Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Answer to Your Question

"So, you must be glad to see the Elliot Bay Book Company closing."

Where to start? Well, no, to all that. In the first place, they aren't. The Elliot Bay Book Co., after the better part of four decades a fixture in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood in downtown Seattle, isn't going out of business. If you haven't heard, the bookstore is moving to a new location, in Capitol Hill. The last day at the old store was, indeed, today, but they will reopen in April at the new location. Anyone reading even just the headline in the newspaper today, really ought to know at least this much, though it could be allowed the Seattle Times only made this clear under the fold. So, for the sake of argument, let's assume, as I did today, that the gentleman asking me this question in the bookstore where I work is not from here, and did not actually read the newspaper story -- everyone says that so few people do nowadays. (The story, such as it was, was really more of a caption, come to that, for the large, lovely, color, photograph.) Allowable that a stranger shopping today in a different Seattle bookstore might not have heard the good news. Let that pass. Even the assumption that anyone employed in an independent bookstore would be "glad to see" any other independent bookstore closing -- have I mentioned? they aren't -- such an assumption just might be forgivable, I suppose, somewhere else. There may well be a bookseller somewhere willing to say so, or there might once have been; when most bookstores in The United States were, one way and another, independent, and competing just amongst themselves -- if that was ever entirely true. There may well have been a time, before my time, when few bookstores were owned by multinational entertainment corporations, no bookstore had to compete with publicly traded "online retailers," and the biggest threat to the established trade was, say, the slightly disreputable, and very profitable innovation of paperback books being sold in drugstores. (I think it worth mentioning just that last because it is actually impossible to read any history related to bookstores, or books for that matter, without acknowledging sensible people seldom have anything to do with the business of books. Those that do, and all those who ever did, have always bemoaned the sorry state and dire future of their fortunes. I suspect that Johannes Guttenberg went home to his wife each night a bankrupt and spent the next morning begging his creditors for better terms.) So maybe, back in the day, Mr. Mudie did indeed toast the demise of a competitor with a large brandy.

I think the gentleman's misapprehension today might have come from being himself a proper capitalist. I don't mean to make accusations. For all I know, as I did not see the titles of the books he was buying, he might be a quaintly embittered old Marxist, bating the lackey in an apron, and making some obscure jest on the scientifically inevitable consequences of wage-slavery, and the equally inevitable, and tragically short-sighted ethical coarsening of those poor proletarians like me, trapped in a "service industry." Don't think so. I think it likelier the gentleman's comment was meant to be cheering; a knowing wink meant to encourage the little fellow to keep at it, that the marketplace was expressing a perfectly logical preference, and that the gentleman rather liked, today at least, having happened upon, if not quite having backed, a winner in even so obscure a corner of commerce as a dear old bookstore. (In support of this, other than the sly grin he offered me, I would mention only his very nice wristwatch.)

What I think the gentleman did not appreciate was just how unlikely it is to meet a proper capitalist in a apron.

Independent bookstores are not much crowded, at least at my level, with ruthlessly objective believers in free markets. I did not say so -- as I was shocked that this fact was not evidenced by my expression, beard, clogs, etc., -- but I should think in this instance at least that I am the very embodiment of the sentimental intellectual most common to the trade, even now. I did not explain this to the gentleman, but should there actually be any reading this that don't know, the independent bookseller in an apron tends to see the books he or she sells, and the other independent, underpaid, modestly accomplished and unaccountably enthusiastic, possibly even prideful souls who sell books, as all of a piece with culture and the like, and being convinced, in our heart of hearts that without us, and without the bookstores in which we work, the wider society is hellbent for barbarous illiteracy, we tend to feel even the potential loss of another independent bookstore as another gap in the barricade. Indeed, so far are we all from being good Americans, we have been known to actually go so far as to actively seek to aid any of our wavering comrades as best we can; even sending trade their way, and if we can think of nothing else to do, spending some painful portion of our painful wages across the street, as it were, just to show fellow feeling.

I realize that this will probably strike some readers as both ridiculously inadequate, which it doubtless is, as well as counterproductive as a strategy for getting on in the world. Even I can see that. And it will probably occur to even the least wise in the ways of commerce that such sentimentality is only a little less embarrassing in a 21st Century economy than the patently ridiculous and reactionary claim that there even is such a thing as culture, or that we in retail may be said to in any way contribute to it or constitute so much as a minor constituency in it, but so we genuinely still believe.

Moreover, I am very much of the old fashioned school of thought that still believes that independent bookstores, newspapers, and public libraries with more on their shelves than DVDs and fashion magazines are necessary to any democratic society that intends to sustain itself as such, as not every citizen in the Republic, despite what one might be reading at, etc., can afford, or will ever want to read David Copperfield on a calculator, download Middlemarch onto a "notebook," or listen to War & Peace on a telephone. Books make democracy possible, cellphones and the internet are simply the means by which the middleclass presently choose to document the consequences.

So when so wonderful a bookstore as the Elliot Bay Book Co., faced with the same difficulties we've all experienced, and sadly burdened in addition with a shortsighted and otherwise occupied city government, a disgracefully neglected neighborhood, and football traffic, to say nothing of the landlord, when such a bookstore has to up stakes and move, we are all of us sad to see such things happen in a city boastful of its literacy. But we will all of us glad to see them again soon, in a better place, and not in the sense of that my grandmother might have meant.

So, again, Sir, NO, I was not glad of the latest news, and will not be altogether content until I can walk into the Elliot Bay Books Co. again and buy a book. Then I will indeed be glad. And so will, or at least so should we all be.

Daily Dose

From American Critical Essays XIX -- XX Century, edited by Norman Foerster


"He was not, like some more exquisite men of letters, a democrat in his study and a snob in his drawing room; he was of the people and for the people all the time."

From The Democracy of Mark Twain, by Stuart P. Sherman

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Deliciously Grouchy Poem

My friend, R. introduced me to Louise Bogan's poetry, and I dearly love them both. Both are poets, both exhibit little patience with guff, disloyalty, ignorance, self-indulgance, or the kind of religious and or political bellicosity that is too often mistaken for conviction in this country. Both are quick to outrage, and both are just as quick to laugh. Neither ever had a face for poker. Louise said, “Stupidity always accompanies evil. Or evil, stupidity,” and with that, I should think, dear R., would heartily agree. Stupidity drives him mad. Evil, real evil, well... let's just say I wouldn't want to be the one doing it around either of these two. For all that, neither was ever intentionally unkind, said a graceless thing, or did less than their best -- though not without untold struggle -- when putting down a poem. Both have proved to be some of the best company I keep. Here then, a little poem by Louise Bogan, on poets, good and bad, for my good friend, the good poet. (Try this one out on your next poetry group, darling.)

Daily Dose

From A Life Like Other People's, by Alan Bennett


"None of Freud's patients hovered at pantry doors; Freud's selected patients, I always felt, the ordinary not getting past, or even to, the first consultation because too dull, the final disillusion to have fled across the border into unreason only to find you are as mundane mad as you ever were sane."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Milking the Bull: David Shields' Reality Hunger: A (Wiggar's) Manifesto

