Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Red Herrings and White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Every Day, by Albert Jack


"Idioms are words or phrases which those of us with a native English tongue take for granted, as we have grown up to recognize their meaning. That despite the words being used having absolutely nothing to do with the context of a conversation we are having."

From the Introduction

Monday, May 30, 2011

To Illustrate His Last Remark

My dear friend N. has decided to revisit a novel he wrote some time ago but never published. I've been pestering him to do this, and to try something I know he's been thinking about doing for some time anyway. He's been eying that machine we affectionately call Homer ever since it arrived at the bookstore, more than a year ago. Getting into the spirit of the thing at last, he has finally decided to publish the novel himself, by means of the bookstore's Espresso Book Machine. Good for him. I think that this is a grand idea. Why not? This new technology, available to anyone with a finished manuscript cast in the right computer format, has now been used to just this purpose by dozens of bookstore customers. To date, we've produced finished books of everything from a marvelous fairy tale written and designed by an enterprising child of twelve, to a thick doctoral thesis on Sanskrit or some such. There have also been books printed on every thing from bicycle repair, to a charming little book of Zen poetry, and great, thick tomes of local and family history. The bookstore has made a book by a local craftsman on how to make realistic paper-mache heads, printed memoirs and autobiography, and an anthology to be read by the whole university campus. All or nearly all of these are now for sale in the bookstore, and all designed and produced in-store on the EBM. It's a marvelous thing to see.

So far, my only direct participation, beyond some enthusiastic endorsements on the sales-floor of the technology, has been in having reprints made of a huge selection of out of print books. Not just for myself you understand, but also for stock. I've had a small library of such books reproduced and made available for a special reading event. I've also had the distinct thrill of seeing, among others, William Hazlitt's essays produced for this purpose, sell months later from the regular shelves, along with Cardinal Newman, a Greek New Testament, and half a dozen others I can think of just now. It's been wonderful, being able to stock and sell inexpensive copies of grand, sometimes forgotten old books, and knowing that these can all be reproduced in roughly twenty minutes.

Now I'm encouraging those of my friends who have books of their own in manuscript to use this marvelous machine as a means of seeing their own books in inventory; finished, well designed, well made paperback editions, with ISBNs, for sale in-store and online. I do not know of any of the bookstore's many talented writers and artists who have taken advantage of this service yet. It will be a fitting thing that dear N. should be the first. He has had three novels already published, some years ago, by an independent small press. A number of his published adaptations of classic novels and folktales for the stage continue to be performed around the country. It's about damned time he publish another book, and rather than put himself again through the agonizing pursuit of a new agent, and the unsolicited submission of manuscripts to publishers, etc., why not keep control of his work and see it through a process that is infinitely less taxing and anxious and just make a book as he would have it and see the thing available as soon as he's done?

Admittedly, this can't be the same experience as selling a book to a publisher. But as N. already knows, for all the exhilaration of that moment, the expectations engendered by that good news, both financial and artistic, may not prove to be all one might have hoped or dreamed. Meanwhile, the world changes every day around us, and much that writers like my friend might once have considered essential for their success has all but ceased to be available to them: there are fewer and fewer independent stores, and publishers' reps to champion new writers and local talent, fewer independent publishers committed to cultivating long-term relationships with their authors, fewer major publishers willing to invest in new relationships with largely unknown or neglected authors, fewer printed reviews, fewer book tours, less money all around. At the same time, there are new opportunities, not only with the new technology of the EBM, but on the Internet, and in ebooks, to reach whole new audiences, both locally and internationally, an audience no longer dependent on traditional publishing and the crumbling infrastructure of selling books in this country when it comes to finding new books to read.

So my friend has taken his first tentative step into this brave new world. I am cheering him on. More than this though. In his bright-eyed, guileless way, my friend has somehow talked me into illustrating his book. Again, though I live in horror of such professional or even semi-professional commitments, as this is my good friend N., why not?

Well, there are some difficulties. The book he has decided to publish is a roman à clef set in, shall we say, an unnamed bookstore. Originally, in the version I first read a few years ago, although some of the events described happened long before my friend and I ever worked together, the similarities to certain events to which even I had become privy was perhaps a little... close. Much of this material has either been made unrecognizable in the later versions, or replaced by other nonsense, hopefully just as amusing but less likely to cause a blush of recognition in the store or the trade. There are a number of pen portraits in the novel, however affectionate or flattering, that are still rather spot on. Just to mention one thoroughly harmless example, I'm in the thing, and my person is compared to that of a certain saint thought to reside at the North Pole. Fair enough, though I can't say that this made me specially jolly when I read it. Nonetheless, I am fine with whatever part I'm made to play in the novel. Others, say what they may when shown an unpublished manuscript, may look to their dignity anew when confronted by an actual, published book. I trust dear N. to negotiate all of this potential awkwardness successfully in advance of the book's appearance. Frankly, the novel is a valentine to the bookstore, and to all the booksellers, real and imagined, in it. One would have to be a bit of an ass not to see this.

The problem for me arose from my friend's less than good original idea for the illustrations he wanted from me. Somehow, despite the delicacy with which he has tuned his text to avoid discomforting his coworkers, he thought it a merry addition that I should sketch a few from the life. In my experience, the human race may be divided into those who would adamantly refuse to sit for me and those who, having found themselves to have already been the subject of a sketch, are too good natured to express their dislike of the result. There are exceptions, of course. Generally speaking, the better known a public figure, or the less concerned with the opinion of others the private person, the likelier the subjects of my pencil are to laugh, but even a healthy sense of humor in most things is no guarantee of good grace when I hand over a caricature for inspection. Now imagine speculating if the character in a novel may or may not be who one fears it might be, only to have that suspicion confirmed, despite all the alterations in the text, by a probably none too flattering depiction of what is all too recognizably one's own face; the peculiar twist to one's nose, or the curiously uneven balance of one's ears, or the long, lowering line of that chin unfortunately inherited from an otherwise loving parent. Oh, no. As Johnny Mercer so eloquently put it, I think we need to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, etc.

After some brief discussion, my pal saw immediately the problem. I was enormously relieved. My suggestion was that instead of literal illustration of any of the scenes in the book, or pencil portraits of the participants, that I might better concentrate of inanimate objects that feature in the story: books, a computer, the papers on a desk. Dear N., bless 'im, immediately saw the potential in this. Rather than the people in the story, and indirectly the people in the bookstore, the illustrations might be more in keeping with the tradition of Victorian chapter-headings and spot-illustrations; just little things to point a joke here and there, or remind the reader of a funny moment. This agreed, I asked my friend -- and collaborator, it seems -- for a short list of what, in this line, he might want. I'd forgotten what a master of lists and outlines is my dear N. So far, he has provided something like three dozen possibilities!

Not being much himself with a pencil or quite appreciating the difficulties in, for example drawing drapery, some of his suggestions, such as an undershirt tossed casually across a book, revealing just the title, I will pass over without further comment. There will be plenty of other ideas provided from which to choose. I will not however be able to resist explaining the impracticality of drawing just the foot "of an attractive young man" -- at least as I might be able to draw a foot -- that would do justice to either his attractiveness or his youth. May give it a try though, just to see. (My favorite moment in the book, the one that insists on a picture, will probably prove to be one of the most difficult to pull off: how to draw a paper airplane made from a page in Playboy?! Must do my best.)

As for the quick doodles with which I've illustrated this entry, these were done at the information desk not long after the novelist and I had our first preliminary discussion over breakfast. I did half a dozen of these that day, in stray minutes here and there, just to get my eye going in the right direction. Unfortunately, the only ones I thought at all good, I somehow lost between the desk and home and was left with just these two wobbly renderings of actually solid objects. Still, the kernel of idea is there, kinda. Wish me luck.

