Monday, January 31, 2011

20 Years Hence

Daily Dose

From The Poems of Walter Savage Landor, selected and edited by Ernest Radford


"Pursuits! alas, I now have none,
But idling where were once pursuits..."

From Selection # XVIII, Pursuits! Alas I Now Have None

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Citation Needed

I've never knowingly met any of the contributors to online reference sources like Wikipedia. I may have done. As I understand it, though there must be individual editors and possibly whole committees of people whose job it is to oversee the accuracy of what's posted there as fact, there is little or nothing to prevent any interested party from becoming a contributor. Reading some of the entries for more obscure favorites of mine, I've thought of offering my own additions, for instance, from my own library, to the listed bibliography of E. V. Lucas, or posting an entry for someone I've only discovered by way of having books reprinted for me on the Espresso Book Machine at the bookstore, "lost" writers like Richard Dowling or John Cann Bailey. In trying to research such obscure essayists and critics for myself, I've found that there are ways, online and off, to get at at least the basic biographies of such people, and I'm always a little amazed that no one among the hundreds or thousands of contributors to the rather wonderful Wiki has found the time or inclination to do this before. I've hesitated to do this much myself, not from modesty, as one is allowed anonymity still in contributing -- something I think admirable -- but for fear that I would do a disservice to these largely forgotten writers in finding no more in my researches than was required to mention them in a posting here. I have neither the qualifications nor the research skills that would seem to me necessary to make even the amateur encyclopedist. I keep thinking someone must not only know more than I do about these writers, as I'm sure lots of people must, but that whatever I might post, because of my unfamiliarity with the requirements of such sites, would not meet even the minimum standards of verifiable fact. If challenged, what could I say? I remember reading... something, somewhere? Was it something I read in a book lost somewhere in this room? or on some online incarnation of Debrett's Peerage? Don't remember now.

As a common reader, midnight scribbler, and the most casual, and forgetful of researchers, at best, while I feel an obligation to tell the truth as I find it, I can't make any claim to authority, even about the books I've just read, without having the book open before me. Posting quotes, I try to meet some minimum standard of accuracy as to the correct wording and the source, but I've found it's best to do this as I read, for the most part, for fear that, should I rely either on my memory or even my own notes, I will be just as likely to get something wrong as not. Startling how often that can happen -- even when I looking right at the page and passage I've marked! (What is that about?!) Now or nothing is about the best I can do. (I've always envied those readers who can keep what they've most admired ready for when they might need it. I envy a great memory almost as much as I admire the ability to tap dance. I know, some would say both are skills that can be learned, even at my age, but that, I confess, probably ain't gonna happen for me. How many times have I wished I remembered better some phrase that might serve an argument better than anything I might say, and thought I knew just the thing, if only I could remember who said it, and how? Know I read something good on that very subject -- whatever it is -- once. When I try, either here or in conversation, to come up with what this or that some superior person said, and I try to say it just as they said or wrote it, come to find out, when I have the time to check, I've muffed it, muddled the sense of it, or attributed it to someone else entirely than the person who said it first or wrote it best. Hopefully, with the time and resources of my leisure hours here at my desk, I do a bit better writing than I do when I'm trying to be clever over dinner-out. Hopefully. Don't make any bets, though.) That would seem to me to be the chief flaw in the new era of democratic Reference; the reliance on memories evidently no better than mine.

How many times, in this new age of computer reference, have I seen that disheartening little phrase, "(citation needed)", and wondered where else it ought to be popping up in the body of what's presented, on the whole, as being fact? Discouraging to think that anyone taking the trouble to write and post such information as they thought vital to the record, didn't have something more reliable than their own memory to hand when the time came to establish a fact for more readers than will ever hereafter think to check another source. After all, how many times do I really question the reference materials I find online, unless I just happen to know -- by purest chance --something contradictory? Wrong John Brown, for instance, pictured at one time at least, on two of the three entries under that name I happened to look up at Wikipedia.

Now, if I were a better citizen, I might have done something about that.

I am just old enough to trust books better, and some names better still than others. Years ago, I read Harry R. Warfel's biography, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America. Admirable book about an admirable man, as I remember it, and an admirable and accurate title for him too. For any who might wonder by what way a man's name may become, for generations after his death, synonymous with his life's work, even after that work has been subsumed and or supplanted, I can think of no better example than Webster, or of a better explanation than that offered in Warfel's old standard biography. Webster not only taught the new Republic how to spell, how to pronounce, how to read, and to read their Bible, but also to define themselves and their new country, for themselves, in their own language. Quite an amazing accomplishment, and worthy, wouldn't you say? of long remembrance. If no one now would have much use for Webster's original work, An American Dictionary of the English Language, they still know his name, and use it as a standard to which all our subsequent reference works are yet held. No small fame in that.

How many other examples of this might be found on the bookstore's Reference shelves? Roget, Brewer, Fowler, Follett, Strunk & White, and maybe one more, without thinking too hard, Benét. Go into almost any bookstore, selling new books or used, or both, anywhere in the United States, and you are likely to find, in one edition or another, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia. The fifth and most recent edition came out just in 2008, but the book, in one form or another, has existed, as such, since 1948. That's pretty good for a reference book. I wonder, how many people who might even know that book, might even own it, remember William Rose Benét? That's him, by the way, in that rather whimsical portrait at the top. (Reference failure: it is not only a charming likeness, it is the only one I could find online or anywhere else, and I never could find the name of the painter.) Now, I've worked in bookstores for a quarter of a century, and I don't know that I ever knew that Benét's was so called because of it's first editor, or that that was William Rose Benét, that he was the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature for twenty five years, that he'd won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, that he was married to the poet, Elinor Wylie, or that he wasn't the same guy as his brother, and fellow Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stephen Vincent Benét. (All to you, Wikipedia.) Curious, isn't it? Must be the only American siblings to have both won such a prestigious literary award, and me working in a bookstore, and I didn't even know, or at least quite remember that these were two different poets, or that the one I remembered least well, actually made one of my favorite books. Such, it seems, is immortality.

