Sunday, February 20, 2022

A Caricature

I met P. J. O'Rourke when he came into Stacey's Bookstore to sign. This was San Francisco in the late eighties -- not exactly O'Rourke's demographic as a Republican satirist. I recognized him immediately. He was an attractive man; tall, preppy, with a shock of auburn hair and a ready grin. I was and remain -- with some obvious reservations -- an admirer. I was young then and without the sense to not say things. I quickly told him I was a fan despite the fact that he was wrong about nearly everything. He chuckled. He even personalized some books for me. We had a bit of banter while he signed stock. He jokingly said he was surprised to find a fellow Republican in San Francisco -- or in a bookstore. I told him the only Republicans he was likely to meet in SF would be in the backrooms of leather clubs, calling Mexican boys half their age, "Daddy." He loved that. (The publisher's representative accompanying him? Not so much I think.) All told I probably spent twenty minutes with P. J. O'Rourke. He made me laugh out loud and then looked pretty pleased with himself. There was I remember more of Toledo, Ohio about him than New Haven or New York.  We talked a little about H. L. Mencken and Paul Johnson. And then we were done. He said he wished he had more time so I could take him out to the clubs. I told him they wouldn't let him in wearing chinos and boat shoes. When he went out the door I shouted after him, "And get a haircut, hippy!" And then he laughed a little and waved. I am still proud of that moment. 

Mencken is long dead. Bob Dole is dead. And now Patrick Jake O'Rourke. The last intentionally funny Republican has died.* I will miss him. We will not see his like again.

 *There is my childhood friend, now the conservative Presbyterian Minister. He's funny. I promise not to tell anyone though, in case he should be accused of frivolity and it should get him in trouble with the church elders or, you know, his Boss. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Trading Those Fevers for Tranquility

"The heads of strong old age are beautiful

Beyond all grace of youth." 

-- Robinson Jeffers, from his poem, Promise of Peace

For a minute there, I was a kid again, or at least the youngest person in the room. That hadn't happened in a very long time. When I was called back from furlough I was younger -- by just a bit admittedly -- than the majority of my coworkers. It was a startling turn. I've spent my working life in retail, and most of my life in independent bookstores. There have always been older and wiser heads than mine in every bookstore where I've worked, but there were always kids too, at least people young enough for me to call them "kids." 

Traditionally young people take bookstore jobs. The pay is low, the hours sometimes odd. The work is physical and mostly done on foot. Books in mass are heavy and shelves are often low. Quiet as a bookstore can be, when we are lucky there will be many people in the shop, many questions, bustle. The holidays in retail start early and even in the age of electronic orders and daily home deliveries people still go out to shop and do not always know what for until it's put in front of them. That's the better part of the job, the part you have to like to be a bookseller, otherwise you might as well be stocking groceries or unloading trucks at Target -- both perfectly respectable things to do, I hasten to add. Books make the work and books make the work better. Makes sense then that a young person -- a literate and culturally engaged young person -- would take a job in a bookstore. Some of 'em have even been straight out of high school, others a bit older but still younger than me by the day. What else is one meant to do with an undergraduate degree in say Eng. Lit. or French? Turns out that older people keep these supposedly temporary jobs, some of us anyway, and the ones that do, the ones who stay, are booksellers. Don't know when exactly that happens, and it doesn't happen to everyone who works a long time in a big store. There are other roles, other work with just as much skill required and dignity owed. In this fragile peace with the pandemic, back to work after more than a year, I looked up one morning and all around me I saw naught but gray heads. This has changed since, but at the time it was very strange, like going to work in an actual metaphor for print culture.

My first work in a bookstore came about when I was still a child who simply wouldn't leave and did not have enough money for the books I so desperately required. Sweep up, stack boxes, take out the trash and earn credit, buy books. (The job hasn't changed that much now I think about it and neither have I.) Thirty six years ago, when I was twenty-three I took home my first paycheck from a bookstore and haven't worked at anything else since. I remember thinking my bosses terribly adult if not actually old at the time. When I became a boss myself I was still in my early twenties and I felt a bit of a fraud despite having been told all my life that I was older than my years. (That stops eventually, blossom. One day the years caught up with the mug.) When a decade or two and a few bookstores later I ceased to be a boss I finally looked the part but didn't want it anymore. It was a great relief to never make another schedule, review or submit a budget, work without pay, or fire people. 