So it seems I too will be stepping off into a new venture myself, if only in a very minor way, and only in support of a dear friend. For all my enthusiasm and bullying of poor N. on this subject, the idea of doing even a few wee pictures for a real book rather than just doodling on scratch-paper to amuse my friends at the desk or online, is making me wobble a little. (Mr. Big Talk. Now you've done it.)

Let me just put out a request: if any young man happens to read this, and happens to have what could be described as a specially attractive foot, do please contact me, here or at the bookstore, if you would be willing to model for an amateur, for no fee, and at short notice.

Think of it as making a small contribution to the future of literature.

Daily Dose

From The Everlasting Man, by G. K. Chesterton


"There is unfortunately one fallacy here into which it is very easy for men to fall, even those who are most intelligent and perhaps especially those who are most imaginative. It is the fallacy of supposing that because an idea is greater in the sense of larger, therefore it is greater in the sense of more fundamental and fixed and certain."

From Chapter III, The Antiquity of Civilization

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout


"It mattered no more to that many (though by no means all) of his solos had hardened into set pieces. That had always been his way, and he saw no reason to change. 'Well, y'know it's a real consolation always getting that same note -- just hittin' it right,' he explained."

From Chapter 10, "Keep the Horn Percolating"

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Rich in Love, by Josephine Humphreys


"Do not think I didn't know what love was. The fact that somebody hasn't literally had it doesn't mean they don't know what it is. A person has certain understandings built in."

From Chapter 7

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Check in the Mail

February 20th, 2009, a dear old friend forwards me an email query from a respected editor in England, asking my friend for a submission to a planned anthology of personal essays on Gay & Lesbian writers "everyone should read." This makes sense. My friend is a reputable novelist, travel writer, and editor. He has an academic day job teaching football players to write in paragraphs. He also teaches a course on the personal essay. He lectures by invitation on Henry James. He writes published reviews. He is also queer as a three dollar bill. Even were we not acquainted personally, I should think him a natural and necessary contributor to any such anthology as the one then proposed. My friend agrees to do an essay, and suggests Ronald Firbank as his subject. My friend also suggests me.

I am more than flattered. Frankly, I'm a little stunned to actually hear from the editor in England. No small thing, I should think, agreeing to read a submission from the unknown friend of my friend. My qualifications being that I too am a three dollar bill and I read -- a lot. In discussing the anthology in emails, I happen to champion an obscure gay novelist named Coleman Dowell. Turns out, the editor and I share this enthusiasm. Just luck. The essay gets written, and rewritten, and rewritten, and well before the final deadline, it gets sent off, such as it is, and accepted. I am to be paid fifty dollars, on publication of the book, plus two complimentary copies. This, as I understand it, is much the usual way of these things. I wouldn't know. I haven't been paid to write... well, ever, really. Months later, the book comes out. Not waiting for my complimentary copies, I buy half a dozen or more, to give to friends and family. Eventually, long after I'd forgotten them and no longer had anyone really to whom I might send them, my two free copies come in the mail. I give these away as well, though to people who probably might have been content without. Still, feels pretty good.

The book, though still in print, has, by the time I write this, come and gone. It was not much reviewed, as there are now few enough places where it still might be. It is mentioned here and there online and in what is left of the GLBTQ press, presumably sells a few copies in addition to the ones I bought, and drifts away into what we call in the trade, "backlist". (This means you may still buy a new copy, if you're interested.) Eventually, even the copy that's been loyally kept on the shelf at the bookstore where I work is returned to the publisher and there's an end to it, so far as I'm concerned. Wonderful experience for me, very satisfying seeing my name in print, and on the world goes.

I can not remember ever getting paid, and that vexes me a little, though I've hardly been counting on the fifty bucks, but still...

I come home from work a couple of days ago to find, along with yet more bills for what was after all just a one night stay in the hospital, a month ago, a strange envelope with what looks to be a check in it. How strange. To my knowledge, no one I know owes me money. I recognize neither the company name printed on the check nor any reason why they may want to make me a gift of fifty bucks. There is no letter or other explanation in the envelope with the check. At first, the stub is no help, as I can't quite figure out what "PERMISSION-0119" means as an invoice number, or what, in the description line, what "50 g& l books everybody..." might mean. Bit thick, me. When it finally dawns on me what it is that I finally hold in my hand, I crow, and then laugh, and then take the check in to show the good husband the evidence that I will indeed now be in a better position to keep him in his old age, being as I'm now a paid, professional writer. I have to remind him about the book, which he has understandably forgotten, but no matter.

The check is dated 05/13/2011. The book was published November 9, 2009. Seventeen months. Better than two years from the time I wrote the essay until I was paid for it -- unless you count the free copies of the book.

I wish we got such terms from our vendors at the bookstore.

I describe all of this not to express any bitterness with either the very nice editor of the book or with the very kind media company that finally cut me the check. Blessings on them both, and thank you. Do keep me in mind hereafter. I mention this business because it made me laugh right out-loud. Honestly, it really did. By the time I'd sussed out that the check was not in fact a Nigerian investment scam or a promotion for a new phone, I could not have been more pleased, or amused to think that I had, in fact, quite forgotten, after all this time, that the proof of my marketability as a writer had never actually been confirmed heretofore. For about a minute before I deposited the check, I thought seriously about framing it. Money's already been spent, though.

Can't tell me nothin' now.

I do wonder anyone makes a living from this kind of thing, or that anyone ever did. I was reminded of Goldsmith, probably reduced yet again to his shirt, having pawned his trousers and shoes, sending for Dr. Johnson to read the manuscript of a novel. This, quoted of the good Doctor, from Irving's life of the novelist:

"I received one morning a message from poor Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was dressed, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion: I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return; and, having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill."

The Vicar of Wakefield, one of the most popular novels in the English language, never out of print since it was published in 1766, nearly two years after the incident described above, probably some five years after Goldsmith wrote the book.

I don't mean to compare either my little squib with the famous story of the beloved Vicar, or my story with poor Goldsmith's. It is worth noting that that sixty pounds that Johnson negotiated for the book, while paid promptly enough to satisfy even Goldsmith's irate landlady, was probably the last money the novelist had from that immortal work, which even then must have earned it's original publisher hundreds if not thousands of pounds, to say nothing of the money that book has been making for publishers ever since. I don't know that the anthology to which I contributed but one of fifty short essays has ever even earned back for the publisher whatever was the advance paid to its editor. I am also so situated as to have never been forced to even contemplate pawning my shoes.

Still, does my experience, as described above, really suggest progress, do you think, or was Johnson not wise to get those guineas paid into his hand before he went back to rescue Goldsmith? Indeed, wasn't Goldsmith quite right to have spent that first gift on a good bottle of Madeira?


Daily Dose

From Nowhere Else on Earth: A Novel, by Josephine Humphreys


"Our cupboards at home were filled with nothing but cobwebs, and I had forgotten what a house could be like when it was packed with food and furnishings and keepsakes, all the signs of a good life -- framed pictures of art on the wall, a shelf of books, a blue glass vase."

From Chapter Eight

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy


"Love frequently dies of time alone -- much more frequently of displacement."