But the name Benét, whatever else it may or may not still mean in American Literature, still means enough, has still sufficient recognition to it, to have survived William Rose Benét, if nowhere else, on a book with however many editors since, and on a book that is still the standard for an American work of literary reference. Pretty good.

I recently bought the two volume, illustrated, second edition that is shown in the other picture here. Didn't have to pay much for it, used. If you don't know Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia in this, or any other edition, let me just say what an odd and admirable object it is. I can't frankly imagine it surviving, as a reprinted book all that much longer, however extensively revised. Too much of what this book was meant to do for both reader and writer can now be done, and is being done with greater efficiency, if with no improvement in either style or accuracy, online. The idea of such a book was to anticipate the references and allusions in literature to other books, authors, myths, and familiar phrases, and to collect and define these in a single, handy volume. What Benét was hired by his publisher to do was take an existing reference work of theirs, Crowell's Handbook for Readers and Writers, and update and improve it. As Benét noted in his introduction to the first edition of his book, that book in turn owed it's existence to Brewer, now best remembered for A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but also the author of The Reader's Handbook. All of this information may be had now, in one shape or another, online, but what Brewer, and Benét after him, did, and what the contributors to Wikipedia are now themselves doing after their fashion, was a continuation of a tradition at least as old as the French encyclopédistes of the 18th Century.

The ideal of collecting all human knowledge into one comprehensive and accessible work, while an admirable and revolutionary concept, had, by the time William Rose Benét came along, long since been given over to an industry of professional encyclopedia-makers, but certain aspects of culture and science, having outgrown any such confines, almost required, and could still be profitably treated to their own individual volumes. Made sense, in 1948, to get an American man of letters, like Benét, in to do the job for literature.

What I've always liked best about books like Benét's is their confidence, one might better say their optimism or naïveté, in thinking not only that such a thing might be done, but that it should. The age of literature as the exclusive property of the academic had yet to so disastrously dawn. Benét, like Brewer, and Webster in his way, before him, could still assume that even so complex a subject as letters or literature might be understood by anyone, with just such help as might come from just a reference book or two, and moreover, that it ought to be. Remember, by the time Benét came to make a new reference book out of an old one, he could still mention, as he does even in his introduction, a book like Joyce's Ulysses without suggesting that no one but specialists might be qualified, or inclined to read it. Think of that.

That's exactly what has kept a book like Benét's in print all these decades, that assumption that the reader's curiosity might be best satisfied by actually reading our literature, with perhaps just such help as might be had from one or two other fat books. Until we were persuaded otherwise, by our own higher education, or the lack of it, men like Benét were still pretty sure we could manage these things, if we had to, for ourselves. The breadth of a book like Benét's is still impressive. As amusing and quaint as they might now seem to us, many of the assumptions these old editors made about just what to be valuable to their readers, weren't all that unlikely then. A literate American, in 1948, might have wanted a word or two on Swinburne without being thought overly eccentric. And as glaring as the omissions might look after more than sixty years, -- imagine! not a word on Filipino poetry! -- and in light of the most recent progress in the study of the various college programs of hyphenated-studies, a book like Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, or Brewer's dictionary, still seem to find readers, and not just among fusty old eccentrics like me. How is it then that such books, if only for the time being, still find readers in the age of electronic information? How is it that I'm pretty confident, even if these books go completely out of print, one way and another, they will always find readers?

Old Aeschylus said somewhere -- at least according to one of my dictionaries of quotation -- "The man whose authority is recent is always stern." So it seems to me, for now, is much that might be consulted on the Internet as being even close to a respectable source for information. Whatever it's impressive reach, and however miraculous it's accessibility, Wikipedia is frankly a bit... dry. Nothing wrong with that, for what Wikipedia is or is meant to be. In matters of art and literature particularly though, the simple, verifiable Gradgrindian facts may not be quite enough for any but the most devoted students of the M'Choakumchild school. (Look 'em up.) To read literature at all well, one might be better served, at least as one goes along, by reference to the older,still very individual, if no longer unchallenged opinions of men like Martin Seymour-Smith, and William Rose Benét, the former a delightfully opinionated old party on the subject of Modern Literature, and the later, in his more subtle way, no less inclined to let slip, here and there, something of his own estimation of various giants, as in his little wink, just at the end of his thoroughly straightforward entry on George Eliot. In 1948, and again, it seems, as late as my second edition from 1965, it was still thought proper to refer without further comment to the living arrangements of Miss Mary Ann Evans and George Henry Lewes as "irregular," but that isn't the funniest bit, really. Benét, the poet, ends his entry on "Mrs. Lewes," the great novelist, with the following:

"Her greatest preoccupation is with moral problems, and more particularly, with the moral development of her characters, many of whom strive with the difficulty of arriving at an individual and mature view of life. See SPANISH GYPSY, THE."

