Sunday, June 30, 2013

Heres to Life

Daily Dose

From Morality, by Christopher Hitchens


"In the course of his mental decline, he became convinced that the most important possible cultural feat would be to prove that the plays of Shakespeare were written by Bacon.  This is an unfailing sign of advanced intellectual and mental prostration."

From Chapter VI

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Son

Daily Dose

From Persuasion, by Jane Austen


"He sat down with them, and improved their conversation very much."

From Chapter 15

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From The Odes of Horace, translated by David Ferry


"I, who am other than they,
Will do no harm to you,
Nor will I keep you here."

From Danaus' Fifty Daughters: A Tale (iii.II)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A New Day

David Hume, whose History of England I happen to be reading just now, said elsewhere that "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."  That being so, the evidence today is good that Dr. King's moral cosmology was correct as to the direction, if surprisingly conservative as to the time.  I cannot be the only person today to have been reminded of the famous aphorism:

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

I imagine Hume would have endorsed that sentiment, though not without certain historical reservations.  He would probably have been astonished, and not a little worried at the remarkable acceleration in civil liberties witnessed in just this past year or so and allowed to stand in two Supreme Court cases decided yesterday.  (Come to that, Hume might well be astonished to find the American republic still standing better than two hundred years after it's founding.  But then Hume was, in many ways a very conservative and sceptical fellow.) 

For someone of my generation, born in a time when homosexuality was still criminalized in most of America, and de facto racial segregation was still the rule if no longer the law in the United States, our moral progress in the past few decades can seem breathtakingly fast.  And there is just cause for celebration today, no doubt.  (The other thing running in a loop in my head today is a song by Earth Wind & Fire.  If you are at least my age, then you know the one I mean without being told the title.)  No one keeping up with this week's Supreme Court news however can afford to celebrate without at least a sobering disappointment in the other major decision announced just days ago.  Certainly no student of history can read the opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy in the DOMA case without a profound gratitude sadly tempered if not undone by the majority opinion striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.  Have we really come so far?

The answer of course is that we have and we haven't -- a fact seemingly obvious to everyone except perhaps the conservative majority on the Court.  That these contradictory decisions: one acknowledging the changing attitudes of the majority population toward a minority group still denied full equality to date by the federal government and before the law, the other erroneously assuming that the full force of better than three hundred years of systematic and pervasive racial disenfranchisement need now no longer be addressed before the fact but only after, that these decisions should come so close together then actually reinforces Dr. King's figure of an old humanity, slow to move, if inexorably in the right direction.  To indulge in the Buddhist cliche, two steps forward...

Again, though he was probably unacquainted with the phrase, this might be another truism Hume the historian would have endorsed.  It certainly seems painfully obvious today.

Nonetheless, reading history or watching it happen, I confess that today, whatever my personal and profound reservations and disappointment in the Supreme Court of the United States, and in our stumbling progress to equality in this country, I will allow that today, I am a happy man, as you can see.

On we go.

Daily Dose

From Marriage Lines: Notes of a Student Husband, by Ogden Nash


When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Nice Curiosity: Samuel Rogers

I have a friend who works in the other side of the bookstore, a very talented woman, with a gift for arranging small things beautifully.  In fact, she is our display artist -- for want of a better job description.  She takes all the things that we old-hands in the book business used to call, in our arrogance, "sidelines": bookends and candles, soap and soap-dishes, bells and scarves and little stone statues and what-not and what-all, and she makes from this welter of items, displays of great complexity and retail attractiveness such as will make even the least likely browser stop and explore.  She is the mistress of the bookstore's curiosities; of all the things one might never have thought to want or buy until one's seen them artfully arranged; like with like and like without, in great constructions of multiples and singularity, in witty and whimsical and even magical relation one to another and one to the next.  No one has ever made, for example, a rather haphazard pile of recently reduced "merch" into such a fascinating concatenation of desirable stuff.

She is also, in her leisure, a photographer and finder of curiosities of all sorts.  She can take a bit of gum on a lamp-post, or rocks in a ditch, find a doll's head in a patch of moss or a fallen bird's nest just by the root of a tree, put a scrap of one thing next to another, and make the viewer see something new and beautiful and wonderful; a discovery made, a color reconsidered, detritus transformed -- if for just a moment and only by her art -- into treasure.

I've known a lot of people make displays.  I've never known anyone with quite her sorcery.  Treasure indeed, she is herself.