From Chapter XXVII, "How should I greet thee?"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bomba and the Celestial Aspect

For any that may not have noticed, The Big Penis Book, from Taschen -- natch -- is now out in a new edition, and in 3D! I bought a copy of the first edition, in just 2D, for my beloved A., just a couple of Christmases ago. It's proved popular with houseguests. The book is pretty much exactly... well, what it sounds like. It's not just porn, though it certainly is that (so any sensitive soul who might be ill prepared for what even I must admit can be quite a shock, pray do not click on the link to Taschen's page provided here. The curious are doubtless going to be unheedful of this warning, but hey, I tried to tell you, didn't I?) Actually, the editor, Dian Hanson, a Seattle native, despite not knowing how to spell her name -- this being America, damn it -- has done the world a genuine, if never to be widely appreciated favor in not just lovingly reproducing these photographs, but in also tracing, when and wherever possible, the men who made them. The text, believe it or not, is quite fascinating. How else, for example, would one learn the whole rather sordid, but ultimately cheerful story of dear David Hurles, the man who, for over 40 years, made Old Reliable Studio a watchword in hot shots of recently paroled hoodlums, tattooed thugs -- when tattoos were still exotic and sexy in an ugly way -- in and out of their underwear, and a whole world of criminal cuties who were willing, for a nominal fee and whatever they could boost from poor David, to get naked, get busy and flip the cameraman the inevitable bird that became his trademark shot? Dian Hanson's big book is full of such interesting research, interviews and profiles. No lie, it makes for a really engrossing read. (Come for the penis, stay for the story, I always say.)

Of the three copies of the new edition that we got into the bookstore, one has already been stolen by some brazen little pisher who waltzed right out the door with it while security happened to be looking the other way.* Saw it on the security footage, after. Little bastard. The two remaining copies are still on display, face-out, in the photography section. We have one regular customer, other than me, on whom we have come to count to buy at least one of everything gay, though his tastes tend to fiction and his interest is usually more strictly literary and historical. Still, when I next see him, I do intend to practice a bit of the hard sell, ahem, on this one. It really is that good. Doubtless, if I don't buy the other copy, and really why would I just for the 3D effects, it will eventually end up on markdown table some day, having been thumbed to pieces, back in some almost secluded corner, behind the diet books and next to the laminated calculus charts. We did however sell a few copies of the last edition to more than me, so here's hoping.

Besides recommending the book, I mention it here because, inevitably, so long as it is in the bookstore, even if we kept it wrapped in cotton bunting and boxed under the counter, someone, some one individual, would sniff the title out for no other or lesser reason than to denounce it, in no uncertain terms, for the corrupting influence and eyesore that it so obviously, outrageously, is. I would bet against the reelection of Obama before I'd bet against this. After twenty-five years working in bookstores of every description and in cities up and down the west coast of the United States, the one fact that I can absolutely guarantee, as sure as the maxim that sex sells, for every salacious or suggestive book ever put out for sale, there is someone looking to find it so as to express their disappointment and outrage in finding it in their "favorite bookstore." It matters not a whit that this individual, like as not, will be unknown to the staff and management, or that she has no history, if known, of ever having spent more than will assure her of a free parking sticker while she pops in to use the facilities. The moment the offending volume is spotted, the bookstore in which she stands will be her "favorite bookstore," where she's shopped all her life, the bookstore to which her sainted parent first brought her to buy her own first Bible, and where she now brings her innocent grandchildren -- despite the decline of the neighborhood -- to shop for home-schooling materials. No more! Not with that kind of filth right out where anyone might see it, if they but looked.

While the legions of such decent people may have thinned over the years, you may trust me that, like the poor, the disapproving will be with us always. I outline the lady above roughly, but she need not be married, or a grandmother. She need not even be a she, though this is rare, as the gentlemen, in my experience, tend to reserve their outrage for politics and the outlandish lack of this or that hatemonger's latest screed on the display tables. Even if it can be shown to be there, it will never be in sufficient quantity to compete with all the books that are "stacked sky high" by authors not at all to the gentleman's liking. It's a conspiracy, you know. Nevertheless, now and again, one of fellows will not much like porn either. It happens.

If their numbers may have declined, at least in the larger, Northern cities, one should not assume the politics of the decent people too far. Just as likely nowadays, the citizen keeping watch over the moral influence of dangerous books may as well be wearing Birkenstocks or pink Crocks as high heels or orthopedic shoes. The red face of indignation may just as likely be seen to be tethered by a long gray braid to the the neck of a hemp poncho as it is to be expected rising above pearls or a bow tie in a spiffy tartan. All the outraged actually have in common, whether they themselves have breed or no, is a profound and abiding concern "for the kids."

It is the little ones, you see, so many nowadays inadequately supervised, who may see whatever it is in the bookstore, on how ever high and remote a shelf, that will ruin their innocence. The one book that may have that unhealthy "influence", you may rest assured, at least according to these united sons and daughters of the Pure Republic, that one book will surely find the one child who might otherwise have been the next Gandhi, or Billy Graham, or President of these United States, were it not for the "influence" of... well, big penises, and in 3D, yet.

It is never prudishness that prompts these people. Do not presume. Inevitably, while registering a complaint with the proper or improper authority, the point will be made that while no disrespect is intended to the kind of sick, perverted, damned soul who might enjoy that kind of thing, the concerned citizen's only interest in bringing this potential horror to the attention of the management is an honest concern for the delicate sensibilities of others, children first, foremost and always of course --

for we must save the children, mustn't we?

-- but also the elderly, who's old fashioned ways are not as ours, and the feeble-minded, who are so easily led, studies have shown, all unknowing, into gross indecency, the religious who may be blinded by their cruel Gods, the marginal, potentially dangerous fellows who need no more than the sight of two dimensional, let alone three dimensional genitalia, his or hers, erect, aroused, or otherwise, to be tipped into rape, murder and inappropriate touch at the number seventy-one bus-stop.

It is always of others we must think. Remember that. Censorship is invariably a selfless act.

It's that word, "influence," that defines the problem. How to define it? Like pornography for the esteemed Associate Justice, it has only to be seen to be known, despite the definition being subject to all manner of interpretation. Yet, it is inevitably in anticipation of, rather than in response to any influence felt that books are taken from bookstore or library shelves, mostly. It is the PTA mother whose child has yet to know of the existence of Huckleberry Finn, who fears the influence of that detestable word. It is the radio preacher who has himself never set foot inside the Baltimore Museum of Art who organizes a protest again the influence of Robert Mapplethorpe's ass riding a bullwhip. It is almost always the true, if chaste lover of the human form who fears the influence of vulgar depictions of gross sexuality, when happened upon in a bookstore, potentially by... well, somebody less open minded.

Managing a LGBTQ bookstore presented unique difficulties in this regard. A number of our regular women customers objected, for example, to being in an otherwise friendly environment that nevertheless was riddled with dicks: male nudes and semi-nudes featured in posters and paintings, on bookcovers and photo-essays, porno pictures on the covers of many, many magazines, dicks to the left of 'em, dicks to the right, dicks, dicks, dicks, dicks, dicks. Many the times a faithful lesbian patron, coming to the cash register with a stack of Naiad mysteries, would complain of having been visually assaulted by all this cock, and would ask why this had to be so? It was a fair question, and one with which I was not unsympathetic, despite my own obvious fondness for cock. "Don't we deserve," she would ask on behalf of herself, her partner and her sisters generally, "a place where we can feel comfortable shopping?" Indeed. My only answer, however, was the same to these good women as it was when a number of faint-hearted, yet loudmouthed queens, who, discovering a plush vagina puppet, or a coffee-table-book of female nudes, etc., would shriek in horror and insist on storming out: Leben und leben lassen, meine Damen und Herren, live and let live, 'cause we all just gotta get along to get along.

For more than one generation, Tarzan simply was Johnny Weissmuller. He may still be accepted as the best of the movie Tarzans. Only fair. He was in perhaps the best Tarzan movies. He was not however my Tarzan. That would have been Ron Ely, or even better, for reasons I could not have explained at the time, Mike Henry. Weissmuller was an olympic swimmer and still an impressive athlete, at least when he began his movie career. Never did anything for me though. Now Ron Ely, on TV as Tarzan when I was a lad, and in color, now our Ron was a different story. And Mike? Mike was something of a lox as an actor, frankly, but that hairy sonofabitch, in loincloth, was well neigh perfection. We may all of us with an eye for such things, even before we knew why or what it might mean, have our own Tarzan. But Johnny Sheffield was my Boy, or rather Bomba was and will always be.