Now one would have to have read poor Miss Evans' poor old poem, "The Spanish Gypsy," to find that amusing, I suppose, but of all the possibilities to which the reader might be directed for a better understanding of just how well Miss Evans' managed, at least artistically, to resolve her own "moral problems," there are few products of her mighty pen less likely to enlighten us than the painfully silly story of noble Fedalma, her equally noble beau and their ridiculously noble parting. Someone may have been suggesting a bit of the humbug just here.

That's the kind of odd charm only a book like Benét's can still afford the reader, and presumably only because there was no one back in the day with the superior authority to suggest that Benét was either being too eccentrically obscure in this closing reference, or wrong to be poking a little fun at the noble George Elliot.

One needs a certain authority to do either with, as it were, a straight face.

If I'm being honest, I bought this edition of Benét's mostly for the illustrations -- an equally eccentric selection of portrait plates and "148 line cuts of title pages, old woodcuts, and cartoons." (As this edition was published only after the great editor's death, I scent the musty pleasures of the copyright-free usage in this, more than any suggestion of William Rose Benét's.) Now I must admit that I think I will have to keep the old thing whole, and add it to my reference books, just because I like the idea of the thing as much or more than whatever use I may find for it as a reference. However much improved the speed of our communications, and however much I may personally have come to rely on the easy access to information provided by the Internet, I think I'd better be sure to keep as many good reference books as I may find always about me. Better to trust a man so confident in the sufficiency of his own dignity as to pose for his portrait decked in a cloak and a floppy red hat, than all the unseen authorities floating out there in the ether.

Daily Dose

From Charles Dickens: His Life and Work, by Stephen Leacock


"He thought in extreme terms and wrote in capital letters."

From Chapter Seven, Bleak House and Social Reform, 1850- 1854

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Moon Tonight Feels My Revenge: One-Man Black Metal Bands and Stories, by Matthew Simmons


"At the store, we are helped by a man with an orange vest and a lazy eye.

'What's wrong with your eye?' Sport asked.

The man did not answer, but looked over at me. I smiled at him, and gave a shrug. He returned the shrug. We commiserated over the innocence of children.

'Some people just have messed up eyes,' I told my son.

'Wow,' said the man."

From This Mountain I Built

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Caricature

Our bosom friend, Jonathan Evison, is worried about going out on tour for his new Novel, West of Here, after a couple of years on a "writer's diet"; i.e. beer and frustration. Seems to think he's lost his figure. Do not despair, Johnny! One has options, yet.

Daily Dose

From A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor


"I had often been drunk, and high spirits had led to rash doings; but never to this hoggish catalepsy."

From Chapter 4, Winterreise

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin


"Nature assigns the Sun --
That -- is Astronomy --
Nature cannot enact a Friend --
That -- is Astrology."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Let's Take This Thing National!

Unsuccessful Suggestions: Third Series

Unsuccessful Suggestions: Second Series

Unsuccessful Suggestions: First Series

Daily Dose

From Talking about Detective Fiction, by P. D. James


"The women in the hard-boiler are sexually alluring temptresses seen by the hero as inimical both to their masculine code and to the success of the job. they may not all get shot in the leg, but if guilty they are likely to be handed over to the police without compunction."

From Chapter 4, Soft-centered and Hard-boiled

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

For All In All

We've had a display for awhile now, of discounted Shakespeare titles, in the lobby of the bookstore where I work. There are some lovely paperback editions of the plays, all nice, scholarly jobs, and a few titles, in paperback and hardcover, of biographies and Shakespeare criticism and so forth. There are books for children on Shakespeare, picture books on Shakespeare and the plays, books about the history of Shakespeare productions, and I don't know what all. Coincidentally, in just the past couple of weeks, we seem to have purchased, from different sellers, mind, no less than half a dozen different hardcover editions of the complete works: everything from a chunky Norton, to a huge Riverside, and at least one rather hideous old thing from who knows when, in sickly green, cloth covers, though the interior is quite clear and readable, and the binding actually better than that of the newish Norton edition. The bookstore then is, just now crammed with cheap Shakespeare!

Any time one finds a display of books by and about Shakespeare now -- though this may have been true for years and I've only just noticed the fact -- at least half of the books about the poet aren't so much about him, as they are either about "proving" he was someone other than Shakespeare, or "proving" that, indeed, he was Shakespeare, but not who we thought that man was. Right now there's a book on that bargain table that would have William Shakespeare a master politician and spy, as well as a close confidant of Elizabeth I, and another that would explain his genius as best understood in terms of a secret code, incorporated in every word of the plays, major and minor. I won't even bother just here with all the Baconians and the Oxfordians, etc., who are always littered about the shelves. I would note however that just this past Friday, I was asked to order a book, by one Hank Whittemore, called Shakespeare's Son and His Sonnets, for a customer. We didn't stock the book. Happy to get it for our customer, though. When I asked the nice man on the phone, in all innocence, if this was a novel, as even I know that William Shakespeare's only son, Hamnet, died as a child of eleven, the customer replied:

"Ah, but did that William Shakespeare write the Sonnets?"

Knew right where we stood, after that.