Tempted by her tables of things, I was set to musing on curios and the curio-cabinets I remember being in every grandmother's parlor when and where I grew up.  Remember those homely, glass-fronted bureaus?  Not the stately china-cupboards that displayed the unused mass of every lady's better bone and silver, but the smaller furniture, often as not a "corner-cupboard", or even just a narrow box of glass shelves.  The curios displayed, as I remember them anyway from my own grandmothers' houses, might be china figurines, and delicate dolls, cut-glass dishes and baby's shoes cast in brass, but just as likely tourist trash from otherwise forgotten trips; like a fringed, silk pillow from Rehoboth Beach, or a celluloid elephant that walked in a wobbly way on weird, rectangular feet if bumped gently enough from behind.

Literature tends to be taught, and rightly enough, from the china cupboard; all that weight of important books, the great masterpieces and collateral sets; Austen and Dickens stacked, with Richardson and Tolstoy, displayed like massy punch-bowls and soup-tureens.  I've always had a certain affection for the curios, myself.  One of the wonders of having access to an Espresso Book Machine has been the ability to browse among the lesser shelves of literature and dust off forgotten titles and the barely remembered authors now largely confined to footnotes, even in the big Nortons.

Samuel Rogers (1763 - 1855) was a poet between two times.  As a boy, he twice went to knock on Dr. Johnson's front door.  The first time he was told the Doctor was not home.  The second time, he lost his nerve.  That would be perhaps the last times Samuel Rogers failed to meet a famous man.  The son of a successful banker, and despite his own youthful leanings to both poetry and the pulpit, Rogers would himself follow his father into the bank.  Though he abandoned all thought of preaching, young Samuel did publish his first book of poems at 23.  (He would publish his last original work fifty years later.)  When he inherited his father's fortune, the banker's son promptly retired from trade, built a fine house in London and became one of the literary lions of the age.  An invitation to breakfast was a sign of arrival for new writers. An invitation to his more intimate dinners was a more singular honor.  Rogers published a book with Byron, unlikely as it sounds, counted both Shelley and Edmund Burke as friends, and lived to read, meet and like Charles Dickens.   He used a considerable part of his personal fortune to relieve artists and writers down on their luck.  He paid to keep Richard Brinsley Sheridan from dying in utter want.  When his friend Wordsworth died, Rogers declined the post of poet laureate due to his great age, and happily endorsed his friend Tennyson's appointment in his stead.  His own early style owed more to Thomas Gray and Goldsmith than to his Romantic contemporaries, but his latter writing might be said to be representative of a high-minded Victorianism.  Neither quite fish nor fowl then for the anthologists, though he still figures in at least the history of English literature, if nowhere else.  I confess, I'd never read him until just now.

So... where'd he go?  In his day, as I've already suggested, Rogers' poetry was much admired by many poets now better known -- his' "Jacqueline" was published with Byron's "Lara" in 1814 --and a number of Rogers poems, like "Human Life" were once as popular as anything by Shelley or Keats.  Critics as late as the turn of the last Century could still be understood when using only his surname.  Even now, I would be hard pressed to think of another poet more often sourced in the biographies of his contemporaries.  Nonetheless, I suspect that the answer to where he went is as much in his biography as in his poetry.  Rogers did not have the mixed blessing of dying Romantically young, like "Byron and Shelley and Keats," in Dorothy Parker's memorable line.  Instead he lived and wrote to a ripe, and largely contented old age.  More importantly still, and unfortunately for his later reputation, the poetry of Samuel Rogers was nice.  (He was himself invariably kind, but not always nice.  Fanny Kemble said, "He certainly had the kindest heart and unkindest tongue of any one I ever knew."  He said of himself that having such a small voice, no one listened when he said pleasant things.)  Here I mean nice in both the Eighteenth Century sense of an elevated subject expressed in a well regulated line, and the Nineteen Century sense of poetry suitable to be read by virgins.

 Witness this, from the aforesaid "Human Life":

Now, seraph-winged, among the stars we soar;
Now distant ages, like a day, explore,
And judge the act, the actor now no more;
Or, in a thankless hour condemned to live,
From others claim what these refuse to give,
And dart, like Milton, an unerring eye
Through the dim curtains of Futurity.

That is as well-turned as the leg of of Georgian secretary, and as smoothly pleasant.  Hardly the sort of thing to inspire much in the way of new dissertation on his inoffensive metrical form or his equally unremarkable morals.

To the extent then that Rogers has survived it has been because of his conversation; the "table-talk" recorded in not one, but two separate and distinct volumes and comprised of the kind of casual remarks and reminiscences of his contemporaries and friends that make him such a bottomless well of anecdote and quotation for modern biographers of the Romantics and early Victorians alike.  (As I learned from one of the volumes I had reprinted on the bookstore's EBM, Wordsworth, for brief example, had a strained laugh.  No surprise there, egh?)