Nobody much remembers Bomba. Johnny Sheffield was a child actor who played Boy to Weissmuller's Tarzan in a whole raft of Tarzan movies, with more than one Jane, I might add, though that mattered to me as a boy not at all. This was a cute kid. He did pretty good for a kid, in those movies, and it couldn't have been easy, working with that wretched chimp, getting rescued from rubber crocodiles every other shot, wearing a miniature loincloth in front of a studio full of adults every day, at ten, eleven, twelve years old. Rather horrify thought, that. Now imagine what it was to finish puberty wearing that thing. Johnny soldiered on. Then the most unlikely thing happened to this boy, something that seems to almost never happen to child performers, he grew up to be beautiful. When Sheffield got to be too old to be Boy anymore, he got recast, barely, as Bomba, yet another jungle white boy from the pulps. He starred in a number of Bomba pictures, and even had a very brief stint as Bomba on TV, right around the time that all the old Tarzan movies came to Saturday afternoon television. Eventually, Bomba ran it's course and Johnny Sheffield, by all reports a genuinely nice guy, retired from show business, had a family and went on to other things. He just died last year, bless him, and he lived long enough to experience the happy nostalgia of a generation of fans who sought him out at conventions, and presumably online, to tell him how much those old shows still meant to them. Nice.

For me though, the sight of Johnny Sheffield as Bomba, in a leopard skin loincloth, the perfection of his smooth, endearingly all-American beauty; all buttery young muscles and thick wavy hair and bright, light eyes, burned deep into some as yet unexplored corner of my developing consciousness and left a permanent mark. Bomba, for me, you see was a very real influence.

In his great Dictionary, Johnson's poetic first definition of the word reads "Power of the celestial aspects operating upon terrestrial bodies and affairs." I realize the good Doctor did not have my preadolescent, sexually illiterate, dirty little boy mind in mind when he offered that definition of influence, but I now think it both perfectly lovely and perfectly apt. (Talking about stars after all, wasn't he?) It was, I now see, the truly celestial aspect of Johnny Sheffield's boyishly handsome, bright, open face, his stocky, athletic young body and his then all but unspeakably rare, all but complete nudity, right there on on the glowing, 42 inch, black and white screen of our RCA television that first exposed me to the mesmerizing influence of masculine beauty. With the more mature charms of Ron Ely and Mike Henry-- not to forget the small miracle that was Little Joe Cartwright's ass in those fitted trousers, among other wonders of the era -- ever and ever recurring as I grew and grew, though I may never have suspected this at the time, I was coming to find out what I would look for thereafter, the rest of my life no doubt, when I looked for perfection. (It is no kind of irony that while I fell most ardently in love, in college, with a dancer with curly hair, bright, light eyes and a smoothly muscled, stocky little body, I ended up shortly thereafter in love with and married to a big, handsome black man. Even at nineteen, I evidently had the sense to recognize all kinds of perfection when I saw it, and go with the best to be had. Wise choice, if I do say so myself.)

Who can honestly describe all the influences, biological, parental, environmental, aesthetic, inherently sexual, and otherwise, that go into making us who we are? Can we honestly enumerate now even those best remembered in anyway meaningfully as anything other than so many instinctive guesses, vaguely remembered feelings, family stories, the accrued impressions of the always lost childhood?

I grew up in an age in which pornography, at least of the kind to which I might have responded with anything other than boredom or distaste, was simply not available to me, for good or ill. Yet even the harmless entertainment of Saturday afternoon reruns of already quaint jungle adventures could be turned to the purpose of exciting a specifically sexual response, well before I even recognized that that, indeed, was what it was. Had I had access to more explicit materials, believe me, I have no doubt I would have sought them out. Later, when the opportunity came, I certainly embraced it. Now, was I better off for never having seen an actual picture of an actual adult's penis until shortly before, Heavens be praised, I quite nearly got at a few? Maybe. I don't know. What I feel pretty confident saying is that I wouldn't have minded looking, if I had had the chance.

To a large extent, I was shielded from many of the particulars, good and bad of adult sexuality throughout my childhood. My parents were and remain a rather shy and endearingly prudish pair, at least before their children. That still seems best to me, but then again, what else would I know? Meanwhile, it is worth pointing out that it was the responsibility of my parents to see to it that I was raised according to exactly their standards and with their values and that I still turned out exactly as I am. I like to think that that was a good thing, and that despite their hurt and confusion back in the day when I announced myself as gay, at all of thirteen, they have come by now to appreciate that everything they actually meant to teach me, they did. What they taught me had everything to do with love, and respect, and a healthy curiosity about life. What I now know about sex, and my own sexuality, I learned largely on my own, as most people do, or did back in the day. Might have been easier otherwise, but I'm fine with how it all worked out, thanks.

This business then of policing the influences to which innocence is exposed, so long as the responsible parties are in fact the parties responsible, may indeed be considerably more complicated in the modern world than it was back when I was a horny kid dreaming about running away to the jungles of Culver City with Bomba, to live happily with Ron and or Mike in a treehouse, and contemporary parents have my sincere sympathy for what must be an increasingly difficult job. They do however have resources and a vocabulary and a wider experience, most of 'em, than was available to my folks in the Sixties and Seventies, and that seems to me an altogether good thing.

As to policing the access of adults to materials that, it is still quite true, perhaps even the majority of citizens might find personally offensive, well, that my darlings, is quite frankly just the price to be paid for living in an advancing civilization. I will never get the chance to actually say this to any of the concerned citizens I encounter at work, but if you're really so worried about the influence of books like The Big Penis Book in 3D, or beautiful Bomba in a loincloth...

Move to Utah.

*The thief was captured on Friday, 05/27/11, when he returned to the store to steal home decor magazines, and George Platt Lynes' Male Nudes. Congrats, Security Team.

Daily Dose

From Letters of Marcel Proust, translated by Mina Curtiss


"Mon cher Gide,

I have often found that certain great joys our first having been deprived of a lesser joy, which we had a right to expect and without the expectation of which we could never have known the other joy, the most splendid of all."

From a letter to Andre Gide, dated 12 or 13 January, 1914

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sic transit gloria mundi, Man

A few months back, the hippy shoestore next door closed up shop for good. Place had been there since 1973. As I understand it, this was the first Birkenstock retail outlet in... the country? the city? Anyway, the storefront was something of a retail landmark. If you'd ever been in the place, you would remember it. The design aesthetic was something between cave interior and geodesic mud-hut; loads of shaped plaster curving into protozoaic alcoves, lumpy arches, fungal shelving, low toadstool benches. The whole place was painted in shades of tarragon and applesauce, and the carpeting always looked damp, but wasn't. The summer when I was ten years old, reading The Lord of the Rings, stretched out on the shag, in front of the standing fan with blades the size of banana leaves, the inside of that shoestore would probably have been indistinguishable from my dream house. Just picture bunkbeds, books and trolls instead of shoeboxes, open-toed sandals and leather-clogs.