The other day, a young woman, a student at the University, asked me for a Bible. We had a grand time together. She'd been told she would need a King James Bible, specifically, "with a concordance." We had many handsome and inexpensive Bibles, and more than one concordance, but no such single volume as the one she'd described. (Most annotated editions seem to use more standard, modern translations, and what are called "study" Bibles, are less scholarly works than aids to private worship, and notoriously sectarian.) She had not had occasion to read much in the way of Bibles, and I don't know that she knew just what a concordance was, but we found a beautiful edition of the King James for less than ten dollars. Then she asked me for a recommendation for the concordance. Presented with Strong's Concordance, at four times the price and size of the Bible I'd helped her to select, she seemed a bit dubious. It is a daunting thing, Dr. Strong's big book; an index more than a study-guide, even in its modern revision, and clearly not what she was expecting. I told her a little about the method employed in the book, and a little of its history. She expressed a genuine interest in this, but decided to think about the purchase a little more carefully. She explained that she is planning "to work seriously," with the help of her advisor, on Milton's Paradise Lost, and was already enjoying all her preliminary explorations. She liked the Doré illustrations, for instance, in preference to the Blake, though she wanted editions of both, sadly neither of which we had in stock. We talked about Milton's politics, briefly, and his blindness. I mentioned, as the four hundredth anniversary of Milton's birth had so recently passed, that there were at least two well-reviewed new biographies upstairs, and, as that's where we kept the poetry as well, up we went. At some point, I made passing reference to the poet's "majestic patience." She had never heard of Thomas Babington Macaulay, and so I left her to see if I couldn't, quickly, print out a copy of his essay on Milton. I wanted her to have the full text, at least of the quotation,* but our computer on that floor is an old one, and by the time I'd found the essay online and tried to print it, she was leaving for a class, so the best I could do was scribble the essayist's name for her and recommend she look it up for herself when she had the time. She was effusive in thanking me for my help, and I was equally admiring of her taking on such a weighty project with such obvious enthusiasm. Safe to say, we thoroughly enjoyed our ten minutes together in the bookstore.

It was such a pure pleasure, talking with this young person so wild-eyed for Milton, so undaunted by all that would be necessary just to read him well, let alone write about him. When was the last time I'd met someone so eager to discuss a major poet? How many such readers does Paradise Lost still find? How many did it ever?

That last question is one for which I wish I had an answer.

The Epic Poem, you know, is quite dead, or so, at least, I've always heard. I question how such things are judged. Did Milton, did Dryden, did even Pope's mock-epic, or his translations of Homer, ever have so many readers that they might be called popular? In a population so much smaller, and presumably less literate than ours, was the percentage of the people who might even recognize the name of John Milton or his poem really once so high as all that? I can't imagine Milton was ever popular entertainment, like Bunyan, found in every home with a Bible. Perhaps I'm wrong, but it would seem to me that even the greatest of the English poets had an audience not so much more considerable than that they might have now.

Here was a woman in her twenties, in 2010, after all, reading Milton with both pleasure and purpose. A student, it's true, but then, what of that? Who else keeps our literature alive but the students thereof?

I will admit, Milton has defeated me no less than three times, but then, I'm not a student. Likewise, I have quite given up on Dryden's Virgil, at least for now. I made it as far as Book V. of Aeneis, before I quit. Not the fault of the poets, I don't think, in any case. The subject of either was not something in which I had the slightest interest, and great as the poetry was in Milton, or as entertaining as Dryden made Virgil, I could not care about the various doings of the Gods or the Romans.

But even if I failed the poets, can I really say that it was the form that failed me? I think such a suggestion is simply silly. The value of a particular kind of literature can not and ought not to be measured just by either its present popularity or my personal interest in it. What kind of brass would it take to demonstrate the failure of an art form, based on nothing more substantial than that?

Now, David Shields says the novel is dead. Had you heard? I'm sure you have, if not from Professor Shields, or his many friends among the reviewers, then from some other, older avant-gardists. When I finished reading David Shields' new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto -- or rather, when I finished shuffling through the book yet again, as it doesn't really lend itself to reading so much as flipping back and forth between the helpfully numbered patches of text and the notes at the back-- I was tickled to realize that that was indeed as close to making a revolutionary statement as this "manifesto" comes. (And just when one feels safe in assuming that any form of literature is dead, like say, the manifesto, here comes some benighted soul to say otherwise, egh?)

Now on what basis does Professor Shields restate this tired old premise? Well, so far as I can gather from his blender-cocktail of a book, the novel died right around the time that Professor Shields lost interest in writing and or teaching them. Shields was a novelist, you see, so a great deal of his new book is taken up with explaining, sort of, why he isn't anymore, why novels now bore him -- both writing them and reading them. He still reads some of them, you understand, at least the novels of his friends, and with an almost embarrassing, even obsequious relish. In his book, Shields includes a whole chapter, if that's the word, made up of snatches from his admiring letters to fellow novelists, and he selectively quotes from any number of others throughout; usually rather bald statements about the failure of the novel -- natch. The book's cover is the key, as it turns out, to understanding this evident contradiction: front and back, the dustjacket of Professor Shields' book is pinned with valentines from many of the same folks, including his novelist friends, he admires so extravagantly in the text. The novel then may be dead, so far as Professor Shields is concerned, but his friends aren't, and neither, it seems, is the fine old art of logrolling. But somewhere, elsewhere, there would seem to be an argument underway, presumably in a classroom, or some faculty party, or amongst novelists themselves, I guess, though not in Shields' book, about how being a novelist isn't what it used to be, or that at least the novel isn't. Couldn't tell you just who it is that is arguing for the novel, not based on this book, but evidently somebody, somebody other than the novelists Shields seem to know, must be making an awful din in defense of say, Middlemarch. Not an unfamiliar debate, even to the likes of me, this question of is-the-novel-dead? but then novelists have been anticipating, and bemoaning the novel's death almost from its birth. Amusingly, there is much in Shields' book both lamenting the failure of the novel to maintain its centrality in the culture, and arguing that the novel doesn't really deserve to be there anymore, at least not for the reasons it may once have, or something like that. (It might be argued that what the novel did to achieve its place in the supposed center of things, is exactly what Shields finds so distasteful, and that the modern and postmodern critical insistence that the novel ought not to do any such thing anymore, or would at least do better to be bothered about it less, namely, better ask the important questions in a human narrative than a personal or philosophical treatise, is what has undone the novel.) Anyway, Shields, it seems, is done with the wretched thing.

Professor Shields tells us that he does not read novels for their stories or their style, or even for the questions addressed, but rather for their "ideas." Now that's either disingenuous, or just plain silly. Great novelists are uniformly, at best, second-rate philosophers. To read a novel just for the novelist's ideas makes about as much sense as reading Hume's Treatise of Human Nature for it's gripping narrative, good humor or moving characterization. Just imagine reading Dickens for his statistics, Tolstoy for his theology, Stevenson for his seamanship. It is eating rice-pudding for the raisins.

But surely Professor Shields knows this? The fact is, he isn't come again to mourn the passing of the novel, or even to just praise the usual assassins. No. Because the revolution Professor Shields has decided to join, has in fact decided to lead, has not proved to be much of a revolution at all, just something of a beer hall putsch. It took me quite awhile to decide just who or what Professor Shields was so sore at. Turns out, it's just copyright lawyers, the fact-checkers at the New Yorker, his fellow members in good standing at the MLA, and the readers of David Shields. Seems Professor Shields just ain't feelin' it, the love, I mean.

That's just a guess, of course. Regrettably, I can't say that reading Shield's new book has much informed me as to his motive for writing it. I'm still not sure just to whom the book is addressed, other than himself, and or some person or persons unidentified by name who've been condescending to him in a faculty meeting. Now, if Professor Shields wants to convince himself that being a novelist who no longer writes novels isn't a bad thing, or if he wants to just cock a snook at the stuffy buggers in his department, that's all alright with me, but I was made to feel, reading his new book, that an awful fuss was being made about my failure, as a reader, to fully appreciate the writer, David Shields, when I honestly had yet to say, or even hear, a word against him. The truth is, while I can't say I've studied him, I did enjoy some of what I'd read heretofore. Evidently, this was not enough. Evidently, there's something more to it than that, and, on my part, as a reader, something considerably more is owed David Shields, and by persons more important.

And that, I would hazard, is why Professor Shields has decided to kick the novel to the kerb. Writing novels, good ones, got the man a name, and a job teaching the reading and writing of novels, but it has not made him entirely respectable. He would be more than just a novelist who has stopped writing novels, more than just an occasional memoirist and reviewer. He would be more even than a critic.