I'd only just read a most interesting book, published in 2004, The Great Shakespeare Fraud: The Strange True Story of William-Henry Ireland, by Patricia Pierce. At the end of the 18th Century, and at just nineteen, Ireland, largely to please his father, a perfectly respectable dealer in engravings, and an avid Shakespeare collector, forged signatures, letters, poems, and even a whole "lost" play by Shakespeare. Clever boy. Fooled a lot of smart people, including poor old James Boswell, among the many who might have known better. Bardolatry was all the rage then, as Pierce does an excellent job explaining, and it was a perfect time to make such frequent and uncanny "finds" as young Ireland did. All came crashing around the poor boy's ears, soon enough, but the story of how and why he did what he did, and all that happened after the exposure of the fraud, was fascinating.

All this has reminded me of a couple of things. First, of the first book-signing I went to at the bookstore where I now work, but where I didn't yet, that first time I went. I'd spent entirely too much on a nice first edition of the one novel I didn't already own by the author reading that night, and I'd brought that, and copies of all his other books with me on the bus, to have him sign them for me. Turned out, the novelist does not sign his books. As that first novel had all to do with artistic authenticity, forgery and the like, he'd felt it wasn't right to sign copies, and this had then become a policy of his. He never signed. I'm not one of those obsessive collectors of signed first editions, but I had particularly hoped for this writer's signature, to mark the only occasion when I was likely to meet him or hear him read from and discuss his work. His explanation seemed to me then, and seems to me still, well nigh the silliest, most churlish, most self-important nonsense I've ever heard from a writer at an event organized to promote his book. My estimation of the man, and his work, suffered a serious adjustment, that night. (Though I've continued to read his books as they've been published, I do not collect them anymore, and I haven't kept the ones I already owned.)

The other thing that seeing all this Shakespeareana, and Shakespeare denial, psuedo-Shakespeareana, and all has put me in mind of again, are the other little books my father sent me recently, found in a box of junk from an auction. The first of these, I've already mentioned here. They were all charming little illustrated pamphlets, on everything from parlor tricks to superstitions. This second set, of just three titles, are unrelated to the first. These were produced in 1916, by The Second National Bank of Pittsburgh, for distribution to little children, to encourage them to begin the habit of thrift, and saving in a bank.

The choice of stories seems hilariously inappropriate to the message, do they not? Robin Hood, the Prince of Thieves, who stole from the rich to give to the poor... hardly the kind of person a Pittsburgh banker might want to encourage his youngest depositors to someday emulate, would you think? And then, there's Aladdin, another thief! And the final story, reproduced to entertain the wee ones, but also presumably to teach them another valuable lesson in responsible husbandry and good citizenship? Why, it's old Rip Van Winkle! What could the good burghers have been thinking?

The charming illustrations in these tiny books are all by Rhoda Chase. I haven't been able to learn much of the artist, but I include a few examples, as I think them quite good and frankly charming. Robin Hood, on the back of good Friar Tuck, looks a harmless enough sort of ruffian, doesn't he?

Aladdin's giant genie, toting that incongruous pagoda down the beach, may look less harmless, but again, I don't know that even the smallest child, even in 1916, would find him anything but fun. There is a sweet kiss later in the little book, between Aladdin and his lady love, and that, I should think, might play less well with some of the little boys, but perhaps the kids at the turn of the last century took that sort of thing in stride better than little boys did in my time.

Finally, there is a quite boyish and blond Rip, drinking deeply of what is unmistakably not water, while "the strange little men" play at nine-pins behind him. With none of the weird wonder of Arthur Rackham's grotesques, or the depth and beauty of N. C Wyeth's illustrations for the same, Ms. Chase's drawing nevertheless seems rather magical to me, specially in the original size of the reproduction, the whole little book fitting in just the palm of my grown-up hand. That seems about right for a little book intended for very little hands.

That any of these little books have survived for nearly one hundred years is something of a wonder. Not my point though, just now. What I'm thinking about tonight is how what was a story by Washington Irving, published but roughly one hundred years before these little pamphlets, could even then be used without any acknowledgement of it's author, as if it was just another anonymous legend, like Aladdin and Robin Hood. Now isn't that interesting?

Is to me, anyway. This question of what might be owed an author, and what might be done with his work, how it might be used and altered and made, frankly, public property, as Rip Van Winkle was here, less than sixty years after Washington Irving's death, that interests me. What then of William Shakespeare? Just how many hands have had a share in shaping what we know, or think we might know, about that greatest of our poets, and the works that are still to be had in everything from inexpensive paperbacks to great, fat, collected editions in scholarly hardcovers?

Why should so many people care, for instance, to prove that Shakespeare wasn't, or that this, rather than that, folio is more authentic? Why should so many wise men have been willingly bamboozled by a nineteen year old forger, and then vilified his whole family, once the fraud was exposed, for violating "the Sacred Text?"

Ripping off old Washington Irving would seem a fairly harmless bit of dishonesty. Copyright in 1916 might not have been all that it might be, and as Irving made a sometimes quite serious pose at having collected all his fables from among the old Dutch of the Catskills, I suppose whoever wrote the simplified text to go with Rhoda Chase's drawings might well have denied having taken the story from Irving. And it must be at least a little flattering to Irving's shade to know that his story has become so much a part of the American culture that it could be told, like Robin Hood and Aladdin, as part of the collective childhood of mankind.

Shakespeare, though generations have squabbled about this variant reading and that, and about the interpretation of every work, if not every line he ever wrote, to say nothing more of the fantastic theories as to his very existence and true identity, seems to me a no less solid figure than old Washington Irving, no less deserving of the dignity of acknowledged authorship. We know but blessed little about Shakespeare's life, while the biography of Irving is well documented, but is there really anything much to be gained by this seemingly endless industry of speculation, claim and counter claim, as to the authenticity of the name assigned to that first folio and the sonnets and the rest?