This week, there were guys with big saws, crowbars and sledgehammers, stripping the joint back to the bricks. I stood out on the sidewalk today, in a light rain, watching these burly gentlemen hauling out big chunks of plaster and chicken-wire to their truck. When they're done, the joint will no doubt be just another, narrow and rather anonymous little retail space; one long, low room full of skimpy girl clothes, or pita sandwiches, or one of those weird little Korean groceries that survive on cigarette sales and caffeinated booze. Who knows?*

For about a month before the tear-down, there was a temporary tenant, selling Rasta-wares: floppy knits, Bob Marley T-shirts, bongs, big hats, etc., all in those Jamaican flag colors that, no disrespect intended, always make me think of hotdog-condiments: relish/mustard/ketchup. No Rastafari were ever in evidence in the place, which seemed to be exclusively staffed by one or two, rather nervous looking teenagers of East Indian descent, if I had to guess. The whole operation looked very much like what it proved to be: a kind of fly-by-night, packed and unpacked in a day, flea-market kind of business. Left just the way it came, too, without so much as a hint of ganja in the air to suggest it had come and gone.

Whatever the circumstances that finally convinced the original owners to close up the comfortable shoe business, I couldn't say. I never shopped there, but once. Years ago, I went in, but could not convince the very nice clerk that Berks were not for me, until he'd insisted on trying to get one on my foot and failed. Never could wear Birkenstocks myself. I do wear comfortable German clogs pretty much every day, roughly eight months of the year in Seattle, but the Birkenstock design, for whatever reason, seems to presume a flat, thin foot with which I was not blessed. (I have feet like fresh mozzarellas, and find that some other good Europeans, at Mephisto Shoes, actually make an even more expensive leather clog with the fat-footed gnome, as apposed to Birkenstock's healthy blond hiker, in mind. Highly recommended, fellow fat-footed bookstore gnomes -- and you know who you are.)

Seeing my ten-year-old-self's fantasy of a perfect Hobbit-hole being deconstructed today reminded me that, depending on one's opinion of avocado appliances, foil wallpapers, deep pile, and matchy-matchy, etc., the 1970s have not yet quite survived long enough to become forgivable, in any way, including as a period of style and design. Elements, specially in fashion, from that most experimental of times, have recently been reintroduced with varying degrees of success; the, to me, noisome prints of Emilio Pucci have come back here and there, for instance, as have wedge-platforms, the halter-dress, and bare legs for the ladies, but the quite rightly much maligned leisure suit, gentlemen's caftans, and wide ties, not so much.

As for interiors, perhaps the less said about Italian Revival furniture, suede sectionals, and the four foot lampshade, the better. Try not to even think about wicker.

Reminiscing about all of this with the work-wife, my dearest T., who is of my own generation and was in fact, I think, married barefoot in a peasant gown, we had to laugh when I remembered my sister's happiness when she was able to redecorate her bedroom as a cool teenage chic. Remember that ubiquitous "psychedelic" mushroom and sunflower patterned contact-paper of the period? (Remember contact-paper?) I can close my eyes and still see my big sister's "Hang On Snoopy" poster above the bed, her princess phone, her portable record player with the "built in speakers", her collection of Stevie Nicks shawls all over everything. Bless her. It was all rather hideous, wasn't it?

This has all set me to thinking about what does and does not survive, and what should and shouldn't, from the still not so very distant past. Looking up a list of Billboard's Top 100 for 1973, I was not surprised to see pop junk like Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree, or the empty rock of the Edgar Winter Group's Frankenstein, or the still cringe-inducing My Love from Wings, right up there. I was pleased however to see a number of solid songs about which none of us need now be embarrassed, from the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Doobie Brothers, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, and so on. Truth be told, even today I'd listen to an album -- yes, an album -- made from maybe half of what's on the Billboard list.

The best movies of 1973 make an even more impressive list -- though anyone who thinks that at ten I'd ever heard of Mean Streets, or Truffaut can not remember what being ten was like. (Great list though.) Even among the straight box-office champs, about the only thing other than Disney's very minor Robin Hood that I know I saw in my one-horse hometown's one movie theater, the beloved and still operating Guthrie Theatre -- note "theatre", so classy -- would have been The Exorcist. (Couple of my sister's girlfriends -- also still operating, I'm glad to say -- managed to sneak me in with them. The movie was what was then called "a hard R," which was most unusual at the Guthrie in those days. I had to see it though. Luckily, one of the girls was, shall we say, surprisingly full flowered for fifteen or so, and by insisting that she was my mum, she got me in. The girls all watched the movie between their fingers, shrieking like banshees. I myself was quite naturally terrified, but could not look away. Memorable night.

As for the bestsellers' list from that same year...

Bestsellers' lists are almost invariably awful, it's true. That of 1973, I won't even review. No one would remember half of it. Much that one might remember would only be because of the movies, not nearly so bad, at least for being briefer, that were made from those books. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, suffice it to say, was at the very top. Jacqueline Susann comes after that. As bad as that sounds, and I can think of few things worse, again, there are a few books from that year that have some claim on posterity: Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, Gore Vidal's best historical novel, Burr, Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul, just from the top ten fiction titles. Pretty good, that. As for the nonfiction, that might be today's NYT Bestsellers, for all the difference nearly forty years can make to such things. Diet, sex, self help, these things don't change much.

Elizabeth Bowen and Noel Coward died that year, as did Kid Ory, Jane Bowles, LBJ, Picasso, Conrad Aiken, Arna Bontemps, J. R. R. Tolkien, Henry Green, Gene Krupa and Wystan Auden.

Stephenie Meyer was born in 1973, thus insuring, I suppose, the continuity of the bestsellers' lists down just about to today.

Things change and they don't. Remembering 1973 doesn't do much for me, frankly. I was ten, first off. How memorable, by the grace of God, should ten be? My grandmothers were alive. My school teacher's name was... Watergate was something that would eventually interrupt my Saturday mornings. Vietnam was still "the war."

It gives one pause, certainly, to think how very important 2011, the whole of it to date, will probably look, thirty five or forty years hence, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, I'm all but completely preoccupied just now with trying to work out what I might read, if I might read aloud, for William Makepeace Thackeray's 200th birthday, come July 18th. I am no less sanguine about doing so, for this brief exercise in nostalgia, nor any the more hopeful of either the reading coming off or happening at all, but I can certainly see why it is important, I think, to acknowledge in some way, the survival of genius.

Mustn't let the little of glory that survives fade away. Just look at what we must wade through to find it, man.


*Learned on Friday, the place is going to be a Yogartland. Also, evidently the funky interior predates even the shoestore. More if and when I learn it.

Daily Dose

From Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchel

"There was a Spanish nun called St. Paula the Bearded, who grew a miraculous beard, according to the sacred history. She was being pursued one night by a man with evil intent when hair suddenly sprouted from her chin. She turned and confronted the man and he fled. No reliable statistics on the length of these beards has come down to us."

From McSorley's Wonderful Saloon

Monday, May 23, 2011

Behind the Tents

The above is what Street Fair looks like from a bricks & mortar perspective. Not very inviting, is it? The Fair, as you can see puts its back to us every year. Crowds of determined punters mill up and down the middle of the block in search of family fun: listening to buskers and bands, getting free spinal adjustments, eating kettle-corn, meat-on-sticks, and whatnot, and buying the handicrafts of the booth-holders. For those of us that front the sidewalks, there's not much to be done by way of participation. Oh, a few of the resident merchants put out a table or two, offer a special discount the days of, or string a bit of bunting over their doors, but realistically, there's not much that can be said for our sales when only the parking lots and the public bathrooms are full. Otherwise, the action is elsewhere. Once, a coworker and I made the experiment of putting some books, knickknacks and T shirts on a table and took a couple of chairs and a cashbox out with us to spend the day. The weather was pleasant enough that year, even in the shade. All that could be said for the day, frankly. Another time, a few of us went up and down the street with one-time-only-discount-coupons. That did a little better, but could hardly be said to have justified the number of irritable babies in strollers in the lobby, or the lines of cranky tourists in the neighborhood complaining of the "shocking condition" of the ladies' loo after a few hundred of their fellow Fairgoers had trouped through.