That's how I found the old boy myself.  Dickens scholars invariably make mention of the novelist's first success and celebrity being recognized in an invitation to breakfast with the old poet.  Rogers also figures in the memoirs and journals of the Irish poet, Thomas Moore -- likewise a great source now for writing mostly about other people.  So, like Henry James later when he was at the height of his dining out, one meets the man everywhere.

The grand thing about having access to these inexpensive but sturdy reprints is the opportunity afforded to poke around in some of the dustier corners of English literature; to shop, as it were, from the back shelves and among the smaller treasures.  Having found not one, but two versions of Rogers' "Table-Talk" and reminiscences, I can for roughly a sawbuck more, have the old boy's Poems - most of 'em, anyway, as well. 

The last great literary success of Samuel Rogers came from the volumes of expensively illustrated narrative verse he made of his trips with his maiden sister to Italy.  As it stands, I might have those as well whenever and if I ever feel the want of them.  For now though, I am content with the very good poems -- some of 'em -- and the heaping notebooks of his talk, large and small.  (I even had reprinted for me a short biography Rogers in a volume of Edwardian essays on various subjects.  At about 50 pages, that proved about right for my attention to the poet.)

And all these curiosities now home with me, snug in just the pocket of my bathrobe of a warm, new Summer's evening. 

Daily Dose

From Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter


"The coolness, the 'quickly satisfied intelligence,' the eye for the stale and absurd, the early fatigue, the capacity for disgust -- all that was perfectly calculated to make a profession of the talent bound up with it."

From Chapter XV

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Envoy from Mirror City: An Autobiography, by Janet Frame


"So what have I seen in memory?  Memory is not history.  The passing of time does not flow like a ribbon held in the hand while the dancer remains momentarily still.  Memory becomes scenes only until the past is not even yesterday, it is a series of retained moments released at random."

From 7, Calle Ignacio Riquer

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Part Four of A Runcible Reading of Edward Lear

Daily Dose

From The Journals of Andre Gide, Volume II, 1914 - 1927, translated and annotated by Justin O'Brien


"The good writing I admire is that which, without calling too much attention to itself, checks and delays the reader and forces his his thought to proceed slowly.  I want his attention to sink at every step into a rich soil that is deeply broken up.  But what the reader generally looks for is a kind of endless belt that will carry him along."

From 17 June, 1923

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Part Three of A Runcible Reading of Edward Lear

Daily Dose

From Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers


"Speaking of composition, Coleridge said most beautifully, 'What comes from the heart goes to the heart.'"

From page 204, this ed., 1856

Friday, June 21, 2013

Part Two of A Runcible Reading of Edward Lear

Daily Dose

From Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers


"A man who attempts to read all the new publications must often do as the flea does -- skip."

From page 199, this ed., 1856

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Part One of A Runcible Reading of Edward Lear

Daily Dose

From Cowper's Poems, by William Cowper


"Oh folly worthy of the nurses lap,
Give it the breast, or stop it's mouth with pap!"

From Conversation

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Cowper's Poems, by William Cowper


"Once more I would adopt the graver style;
A teacher should be sparing of his smile."

From Charity

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Poems of Samuel Rogers


"Small change of scene, small space his home requires,
Who leads a life of satisfied desires."

From Epistle to a Friend

Monday, June 17, 2013

Big Gay Book Sale

Here then the results of two queens' housekeeping.  I am not alone in trying to get a start, at least, on a more realistic personal library as the second act looms into view.  My boss and fellow bibliophile, M., contributed at least 100 books.  The rest were mine.  The number for sale -- at a mere $3.99 a book -- rounds out to just shy of 400 books.  Nearly all of it is hardcover, in excellent condition, nearly all the dust-jackets in new mylar sleeves.  Signed copies, lots of first editions, and some rare old things makes this, if I do say so myself, a pretty impressive selection of GLBTQ fiction and non.

It took some work to get them here.  The "deselection" process, to borrow a rather useful if ugly word from our librarian friends, was a rather depressing task.  One hates to say goodbye.  Cleaning and boxing and loading and unloading books makes me wonder why I couldn't have taken up stamp-collecting instead.

With help from our own amazing Remainder Buyer, N., a table in the lobby was cleared, reconfigured and loaded up anew with more Gay than could normally be confined in so small a space.  After tagging all the books and getting them out on display, I must say that this was ultimately a pretty satisfying task.  Here they are at last, ready to find new readers -- hopefully -- and good new homes.  Add a hastily manufactured sign and the Big Gay Book Sale is up and running!

Hopefully there will be customers to discover or rediscover these books; readers looking to fill a gap in their personal libraries, students for whom these books constitute an unknown history, collectors in search of the rare, the unusual, the autographed copy.  Remains to be seen, as the books just went out.