So instead, he's decided to write essays, after a fashion, and he intends, I think, to tell us why. That's his story, anyway. I see no purpose in combing every tick out of this shaggy dog, but I was left to wonder if there wasn't rather more, and less, to this business of the novelist who teaches fiction rejecting the form that made his name. It made me think of, say, a soprano past her prime renouncing opera, not because she can't sustain the notes, or because she's grown bored with singing Wagner, but because for some time now, she's at great pains to explain, she's preferred, secretly, honestly, in her heart of hearts, always, singing Irving Berlin to Verdi. Moreover, she intends to prove, that "Say It Isn't So" is every bit as important a work of art as "Addio del passato", damn it.

Here then, I think, may be the why of what Professor David Shields is at pains to claim for what he, adopting John D'Agata's name for it, calls the "lyric essay." Perhaps D'Agata and Shields, academics both, must justify with this new name writing as Charles Lamb did almost two hundred years ago, in order to avoid their efforts in this line being mistaken for something else. I don't know, but my guess would be, should they simply write such personal essays: essays in keeping with the tradition that begins with Montaigne and that continues through Lamb and on to E. B. White and now popular entertainers like David Sedaris, among others, essays meant to entertain and engage the reader personally, essays in which a personality, rather than just a point, -- philosophic, moral or of scholarship, -- is being made, the good Professors might be accused of being less than serious, as well as too casual about their bibliographies, etc. Maybe that's why both of these very talented essayists seem to feel that rather than writing personal essays, something they've both done admirably before, they must now defend, at length, their hankering to do so. As I say, I don't know.

There does seem to be something disingenuous in this crabwise move from fiction to nonfiction, at least when Shields makes it obvious that he intends to take not just his priorities as a novelist, but his prerogatives, with him. In her essay, "The Art of Biography," Virginia Woolf says of the novelist that fiction "... is created without any restrictions save those that the artist, for reasons that seem good to him, chooses to obey." Shields, I think, would extend this privilege to the "lyric" essayist. The resulting work is not then, in Shield's case, so much written as stitched; from lecture notes, quotations and paraphrase, interjections, expostulations, and guff. His book is organized as a series of numbered paragraphs, some by the author, but most not, and all meant to work as a kind of dizzy montage or collage. It's all a bit bombastic and arch, but it can also be great fun, in a name-that-tune-sort of way. The notes at the back offer a grudging explanation of who said what. Okey-dokey. But in one thing at least, the essayist, whether writing personally or critically, or somewhere between the two or as both a critic and a personality, has maintained a respect, if not for tradition and form, or even copyright, then at least for acknowledging when what is said was better said before, and by whom. One of the great virtues of the essay has been, since the days of Montaigne and Bacon, that, at its best, it invites rather than precludes consideration of its sources. (Indeed, Montaigne, "the father of the essay," at his worst, can read very much like just the kind of lecture notes from which, Shields has said, this new book sprang. ) Moreover, there is no literature likelier than the essay to encourage further reading, or to even insist, that when one is done reading, one is never done reading. Even the most memorably individual practitioners of the essay, even the most seemingly self-involved, even the least reliable as witnesses to their own lives, have assumed in their readers an interest in knowing more than just what the essayist had to say. To a man, and to a woman, from Montaigne to Woolf, from Lamb to Vivian Gornick, the best essayists, like David Shields, though not always professionally, have been teachers. And perhaps the central lesson in the English essay has always been, "Don't take my word for it." More than any established writing outside of the legal argument, the essay has, from it's beginnings, used precedent as it's touchstone.

But Professor Shields is tired, it seems, of teaching. Tired, indeed, of every voice but his own. What he wants is attention paid not to his sources, or even his friends, so much as himself. He is determined to be finally, all that. Easily the best -- and by that I mean the most honest -- single page in the whole of his new book is the one at the end when Professor Shields records for posterity his tantrum against the lawyers who have insisted that he acknowledge what he's taken from other people. What this sounds like, more than a philosophic or legal argument is the indignant wail of a child forced to admit that not every toy in the kindergarten is his to keep, that there are, in fact other people about whom one must at least make some pretense to care, and that not everything can be about... David Shields.

In defense of this touchingly infantile egocentricity, Professor Shields would adopt what the young folks are doin'. Professor Shields would have it that as fiction is just like, bullshit, dude, really, -- word -- and that contemporary culture has rejected such old-school storytelling in favor of "reality," and so on, you know... reality. You know, like tweeting, and "Survivor", and stuff. (Like nearly every academic I've ever read on the subject of reality TV, I wonder that Professor Shields has ever seen a reality show, or followed a series. If he had, he might be the first to admit that it is the reliable simplicity of their narratives, and the easy recognizability of the usual Commedia dell'arte characters, rather than the "reality" of their participants, that those of us who watch such shows enjoy. This season of "Survivor" is called "Heroes vs Villains," for Pete's sake.) Yet it is reality for which we hunger, it seems, not art. Or rather, it is David Shields, the reality of that, that we don't even know we need. David Shields, age fifty two, is totally down with this. He gets it, dude. Fuck copyright! He needs the freedom, to you know, like appropriate an' shit. It's all about the mash-up and the sampling and such-like.

It's more than a little embarrassing, isn't it? the bald guy in baggies.

It seems the good Professor now wants to sit in the back of the class -- and still be the only one talking.

In Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, & France 1765 -- 1766, edited by Frank Brady, I found a delightful anecdote in which Johnson, asked to address himself to what are characterized as the "infidels & innovators" of his day, says, "Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull."**

Look away, children, look away.

*"Neither blindness, nor gout, nor age, nor penury, nor domestic afflictions, nor political disappointments, nor abuse, nor proscription, nor neglect, had power to disturb his sedate and majestic patience."

**Boswell quoting Dr. Johnson, Sollacaro, 22 -- 27 October 1765

Daily Dose

From The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, by Hannah Pakula


"Along with war materials, Stalin sent Chiang some advice on achieving national unity: 'Tell the Generalissimo that if he wants to do away with any manifestation of disloyalty on the part of his people while the fight continues, he should shoot at least 4,500,000 persons. Otherwise,' Stalin said, 'I fear that he will not be able to bring the war of resistance to a successful conclusion.'"

From Chapter 24

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Taking the Madame to Lunch

When I was little, Vincent Price came to lecture at the little Presbyterian college in my little Presbyterian hometown in Pennsylvania. Back in those far off days, Mr. Price lectured regularly about on a variety of topics, but I was particularly anxious to see him because his announced topic was something like "Villains & Villainy." His lecture might just as easily have been about the art he'd been collecting and curating -- and selling through Sears -- for many years. I had nothing against pre-Colombian pottery or abstract impressionism at the age of ten or eleven. Would have gone to hear him talk about that, too, if I had to. I would have gone to see Vincent Price give a lecture on the history of plumbing, for that matter, just to see him, just to hear that voice. I was a fan. He was, after all, Vincent Price, star of "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again," of all those Roger Corman adaptations -- if that's the word -- from Edgar Allan Poe, and of "Theatre of Blood," (please note the exciting spelling,) my introduction to Shakespeare! I adored him. I begged to be taken to see his new movies, almost none of which ever played at our one movie house in town, The Guthrie Theatre, (please note the exciting spelling,) where G-Rated Disney reigned. This was tragic, as The Guthrie was, in those days, a run-down wreck of a place, with torn curtains, water running mysteriously under the stage -- you could hear it if you sat down front -- and few working lights; perfect venue for "The Masque of the Red Death"! (The movie house has since been restored and is now operated by a wonderful movie fan.) Mostly, I watched Mr. Price's old movies on Chiller Theater, Pittsburgh, Channel 11, hosted by the legendary "Chilly Billy" Cardille. Staying up late on Saturday night, to watch horror films, sometimes hiding behind the sofa when they got to be too scary, was one of the more exquisite pleasures of my childhood. (For some reason, the Mexican wrestler movies occasionally featured were really the spookiest, as the masked hero might be fighting a specially vicious werewolf, but the hero was pretty scary in his own right; walking around in a suit and tie, but sporting always a skin-tight death's head. Didn't seem to bother anyone in the movie, but that scared the shit out of me.) My favorite movies at that age were monster movies. I loved the old Universal monsters, loved the Hammer movies, and loved anything starring that great American actor, Mr. Vincent Price. When he came to town, I had to see him. And he was going to talk about... monsters!