As one might imagine, Street Fair, when it rolls around every year, at least for those of us working in the bookstore that weekend, is not the happiest of occasions. I personally don't have much use for it, as you may have figured out already. (Even my eight dollar BBQ sandwich was indigestible this year.)

Working at the Used Books Buying Desk on Saturday, I was as always amazed to find more than a few single-minded individuals show up with books to sell, crowds, road-blocks and chiropractors be damned. Most of course simply forgot or did not know that they'd picked a most inconvenient day to try to sell a bag of grandma's mysteries or last year's book club selections. I was of course perfectly happy to see such sellers who came. Almost always glad to see people come to the desk with books to sell me. And, it gave me a good excuse to not direct folks upstairs to the restrooms for a minute or two. That was a pleasant respite.

As for sales, I wouldn't know until I see the figures, but while there were unnaturally large crowds in the joint, I should say we saw about the same number of shoppers as might be on a gloomy Spring day. Maybe less. Certainly not more. Can't imagine there were more.

I don't mean to grouse, or begrudge anyone their good time, or their lumpy new vase, or framed photograph of Mount Rainier. Even with, so far as I can see, no direct benefit to the bookstore's bottom-line, it isn't a bad thing to have all these people in the neighborhood on a weekend. Whatever the mess they leave, or the noise they make, it does the neighborhood some good to have folks see it looking festive and friendly. Ours is an area of the city so completely identified with the university now that there are lots of locals who seem to think there really is no other reason to be there. Not true, of course. There are the usual college bars and inexpensive restaurants, but there are also some unique shops, a lovely old movie theater, live music, and yes, bookshops, still, including the finest general bookstore in the city, if I do say so myself.

Still, I confess, every year this wall of tent-flaps out the front windows makes me cranky. I feel no more connection to what goes on out there than to the annoying annual fly-over from the Blue Angels that rattles the glass for an hour or two, come the boating season, I think. Nothing to do with me.

This festival also reminds me, every single year, how this kind of celebration, presumably meant as a promotion of the "local" tends to attract, well, as much bad barbecue from who knows what corner of the primitive South, as it does locals to and from the local businesses. Where exactly is the neighborhood in all of this? Also, I am deeply suspicious of the class of artistic white bohemians who caravan from street fair to street fair, from county fair to flea market, hawking their hand-carved harps and resin jewelry, their comic mugs and patch hats. I don't say they don't deserve their livelihood. They pay for their booths and they takes their chances. They aren't quite carnies, but they still have that lingering atmosphere of the fly by night, the nearly not, and the entirely too temporary to quite be true.

About this, it seems, I may be wrong. A friend and fellow employee of the bookstore stopped by early to the desk on his way elsewhere and told me he'd just seen the man who delivers the Fritos to the branch store where my friend works. It seems the Fritos delivery man, and his lovely lady wife, are both local photographers and every year they buy a booth-space, set up shop at the Street Fair, and sell their admirable pictures of the local scenery. Good on them, I say. What it's all meant to be about, really. I'm a little ashamed to think I was so suspicious.

That lemonade stand, after all, one of 'em anyway, seems to be raising money for something or other hereabouts.

Ignore grouchy old me. Enjoy. Hopefully, we'll see you again sometime. Maybe next Saturday, you know, in the bookstore, buying a book. Stranger things have happened. So, have a good time at the Street Fair, folks.

Just avoid the brisket.

Daily Dose

From Essays, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"Good dinners have been the greatest vehicles of benevolence since man began to eat."

From Greenwich Whitebait

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Brief Explanation

Below, the reader will find two examples of how one should probably not write a memo. Not very professional, all this business of doodles and childish hand-lettering. When it came to it, not to worry, I typed up something more appropriate for review. So at least I hope. These I did just to work out the idea, and to tempt dear P. -- my supervisor, champion and fellow reader aloud -- to have another go with me this summer. As with the creepy stories we read last October, the idea here will be to get other booksellers -- and anyone else we can dragoon -- to participate. Everybody likes dogs, right?

You will note, however, that I have also suggested alternating with those of the feline preference. This was simple pandering, frankly, as P. has two, admittedly rather adorable, young cats.

Can't we all just get along?

Remains to be seen. As does approval for the series. We'll see. (Meanwhile, ignore the dates. The earliest this series would happen now would be August. And there's still reading on Thackeray's birthday to think about, which, by the way, isn't quite on yet either. Big plans, me.)

Proposed Readings 2

Proposed Readings 1

Daily Dose

From Thackeray: His Literary Career, by Dr. John Brown


"Most novelists know how to let the life out towards the end, so that the story dies quite naturally, having been wound up for so long. But his airy nothings, if once life is breathed into them, and they are made to speak and act, and love and hate, will not die; on the contrary, they grow in force and vitality under our very eye:the curtain comes sheer down upon them when they are at their best."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Clerihew for the Theory-Ridden


Sad but true,
Alain Badiou
Will make the common reader weary.
Was any man so set in his theory?

Daily Dose

From The English Humorists, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"A man in life, a humorist, in writing about life, sways to one principle of the other, and laughs with the reverence for the right and love of truth in his heart, or laughs at these from the other side."

From Congreve and Addison

Friday, May 20, 2011

Clerihew of the Mujahideenerd


William T. Vollmann
Believes that the Afghan,
Dressing up or getting down,
Is just the coolest guy around.

Daily Dose

From Ballads and Critical Reviews, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"There is a higher ingredient in beauty than mere form; a skillful hand is only the second artistic quality worthless without the first, which is a great heart."

From A Pictorial Rhapsody

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Factually Unstable Clerihew


While born in Pińsk the
Great Kapuściński,
Seldom if ever put such facts to the test,
And could just as easily have said it was Brest.

Daily Dose

From The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"The incidents of life, and love-making especially, I believe to resemble each other so much that I am surprised, ladies and gentlemen, you read novels any more."

From Chapter XVIII

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The English Comic Writers, by William Hazlitt


"There is a rude conception of generosity in some of characters, of which Fielding seems to have been incapable, his amiable persons being merely good-natured."

From The English Novelists

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"It is best to love wisely, no doubt: but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all. Some of us can't: and are proud of our impotence too."

From Book I, Chapter VI

Monday, May 16, 2011

Thackeray Aloud

Stratford on Avon wasn't all that much, you know, until David Garrick. It was the great actor and friend of Johnson and Goldsmith, etc., who put that place on the map. Scandalized by the failure of the town to much mark the two hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, and seeing an opportunity, in 1769 Garrick organized a "jubilee" that officially inaugurated, by most scholarly estimates, the birth of the Stratford cult. There was already local a gent selling keepsakes carved from what was purported to be a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare, but otherwise, there wasn't yet much of a market in" Bardolatry" in the old boy's hometown. Garrick, the foremost Shakespearean of his day, himself an eager collector of Shakespeareana, and not one to let an opportunity pass to link his own name with that of his idol, went all out with his late birthday party. It was and it wasn't a success. Garrick himself described the event as "gigantically comic fiasco." Plagued by bad weather, lack of accommodations, some seriously poor planning, and what now seems an incredible oversight in not offering a single actual performance of a Shakespeare play, the festival nevertheless proved a memorable occasion. Garrick performed his own Ode upon dedicating a building and, erecting a statue, to Shakespeare, at Stratford-upon-Avon, which went over very well. Otherwise, it sounds rather a mess. Whatever the detractions of the jubilee, it gave Stratford on Avon, forgiving the pun, the cottage industry upon which its fame and fortune still depends.