The effort's been made now.  The conversation, at least with staff has already started.  Someone found at least one first edition of a book more recently reissued by NYRB, and I was able to show him another.   Another of us found an anthology for herself, and another for her brother in Palm Springs.

Already a success, this sale, so far as I'm concerned.

Daily Dose

From The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats


"And the light proves that he is reading still."

From The Phases of the Moon

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Like the Sign Says

Last Call

Never thought much of the disease-model applied to behaviors not directly connected to chemical dependence.  "Shopaholic" and like terms have always struck me as rather lowering the bar a bit far.  That's not to say I don't have sympathy for the compulsives generally, 'cause I do, I really do.  No one who has spent the afternoon, as I have today, sorting through beautiful hardcover books, deciding what goes and what stays -- if only for now -- can afford to dismiss tried & true psychological explanations of otherwise inexplicable acquisitions.

"But I've done that already, or didn't you know, love?"

Where I am at, in terms of my personal library just now is not a matter of shedding books I've never read or will never read.  That's largely already happened, these past few of years.  (Not that house isn't still full of unread books, I've just tried to be a teensy bit more realistic about my actual interests in recent days.  No more physics, for example, even the "easy" stuff.  Well beyond me, alas.)  I'm now in the much more complicated business of letting go of books I've read, books I liked, books I will never read again.  Specifically this weekend, I'm letting go of the Gay.

It will be hard to explain to anyone under the age of forty, I should think, not just how much our GLBTQ literature meant to us, how covetous we all were of it, how nearly every title discovered and treasured up seemed a bulwark against siege, disease, famine.  We built our safe places of books.  I did, anyway, and I know others did as well.  There was a time, and not all that long ago really, when the closest many of us were able to get to a sense of community was in our books.  And when those of us lucky enough to escape wherever we were from and get to the company of our kind, when we finally arrived in OZ, it was our books that taught us how to be there, our books that reminded us where we had been, where we truly came from, and of the fate we had changed.  Once we arrived in those magical cities: New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, celebrated in our literature, we then wanted to to read and to share the new narratives of our new lives.  And when the shadow of death passed over those places and took from so many of us the promise of those bright cities on the hill, our books, our writers were there to grieve with us, to memorialize the fallen, to record our survival and eventually, the beginnings of our acceptance into the new world we were even then making.

If that all now sounds a bit grandiose to younger readers, that is simply a measure of the success of the Movement, and the books, that got us to this new day.

The responsibility to preserve the past, to collect and archive, for many of us, myself included, survived the establishment of legitimate community institutions dedicated specifically to that purpose.  At any rate, our collections did.  My library did.  Meanwhile our literature and history move along and what I kept, at least in my library, often as not is now redundant, cumbersome and just collecting dust.  I seem to have no need of it anymore.  Perhaps somebody else does.

I've kept the books written by my friends.  I've kept the signed copies, most of them, certainly most of the inscribed books.  I've kept those to which I may yet turn again for comfort, entertainment, reference or a laugh.  I've kept those books by Gide and by Mishima, by Firbank, and the novels of Michel Tournier and the stories of Denton Welch, and I'm keeping the first edition of The Berlin Stories given to me by the generous friend of a friend.  It's not as if I won't always have Quentin Crisp among my books, or Wilde, or Robert Liddell.  (I'd bet there will be someone reading this who won't know at least one of these names.  I may introduce a new reader to a great gay book from my library yet.)

What's going are mostly novels.  Some of the authors, a regrettably large number I suspect, didn't live to  see the long careers promised by their first, or second or even third book.  Some of the books going represent a sadder time when any gay character, however tragic, however unrealistic or unpleasant, nevertheless represented a rare glimpse into the possibility of some existence, somewhere.  Not my job anymore, I've decided, to carry that unhappiness any further forward.  A lot of these novels were excellent reading; well written, moving, funny, timely and complex.  I certainly was glad of them when I read them, but I don't need to read them again, or keep them with me any more.  The vast majority of the books I'm getting rid of now are books, novels, history, travel, biography that filled in the story for me before I had a story of my own, a history, a place however modest in the history of our community and time.  I don't dislike most of these books, I simply don't need them anymore.

As I've said, my hope is that somebody else will.

My boss and friend, M., is contributing some of his library as well to a sale in the bookstore's lobby, to mark Pride Month.  We going to try the lot at one negligible, uniformly low price and see if anyone buys any of it.  There will be very real bargains, and not a few treasures, I should think, if the right customers happen by.  What we don't sell, we'll donate.  One way and another, none of these books are destined for scrap.

For me now this is just a practical necessity.  There are too many books in this house.  I won't live forever.  It's time.

