Sep 4 2018

Four New Pieces that Think Seriously About Reading

Four New Pieces that Think Seriously About Reading

Aug 17 2018

10 Interesting Online Items I’ve Read Since October 2017

10 Interesting Online Items I’ve Read Since October 2017

Here are some links to some interesting things I’ve lately read.  I’ve been saving them for myself to eventually reread and probably get some writing ideas from. All sorts of topics and subjects:

Aug 8 2018

The Purpose of this Book Blog

The Purpose of This Book Blog

I’ve pointed out before that George Steiner has pointed out:

What we need (I have argued this elsewhere) are not ‘programs in the humanities,’ ‘schools of creative writing,’ ‘programs in creative criticism’ (mirabile dictu [a wonderful tale], these exist). What we need are places, i.e., a table with some chairs around it, in which we can learn again how to read, how to read together… We need ‘houses of and for reading….’ Servants to the text. (“ ‘Critic’/ ‘Reader’.” New Literary History. 10 (Spring 1979): 423–52 at 452 also in George Steiner: a Reader. (1987).)

The purpose of Bookbread has always followed this model. Now Alan Jacobs gets at what this same purpose is, and has been, when he talks about this thing called humanism:

Aug 2 2018

The Missionaries of Texas Politics

Western book stack

The Missionaries of Texas Politics

Might Beto or Cruz employ this old tried-and-true method? Via Robert Caro’s Means of Assent: Vol. II of the Life and Times of Lyndon Baines Johnson, (New York: Knopf, 1990) :

And it wasn’t only the shouts, but the whispers. One of the little-publicized factors of rural Texas politics was the men known variously as “missionaries” or “travelers’ or “walking delegates” or “active campaigners.” These were men influential with a particular ethnic group—for example, “You’d hire some popular Czech to go talk to the Czechs,” one veteran of Texas politics says—or simply an individual well known in some remote rural district. Such men were for hire in every campaign. “You’d send a guy out to see the lay of the land,” D. B. Hardeman explains. “He would walk around the streets, try to find out who was for who, go to the Courthouse. And they would talk around,” spreading the rumors that their employer wanted spread. The missionaries were an effective political weapon, particularly in rural areas where voters were unsophisticated, uneducated and accustomed to relying on word of mouth for information. The missionaries knew what to say. “From previous campaigns they knew what people wanted to hear, and who to talk to.” (pp. 276–77)

(A page from my monthly book log)

Jul 31 2018

To Learn a Language, You Must Live in that Language

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

To Learn a Language, You Must Live in that Language

At least according to Gregory Bateson (1904-1980):

Perhaps a curriculum is like a hand in that every piece and component of what they would call a curriculum is really related ideally to the other components as fingers are related to each other and to the whole hand. In other words, it is nonsense except as sort of a Faustian shortcut to learn large quantities of listed material unless the learning of those lists can be developed into some sort of organic whole. I am not against the learning of lists. I am against the failure to assimilate the components of lists together into a total vision, a total hearing, a total kinesics, perhaps, of the wholes with which we deal. We are all familiar with the difficulties that Anglo-Saxons face when they learn languages. Englishmen and Americans are notoriously stupid and awkward when they come to a foreign country and try to talk the native language. This is a sharp and clear example of exactly the point that I am trying to make, that we Anglo-Saxons do not learn to live in a language because we believe that it is made of separate parts. We calls these “words” and we make them into dictionaries. But that is not how the natives of the place learn to speak as children nor how they speak today. It is not even how we speak our own English—a language notorious for the number of poets it has produced. We have lost by the time we are twelve the idea of language as a living organized pattern. (“Last Lecture” (1979), A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) 311–12.)



Jul 20 2018

The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

porticos in Bologna, Italia

The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

For about the past month, I’ve been lagging on blogging. Part of it is trying to find a better balance of time spent reading versus time spent writing (things that may be blog-worthy or more for outside publications).

Prepping (in terms of reading literature) for a trip to Germany this winter is also part of the mix.

In other words, I’m trying to find a balance between:

  • Reading general stuff: daily news, blogs, online magazines, etc. on random topics I may be interested in (publishing, politics, etc.),
  • Reading specific stuff: with regard to whatever the specific writing project at hand is,
  • Writing for this Bookbread blog,
  • Writing for publications to “get my work out there,”
  • Writing for long-term book projects.

I’d been having some worries (though not anxiety proper) about all of the above, but in the last two weeks, I see that two very successful writers whom I follow closely are dealing with (somewhat) similar issues.

See, for example, Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor University, and his recent thoughts on the stresses of writing: first here, then follow up here and here.

Now today comes word that Ta-Nehisi Coates is leaving The Atlantic to reflect and regroup.