Come next February, a similar occasion will doubtlessly be marked in England by a much more professionally managed series of public events, lectures, readings, news stories and new publications when the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens rolls around. (In my own modest way, I hope to do my part with at least one reading at the bookstore. I sincerely hope that that will not prove to be the only such celebration locally. Shame on us if it is.) Obviously, I am all for this kind of thing. Celebrity book club selections, movie adaptations -- good and bad, though mostly bad -- house-museums, musicals... generally I only draw the line at sequels, or "reinterpretations" written by other hands. That's almost invariably a bad idea; see the wretched Dan Simmon's vulgar Drood, for example, or any of the Darcy romances of recent days, or Oscar Wilde as a vampire hunter. Shiver. Otherwise? Almost any excuse, I feel. Anything that draws the attention of the public to great books and to those that made 'em, is all to the good. Snobbery be damned. I love that there is a theme park called Dickens World -- though I haven't any urge to go. (I do dream of seeing Gad's Hill someday.)

The centrality of literature to modern culture is increasingly questioned in the popular media. This is nonsense. Forget for a moment that this is primarily an exercise in writers writing about writing for readers reading about reading. Even if the human thumb is in some kind of evolutionary transition thanks to portable electronics, there is as yet no evidence that any human brain organizes itself by any method other than language, or ever will, or that any language, including mathematics, code and music, has surpassed our own for efficiency as a method of communication. All those other languages have their beauties and their unique capacities, but none, I predict, will ever improve on "I love you" as the quickest and best means to the happiest of ends. So long as this is true, there must be a literature to elaborate. The best literature, like the best music, transcends the limitations of time and place, and the fad and fashion dictated by commercial distraction, academic and political preoccupations, and survives even popular neglect.

Do not however mistake my confidence in the survival of literature for complacency. No good comes from any assumption made about the durability of "classics" without an active commitment on the part of everyone with an interest in seeing to it that what is best is bought, taught, heard and seen. What we now would call "classical" music survives not simply because it is better than the folk songs and popular ditties of its day, or even because those materials inspired genius, but because a whole community of musicians, composers, conductors, teachers, students and fans have kept the tradition alive. (The idea that grand opera was ever the popular music of the eighteenth, let alone the nineteenth century has always made me smile. I understand the impulse to have it so, but popularity must be rather elastically defined if I am to accept that my great grandma ever heard a tune by Verdi or even Mendelssohn, as she surely did, and recognized it as such.)

That last in mind, the great nineteenth century novel has proven to endure, but by no means can we assume that it will unaided, just because it should. We must all do what we can, those of us who believe in the best books, to remind ourselves, and everyone else, why. We must, by whatever means we comfortably may, be evangelists for the books we love. Whatever it takes, I say. The disdain expressed by snobs for the "Austen industry" of criticism, clubs and tours, and even less respectable, for quaint little gift editions of excerpts, for Jane T shirts, and Austen tea-services, is understandable in so far as the production of such stuff exploits the memory of the novelist to no better end than to keep the Chinese sweatshops that keep us in knickknacks going, but it says something for us, and our Jane, surely, that those poor souls are not just painting "Hello Kitty" cups, doesn't it? The need of such ancillary trash, while not evident of itself, bespeaks at least a sustained interest in the lady if not always in really reading the books, a need for community and a pride in expressing, however vulgar the means, a preference for superior intellectual achievement. There's little enough likelihood, two hundred years hence, that anyone will be wearing a picture of Stephenie Meyer on a T shirt, or making pilgrimage to Tom Clancy's compound. Exceptional intelligence and talent are however no guarantee of popular remembrance, anymore that the lack of these has ever been a bar to popular success.

A case then very much in point: William Makepeace Thackeray. July 18th, 2011 will mark his two hundredth birthday. I can find little or nothing in the way of planned commemorations of the date, here or in Great Britain. I hope I'm wrong. If the author of the greatest comic novel in the language rates not so much as a cake...

I want to do a reading of Thackeray, for his birthday. A reading of what, I don't know. Might do the Duchess of Richmond's ball from Vanity Fair, if that proves manageable, or just selections from his Yellowplush Papers, something. The point being that here is exactly the excuse required.

Not so easy as Dickens. Everybody knows Dickens still, even people who may never have read a word of him. Not so Thackeray. Vanity Fair, that greatest of novels to which I referred already, is still widely read and respected, but it's author is now too little known, despite still being ranked as a great writer. Thackeray's reputation in his own day was, in some circles, even superior to Dickens; Thackeray being thought the more refined sensibility, the greater satirist, the better gentleman. Doesn't mean a thing now, whatever his reputation once was, nor should it. The rivals, for such they were, are both dust, as are the critics who would set them up as such. All of Dickens survives. All of Thackeray does not, nor did some of it necessarily deserve to, though again, that hardly matters. What does matter is that there is more in Thackeray than most people now know; more comedy, more feeling, more finely accomplished art than anyone who may have read only Vanity Fair would know.

The chief complaint against Thackeray -- made even so recently as the last major biography of him a couple of decades ago -- was that unlike Dickens, Thackeray was somehow insincere. The accepted line is that having achieved greatness with his first novel, he declined thereafter, writing more for money than for art, a victim of his own success and snobbery, unwilling to offend, now he'd arrived, the very people he had once so ruthlessly satirized. The possibility that the novelist, no longer young, simply ceased to see society as being so irredeemable once he was in it, while admitted to be possible, sounds less dramatic. That Thackeray was both a cynic and a snob, a ruthless critic and a kind soul, a realist nevertheless capable of what we would now consider gross sentimentality, does not, to my mind, disqualify him from being a great novelist, anymore than Dickens perhaps being a bit of a hypocrite in matters domestic makes his fantasies of the happy hearth fraudulent. Both were men. Both were flawed. Both had genius. If Dickens had the larger share, as even Thackeray in an honest mood was prepared to admit, in what way does that condemn Thackeray to comparative obscurity?

Reading further in Thackeray has been one of the sustained pleasures in my leisure hours now for a decade. If nearly all of his later essays for "Punch" and long stretches of The Virginians, for example, have dated beyond the point of pleasure, well, I would only mention Trollope's hunting scenes, or George Eliot's sermons, or the excruciating shyness of Austen's Fanny Price, etc. Not every book must be a masterpiece, nor every piece an undiluted pleasure to be read with satisfaction.

Henry Esmond, and even more, The Newcomes, are brilliant novels, every bit as worthy of readers and study as anything written by any of the novelist's great contemporaries, including Dickens. So why aren't they read more?

One answer would be that Thackeray's conservatism, for so it would seem to us now, lacks the satisfaction of the more righteous indignation of Dickens, or Mrs. Gaskell's social-problem-novels. But do we really read great novels, and great novelists, for their politics? Thackeray's sympathies were as wide as any man of his day. If his political engagement with the issues looks to us to have come from the wrong side in most matters, what of it? Was Trollope a proper liberal by our standards? Was Eliot not occasionally insufferably smug? It's nonsense to talk this way about great novelists, no better than judging Tolstoy by his latter religious manias. Great novels are great, often as not, despite the limitations of their politics. It is in the humanity expressed, the humor and sophistication of the observer, and the gift for invention and expression that great fiction writers lay their claims on the reader, not their opinion of the Corn Laws or any other such forgotten reforms.

I think the real reason for Thackeray's failure to come down to us in tact has less to do with his failures, or his failings, than it is to do with our attention simply being elsewhere. When I was giving copies away of Mrs. Gaskell's charming little Cranford, the lady had yet to make her debut on Masterpiece theater. Now she's everywhere. I claim no part in her popularity. I don't know that any of the copies I gave as gifts were ever read. Despite an appalling recent screen adaptation of Vanity Fair, or perhaps at least in part because of it, readers have not been flocking to even that one masterpiece of Thackeray. All it would take, I'm convinced, is a few mentions in the popular press, perhaps a new television film of Henry Esmond, and Thackeray could make a similar comeback. Maybe I'm wrong, but surely the novelist's 200th birthday provides at least some excuse for making a fuss?