Last call.  Thank you all for coming, you don't have to go, my friends, but you can't stay here.

Daily Dose

From My Lucky Star, by Joe Keenan


"He had that swaggering, contemptuous air certain old soldiers display when confronting effete men whose bodies, they feel certain, contain an unmanly shortage of shrapnel."

From Chapter Eleven

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt


"The head was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkably small in the skull: a singularity which he had in common with Byron and Shelley, whose hats I could not get on."

From Chapter XVI, Keats, Lamb and Coleridge

Friday, June 14, 2013


A friend today asked online for suggestions of movies "about faith and/or values", for a project he's working on.  Evidently, this sort of request via social-media is called "crowd-sourcing."  (I did not know that.)  Before we proceed, here's my list -- from the top of my head, and in no particular order:

Robert Bresson's films came first to mind, specifically Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne), 1951, The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d'Arc), 1962.  Both are beautiful, and the latter, now I think of it, almost as stunning in it's own way as Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927). Had I thought of it, I might have added perhaps my favorite Bresson film, Balthazar (Au Hasard Balthazar), 1966.  This last being, I think, perhaps the greatest Christian allegory in film -- not that I look for that sort of thing really, or have much patience generally for allegories of any stripe.  Still, a beautiful, heartbreaking film.  It's about a donkey.

Though I forgot Dreyer's "Joan," I did remember to suggest his Ordet (The Word), 1955.  There aren't many movies that better dramatize faith and miracles.

I can still remember being a freshman in college and watching Andrei Rublev, (1969) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and being dazzled by it.  So that went on the list, along with Pier Paolo Passolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo), 1964.  Saw that one roughly the same time.

Finally, I thought of one more recent film, from 2010, Of Gods and Men, (Des hommes et des dieux) directed by Xavier Beauvois.  The true story of a French monastery in Algiers, in 1995, where local fanatics committed a massacre. 

Anyway, that was my list.  All beautiful films, more than a few, masterpieces.  If you haven't seen these, do.  I'm not going to review the movies now, so much as the list, and a few hopefully related matters.

Mildly interesting to me at least to note that of the eight films I've just mentioned, half are French and all were made in a language other than English and none in the US.  Maybe their foreignness makes the subject somehow more palatable.  I  don't think that's true, but it may be. Thinking a bit more about the movies I recommended, it's also curious how many of my suggestions ended up being about Catholics, to begin with, and Christians all but entirely -- the only slight exception being that last, which involves a conflict between Christians and Muslims, though the story is entirely from the point of view of the Catholic monks.  

It may not be obvious from such a list, so for any who might not already know, I am not a Christian nor was I ever a Catholic.  I am not a believer.  I am an atheist.  I shouldn't think that that will come as much in the way of news to anybody reading this, as I assume for the most part that those who do already know me, but there we are, just in case.  I should likewise be shocked myself to find anyone shocked by an atheist admiring these films, or recommending them as great films on the subject of faith.  Should the comparison be required: I also enjoy Gospel music -- traditional, not contemporary, and Bach's Mass in G Minor. I admire the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, and look forward around Easter to the re-introduction of Mini Cadbury Candy Eggs at the drugstore.

I don't mean to be flip, or maybe I do, but anyway I don't see why my disbelief should be an issue.  Clearly, it isn't an issue for a number of the other contributors to my friend's list, and that is what I'm finding fascinating. (The list is ongoing.)

I suppose I might have anticipated things like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  Others, like Roland Joffe's The Mission (1986) and Michael Tolkin's The Rapture (1991), I'd simply forgotten about. As might be expected, I was pleased to see Bill Maher's Religulous (2008), Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) and Kevin Smith's Dogma (1999).  There were a number of others that I hadn't thought of but that as soon as I saw them suggested I nodded.  Others, not so much.

Crash?  Wait, the one that won the Best Picture Oscar in 2004?  The Paul Haggis movie with a large and unlikely cast and stories to match?  The one that beat Brokeback Mountain?!  Trying not to focus on my memories of personal disappointment that year, and keeping in mind the list-contributor's comment, "in the social sense of values," I get that.  That could be an interesting moral discussion, no?  Admittedly, from what I remember of the movie, it was not perhaps the most balanced picture of contemporary society; leaning rather dramatically on a certain element of criminality for a number of it's myriad plots, subplots and coinkydinks, but it was certainly a complex and diverse sampling of humanity, wasn't it?  Excellent suggestion then, and one I would never have thought of.