These guys can basically write about whatever topic they want and find a way to get it published. Sounds like a dreamy position for those of us trying to make a name for ourselves as writers–yet, for different, complex reasons–they are both struggling to satisfy themselves without leaving their readers hanging out to dry.

So I say: Godspeed ye writerly gentlemen, and let your days of scribbling be merry.

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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:





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

Jun 29 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity


What is my method for reviewing short fiction in this series? Basically, I’m just comparing things I’ve recently read (or reread) to the texts and topics at hand. I read quite randomly, so the comparisons and contrasts I make follow my reading habits. But as the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.” [1]

What do I mean by the “essence of a story” (besides this and this)? I mean when the reader of a story asks (or determines) at what point do the most essential components of that story intersect. This is the essence. For in that hub––“aye––there’s the rub….”


The essence of “Racquetball,” a very short story by Don Waitt[2] of Tampa, Florida, told by a never-named narrator in the first-person perspective, may simply be the death of the father in the backstory. This single, simple incident (occurring in some nameless America locus) reminded me somewhat of the essence of Paul Yoon’s 2016 short story “Vladivostok Station,” where the essence occurs immediately in the opening line as the narrator reunites with his friend Kostya, and everything that follows in the story is a result of this temporary reunion.[3]

As Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) once put it: “precision and brevity—these are the two virtues of prose.”[4] And, under that Russian rubric, Waitt’s story is certainly virtuous in terms of length and exactness; but, considering the length of Yoon’s narrative, I find the latter to be a bit underwhelming. To complicate matters, James Gallant’s short story “The Adjunct” (discussed below in part III. of this review) mocks the concept of “flash fiction” but not so literally that it ends up being a “long” short story.

The dad in “Racquetball” died from an ambush with a heart attack while playing ball; the narrator of “Vladivostok Station,” however, is concerned with his ambush (or intersection) with an old acquaintance. Both deal with interruptions: via death for one and friendship for the other. For both stories, I am reminded of a line from a recent novel by Stephen King when the alcoholic protagonist realizes: “he had come to believe that life was a series of ironic ambushes.”[5]

“Racquetball” deals with a dead dad who, in terms of the narrator’s memory, is still somewhat part of the narrator’s community. And this reminded me of a passage from Alfarabi (872–950 CE) on how the dead nonetheless remain a part of a living community:

“City” and “household” do not mean merely the dwelling for the Ancients. But they do mean those whom the dwelling surrounds, whatever the dwellings, of whatever thing they are, and whether they are beneath the earth or above it—being wood, clay, wool and hair, or any of the other things of which the dwellings that surround people are made. [6]

Or as sociologist Thomas Laqueur has most recently put it:

It is still common; there are cultures today in which the living regularly speak to the dead. We endlessly invest the dead body with meaning because, through it, the human past somehow speaks to us. [7]

In other words, everything above and below and surrounding a living individual should be consider a part of the individual’s community, both the living and the dead. And in “Racquetball” the death of the dad still lingers––as when the narrator-son has to make an annoying trip to the airport to pick up his dead dad’s wallet. Whether the sports projectile that ended his life was launched with violent intent or was merely accidental, I recall the sentiments from Dune: “There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”[8]

In ‘Racquetball,” this idea of the dead still being a part of a living community is made apparent to readers through the storyline of the narrator’s mother becoming emotionally apoplectic from the horror/grief of her husband dying in the prime of life at age forty-eight. As Seneca once put it: “Nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly as a person’s grief,” which is why the narrator of “Racquetball” has given up on overly comforting his widowed mother, though he hates himself for doing so.[9]


The essence of “The Adjunct” by James Gallant[10] (who has written books about Atlanta and Ohio) seems to occur when the main character Aurora Magnusson decides to start a literary magazine at a college in the Ozarks, a college that hasn’t quite decided to hire her, that is, until she pitches her plans for a publication with the college’s name in the title. While her scheme turns out (at least temporarily) to be self-sustaining, it also appears to be something of a racket of the humanities. For in this story would-be writers pay “entry fees” to have their work published, and Magnusson, meanwhile, pockets the fees without disclosing this revenue stream to her college employers.

Gallant’s story (told in the third-person perspective limited to Aurora’s point of view) seems to silently mock grad-student lingo, particularly phrases like “self-sustaining” and “job security,” which aren’t even mentioned in the story proper but seem apparent (at least to this reader).

Magnusson’s self-sustaining scam to publish a literary magazine is divorced from any ideals of quality in the literature it publishes, as evidenced in her speculation as to how she will operate the publication: “The editing probably wouldn’t take that long once the magazine was up and running.”