I made my best friend, Jimmy, go with me. He wasn't much interested in monsters. I would not have been allowed to attend a lecture at the college in those days on my own. Nothing against college lectures, or college, you understand, of which neither of my parents had any experience, but I really could not be out so late without the reassuring presence of another ten-year-old. It was a more innocent time, and somehow, two ten-year-olds out and about in town on a Fall night was thought a more normal thing, and presumably safer than one out and about on his own. How we persuaded Jimmy's rather strict Christian parents to allow him to go along, I don't recall. We must have made much about the event being a Lecture, at the College. Maybe we mentioned Shakespeare. Anyway, we were allowed to go, unaccompanied. Our tickets for the lecture put us up in some remote balcony, where we were obviously the only children present. It was terribly exciting just to be in a real theater -- pardon me, a real theatre.

And Vincent Price was marvelous, even at that distance. He spoke eloquently and at length about the whole history of monsters and villains, from Paradise Lost, to his own movies, of our attraction to the complexities of evil characters, of his affection for the monsters he'd played on screen -- though he was at pains, I remember, to point out that he'd played as many heroes as villains. (Poor man.) The most exciting part of the evening was when Mr. Price recited poetry from memory: whole speeches from Richard the Third and Macbeth, -- was it? -- and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, etc. It was thrilling beyond description to be in that auditorium, hearing that voice, that full, fruity, gloriously modulated voice, reciting. I was over the moon.

After the lecture, there was a reception for invited guests. This required a special ticket we did not have, Jimmy and me. I insisted we try to crash it. Jimmy was a shockingly honest little boy. He resisted doing anything so obviously, dangerously wrong. I can't remember how, or even if I persuaded him to go with me. I only know that somehow, by pretending to be looking for a lost parent, I made it into the reception-line for Vincent Price. There were many curious looks from the adults as I shuffled along to shake hands with the lecturer. I brazenly ignored the many disapproving looks from deans and professors of English and the like. When I was actually able to see Vincent Price, graciously greeting the guests as he was introduced to each, I was determined to meet him. At some point, I caught his eye. I was, after all, the only person in that line quite so short. Vincent Price smiled when he saw me! While he chatted briefly with the ladies and gentlemen in front of me, he would periodically wink at me. That made me brave. When I finally was before him, someone asked to whom I belonged and the adults before and after disavowed any responsibility. The evening's host glowered threateningly and I was nearly undone. Then the impossibly tall, magnificent Vincent Price, bent nearly double at the waist, reached down down down and took my hand.

"I see we're both batching it tonight," he said, and smiled broadly.

He talked to that ten-year-old-boy for a full minute or two; asking if I'd been to his lecture and if I'd enjoyed it. He seemed pleased when I stuttered that I'd liked the poetry best. He asked if I had a favorite movie and said that mine was also his -- "Theatre of Blood" -- and for the same reason, the verse. Eventually someone jogged his elbow or in some other way suggested that I was holding up the line and he said what a pleasure it had been to meet me. Then, I think, I ran.

Vincent Price was the most charming human being I ever met.

When I was a child, the most revered woman in the world, among American reactionaries, was still Madame Chaing Kai-Shek. It was still not uncommon, in those days, to see her photograph in the news magazines, or to read some impossibly over-written article by the lady herself, on the threat of global communism, reproduced in a ladies' magazine or in the Reader's Digest. There were people, good church people, who still listed "the loss of China," as one of the tragedies in American history back then, usually in the same conversation in which the "loss" of the Panama Canal was hysterically condemned, and the resignation of Richard Nixon was mourned. One could even still see the Madame on television occasionally; still beautiful, still terribly, bravely, still venomously denouncing the "betrayal" of the Nationalist Chinese.

By the time the lady finally came to die, at more than one hundred years of age, she was a very distant memory. I'm sure I was not alone in being taken aback, at the time of her death, to learn that she had lived so long. All the elderly ladies of my childhood who had treasured her autographed pictures or kept clippings of her speeches, who, like her, had referred to her husband reverently only as "The Generalissimo," had long since gone to Jesus, the collected mementos of all such lost Republican causes: Taft buttons, Goldwater books, Nixon autographs, consigned by their heirs to thrift shops and dusty attics.

I read Sterling Seagrave's wonderful potboiling biography of the Madame's family, The Soong Dynasty, twenty years ago. The book was a breathtaking saga of money, corruption, fame, loyalty and disloyalties, and the destinies, in particular, of three remarkable sisters, the most famous of whom, Soong May-ling, became what Hannah Pakula, in her new biography, calls The Last Empress. Having read Seagrave's book, I never thought I'd ever want to read another word about the Madame, but I was wrong. Pakula's biography sucked me right in.

It is a big book. I thought, taking it with me to lunch one day, that I would just read the end of it: the Madame in seclusion, in her mansions and then in her luxurious apartment in New York, painting delicate pictures, writing the occasional verbose letter to the editor, fading. The biographer, while not unsympathetic to this elderly woman left without contemporaries, or power, nevertheless never forgets, any more than the Madame ever did, that for a time, this was one of the most famous and influential women of the Twentieth Century, certainly one of the great female self-inventions in history, and an incredibly complex, utterly charming and dangerously ruthless politician. Pakula 's portrait of the Madame in retirement was fascinating, so much so that against my better judgement, I found myself going back, and back, to read more, until I finally succumbed to the spell and read the whole damned thing.

I was reminded throughout of the insight I first heard from Vincent Price, though I've come to understand since that it is a commonplace, that no villain ever sees himself, or herself, as anything but fully justified in his or her villainy. I remember the relish with which Mr. Price spoke those lines from Richard III:

"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. "

Now the Madame, as Pakula's biography shows in example after example, proved herself, indeed, a lover, but no less a villain for that. She was beautiful, loyal, well spoken, quite cunning. But as perhaps my favorite story from the book illustrates better than most, the Madame was also ruthless, unfeeling, and brutally cavalier about the human cost of her vanity. Pakula tells the the full story of the Madame's triumphant tour of the US, during the worst of the Second World War, when she personally raised both millions of dollars for the Chinese war effort and her personal profile as the world's most prominent female political speaker. Reluctantly, having finally become the American celebrity she'd dreamed of being, the Madame had to go home, to a China devastated by war. It was a dangerous journey. She sent her luggage on ahead. When the American servicemen who were charged with loading into the plane the Madame's considerable loot of jewelry, furs, perfume, soap, etc., realized that the plane's crew would be risking their lives in what was then the most dangerous mission in the war, to carry this pirate's treasure across the mountains, the servicemen, very deliberately, kicked her shit to pieces before loading it into the plane. Loved that story.

Pakula's book is full of many less amusing stories as well. In a long life, the Madame was personally responsible for a great deal of human misery. If her husband -- far less intelligent, far more hidebound, and every bit as corrupt, -- was but one of the villains in a government crowded with scoundrels, he was certainly for some time, the villain in charge, and the Madame was his more than willing partner. Her own family proved a study in selfishness, greed and sustained grudges, and the undisputed Empress was every bit as selfish, greedy and unforgiving as the worst of them. That she was smarter than most, and could be personally kinder and even liberal in her patronage, that she was a genuine patriot in some sense, and that she did try, as Pakula's biography takes great pains to show, to help her people, does not ultimately excuse her appalling egotism, her husband's astonishing incompetence, or the system of ruthless militarism that destroyed Nationalist China. This biography shows, yet again, that fighting against a greater evil, in this case the disastrous Mao, can not excuse the criminality of all that came before. Moreover, in reading the life of the Madame, I was reminded of just how wrong one individual can go in making such disasters possible.