Someone else, rather brilliantly, I thought, suggested Krzysztof Kieslowski's extraordinary The Decalogue (1989).  A series of ten, one-hour-dramas, originally made for Polish TV, each film takes one of the Ten Commandments as it's focus.  Kieslowski's Three Colors, three of my favorite films of the 90s -- and three of my favorite films of all time, also made the suggested list, independent of the earlier Kieslowski recommendation.

I was also delighted to see that someone else I do not know suggested Bresson's Mouchette (1967), which I've never seen!

There were at least a dozen others when last I looked, and probably a dozen since.  

I do love a list, pretty much any kind of list.  This turned out to be a specially good one.  I was intrigued by the variety of suggestions and the good humor and enthusiasm with which all sorts of movies were suggested.  I was also heartened by the complete absence of cant.  (Even in so friendly a setting, I was expecting at least one mildly disapproving or dour expression of piety.  Not a one.)

Would that all such discussions touching on religion could be this civilized!  (Perhaps film is the common language of our time after all.)  Anyway, I feel I've learned something.  And I've made a little list.

Daily Dose

From Antic Hay, by Aldous Huxley


"She laughed on a descending chromatic scale.  This was excitingly new."

From Chapter IX

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From The Wings of a Dove, by Henry James


"Their feeling was -- or at any rate their modest general plea -- that there was no place they would have liked to go to; there was only the sense of finding they liked, wherever they were, the place to which they had been brought."

From Book Fifth, Chapter 1

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott, introduction and notes by Ian Stewart


"Abbott's solution to the problem of maintaining a stable sex ratio in Lineland is elegant and unorthodox."

From a footnote, page 119, this edition

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Party People

Our DJ just loves us, truly.  He does a lot of private parties, weddings and such.  He also does a lot of corporate gigs.  I'm picturing a room full of Certified Public Accountants shaking what their mamas gave 'em.  Once a year he comes to us and everybody -- including the DJ -- gets to have a good time.  We have a good time.  It's called the Annual Employee Banquet.  There's always catered food and it's always pretty good.  (Gotta love a sauce station and a dessert table.)  There's beer and wine.  We make a few little speeches -- I made one this year -- and then the executives hand out prizes; for years of service, Employees of the Year, nominated by all of us and picked by the previous year's winner, and then a raffle or two, even door prizes.  And then, my dears, we dance.

Every year our DJ comes back and plays requests and all the usual party music.  Likely and unlikely folks hit the floor, dance with people from other departments, other branches of the store, coworkers they see all the time, everybody.  Not everybody dances, but most of us do.  I do.  Some of us even dance pretty well.  I don't, but I enjoy it.  Fuck it, it's fun.

Young people dance with old people, men with women, women with each other, boys dance with me, it's a pretty impressive mix.  I've danced at least a little with well neigh every executive in the company, one time and another.  I've danced with people I don't even know.  I've seen grandmothers bust a move.  I've seen some real beauties dance like complete fools and I've seen some very respectable moves from persons otherwise so shy that, as my grandmother might have said, they wouldn't usually say boo to a goose.  It's a big bookstore, a pretty substantial local company, come to that, and it never feels more like a family than when the best and the worst of us are mingling moves under the rented colored lights.  (Hell, this year we even something of a contretemps, though the details of that are nobody's business.  I'm just saying, what's more like a family celebration than that?)

I wish my now rather ancient camera took better pictures, because I would really rather like to be able to make out a few more faces.  Still though, now that I look at this snaps, I think they actually rather capture the slightly boozy, bumpin' spirit of the thing all the better, don't you?

I heard and read more than one news story last week about the scandalous waste of money on "team building" exercises, expense-account hotel suites and the like at IRS conferences.   I should think that what they should be embarrassed about, besides the bill, is how utterly lame and unfunny it all sounded, no?  I used to know a couple of people who earned their livings giving corporate seminars.  Nice people, you understand, well intentioned and fundamentally sincere.  I even attended a couple of these things in a previous life. I must tell you, everything I ever heard in those  events was either painfully obvious or plain bullshit.  I don't think most people really need to do "trust-falls" or take turns on a zip-line, or listen to some agonizingly interactive lecture full of sports metaphors in order to learn to like and respect one another or work better together towards a common goal, etc.  I think what people need is to break bread now and again, clap when somebody wins movie tickets or a new bike.  I think people need now and then to get a little drunk together and make silly jokes and flirt and wear their good clothes out of an evening in the company of their company.  I think people need to dance.

I don't suppose this would work for everybody.  Not everybody in the company comes to this thing and not everybody who does comes every year.  I try to though.  I enjoy it, and not just the dancing.  I like the silly door prize give away, and the kind things said of one another and way my dear friend J.'s face lit up this year when she was one of the people chosen as an Employee of the Year.  She's one of the lights of my working life, and a good friend, and she is also a damned good bookseller.  I was thrilled for her.  Everyone who knows her is.  She deserves all the love and respect we can wrap her up in every day, plus whatever extra we might manage on a night like this one.