I've no illusions about how many a reading of mine might bring to his standard, but that's all for the moment I can think to do, so why not? Why not give it a go, say something of his out loud, to mark the passage of two hundred years since he came into the world, and do something rather than nothing to see that he isn't further forgotten? It'll be fun.

What's the worst than can happen? A few loyal friends may listen to me read a little something, well or badly, and then maybe have a drink in memory of one of the great English novelists. There are worse ways to celebrate a birthday.

He disliked public speaking, though he did it, and he didn't much care for reading his work aloud, unlike Charles Dickens who made a second career of it, but he did that too. He did however like a drink, and a party, as much as the next fellow. So, a modest party, and a large drink at least, come the day. Mark your calendars.

To, then, William Makepeace Thackeray!

Daily Dose

From Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte


"If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken."

From Chapter One

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Subsidiary Clerihew


What now are we to do
With Maya Angelou?
With Oprah going, she'll find it hard,
Moving so much as a greeting card.

Daily Dose

From Lovel the Widower, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"Ah, dear me, we are most of us very lonely in the world. You who have any who love you, cling to them, and thank God."

From Chapter VI

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Thackeray on Dickens

Daily Dose

From The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., by William Makepeace Thackeray

"I wonder shall History ever pull off her periwig and cease to be court-ridden?"

From Chapter 1, An Account of the Family of Esmond of Castlewood Hall

Friday, May 13, 2011

Missing Hours

Down. Oh dear. After 20.5 hours without access while "maintenance" was being done, this little whatsit of mine came back. Not whole, at first, but back. About a week's worth of nonsense and doodles, and one longer bit of chin-wag were missing still for some hours. Eventually, even those that went astray, came back, only a bit garbled in insignificant ways, easily corrected. In fact, everything I though lost, has actually come back now more than once, one clerihew in draft reappearing no less than three times, which was disconcerting at first, and then made me feel ever so much better. See? Nothing lost forever. But, for awhile there, when I could not access any of the material that appeared to be suspended in some kind of limbo between publication online and nowhere at all, I could, rather maddeningly, see some of it -- out there in the ether -- by searching for a title elsewhere online. There they were, my little rhymed jokes and the rest, ascribed arightly and all to me, but with nothing really there; no content and no history beyond the name. This was hopeful. However, until I had access to the point at which this stuff of mine was again under my control, I was a little frantic.

As I've said, now everything is fine.

It is important to note that the site did make information available to me throughout, did fix the problem, whatever it was, and did restore everything that I was afraid had been lost. I should also mention that this had never happened before. On the rare occasions heretofore when any maintenance work has required restricting my access, notification has always come well in advance, the inconvenience has been minor, and nobody the wiser, frankly. This service remains free -- important to emphasize that, I think -- and, this one instance excepted -- so simple and reliable that even I can use it. Imagine that.

So why then, do you suppose, I panicked so, at the thought that I might have lost even the few trivial entries that threatened, for a little while, to drop into the void? In the first place, I'm not very sophisticated about the way the magic computer box and the interwebs all work. I panic, at least a little, every time I hit "enter" unwisely, open an email from an unfamiliar address, look at pictures of naked men. One would think that by know, doing this sort of thing daily, I would be better equipped to cope with a minor crisis. Not true, I'm afraid. I've been driving a car for a dozen years now. Still wonder every time I get behind the wheel how on Earth the machine manages to go forward pretty much whenever that's the direction I intended. Frankly, I don't want to know how machines work, I just want them to.

I would be lying if I said I was not a little proud of even the least of my efforts here. Perhaps not every one, were I to go back and have another look. Some I know are rather shoddy goods. That is not the point. There are by now a few things I've written here that I would preserve, but the chief source of my pride is less in having done any one thing here well, than in having continued to do this, whatever it is, almost every day, one way and another. None of what went missing could, by even the kindest surmise, be thought to be an irreplaceable loss to either literature or art if never recovered. I'm not such a fool as to think, by dithering away about books and such, every night or nearly, that I might have made something that will last. Even if I believed in writing that way, or thought myself capable of such writing, I don't think "publishing" a blog would be the best way to go about staking such a claim, even now, do you? At even the best estimate of my most popular post, I think I'm reaching just about the readership for which I might ever hope. In fact, I'm delighted to discover that I've found any readers at all, bless you. There may be a couple of very dear, devoted friends who might eventually notice this little light of mine going out, but even in the best of times, it might take quite awhile before anyone noticed other than me. But then, as with all such blogs, diaries and the like, for me, I'm ultimately rather the point, at least to me.

One other consideration, being the thing I tell myself when discouraged, overworked or overwrought, would be that I do flatter myself, in my own very little way, that at least by doing what I do here, I contribute something to the preservation of the best books. That sounds rather grand, but all I mean to suggest is that by quoting Mark Twain -- and not just contributing to the seemingly endless online recycling of the same weary quotes of Mark Twain -- by typing that name with some regularity and sending it out again, and again, and in the company of Johnson, and Lamb, Thackeray and Dickens, I add to the happy noise. I don't know of but a very few, documented instances when, by means of this blog, I've actually induced someone to go and read Twain, or Dickens or any of the great writers and poets whose names I so frequently bandy about here, as though I knew any of them well enough, or my readers, to insist. I have yet to experience what it might mean to have influence in such matters much beyond the friends I knew well before I ever took this business up. What I mean to say is something simpler, and more important.

I believe sincerely that while the means by which some people access literature may be changing, that human beings will always have need of literature and find a way to get at it. More substantial commentators are forever lamenting the "death" of the book, and the failure of poetry, or the novel to thrive in the midst of this latest technological revolution. Headlines in otherwise respectable publications, online and off, are forever announcing the very end of traditional publishing, of the bookstore, of reading. It's all such bullshit. If anything, the changing environment would seem to me to be encouraging all kinds of truly exciting new innovations and experiments. Access to publishing books in both new and more democratic ways is happening all around us now, every day. How anyone can say that fewer people now read, when literacy rates world wide must be higher now than at any point in human history, when more and more people communicate by means of text, when more and more people have access to greater and ever greater collections of information and art than ever before, well... it's just silly, to talk about the disappearance of any of it.

The one thing about which I do worry, the thing I aim in my eccentric way to help prevent, at least insofar as I am able by doing this to do anything at all, is that even on the miracle and marvel that is the Internet, one sees entirely too little of entirely too much that is better than what most people would seem to have any interest in reading. I don't say everyone ought or needs to read a poem by Walter Savage Landor, or that millions of people haven't led perfectly productive and satisfying lives without once opening a book by Denton Welch. I do say that unless those of us who appreciate such things regularly assert their superiority, as art and experience, to videos of kittens playing piano, or gossip columns about naughty starlets, or romance novels, or the collected works of J. K. Rowling, then the one very real risk I do think we may be running, in so many people just nattering away about nothing much that matters, is that we may someday not remember, many of us, most of us, what a poem can be, or a novel, or art, or that some things matter more than others. If we someday do indeed have access to just about everything ever written, while that's an awesome development, I do worry that we may forget some of what we might best remember.

So while nothing that I might have lost and regained during that missing day would qualify as important in any way of itself, I'm glad the missing bits and pieces of this blog came back, because I'm convinced that every opportunity afforded me here, to add a mention of bookstores, to reading Thackeray, every time I get to say Charles Dickens name, or type the word "book," I'm keeping a light on. That's all. May not add much to the general enlightenment, but it keeps me off the streets. That's something.

Glad to be back then.