The fascination of villains is, as Vincent Price said so long ago, not just in their villainy, but in their conviction that they have a unique right, even a responsibility, to do as they do. Pakula's good biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, like the sight of Lady Macbeth goading her husband to murder, reminds us that no villain ever succeeded alone. Some of the worst had good and loyal wives.

Oh, for the monsters of my youth! Oh, for the innocent fun of werewolves, vampires and Mexican wrestlers. It is the real villains that keep me up at night now.

Daily Dose

From Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant, translated by Carl Wildman


"I soon acquired, through this behavior, a great reputation for insincerity, a bantering wit and maliciousness."

from Chapter 1

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Upcoming: 84 Charing Cross Road's 40th Anniversary

Please join us at The University Book Store, Seattle, when we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the publication of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road with a reading of selections from the book.

Wednesday, April 28th, at 7PM.

Mark your calendars!

Daily Dose

From Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey


"Someone once asked Dad: 'But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?'

'For work, if you love that best,' said Dad. 'For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure.' He looked over the top of his pince-nez. 'For mumblety-peg, if that's where your heart lies.'"

From Chapter 19, The Party Who Called You...

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Cameos: Selected from the Works of Walter Savage Landor


"Youth but by help of Memory can be sage:
Wiser by losing some of it is Age."

From Couplets

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Two Recent Deaths

It is a commonplace with my people to send obituaries to distant loved ones. We believe in the day and evening viewings, home for lunch, flowers at the funeral home, smoking in the parking lot. The service is the next day, just family, behind a curtain in the parlor and not church, where we never much went. The clergyman, if required, is usually hired for the day and tends to read the names from notes. The flowers go on the grave, but only the pallbearers take them there. Home, since we don't drink much, is all about blank exhaustion, bitter grief, ham and funny stories. We eat what people left on the porch, if the weather's cool, what they left at the neighbor's if it's not. The neighbor doesn't stay, and nobody would think of calling us after ten that night. The grown ups usually stay up until all hours and say things they'd never have said otherwise, or in front of the deceased. We let the kids fall asleep in our laps or cover them with blankets in a chair. And in a day or two, depending on the day someone died, the local paper, which is published twice a week, runs the obituary somebody in the family wrote out and to which a photograph has been paper-clipped. The picture's always formal, which, if the dead person was old, usually means the picture's old too; from an anniversary, or a big birthday or the like. Couple of weeks after the obituary runs, when everyone's flown home, a card comes in the mail with a copy of the obituary, laminated, as a keepsake.

Now and again, I might still get just a clipping in a letter, if the dead weren't close family; a distant cousin, say, or someone I went to school with, or a favorite teacher. Just once, my mother sent me an obituary with a note written across the top:

"Knew you'd want to see this."

It was the notice for my seventh grade algebra teacher. My mother's note was an example of my people's sense of humor. I did laugh. Miss P. was a miserable woman. She was a nasty, shrill old woman with sharp teeth and no more patience than a barn-cat between meals. Standardized testing finally filtered down to the local educators right around my time, though they'd no real idea what to do with it. That's what put a bunch of us into algebra who ought not to have been there. Miss P. did not approve of these new ideas and did not appreciate that her algebra class was no longer an elective. She made a proper Hell out of algebra for anyone she, quite rightly, thought ought to be elsewhere. She was a horrible teacher, perhaps the worst I ever knew, and that, friends, is saying something about a school teacher in nineteen-seventy-something in a small American town.

I have to say, her death brought not a single tear into the world, so far as I've ever heard.

I didn't keep her obituary.

Another person I did not like, died a few days ago. I heard about this the same day, coincidentally, that I learned that a dear friend at the bookstore had to have one of her beloved dogs put down. Everybody mourned that dog.

The woman who died was someone I had no choice but to see regularly, for some years. She was someone to whom, sooner or later, everyone in the neighborhood was exposed. I can think of no better way to say that. She was not nice. She was regularly, outrageously, unthinkingly and unapologetically inappropriate. She lectured, she buttonholed, she bullied, so far as I ever saw, everyone. I never had, or witnessed an interaction with her that she did not manage to make into a test of patience and politeness. (She even poked me right in the gut once, to illustrate a point she was making about how fat people were nowadays. She wasn't wrong, I suppose, but I do think she was damned lucky that I didn't knock her on her elderly ass. ) The truth is that she was neither amusingly caustic, terribly interesting, nor kind. What she was, was a bore. She was impervious to dislike and took even the most pained silence as yet another opportunity to say something more she shouldn't have said at all. For a time, when I'd only just met her, I assumed she was just another harmless, lonely, talkative old soul. Usually, I rather like most lonely, harmless talkative old souls. I was warned that she would prove an exception, but I did not pay much mind. As I say, I like most of the lively, opinionated old parties in this world, as I intend to be just such a one -- my heart willing, and with medical science constantly advancing -- someday myself. Then she cornered me, more than once, and I learned that discomfort was all the same to her as kindness and that it was not so much attention she required as response, any response, to her provocation. Absent that, she would eventually just move on, though never before she'd made a real effort. Antagonisms were to her the happiest of her acquaintance. Just as everyone had warned me I would, had told me not to let her engage me unduly if I could possibly avoid doing so, I did indeed eventually learn to avoid her. That I came to genuinely dislike, even dread the woman, I have not a moment's hesitation in saying even now. I'm convinced that she took no more notice of me, of other people, than she did the birds of the air or the beasts of the field, so far as I could tell. She invariably addressed creation, no matter who or what stood before her. Did no one any good to think otherwise. I can't imagine she remembered my name, though she asked it every time we ever spoke, for even the length of the breath it took for her to repeat it. She was one of the very few human beings I've ever met for whom, I can honestly say, I ultimately felt no more than she considered me.

That the news of her death elicited from me not a kind thought, would not I think have mattered to her at all. It bothers me. I don't think, as I say, that it would have bothered her, and I suppose then it shouldn't bother me.

But it does, a little.

Death doesn't do a damned thing to improve one's opinion of the people one dislikes. The last time I saw this old woman was when I passed her, some months ago, on the opposite side of the street. She was not doing well even then and I make no claim for my own soul in saying that I found her pitiable, but was glad at almost the same second to see that she was walking away from rather than towards me. Just the way things were, between us, and with that woman and the world, I should think. She could not help but be offensive any more, it seems, than I could help finding her so. Still, seeing the difficulty with which she was taking that hill, seeing the hesitation in her step, how small a figure she was, moving slowly against a cold November wind, I can say I was at least a little ashamed to feel no more than I did.

It is a shock to recognize that indifference to even the mortality of another human being is not only possible, but may be familiar. I should like to think it unlikely hereafter. But then, there are now some precedents, so I suppose it must be admitted that the possibility exists hereafter. Don't know why I should ever have thought myself otherwise than entirely fallible. Still, it's a little shocking.

I can only hope to avoid being so remembered myself. I am then, I guess, a little chastened, if nothing else, by the news of her passing.

If my people taught me anything about death, it was to observe the proper way of things, say what you will, after, so:

Rest in peace.

And KZ, let me just say again here, I could not have been more sorry to hear about your dog.

Daily Dose

From Pericles and Aspasia, by Walter Savage Landor


"The graver and uglier philosophers, however they differ on other points, agree in these; that beauty does not reside in the body, but in the mind; that philosophers are the only true heroes; and that heroes alone are entitled to the privilege of being implicitly obeyed by the beautiful."

From LVI. Aspasia to Cleone

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Poem for the Present Spring

Daily Dose

From Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens


"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade."

From Chapter 54

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Specially Beautiful Spring Poem

With apologies to the poet, as he is very much alive, and my dearest friend, for the reader's less than dignified appearance and for not doing full justice to the beauty of his words. I'm afraid that I was so excited to receive this wonderful poem tonight, that I simply read it out as I was.

I include the text, in a separate posting, so that others might read it for themselves.