As I've noted, those who stayed during the peak of the pandemic and most of us who have been slowly coming back to the bookstore are all of us old hands. Perfectly sensible. Despite this brave new cybernated and systematized economy, those of us who know books from way back, book folk as it were, seem best suited to bookstores just now. The hours are limited, the customers loyal and familiar, and we remember where things are -- or at least where we think they ought to be -- and we know the where and the way things ought to be put and what might sell during the Holidays. (Though every year the day after Christmas there are those big stacks of of the books we were all convinced were going to sell like brisket at a barbecue stand and didn't. Yesterday's fish come January first, if I may mix my proteins and or metaphors.) We venerable clerks may have to write down all of our passwords on scratch paper. We misremember the order in which this must be entered before that in creating a  new "customer record." But we know how to find a book for the husband who's a birder. We can guess what your aunt wants to read once she's worked her way through Elizabeth Warren, Louise Penny, and Roxane Gay. I won't say we are wise, but we remember what matters, or at least what we've sold.

I am old enough now to like working with younger people. Not sure when that happened either. I have always preferred the company of grown ups. Children can be deadly dull even to other children and while adults can be frighteningly remote and deeply confusing, they don't ask you "why?' so persistently or hand you as many wet things. Spoiled for choice, I have always liked old people. Old people are easier to understand, even when they aren't easy company. I grew up with old people simple and sly, sweet and not and while they needn't be nice neither do they disappoint much. You can see 'em coming. Know what you're getting with the old straight away: loud or quiet, adorable or irascible, shaky, slow, blind, deaf, dear. On the other hand the young look so uniformly promising, disappointment seems inevitable. It's easy to forget what they are not likely to know, and to be shocked by just how much they have yet to learn. I am for example appalled to regularly meet a college-aged person who does not know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. How does one not understand nouns and modifiers by the time one gets to university? Surely the explanation is in the name? Can't be that many business administration majors anywhere. Takes the shine right off the new penny. When the old are rude or dim, well it could happen to any of us. We're all getting on. The old have earned the right to express a certain discomfort in this world. On the other hand, I'm frankly shocked when the young are unpleasant. Young men in particular were not very nice to me when I was one, but now that I'm harmless and plump, who would want to hurt my feelings? Everybody likes old dogs, right? I forget puppies can bite. Maybe it's as simple as youth is beautiful and thrilling and sometimes exhausting and never much interested in the rest of us. They have every right not to be. Might return my hello though when you come to pay for that Blue Book and #2 pencil.

"They that enter into the world are too often treated with unreasonable rigour by those that were once as ignorant and heady as themselves; and distinction is not always made between the faults which require speedy and violent eradication, and those that will gradually drop away in the progression of life." -- Samuel Johnson, from his Idler #25

On a practical and particularly on a retail level, even the meanest old man can usually be got away from which is not always the case with the middle-aged. It's true that the middle aged professional, male or female, has money to spend and they do seem to read, but they often also have unrealistic expectations of the service required to satisfy their needs and the deference due to them personally. Perhaps it's class more than age; the weight of the watch, the size of the ring. Old people tend to courtesy even when they may have lost the knack of it for want of company. Children are charming and selfish and largely forgivable even when rude. Also? There's usually someone to carry them off when they get fractious. The old can be equally loud and abrasive, but mostly lack the stamina of a roaring toddler, thanks be. I would generally prefer the loudest coot to a screaming baby any day.

Still, it's hard not to admire the young. So pretty! So smooth! So quick! The young are often shy and or largely unaware of their affect. It can be most endearing. With the bookish ones it doesn't usually take much to get them going, even if I do remind them of a chatty old party at the bus-stop noticing the book in their hand. As readers they all seem to have some great enthusiasm -- may not be mine, probably nothing to do with me or what I read, but still thrilling to find. They make for splendid colleagues most of 'em for the just this reason. Proust to Pusheen, when the young love something it is with a passion. Most attractive that, and needed. It is good to be reminded of the time when every book was new and most were still yet to be read. I miss that youthful exuberance just now. Not that the rest of us are without enthusiasms, but these tend to be nearer my own and so all too familiar. Yeah. We can all agree, Maira Kalman is way cool. What's new?