Oddly enough, though I can't stand this speculative stuff myself, and will never read another word of the Shakespeare ciphering that clutters up that bargain table, I can't help but think just now that in a way, William Shakespeare is owed no less. It matters who he might have been because what he wrote still matters more than any other text in English, other than perhaps The Holy Bible. I don't mean to indulge in bardolatry myself here, I just suggest that as silly as so much of what is still being written about Shakespeare may seem to me, it matters that a man wrote those plays, that whatever their origin in obscure chronicles, older plays, other men's work, Shakespeare himself is still important because what he produced is uniquely valuable.

How many times has Shakespeare been retold as stories for children, adapted, edited, plagiarized, quoted, and recoined? It doesn't matter, it seems to me, so long as it is understood that Shakespeare is the preeminent genius of our literature, and both worthy of all this unceasing attention, and his work strong enough to survive any use to which we might put it, so long as we remember to come back to it, in the end.

Even our own American Irving, by no means the same caliber of genius, deserves to be better remembered than perhaps he is, or even than he evidently was one hundred years ago. It was Irving, after all, and no one else, who gave us not just Rip Van Winkle and Ichobod Crane, but our first glimpse of the Alhambra, and our first proper life of George Washington.

It was individual artists then, who made so much of not just what we remember of childhood, but what we think we know about ourselves, or at least what we say, without thinking much about the fact that someone had to say it first.

When I think now of that contemporary novelist offering me a lecture instead of just signing his damned book, I have to smile. At the time, I was insulted, and not just because I thought his reasoning was specious, his attitude patronizing, and his manners bad, though all that I still think. To think that anyone, however talented an artist he might be, should count on anyone remembering, let alone caring what he thought or wrote, or why he might choose not to give autographs, or even who he was, sixty, or one hundred, or four hundred years later... well, as I said, I have to smile.

Can't think of that writer's name, just now. Maybe it will come to me.

Daily Dose

From Shakespeare Criticism: A Selection, edited by D. Nichol Smith


"Shakespeare is of no age. It is idle to endeavour to support his phrases by quotation from Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, etc. His language is entirely his own and the younger dramatists imitated him. The construction of Shakespeare sentences, whether in verse or prose, is the necessary and homogeneous vehicle of his peculiar manner of thinking."

From Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on Othello

Monday, January 24, 2011

Let's Do the Numbers...

It has been two years now, since I started doing whatever it is I've been doing here nearly every night. I still don't know what to call this. My hobby? My public diary? Whatever it is, it continues to swell, even if my readership -- bless you all -- doesn't much. Looking at the thing objectively, I can't make much claim on the attention of the world, but then, luckily, why on earth would I? The numbers, for the most part, are enough to keep me humble. I've only just recently learned how to look at "stats." Still, it's been two years! Better say, seven hundred and thirty days of admittedly unequal effort, have produced to date 1650 entries of admittedly unequal value. Already, I'm getting a bit dizzy with the numbers. Patently, if I'd been doing the thing properly all this time, there ought to have be seven hundred and thirty quotations posted here under the heading of "Daily Dose," for example, and yet there are only six hundred and ninety-nine of these listed, so what's become of the rest? Did I fail to title the other thirty odd? Did I not post a quotation every day, as the title would imply I intended, for roughly a month together? No idea. Hardly seems worthwhile to pursue the problem now.

I don't really think about whatever it is I've been doing here in numerical terms, or rather, I wouldn't, had yesterday not marked an unanticipated anniversary. I can, in all modesty, call it so, not because I didn't foresee it, or try to generate some little interest in the occasion, but rather because I honestly never thought to see the day, at least not when I started. According to my first entry here, after what proved to be "a not particularly surprising, if singularly disappointing day at work at the bookstore," I came home, unquestionably feeling badly used, and my genius, such as it is, not properly appreciated. Poor me. Having contributed what I had hoped was... well, something anyway, to that other blog, I found myself on the outs. My little dignity outraged, I started this thing. When it lasted a year, I was surprised. Now it has lasted two, I stand amazed -- or rather, sit, admittedly mightily pleased with myself.

Please understand, I never do anything, at least not anything of which I might be proud, every single day, except read. I do not take exercise. I neither garden nor really cook. Other than brushing my teeth, I can't think of much that I've ever done every day that might please my mother. And yet, for all it's stuttering along from day to day, and the cheating I've done that has meant a week's worth of nonsense being added, after the fact, all on one guilty Sunday, this whatever it is has lasted. That's something, isn't it?

I intended, when I started this two years ago, to write about books. I have done. I'm not a reviewer. Perfectly honorable thing to do, and something I wish I had the discipline to do myself. Can't imagine how nowadays, but there are good people still earning a living from just such work. I admire anyone: writer, editor, publisher, critic, reviewer, who can make money from words. I think, all told, I've made about one hundred dollars in my lifetime, by writing. What the reviewers -- at least the best ones -- do, is provide a genuine service to the community of readers; promoting what's best and warning us away from the rest. For most who undertake this noble service, this means reading a lot of new books. I do that, appearances here to the contrary. What I can't seem to do is work up either enough enthusiasm, or originality, to say anything very interesting, even to me, about most of the new books I read. Might be different if someone offered to pay me, but nobody has. I've tried writing reviews before; not just of books, but of movies and television shows, and even art or music, and while I'm hardly a dab hand at it, I don't think I would muff the job, but it isn't something I specially want to do, at least for free. Honestly? It doesn't look to be much fun, -- trying to say something, anything, interesting or fresh about, for example, Jonathan Franzen. Put it another way, I simply do not know enough about literature, or anything else come to that, to contribute much to the conversation on most new books.