That's the genius of the thing; that it all comes from a quite genuine emotion.  Nobody loves everybody they work with.  Nobody should have to.  What we all need to do, and do more of, is try to show each other a good time now and then, maybe dance with that person who messed up that order, or bring a round of mini-cheesecakes for the table, even one for the guy who wasn't much help with the shipping snafu, whatever.  Everybody's human.  That's the reminder.  And no one is more human, my dear than when everybody is dancing to Brick House, by the mighty, might Commodores.

And for that, please remember to thank our friend, the DJ.

Daily Dose

From The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins


"I felt these impressions; but my mind seemed to share the exhaustion of my body, and I was in no condition to dwell on them, with any useful reference to the doubtful present, or the threatening future."

From The Second Epoch, Chapter V

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From The Best of George Ade, selected and edited by A. L. Lazarus


"Luella was a Good Girl, who had taken Prizes at the Mission Sunday School, but she was plain, much.  Her Features did not seem to know the value of Team Work.  He Clothes fit her Intermittently, as it were.  She was what could be called a Lumpy Dresser.  But she had a good heart."

From The Fable of Sister Mae, Who Did as Well as Could Be Expected

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Summer Reading & The Red Wedding, etc.

So we've been watching HBO's  Game of Thrones and, yes, we watched "the red wedding" episode last Sunday, as did, it seems, more people than watched anything else on cable-television that night.  More curiously still, more people watched that episode than actually subscribe to HBO.  (A fascinating story on NPR explains how this was possible.  Not to worry now, neither I nor the radio link should spoil the show for any who haven't seen it, or seen that episode.)  And we've now watched the finale as well.  For any who haven't read the George R. R. Martin books, or seen the show, and might be wondering what all this blaze in the Twittersphere etc. is about, that penultimate episode was a specially violent one, perhaps the most violent one to date. Moreover, good people, people important to the story so far, died.  Shocking.  As for the resulting television-fan-outrage, the wave of new memes and the rest, what all that means is that frankly, too few people read history.

 I should mention that I have not read Martin's books.  It's almost an exaggeration to say that I "perused" the first volume.  I did finally pick it up though, when after a very long wait, the last sequel finally came out to great fanfare a year or so ago.  (?)  I poked around in that first book for a couple of evenings, but that was all.  I'm not being snide.  I got a taste of the novelist's style.  That was enough.  Nothing wrong with it.  There's nothing, based on my brief experience, to say Martin's work isn't a fine example of the genre.  He's enormously popular.  His readers are devoted.  I know and love a number of them.  But, I wasn't going to read what looks to be only the first brick in a still rising wall, is all.

Now that may seem strange, considering my established devotion to long books, but there we are.  I'm not one for dragons, generally, a fact equally well established.

I prefer my Fantasy on film or television, and in smaller, more digestible doses.

I don't mean to be a tease by mentioning all this popular culture and then actually writing about a very old, and no longer very popular history. There is a point yet to come, I promise, but first a word or two on my summer reading project.

Even as I contemplate further reductions in my library, I have to admit I've had my eye on these beauties for a month or more, down the street at Magus Books.  I've been setting aside my nickels.  They weren't cheap.  (They still have a second, all but identical set, if you're interested.)  I've never seen this book -- and it is one book in six volumes -- but in a distinctly unattractive, academic, paperback edition which did not appeal.  Nevertheless, this book has been on my list now for a very long time, so when I saw these handsome old things on the shelf, and though it took me some time to finally make up my mind and my budget, I did decide to have a go at last, so here we are.

Pictured then is David Hume's History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Abdication of James the Second.  For any that still remember the name of David Hume, or know his writing as an important philosopher, it may come as something of a shock to know that in his own time, and for a good while thereafter, he was known primarily as an historian.  It took him more than fifteen years to write this book, which contains more than a million words.  The book has gone through more than fifty editions, and one way and another, has never been out of print since it was published in it's present form, in six volumes, between 1754 and 1762.

Hume believed that the nature of humanity didn't changed all that much; that history shows us more often at our worst than our best, and that most people, left to themselves, only really concerned themselves in politics and slaughter under the influence of religious and what we would now call ethnic differences. He also believed that the history of England, after a very rocky start, at the time of his writing this book, presented perhaps "the most entire system of liberty that was ever know amongst mankind."  That, you see, was the point of telling the story, really, the struggle to that point.