It’s also not even clear if Aurora Magnusson wants to be a full-time professor, much less an adjunct one. She is (like a good middleclass American) only interested in paying her bills (particularly her rent). In a grander sense, she seems to be going through the motions in order to maintain the appearances of having graduating from graduate school.


For both narrators of these stories, there is a kind of defiant smiling in the face of utter hopelessness, which isn’t (I think) quite the same as whistling in the dark through a graveyard. Magnusson certainly gains power over the writers whom she now edits; but it remains unclear what power (if any) she wields over her readers. The narrator in “Racquetball,” meanwhile, seems similar to the powerless tenant farmers described in Georgian writer Harry Crew’s (1935–2012) memoirs:

They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about: weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. [11]

Both Waitt and Gallant’s stories deal with kinds of powerlessness: “Racquetball” about death; “The Adjunct” about job drought, that is, a writing/teaching career thwarted by economic desperation. Both stories remind me of a remark by social philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983): “The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future.”[12]

And both stories might be about what Crews once realized: “The only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[13] In “Racquetball” the narrator has to make his own life better by ignoring the undue, continuous grief of his mother. In “The Adjunct” the main character Magnusson literally creates a literary enterprise to “deal with the real world.”

Both stories are by “expert” readers, that is, “established” writers. They know what they’re doing whatever the reader knows, agree with or not. And this brings me back to Pushkin:

In a draft letter to Ryleev of June–August 1825 Pushkin contrasts Western writers who all wrote for money with the situation of poets in Russia where ‘(except for me) they write from vanity … There if you have nothing to eat, you write a book; here if you have nothing to eat you enter government service and dont write.’ [14]

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that both stories are very funny. But when one analyzes humor, she or he too often ends up like those who stare at the countenance of Medusa: silently frozen in perplexity.



[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 147.

[2] Don Waitt, “Racquetball,”

[3] Paul Yoon, “Vladivostok Station,” Harpers, July 2016.

[4] Elaine Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography, (Ecco Press/Harper Collins, 2000) 80.

[5] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 64.

[6] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, trans. Charles E. Butterworth. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004), “Selected Aphorisms” p. 22, no. 22.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: a Cultural History of Mortal Remains, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2015) 6.

[8] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books – Premium Edition, 2010) “I. Dune,” 237 (from “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan).

[9] Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin, 1969) Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[10] James Gallant, “The Adjunct,” Fortnightly Review, May 28, 2018.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 16–17.

[12] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §4, p. 18.

[13] Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place 126.

[14] Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography 125.

Jun 9 2018

The Written Word is Not the Spoken Word in Any Language

Western book stack

The Written Word is Not the Spoken Word in Any Language

From Kenneth Jackson’s (1909–1991), Language and History in Early Britain, (Edinburgh: University Press, 1953):

In the Lowland Zone [of Britain] all education and writing, and such Roman literature as was composed, would be in Latin. But here a caution is necessary. As already remarked, Haverfield[1] made much of the fact that graffiti scratched by tilemakers in the process of their work were written in Latin…. He concluded from this that the urban lower classes spoke Latin and not British. This may or may not have been the case, but the evidence in question will not prove it. It should always be borne in mind that British was not a written language, and that the only language of writing was Latin; it would not occur to anyone to write in British, nor would they know how to do so. One tends to forget that to write down in an alphabet the sounds of a speech (even though it is one’s own) which one has never been taught to write is a very considerable intellectual feat. In Roman Britain those who had enough education to know the alphabet had enough to know some Latin, and those who had none did not write at all. We, who learn to write almost as soon as we learn to speak, are so much penetrated with the idea of writing our spoken language that we cannot easily dissociate the two; and are usually not aware of the fact that it is quite possible for one and the same man to speak a language which he cannot write and (when he as to) write a language which he cannot easily, or does not habitually, speak. (pp. 99–100)

[1] That is Francis Haverfield (1860–1919), The Romanization of Roman Britain (Oxford University Press, 1906).

UPDATE: Just saw this and thought it semi-relevant:

Photo by @JimRichardsonNG The Stones of Stenness in Orkney, Scotland are 700 years older than Stonehenge, perhaps the very first stone circle in Great Britain. This ancient sacred site anchors the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe passage grave. And just a few hundred yards down the road at the Ness of Brodgar, a huge Neolithic temple site is being revealed as, year by year, archeologist uncover its secrets. This wonder was discovered under just a couple of feet of soil in the pasture behind a farmhouse by the Orkney Research Centre for Archeology (ORCA) . Their annual dig will begin again in July with updates from @nessofbrodgar. Five thousand years ago people here were abandoning their hunter/gatherer ways and settling into a new way of life that led directly to the modern world. #orkney #worldheritage #unesco #scotland #nessofbrodgar #megalithic #prehistoric #archeology #heartofneolithicorkney

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