When I do write about books here, it is as a clerk in a bookstore, and a common reader, admittedly of some uncommon books. I see no contradiction in describing myself as such. The common reader, as traditionally understood, was no bad thing to be. All I mean by employing that somewhat antique phrase is that I have no specialized education -- or much education to speak of at all -- or knowledge, which would qualify me to offer my opinions on art, and be taken seriously as any kind of proper critic. Clerking in a bookstore is a job, not what might strictly be defined as a profession, and reading my way pell mell through something like the canon all these years, while it isn't something most sensible people would do just for pleasure, I have done to please myself. I don't believe that I'm entitled to claim any special wisdom as a result of my work-experience or my private reading, so I've tried to always keep my few good and loyal readers here always in mind of the narrowness of my perspective; I can speak only for myself. Hasn't prevented me from pontificating on matters well beyond my competence, true, but I like to think that even that's forgivable, at least among friends.

With one or two exceptions, everything I've done here has been addressed to no one else but my friends, really. Just as it should be. My friends have always had to put up with a certain amount of boredom: lots of all but mindless chatter from me about books they may never read, seemingly arbitrary quotations from unfamiliar sources, or made to no purpose other than because I thought the line pretty when I read it, or indicative of a style I appreciated. Poor you. I'm always telling what I think terribly interesting stories and anecdotes gleaned from my reading, and my friends always seem to nod and smile indulgently when I ramble on this way, though often as not, I suspect, they may have no idea what I'm on about, what point I may have hoped to make by starting off on some tangential tale of Dr. Johnson at table, or whatnot, or why they are being subjected again to such glossolalia, when all they meant to express was a polite interest in what I happened to be reading on the bus. The price of befriending the autodidact. I do apologize. I try not to be boring, honestly I do.

Looking at the numbers today, I can see where it might seem otherwise to even the kindest of my friends. What a nudnik. I'd like to flatter myself in calling attention to no less than fifty-five references to Dickens, and forty-six to Lamb, and fifty-one to Johnson, etc., but this is as nothing, if I'm trying to sound all erudite, rather than just stodgy, when I'm forced to admit that as a frequently employed "tag," Christmas -- at sixty-three times and counting -- beats out every one of my favorite authors. That suggests a certain childishness, now doesn't it? I'm not a Christian, after all, so it's safe to assume I wasn't on about theology. More like retail, and getting presents. (Who doesn't like getting presents?) With nearly two hundred posts listed as doodles, I think it's pretty clear that I'm too lazy and slack to even call most of what I've done here writing.

What I have written about, other than books, other than the books about me in this room, has been myself. This too is in keeping with an honorable tradition. I don't say the results are worthy of such company, but I have tried to be as honest as Michel de Montaigne would insist on being, and I see no reason to apologize if none of my attempts are the equal to even the least of his in the end. “Who is not sure of his memory should not attempt lying,” so I haven't.

The numbers do tell me something at least about what I've actually been up to most evenings for the last couple of years. Saw some good movies, old and new. Watched an absurd amount of television too. Made more than a few videos, too, to post here via -- eighty nine in all, to date. Other than the recordings I've made of readings at the bookstores, in the main, these have consisted of me sitting in a chair, reading out loud. My vanity hasn't allowed me to preserve, let alone post, the funniest bits of these brief performances; suffice it say, the sight and sound of my stumblings and fumblings, and cursing, through take after take, might have been better entertainment than most of the resulting readings, but I'm content.

I've posted roughly sixty-some of the caricatures I've drawn; some quite good likenesses, I think, and some amusing. For every one I've put up though, whole forests would seem to have perished to no good purpose in the attempt. The best have invariably been the ones that came most effortlessly, a lesson I may never learn.

What I've done mostly though is write. Just how many thousands of words I've put up here I don't know. Happily, there would seem to be no record of that. When I can think of nothing else, I resort to making clerihews, of which -- though this even I find hard to believe -- I would seem to have made nearly two hundred. When I'm trying harder, well... you can judge the results for yourselves, my friends.

What then am I to make of these numbers, and of this whole enterprise? Well, nothing I should think. (Oh. I did learn that if one wants to get noticed online, perhaps the best way is to put up a photograph of Clint Walker, shirtless.) I would seem to have amused some of my friends, at least some of the time, and even myself, now and again, and I may actually have encouraged someone out there who might never have otherwise to read The Letters of William Cowper, with some two dozen mentions of the poet, or to Terry Castle's essays, or to read a poem aloud, or to attempt something of their own.

I've enjoyed the experiment. Hope others have as well, and will. I have no plans to stop.

Daily Dose

From The Gifts of the Body, by Rebecca Brown


"After a while I opened my eyes. He'd lad the table hopefully. I took the food he meant for me, I ate."

From The Gift of Sweat

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's the Birthday of Usedbuyer2.0!

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Charles & Mary Lamb, edited by E. V. Lucas


"Among other things, looking back to his childhood and early youth, he told the meeting what a graceless young dog he had been, and in his youth he had a good share of wit: reader, if thou hadst seen the gentleman, though wouldst have sworn that it must indeed have been many years ago, for his rueful physiognomy would have scared away the playful goddess from the meeting where he presided, for ever."