This would be the common theme for most of the greatest narrative historians of the last two hundred and fifty years or so; the struggle for a stable and relatively free society, unshackled at last from the old, exclusive loyalties to tribe and conquest, and defined by a progressive establishment of the rule of law and mutually beneficial civility.  From Hume, through all his successors in both Britain and the US, from Macaulay to John Richard Green, to Henry Hallam and William Prescott, and yes, Karl Marx, whatever their differences politically, this theme predominated until nearly our own day.  (I make that list from my own reading, admittedly limited by literary reputation and my own taste in such books more than the ultimate value of these books to present historians.  I see no reason to apologize for it.)  There have always been writers who took exception to this progressive reading -- here Gibbon and Carlyle come most to mind, again, mostly from the evidence of my own shelves, but I still think it a fair description of most of the major popular historians down to at least H. G. Wells, if no further.

It's all very easy now to dismiss this kind of history as too narrowly rhetorical to be entirely true, and there has been much hay made in the academic world of "historiography" in more recent days, by denying even the underlying premise of history as any kind of progress at all.  To which I say "stuff."  I am more than willing to concede all the limitations of such great writers as these, both in terms of their access to the historical record and their prejudices.  It takes a certain intestinal fortitude in the common reader of the 21st Century to read Englishmen of the 18th and 19th on such subjects as Islam and "foreigners" in general.  I also happen to think that we are now living in what may well prove to be the first truly Golden Age of history as fact.  There are, I should think, more thoroughly researched and accurate histories published in any given year of our Century to date than might have been possible in any previous period.

Why then read old boys like David Hume?  First because history as literature, at least in the period described from the middle of the 18th through the beginning of the 20th, produced more established masterpieces of narrative, in English, than any time since, and more history of lasting literary value than any time since the last Roman historian went into the ground.  What all these boys have in common with Livy et al is not only a gift for the description of character and event, but a tempered and coolly considered belief in what Pope described as "the proper study of mankind."  That can be quite refreshing after any time spent reading what's come after.  Secondly, because there have been few enough books produced in the whole history of books, at least books running to roughly a million words or more, that are still worth reading at all.  Why not read those big books that happen to be history as well as literature, if one is of a mind to read literature anyway, and big books, at least now and then, of a season?

And so we circle back, no?  It's clear from even just watching the TV adaptation and glancing through one volume of his novel, that Mr. Martin has read a bit of history himself.  My preference is for history without dragons and magic, as I've said.  One of the pleasures of Hume is his not-so-subtle distaste for what he cannot help but call "superstition" pretty much everywhere he meets it, from the Romans on, and not excepting any of the major faiths to touch his country since.  Refreshing and sensible, if still a little -- and deliciously -- shocking in a man writing more than two hundred and fifty years ago.  I suspect Mr. Martin's preference is for exactly those historical sources my friends from the Enlightenment and after could not help but disdain for their reliance on the supernatural; all the saga-singers and the monks who preferred heroes and monsters to men and women. A perfectly respectable preference, if not one I share.  That may be all it comes done to; a preference for magic or man.

As for the shock and horror of my fellow television viewers of the bloody Game of Thrones, I can only suggest they might want to avoid reading some of the stories, say, of the reign of King Canute, or even the details of more than one treacherous Norman noble party, or even the fate of conspirators, real and imagined, against the person of that great queen, the first Elizabeth.  History is a bloody business.

But then again, no.  I would make so bold at to suggest that a chapter of Hume on the Crusades, or of Gibbon on the triumph of Christianity might immunize the more parochial readers of even the best Fantasy fiction, and fans of supernatural television shows, against credulity thereafter.   Might do them all a world of good.  Did me.  I would deny no one who wants them their dragons, or their bottle-blond emancipators of brown people, etc.  I would however suggest that history sans magic, need not be without heroes and heroines, villains and adventure, thrills and chills, elevating sentiments and moral instruction.  Moreover, some of the greatest literature in ours or any language is to be found in books written by men who disdained violence and the arbitrary exercise of power, even as they chronicled the worst of it.  They did not put much faith in Gods, or have much patience for priests, nor give much credence to stories of ghosts or  witches. They disdained superstition.  They believed in a fallible humanity and in the strength of humane institutions.  Doesn't that sound rather more like us than not?

Not that there's anything wrong with reading about or watching such stuff.  History shows, people have been doing it for ages, and where's the harm?

I'll tell you what though, history's more help when it comes to reading a newspaper and trying to make any sort of sense of current events -- I find.  People still do that too, read newspapers, don't they?

Daily Dose

From The History of England, Volume I, by David Hume


"But the noise of these petty wars and commotions was quite sunk in the tumult of the crusades, which now engrossed the attention of Europe, and have ever since engaged the curiosity of mankind, as the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation."

From Chapter V, William Rufus