What the young do for me personally is remind me of all I that do not know. They read what I never would. They "follow" things I never knew existed. They are naturally part of things that otherwise flows right 'round me like so much street noise in my fairly quiet and sedentary life. Turns out for example that one may need to know what something called "Minecraft" is after all. They tell me about the new poets and novelists -- say under age fifty -- and how gender is being reconstructed, and how the earth may yet be saved. The young know everything. Why resent what never changes? Go ahead, alleviate some of my obvious ignorance. I could stand some improvement.

The other great charm and danger of the young and of the rising generation in particular is their willingness to not let things pass. Johnson says, "It is very natural for young men to be vehement, acrimonious, and severe." Same as it ever was then. I would hope that mine was the last generation trained to not challenge the inequities and prejudices in this world, at least and until we were supposedly of an age to do something about them. Turns out we were usually too late and largely without power or inclination by the time we tried. Perhaps this was always the intention. "Thus is life trifled away in preparations to do what never can be done, if it be left unattempted till all the requisites which imagination can suggest are gathered together," said Dr. Johnson (Rambler #71.) 

The impatience of the young finds expression now in ways I admit I find breathtaking, even a little terrifying frankly, and they do this in public places and with people to whom I was taught to show only deference. Startling, but largely a trend I think in the right direction. (Those of us who came of age in terrible early days of AIDS had to overcome, most of us anyway, an almost ingrained disbelief in our right to stand up for ourselves, to survive. It may seem self-evident. It wasn't, certainly not to me. I had to be taught to expect and demand my own survival and to fight for the survival of others like me and unlike.)

"It has always been the practice of those who are desirous to believe themselves made venerable by length of time to censure the new comers into life, for want of respect to gray hairs and sage experience, for heady confidence in their own understandings, for hasty conclusions upon partial views, for disregard of counsels which their fathers and grandfathers are ready to afford them, and a rebellious impatience of that subordination to which youth is condemned by nature, as necessary to its security from evils into which it would be otherwise precipitated by the rashness of passion and the blindness of ignorance." -- Rambler #50

I can of course afford to admire at least a little the moral inflexibility of the young because I am unlikely to come to their notice and so to suffer much from it. Not all my friends and contemporaries are likely to be so lucky. The high-minded opprobrium of the newer puritans tends to be directed at the authority nearest to hand; teachers, parents, public figures, and of these am I none. Always the way. I count professors among my friends, and high school teachers, and librarians, and for them I worry, not simply because they are my friends but because there would seem to be no one to back them should they be accused of insensitivity, perceived aggression, etc. Happens. Meanwhile the employers of the respectable middle-aged to old seem to have abandoned nearly any standard of objectivity in these confrontations with youth's New Model Army. When challenged nowadays it seems the strategy is to assume the guilt of offending elder, concede the right of youth to their indignation, assign the former to rigorous self re-examination and comfort the later in their feelings. In other words to do as near to nothing as may be done without obvious injury to the institution, same as it ever was.  Meanwhile villains large and small keep at their worst. One hopes the same relentlessness with which the young seek to supress the word "niggardly" will one day take their unremitting and well organized retribution to the doors of greater power. How I should like to live to see that! To see righteousness carried off the campuses again and into the heart of the confederacy, to board rooms, and pulpits, to the hidden dens of the most stubborn resistance and power. In this I wish the young nothing but well. Go on! fuck 'em up kids!

Easy for me to sit and hope for better from and for the young. Harder as always to do anything myself, a point which would doubtlessly be made to me if I weren't such a comparatively anonymous old fart. May happen yet. In the meanwhile, typical of my stage in life, my economic station, and my generation, I try to keep my head down mostly. No one has to explain their pronouns to me. I have learned to ask politely from a genuine sympathy, now that I have a clue. My curiosity is no one's responsibility but my own. I so get that.

There are advantages to looking older. As I may have mentioned, I am now by all appearances completely harmless. Why mourn the sexual tension to which I never contributed much anyway? That I look like Santa Claus is all too true, even after a serious trimming of the beard to accommodate the new masks. It is a choice, though not from any desire to draw attention to the resemblance. I suspect clean-shaven I would be Pickwick. I am nearsighted, fat, relatively cheerful. I sometimes wear a flat hat. I lack the height and the chin for a more gradual and handsome decline into my dotage. Without the full beard my face has all the gravitas of a Matt Groening cartoon. With my full whiskers I could at least look arch, even sometimes wrathful -- though I try not to overplay the part. I haven't much actual fight in me. In practice, clerking in retail, I can ill-afford confrontation. Even after nearly twenty years in the same place and thirty five in the business, my employment is still dependent on the absence of complaint. (Increasingly not unlike my academic friends, now I think of it, though without anything like the possibility of tenure or organized protest.) I must be well liked to eat. Harmless can't hurt me.

