printed in Stuttgart, contains some beautiful illustrations by H. Grobet. It was a gift, and I believe it was purchased at Historica Antiquariat Bertz Wawrzinek on Heinrichstraße in Dresden.

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Mar 22 2018

Hiding Out In the Open

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Hiding Out In the Open

From the always wonderful Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980):

“Does one not write books precisely to conceal what one harbors? …. Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy.”

–Discovering the Mind Vol. IINietzsche, Heidegger, Buber,
(New York: McGraw Hill, 1981) 153–54, 161

Ero: all pornography conceals sexuality.

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Dec 26 2017

14 Different Ways to Think About Books

Western book stack

14 Different Ways to Think About Books:
Or, Do Good Questions Make Good Books?

I’ve been thinking about Kevin Kelly’s book The InevitableUnderstanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) where toward the end of his rather interesting book he lists some provoking questions. Their provocation led my thinking to take an initiative. So I went ahead and transposed the word “book” for the word “question” in this quotation from Kelly:

  1. A good [book] is not concerned with a correct answer.

  2. A good [book] cannot be answered immediately.

  3. A good [book] challenges existing answers.

  4. A good [book] is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked.

  5. A good [book] creates new territory of thinking.

  6. A good [book] reframes its own answers.

  7. A good [book] is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business.

  8. A good [book] is a probe, a what-if scenario.

  9. A good [book] skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious.

  10. A good [book] cannot be predicted.

  11. A good [book] will be the sign of an educated mind.

  12. A good [book] is one that generates many other good questions.

  13. A good [book] may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

  14. A good [book] is what humans are for. [1]

I think the transposition works well for intriguing lines of thoughts and, ironically enough, questions, except perhaps for no. 14. If the statement is understood as a good book is made for humans, I see no problem. But if the statement means humans are made for good books, I feel I’m on shakier ground. Yet here I recall Owen Barfield (1898-1997) once recalling Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Oscar Wilde’s mot—that men are made by books rather than books by men—was certainly not pure nonsense; there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare’s ‘meaning’. [2]

NOTES

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[1] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 288–89.

[2] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928. Third Edition. Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 136–37.


Dec 11 2017

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

A ghost––either of Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848), or Andrew Lang (1844–1912), or Jorge Borges (1899–1986)––asks how differently I read a book (or author) when:

(1) I’ve bought the book,

(2) I’ve been lent the book from a friend or library,

(3) I’ve been given the book (and cannot re-gift it), or

(4) I’ve stolen the book?[1]

For scenarios (1) and (4), the answer involves me as an individual recognizing my own need to read. But in scenarios (2) and (3), it is someone else who recognizes the need for me to read something I have yet to get around to or perhaps deserve to reread. For I read differently when I want to read compared to the times when someone else wants me to read, either silently to myself or aloud to anyone around.

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When I was a child there were two kinds of trees: those you could climb, and those you couldn’t. Funny, I don’t remember thinking of buildings this way, even though the same principle would apply. But architecture is frozen music,[2] while books are trees. My childish eyes looked only for attainable branches to grab, sturdy knots to claw, and convenient toeholds to brace.

And these days I think I still think of books like that: books and trees that can be read or climbed versus those that can’t, or, at least on initial inspection, look too challenging to attempt. For example Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) is a towering redwood whose canopy I slowly approach. ’Tis a big book, one I began reading in June of this year, and, after taking about 60 pages worth of notes, am only about a third of the way through. I scoot up its trunk with some fear and much trembling, not knowing what I’ll find when I reach the top, or how I’ll safely get back down.

NOTES

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[1] Andrew Lang, The Library, (New York, NY: Macmillan & Co, 1881). Reprinted under Dodo Press. 2004:

The Book-Ghoul is he who combines the larceny of the biblioklept with the abominable wickedness of breaking up and mutilating the volumes from which he steals … He prepares books for the American market. (p. 28)

See also D’Israeli’s essay “A Bibliognoste” in Curiosities of LiteratureVol. III, (Sixth edition, London: John Murray, 1817.)

[2] Goethe, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, (1811–1830) in Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, (trans. R. O. Moon, Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949) II, 43.


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

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[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.