Two Springs, by Richard Linker

Spring breeze played at the window this way once

When I lay spooned with John, and far from us

The ocean pumped the vast breath of the air,

Poetries of salt and temperature its genius.

My eye wandered his hair, the back of one ear.

Against my chest I felt his breath press and withdraw,

The physical fact of him impossibly true.

Now Spring enters again, stirring breath in that curtain-tranced day

Of slip in, suck out, belly and sway at the game of loving this world,

Eternal in its marking off time.

How good, that sweet breeze, lucid, watery air

Bearing a voice, laughter, lilac and dogs

As if a quiet Eden lay beyond, unobtrusive in its bounty.

Was I ever as peaceful as the smell of his hair enticed me to believe?

Yes —the body does not lie, but hopes.

He slept; the room, charged with our presence,

Took light at the windows like a great thirst satisfied,

And every detail was clear to me

Through to the still water at the heart of things.

Then I wrote “god’s balding postcard dome,” and all of it,

It seemed, contained within that room where we were shooting stars

As Pan opened up again his ageless rites among the flowers.

A Herrick Poem for Spring

Daily Dose

From Complete Poems, by William Cowper


"Spring returns, and brings along
Life-invigorating suns"

From I Will Praise the Lord at All Times

Monday, March 22, 2010

Not Yet...

Proserpine has been about the place unexpectedly, the cherry and apple blossom are already scattering after her... and so on and so on. Lovely. Really it is. But in her wake, comes the first swirl of emails and spreadsheets and, soon enough, the first books in the mailbox, and my committee work begins again. I can't say I'm not looking forward to it -- I am -- just not this first bit, not yet.

I love the Spring. I love the new flowers, the soft air, sitting in the chill in the shade in our little walled garden and reading lovely old things, by Robert Herrick, and Richard Lovelace, and staring dreamily into the clear sky. I know that all of this is embarrassingly commonplace, but there it is, and here I am. I made a chicken sandwich and took that, a glass of grape-juice, and some books into the garden today and sat and ate my lunch and read poetry. Birds were singing all around me, no lie. Even the sound of a distant buzz-saw, from some far off construction, seemed in keeping with the day. Didn't mind. In fact, the only thing to interrupt this lovely day was the thump of mail in the mailbox. I thought nothing of this, but used the mailman's visit as an excuse to stretch my legs a little, move my chair so as to be again out of the sun when I came back, and strolled up the path by the side of the house to finally retrieve the newspaper and collect the mail. Then I saw something sticking out of the box. Ours is an old fashioned, rectangular mailbox with a lid on top, and the lid was propped open by a package. Still, I wasn't thinking of anything but the lovely day and the sorry state of the evergreens we had to have cut brutally back just last week. Pitiable things they look, until they grow back their green. But the first of our flowers look quite nice, I thought. When I'd collected the paper from the stone stairs and pulled all the mail from the box, I carried it not into the house, but back with me to my chair in the shade. Little other than bills, nowadays. Nobody writes anymore. (I write here, but not the letters I used to, so what else can I expect?) The paper I opened and read the good news and left the rest, such as it ever is these days, for later. Finally, in my innocence, I turned the package over in my lap and saw that, yes, it was addressed to me rather than my husband, and, no, it was not from anyone I knew. Only then did I let my heart sink a little.

Has it started, already?

The package was obviously a book. In my experience serving on the awards committee, the first books sent to us for consideration are always... well, bad. This is my third and final year of service. After this, I'll be done. I've learned, in my first two years, that very rarely do the first books submitted for consideration survive the earliest rounds of elimination. Something better almost invariably comes right along. I know, I know. A book published in the Spring is no less likely to be a good book than the books that will come in a rush in the Fall. But in two years of reading for this committee, I can't remember a single book I read in March being a book I wanted to remember in October. Probably nothing but superstition, but I do dread these first submitted titles. And here I sat, presumably, with the first one in my lap. I put it down on a rock by my chair. I finished the paper. I finished my lunch. I finished reading "To Althea, from Prison:"

"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage"

Finally, with a melodramatic sigh or two, I opened the ugly brown mailer, and pulled out the book. I never read the cover-letters from the publishers or the authors; just so much wrapping paper. What book was ever read because of what was written in a submission letter? I tossed the letter aside, and found not the fishing memoir, or self-published novel about life in a Tacoma bordello I was dreading, but a book I'd ordered, a book I wanted, a book, indeed, of poetry! I'd forgotten that I'd ordered it from a used books dealer online a week or so ago. I'd forgotten all about it, and here it was, instead of... something else.

Doesn't really matter what the book was. It was not, in fact, a committee book. That was what mattered. I need never read this book, you see, so I sat in the shade today and did. And it, and the birds singing, and the cool shade, and the beautiful first flowers, and not being at work today, made me very happy.

This will be my last year, as I've said, reading to a purpose greater than my own. And as I said, I really do look forward to serving one last time. I do. Just not today. Today, all I wanted, on my day off from the bookstore, was to sit in the chilly shade, my toes stretched out in the sun, and read what I wanted to, or read nothing at all. And after I'd read a bit more of my new book, and smoked a bit, I put the new book on the stack of old books by my chair, and I took a nap.

Bless you, benevolent Goddess, for one last perfect, lazy day!

And Yet Another Poem for Spring!

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, by Walt Whitman


"O slender leaves! O blossoms of my blood! I permit you to
tell in your own way of the heart that is under you"

From Scented Herbage of My Breast

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Poem for March

Daily Dose

From The Bab Ballads With Which Are Included Songs of a Savoyard, by W. S. Gilbert


"Because I fly
In realms above,
In tendency
To fall in love
Resemble I
The amorous dove?"

From the Fairy Queen's Song

Saturday, March 20, 2010

New Zealand Clerihew


Resolving she ought not to be,
A victim of labotomy,
Allowed manic-depressive Janet Frame
To enjoy -- a little -- her latter fame.

Daily Dose

From Six by Six: Short Stories by New Zealand's Best Writers, edited by Bill Manhire


"Poetry was dropped from their conversation in favour of remarks about getting cracking taking off and shooting through."

From The Undertaker's Story, by Frank Sargeson

Friday, March 19, 2010

Another Spring Poem

Daily Dose

From Cakes and Ale, by William Somerset Maugham


"He was for long thought to write very bad English, and indeed he gave you the impression of writing with the stub of a blunt pencil; his style was laboured, and uneasy mixture of the classical and the slangy, and his dialogue was such as could never have issued from the mouth of a human being."

From Chapter XI

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Spring Poem

Daily Dose

From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll


"'Well, then,' the Gryphon went on, 'if you don't know what to uglify is, you are a simpleton.'"

From The Mock Turtle's Story

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Long Term Clerihew


The passionate blarney
Of Natalie Barney
Earned dirty looks
From Romaine Brooks.

A Bookstore Doodle

So sorry.

Daily Dose

From The Pure and the Impure, by Colette


"She was constantly giving things away: the bracelets on her arms opened up, the necklace slipped from her martyr's throat. She was deciduous. It was as if her languorous body rejected anything that would give it a third dimension."

From Chapter 5

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems, by Thomas Babington Macaulay


"In truth, there was in his character much to love, but very little to respect."

From Volume III, an entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica, Frebruary, 1856

Monday, March 15, 2010

Essays in Earnest and Otherwise

I have in mind my next order for the bookstore's new Espresso Book Machine, but I'm anticipating a problem. From what I can see, looking at the database for the affordable Google book, I would get only the first of two volumes. Inexplicably, this would seem to be the standard way of Google books, at least to date, with multiple volume books. Having been burnt now more than once, I am chary of hoping for better from the Google folks anytime soon. Still, The price of the reprint from one of the sources other than Google is absurdly high. For that kind of money, I might almost buy a used copy, even with the shipping. So, for the moment, I'm stymied.