From a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, dated February 13th, 1797

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Sorrow of the Elves, by Brian Bouldrey


"Memories find a thousand ways to slow our hero down."

From Chapter 6, A Hero's Quest

Friday, January 21, 2011

Wallian Shawnian Clerihew


It seems it's only just started to dawn
On American playwright, Wallace Shawn,
That rather than write yet another play,
An essay might prove the easier way.

Daily Dose

From The Rise of the Dutch Republic, by John Lothrop Motley


"Power, the more subdivided, becomes the more tyrannical."

From Book I, Chapter 4

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Clerihew in Orange Motley


At length, John Lothrop Motley,
Protested rather hotly,
"No writer quite intends, as such,
To write so much about the Dutch."

Daily Dose

From The Rise of the Dutch Republic, by John Lothrop Motley


"Men who had gone to bed in a high state of indignation were not likely to wake in much better humour, when suddenly roused from their first nap, to listen to such a message as this. It seemed only one piece of trifling the more."

From Part V, Don John of Austria, 1576 - 1578, Chapter I

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Byzantine Clerihew


It's safe to say, I now know all I care to
Of what the Palaiologos were heir to.
In somewhat grudging thanks for which,
I blame John Julius Norwich.

Daily Dose

From Studies in Some Famous Letters, by John Cann Bailey


"No man of sense, indeed, would occupy himself with writing about books, if he were confined to sifting the new ones, of which the great majority must perforce be of little value, and never allowed to talk of the old ones, where the sifting has been long done, and there is nothing more to do but enjoy."

From Johnson

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, translated by Samuel Putnam


"However, this is not the time for going into all that, as it would involve us in an endless labyrinth. Believe me, friend, we must pray Our Lord most earnestly to deliver us from the wiles of wizards and enchanters."

From Chapter XLIV, How Sancho Panza was taken away to be governor, and the strange adventures that befell Don Quixote in the castle.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Gathered from Off the Floor

This is a fairly random illustration of books from the floor of my library. I post it here by way of drawing further attention not to the variety of my own reading and collecting, but to the ever increasing diversity of the kinds of books that one will now find, as I found most of these, in the bookstore where I work. Most everything pictured here, as far as I can now tell, from the least substantial looking item to the largest, new, used and remaindered, all came from the shelves of what was, only a scant five years ago, a bookstore dealing exclusively in new books. Everything old, as the song says, is new again.

True, as at least in large part a college bookstore, the Textbooks Department in the basement has been dealing in used books for decades. Blessedly, unlike the majority of my coworkers, I've never had to work for even a day in the Textbooks Department. It isn't so much the idea of working a cash register all day long during "Rush," or even shelving books by class that makes the idea of such a job personally unpleasant to me. I rather like being busy, and I have no distaste for cashiering as part of my work day. I am, after all, just a clerk in this large and venerable institution, and so must work where they put me. Not my place to kick, too much. The idea though of working with textbooks, new and used, I find almost unbearable. Have you seen what a textbook might be nowadays? The new ones, at least the ones that still look like the textbooks I remember from my own unhappy experience of higher education, are ungainly monsters, most of them, designed as much to weight the reader with the full gravity of their subjects, I suspect, as to actually provide the necessary information for a student to study and matriculate. Over sized books, in my experience, tend to only be justified by really big pictures, so while I acknowledge the need of such whales when one is studying something like marine biology, I don't think I would much relish handling these beasts all day. That however is not why the idea of a day in the Textbooks Department depresses me.

Look again at that scan I put at the top of this. Be good enough to notice that even the least well-preserved of these books, the little edition of Hume's Essays, when one considers that that little book is probably no less than one hundred years old, and has doubtless passed in its time through the hands of multiple owners, for what it is, it is still a sound enough little book. I've been able to read it without resort to a repair kit, or fear that it would fall apart in my hands should I drop it, as I did one day in the employee break-room, off a table onto the floor where, not meaning to, I then kicked it under a couch. It survived. All the other small books, though those that ever had them, have since lost their book jackets, and varying in age from more than one hundred years to as few as forty, have all of them managed to find their way through the decades without losing a leaf before they came to me. Oh, it would be easy enough to point out that with a book like that by Walter Savage Landor, some of these have probably had few readers since the date of publication. That said, what they all have in common, these old books, is some standard of care that has kept them intact, even handsome, from that day to this. Some may not have been much read, but others, were you to handle them for yourselves, you would see have had many hands turn these pages, have come down and gone back onto many shelves. I love the idea of that. I love knowing that readers before me have handled most of my books, and read them, as I do, not because it was required of them but because these were the books that were wanted, some drear January night like this one. Think of the fact that many of these old books found their first readers under gaslight or candle, and you'll see what I mean when I admire the longevity of not just these authors and ideas but these little books themselves.