The truth is, I know too little of the book's author, Alfred Ainger (1837-1904) and about the book, in two volumes, of his Lectures and Essays (1905) to make this investment lightly. The little I know of Ainger's biography might as easily be found anywhere online, but can be summarized briefly enough. Son of a London architect, he took holy orders at Cambridge, and, with a becoming gradualism, he slowly rose up to become Canon of Bristol Cathedral and "chaplain-in-ordinary" to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, whatever that may mean. About all that, I couldn't care less. I might have his reprinted Sermons Preached in the Temple Church for roughly the cost of his essays. I'm sure his sermons are perfectly lovely sermons, as sermons go, but I can't imagine why I would want them. It is not, as it were, Ainger's day-job that interests me. Like Sydney Smith's, Ainger's clerical career might entertainingly have been treated by Trollope, but as it wasn't, I don't think I need to read anything much more about that. But Ainger, again like Smith, was known for his wit, and his literary work, as well as his collar, and in that I am most interested.

Ainger wrote, among other things, a life of Thomas Hood, and for Morley's "English Men of Letters" series, he wrote two more biographies: a brief life of the poet Crabbe, which I haven't read, and another, of Charles Lamb, which, of course, I have. (The best biography of Lamb, to my mind, is still E. V. Lucas', which came later and was the better for what was then much new scholarship on the subject, and for being allowed greater length, less reserve, and more scope of quotation. In two fat volumes, Lucas, with great candor and unabashed admiration, seamlessly stitched up a great part of the letters, with all the best anecdotes, and the new research of his day, to make something as nearly like the company of the man as might ever be possible. It is a favorite book of mine, and with his edition of Lamb's letters, perhaps the best thing Lucas ever did.) Ainger's little book was the first book about Lamb that I read, and as such, it has it's own place in my library, but I find I turn to it, in preference even to the Lucas, because it is the best and easiest in which to find the simplest history of Lamb's life. Like the other volumes I've read in Morley's series of brief lives, Ainger's book is an elegant and well-made thing; clear, concise and not much concerned with much other than the subject. History and criticism come into it, but only as needed. Wordsworth, Hazlitt and the rest of Lamb's famous acquaintance and friends, for example, are included, but are never allowed more than what may be due them as having been occasionally present and almost always fondly regarded. The lives of Lamb's friends, more perhaps than any other such circle in English literature, other than perhaps Dr. Johnson's, were the stuff of literary history. In Ainger's biography though, even the most famous of these are kept in their place, at Lamb's table, in his company, and are not allowed to displace the subject that most interests his biographer, and me. This is particularly true of Coleridge, as perhaps Lamb's oldest, and dearest friend other than his sister Mary, and Ainger's refusal to be distracted by the noisy genius is all the more notable as even Lamb found his friend tended to overwhelm even the most distinguished company, and become the focus of any room he was in. Ainger keeps even Coleridge in his place. Ainger's book then is not "the life and times," but simply, Charles Lamb. That is it's chief virtue, though it is also pithy, and as touching and amusing, in it's way, as as any such brief life may and should be. For all the limitations of the space in which he had to write, and with all the equally confining discretion and of the true Victorian, Ainger's Lamb is recognizably both the Elia beloved of generations of his readers, and the more melancholy figure as much now remembered for the tragedies in his life, as for the good humor and good company he kept in all but the worst of times. Moreover, it is worth noting, that Ainger's edition of Lamb, in twelve volumes, was the first good one, and the one from which all subsequent editions, including Lucas', derive. Whatever it's flaws and omissions, Ainger's Lamb is largely the Lamb still read, and his life of Lamb, still worth reading.

The idea that I might read, might need, the Canon's other Lectures and Essays came to me tonight when I had occasion to consult his Charles Lamb. I was curious to find some concise explanation for Lamb's adoption of the name Elia for his most famous essays. Elsewhere tonight in my reading, I came across an unattributed quotation on this subject, in David Cecil's A Portrait of Charles Lamb. (The quote comes from Lamb's essay, "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple," an essay with which Cecil may well have assumed any reader of his book to already be familiar. Who else, after all, would read Cecil's book, but someone with Elia already at his elbow? It is worth remembering that such assumptions could still be made, as late even as when Cecil wrote about Lamb, in the early 1970s, without any suggestion of authorial indifference to the rules of good scholarship, or to his reader's less perfect recollection of the subject's famous words. Someone like Cecil might still assume, even in my lifetime as a reader, that the curious, if unsure of what the critic thought a familiar quotation, would, if curious enough, be able to look it up in the original. Not the same thing as being indifferent to attribution, now is it?) The quote, from Elia then by way of Cecil, follows:

"Let no one receive these narratives of Elia for true records. They are in truth but shadows of fact -- verisimilitudes not verities -- or sitting upon the remote edges and outskirts of history.'"

Cecil goes on to analyze the ways in which Lamb's adoption of Elia allows him to "make use of material drawn from his own experience" without being circumscribed by autobiography. Instead, speaking through this character both exactly like and distinctly unlike himself, Lamb could then, and did, alter the details his own experience; changing names, leaving out some, though by no means all of his unhappiest memories, making better some of what may have been bad, so as to make something new, something amusing and beautiful, not just from the life he'd known, ugly and otherwise, but what he'd come to know about that experience. Being not in the business of writing history, or even of recording the facts of his own autobiography, but rather of writing personal essays and making art, Lamb felt no hesitation about making from his life, something new, or changing, as Cecil says, "for the sake of artistic effect," what was true to what he felt told a larger Truth.

This also from Cecil: "Elia, then, is not the whole and unedited Charles Lamb; but he is Lamb at his most characteristic, and composed of those elements in his personality which particularly distinguish him from other people; and with these heightened and lit up by the light of his creative vision..."

So why then "Elia," and not just "Charles Lamb?"

(I should have thought this was too obvious a thing to require much more explanation, but having been lately much troubled by David Shields' new book, I suppose something more might need be said, even if only by me.)

Yes, "Elia" is a fiction, though neither more nor less a fiction than "The Spectator" of Addison & Steele, or Johnson's "Rambler." The Essays of Elia are entirely within the same tradition, though what Lamb made with this assumption of a character was more obviously personal, both in subject and in style, than did his chief models. And this is the point, in so far as I am still thinking about Shields & Co. tonight: the personal essay allows for this lie, not because Lamb had a disregard for factual accuracy or was indifferent to history. His critical journalism and his work as an anthologist of the Elizabethan dramatists show him to have been a champion of many a neglected or forgotten reputation, and always scrupulous about citation and sources, as this could only help his cause in promoting what he thought good, by directing the reader's attention to what he could only excerpt. Nor did Lamb, in Elia or elsewhere, imagine his readers to be indifferent to the distinction between fact and fiction, or incapable of judging and valuing the veracity of the one in preference to the other, an asinine and insulting suggestion that would never have occurred to Lamb, or anyone else not in the business of contemporary cultural criticism.

Let me just quote a passage from Ainger that I found very much to the same point, and even more to my purpose in writing tonight about Shields, and about Lamb, his biographers and critics. It is from Ainger's sixth chapter, covering the years of Lamb's greatest literary activity, from 1817 to 1823, and refers specifically to the style of The Essays of Elia:

"A feature of Lamb's method, as we have seen, is his use of quotations. Not only are they brought in so as really to illustrate, but the passages cited themselves receive illustration from the use made of them, and gain a permanent and heightened value from it. Whether it be a garden-scene from Marvell, a solemn paradox from Sir Thomas Brown, or a stanza from some then recent poem of Wordsworth, the quotation fulfils a double purpose, and has sent many a reader to explore for himself in the author whose words strike him with such luminous effect in their new setting."

The emphasis at the end of that is mine. Lamb did not then, even as Elia, "appropriate" the past, as Shields would seem to suggest contemporary writers not only may, but have some kind of obligation to do. Instead, he reverenced the writers he loved, and sought, even within the limitations imposed on his essays by publisher's requirements and the confinement of newspaper and magazine columns, to direct his readers, always, to what he thought best in the books that made up so much of his life, and more importantly, he sought, like Montaigne, to tell what he knew and found this might best be done by using what he'd read, and often by using only what he was convinced had been better said before him.

Any claim now being made that Montaigne, or Samuel Johnson, or Charles Lamb, of all people! or any of the great essayists, saw nothing in the books about them but the "materials" with which they might, with the impunity of the artist, make something new, without acknowledging what was not, is the most disgraceful canard. Anyone arguing otherwise is exactly what Montaigne, and Johnson, and Lamb never were, namely, dishonest. It is, at best, disingenuous to read the great English essayists in this way, or to claim them as the ancestors for the postmodernists' juvenile irreverence. Nothing could be further from the facts, or the truth.

(It is interesting to note the way in which John D'Agata, in his anthologies, and Shields in his new book, either avoid many of the greatest essayists altogether, or, as D'Agata did with Montaigne, choose to only use that which is least characteristic of their style, and their purpose. It must be hard, trying to find something in Montaigne to support the idea that an "attempt" might be made by any but honest means. When Lamb's Elia makes claim to only "verisimilitude not verities," he speaks for himself, not for the authors he quotes, and his joke is on himself, not them. That is a lesson contemporary essayists would do well to learn, when being all loose an "lyrical" with the work of their betters.)

So perhaps I do indeed need my own copy of Alfred Ainger's Lectures and Essays, however much they may cost me. Everything I've read by that gentleman has suggested he was a honest person. I would do well to have one more honest man in my library.

Daily Dose

From The Complete Spectator, by Addison & Steele


"Our criticks do not seem sensible that there is more Beauty in the Works of a great Genius who is ignorant of the Rules of Art, than in those of a little Genius who knows and observes them."

From No. 592 -- September 10, 1714 -- Addison

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Better You Than Me

One of the best local dealers made a very good buy, and I've been, as a regular customer, the beneficiary. Some good stuff on those shelves lately, some really good stuff. An estate-sale, I think it was, yielded up a bounty of beautiful, serious books, as well as a whole wagon-load of just good, clean old stock. I've been to admire some of the best things the booksellers have been kind enough to show me, and I've been buying quite a few books from the lower end of this lovely new inventory; all kinds of beautifully preserved little books, like Haydon's autobiography, De Quincey's memoirs of The Lake Poets, and little 19th Century volumes of English poetry, and essays and the like. Every few days, I check in, and sure enough, there are more small treasures just waiting for me. (The little book of Dryden's Latin translations that I've been reading, with some difficulty and with two pairs of glasses on my nose, came from this batch of books. And just yesterday, I made my most expensive trip yet, coming back with three more volumes of critical essays from the Oxford World Classics series, a couple of small novels, and Walter Savage Landor's Pericles and Aspasia, in two volumes, which was reasonably priced, but still too expensive for me, at twenty five dollars, but I bought it anyway, on plastic.)

I'm not often jealous of what's sold to other used dealers. I admit I've been a little envious of the good things the neighbors have been putting out lately, but only because I've wanted so much of it for myself. I'm just greedy, really. But I know, good things come to us all, and as a regular visitor to most of the other shops in the city, I find my share of what I wasn't sold. In fact, for a certain kind of collectible book, or if I'm offered a truly rare and valuable book, I usually send the seller to an antiquarian. We don't really trade much in the finer things. We don't turn valuable books away, but we are not looking to build "a collection" at the bookstore. Our business is more market driven. It is not about investing in expensive inventory. Everyone in the business wants books they can sell, of course, but we want books we can sell quickly, efficiently, and without the necessity of too much explanation -- we just don't have the time, the display space, the online presence or the clientele for that, yet. The bookstore I work in is the oldest in the city, but our used books business is still new, and our customers come to buy books, new and used now, but not to look at lovely old things in handsome old cases. I'm very grateful to the good dealers, like the one down the street, who know what to do with a big buy, and who don't neglect the likes of Landor, trusting that somebody, somebody very much like me, for example, will be along sooner or later to find him. I have the greatest respect for that kind of traditional bookselling, and the people who do it well. I depend for much of my reading on just such bookshops. But that's not how I earn my living, it's just the way I spend it. I don't work in that kind of store. (I have, but then I discovered the wonders of health insurance and a 401K.) I sometimes wish I had just such a bookshop of my own. Nearly everybody in the business of selling books fantasizes having just such a shop. Someday, maybe... or maybe not.

I've known too many used booksellers, some of them quite good booksellers, many with far more experience and knowledge than I have, but with too little expertise or education, who've decided the Internet, and their experience selling old books, is sufficient to deal in rare books and fine editions. Everybody likes nice things. Me too, obviously, though I'd say my interest tends more to the rarely read than the rare. As a book collector, in a modestly budgeted way, I'm always looking for great used bookstores. But as a used books buyer in a store that is still known primarily as a general independent bookstore, meaning we sell more new books still than used, I just can't afford to indulge in too much extravagance when it comes to buying books to resell, not if I want the used books sales-figures to continue their slow but steady rise, and boy howdy, do I. That's my job security, those percentages, that's what pays my bills, and lets me buy my eight dollar Dryden.

If one owns one's own shop, it is a very different business from the one I'm in. I'm sure it is an exciting thing, to start one's own business and make a success of it, but it takes a daunting amount of work, seven days a week, and a tenacity and patience I don't know that I have. With the right instincts and education, and the right kind of high-end inventory, priced carefully, displayed attractively and listed in the right places, anybody, if they can afford to get in the game, can eventually make an antiquarian. Meanwhile though, there's the rent or the mortgage to be paid, etc., and many a book dealer has gone out of business, sitting on thousands of dollars worth of rare books.

I worked briefly, in a good used books shop, with a bright guy who'd decided he was ready to go out on his own, as an antiquarian dealer. He'd worked in a lot of bookstores, good and bad. He learned from that. He'd studied the auctions, he worked the shows, and he studied his specialties: western Americana, mechanical illustration, rare prints. He knew his stuff. He was already making money with his books online. He was, frankly, tired of working for people who could not appreciate just what it was he might have provided them as an employee, or as a partner, had they been interested in something other than what was just a nice little bookstore. I sympathized with his frustration, but...

Anyway, he did it. He went out on his own, and tried to make a living from rare books. For awhile, I think he did okay. He worked even longer hours, and he worked every angle. He gambled on what he knew, what he'd collected and carefully saved and the books he'd accumulated, and he worked his listings online and his connections off. He worked his ass off, is what he did. And then, he fell flat on it.

Before he went bust, he was already working again, part-time, in a chain bookstore. Eventually, he had to sell of most of the best books he owned, at prices considerably lower than their value, to pay his debts. I've no idea if he ever tried again or what he's doing now. I still admire him, for having made the attempt.

I could offer other cautionary tales: the coworker who gave up his own shop and now works with me and sells us lots of good stock now and again, from storage and or scouting, but has no plans to open on his own again, the woman I worked with briefly who, rather than open the bookstore she'd talked about wanting, evidently for years, instead sold all her books to the owners of the shop where we both were working, and then disappeared, the retired dealers I met at their garage sales, because they just couldn't quite retire, but had no one to keep their business going, and on and on. But just one more, and then I'll let this end for now.

I met a wonderful bookseller once, with one of the best used bookstores I've ever been in, and learned from a third party, some years later, that he owned, besides, at least two houses, full of books, in one of which, he and his family were meant to be living, but couldn't because there simply was not room for them anymore. Like some legend of lost gold, my first thought on hearing this story was not kind. Rather than sympathizing with the man's storage difficulties, or even shaking my head over such a reckless obsession, I must admit, my first thought was, "I wonder what's in there?"

It better I work where I do, don't you think?

Daily Dose

From The Autobiography and Journals of Benjamin Robert Haydon


"Byron and Shelley were always sophisticated about their verses: Keats was sophisticated about nothing."

From Chapter XVII

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Clerihew Without Vocation


Young Benedict Kiely
Confessed, rather dryly,
"Oh, come now, Father, just admit,
You'd not have me a Jesuit."