Also in the picture, there are more recent titles. A couple of these, in fact, though this may not be clear just looking at their spines, are quite new. One was a Christmas present from myself to me, and another I purchased at just my scant employee discount because I was unwilling to just borrow the book or wait for it to get remaindered in hardcover, a process that now seems, to my continued amazement, to take roughly a year or thereabouts. There is at least one remaindered book in this little pile as well. It was something I'd meant to read when it was new but for whatever reason never did. It is by an author I collect, someone I've continued to read through the decades, despite not always agreeing with either his politics or his prose, both of which can be a bit florid for my tastes, but still, I admire him very much and have enjoyed every book I've bought, down the years. This one, when I saw it discounted on a table in the lobby, I scooped up and added to a pile that never quite goes away in the cubby under the buying desk at which I work every day on the sales floor. I think I finally paid for the thing and brought it home after a disgracefully long stay in that dark little corner. Have yet to read more than the brief introduction, but now that it's mine, I may do so when I choose and that is a glorious feeling. As for it's condition, it is neither better nor worse than most of the remainders that I buy. There is but one small blot on the bottom pages-edge, otherwise it is as clean and bright as the day the book was initially shipped. This is not always the way with remainders; some publishers and distributors would seem to feel an unjustified hostility to the books they are forced to sell off in this way. There are still major publishing companies who, when they clear their warehouses of unsold copies, would seem to feel that while they can not quite bring themselves to pulp every existing copy, still want very much to make sure they never see these books again, and so deface them with long black slashes of ink that mare not only their edges, but often leaks right onto the pages, as a constant reminder to any future readers that their interest in these books has made the publishers of them no money whatsoever, damn them. A lazy, stupid practice, defacing unsold books. One discreet dot should be enough to flag a book as being the result of unwarranted optimism and or a failed marketing effort, if any such effort was made. Still, most remainders, at least among the ones I buy, tend nowadays to be perfectly presentable books, fit for any library not so fastidious as to insist on only unmarked, unblemished -- and I would bet you, in nine instances out of ten, never to be read -- "fine," first editions, and of only the first printing, thank you very much. Snobbish nonsense, when it comes to most modern books.

To return for the moment, however reluctantly, to the Textbooks Department, the thing that sinks my heart every time I have occasion to go down there is the sad and sorry state of most of the used books one will find in any such venue, anywhere in the world, where students have got hold of books. I could not be made to care how badly treated some kid's chemistry textbook has been. Many of the academic monographs and the like; written, printed, studied and returned as part of the ever cycling system that pays for degrees, tenure and summer research trips to the Ozarks or the Greek Isles, can look, upon being restocked as "used," as flatly new and unread as they doubtlessly would if their only fate had been to rest undisturbed on the shelves upstairs, among the books that might be sold to those who read from interest or curiosity, rather than as required to pass some dull course. I can't help but smile at this, but really, I couldn't care. No. It isn't all that scholarly stuff, in whatever state of stasis or use that I am grateful not to have to much sell, or even see. But to see great piles of Austen in Penguin paperbacks, whole haystacks of Conrad in Norton Critical Editions, all of them marked "used," as if they were no different from the books we sell upstairs, that is what sends me into immediate gloom.

The state of them! If anyone might be said to treat books with less concern than the clerks at the desk of a public library, it would have to be college students. If it were in my power, I would ban "highlighters" all together, just as various municipalities now ban those wide, permanent markers, and for much the same reason; the damage they do far outweighs their utility. How many books do we see at the buying desk that, from their covers would seem to have been unread, only to open them at some random page and find nearly the whole of it discolored with some sickly, glowing yellow or green ink? And why please, in an age when almost no one under the age of forty still seems to carry a pen or write anything in longhand, why will college students still insist on scribbling in ink, right into a book, every inane note taken down while drowsing through a lecture on the post-colonial reconsideration of the South American revolutions, as seen by early modern novelists in English? But the interiors of most of those abused Penguins I mentioned don't have to be so much as opened for even the casual observer to note the violence done to their books by the average student. How do so many books that, at a guess, I would have to say were not read beyond the second chapter, yet manage to look as though they had traveled across the Steppes unpacked in an open ox-cart? Semi-detached covers, broken spines, bent and twisted wrecks, the majority of the used books one sees for sale in a college bookstore, to say nothing here of the huge, permanent and hideous stickers that textbook-folk seem to slap on anything that might come their way.

Coming back upstairs into the healthier air of the general bookstore, I can not help but marvel at not only the growing diversity of our stock, but also at it's rude fitness; row upon row of old books shelved right next to the new and, most of 'em, all but indistinguishable, but for the discreet little yellow dot we put on the spines of all the used books. Now that we've had some considerable success at selling the discount and remainder books throughout the store, shelved in thick stacks, face-out, often with a small sign announcing their presence and excellent prices, but often with nothing to distinguish them from their fellows but the small, but bright new yellow price-tags on the front covers, one might be right to worry that with these, and all the used books that now mingle so freely with the new books, the place might start to look a bit seedy. Not true. If anything, the addition of all these different kinds of books, with so much variety in their bindings, and prices, their sizes and shapes and subjects, has if anything only added interest to our stock and made the shelves full again, for the first time in a very long time, with all the diversity and glamour of the very best bookstores.

As someone who buys many books, and who consequently has seen the inside of too many bookstores, I must tell you that to the lovers of books, there can be few finer sights than spacious floor crowded with good old books, and new books, and inexpensive books, and rare books, and all of them clean, and all of them in surprisingly good shape, and all of them, or most of them anyway, seemingly untouched by the grubby mits of callow youth. I've been haunting used bookstores since I was a kid myself, way back in the way back, and even before I stumbled into making a living, after a fashion, by selling books, I came quickly to recognize the signs of a bookstore run with good and gentle, if not downright genteel, readers in mind. Seems I'm lucky enough to work in just such a place... so long as I never have to go downstairs.