 "Such is the condition of life that something is always wanting to happiness. In youth we have warm hopes, which are soon blasted by rashness and negligence, and great designs which are defeated by inexperience. In age, we have knowledge and prudence, without spirit to exert, or motives to prompt them; we are able to plan schemes, and regulate measures, but have not time remaining to bring them to completion." 

Thus dear old Sam Johnson again, this time in his Rambler #196 (all of forty-three years old by the way when he wrote that.) Far be it from me to disagree with The Great Cham*. Actually I am aware of great schemes being planned elsewhere in the building, just not by me. Not my business. Bookstores change or they die. One must trust to those well off the sales floor to keep the enterprise moving ahead. (I wish them well, and not just because it will be another decade before I can retire.) Looking around me I must say a remarkable lot of work is still being done. My fellow clerks all of a certain age all bustle still, if a bit slower. In part this is from want of help. We are fewer than we were and will we hope again soon be not sufficient to the day. Carts get pushed, books shelved and retrieved. "Book have not so much served me for instruction as exercise," said the wise Montaigne. Indeed. We nonetheless do try to keep the place looking lively and new. Displays change, new books come in, recommendations are made, trends followed and or confuted. We may not know as much as the young, but we know what we are doing when it comes to pushing books.

There was a brief satisfaction in being suddenly younger or at least further back on the shorter curve. I was reminded for example that my responsibilities are lighter now than they have been for many years. Not anchored to a buying desk, I find myself shelving books I had no part in ordering, answering questions from customers and not just on weekly unemployment forms, or from my employers. I've enjoyed making displays for the pure pleasure of improvement. I'm glad of a chat about book clubs other than my own. These were things for which until recently I had not the same luxury of time. Time is important to a crew more persistent than quick. Ironically my recent illness played a part in easing my return to work too. There was no one to judge me harshly for moving so slow. The sympathy for my pain was real and without pity, as no one near me was entirely without some symptom of impairment or decline. I'll see your bum knee and raise you a kidney stone. More than any of this I was free in my enthusiasms as the consequences were not likely to put me much in anyone's way. Freshen up the Staff Recommendations? Why sure. Do something to make the poetry shelves prettier? Make a table display from butcher's paper and lots of single copies? Put the cookbooks in order? Get on with it. If it doesn't work it can be put back, done over, tried again. Not a sprint but a... what? Low impact walk for heart health? I did good work with no one to notice until it was done. I liked the simplicity of alphabetizing. Felt good to have a job. I might have been twenty three again, in this if nothing else.

More though is the satisfaction of being one among the majority, one gray head among many.  All around me I found familiarity, empathy and support. We survivors wish each other well and happy. Happy to be back. Discontent, the birthright of the young, tends in time to settle into a persistent if largely harmless pessimism expressed in a gentle growling and far less likely to shout. To a remarkable degree we get along better than ever, perhaps because going along now constitutes a shared and attainable pace. I discover that we are all the easier to like and to please for being gentled by the years. 

It is sobering to think that I am already older than for example Horace or Dickens ever lived to be. My husband being older yet is now nearly the age at which Johnson saw his time out. My mother at ninety has survived all but one of her contemporaries and lived to a greater age than the many of the old ladies she used to see to as a kindness and a duty. I look around me at work and see not a few of my friends either ready for retirement or already back from retirement part-time. None seem unhappy to find themselves so. 

Getting older is fraught with embarrassments large and small, and limitations tend to pile up for want of anyplace to hide them. I don't scare shoplifters anymore. Need help with those boxes? Well, I am not the one to ask. I am not the reader I was either. I don't keep up. I am more like Dr. Johnson now and still "... read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as chance throws books in (my) way" and not often straight through to the end. I am too old to be bothered mostly. Got it. Time is short. Moving on. Most of the books I read now are older even than me. Been true for a long time. Newness is not much of a temptation anymore. It is not as though I was not always drawn to old things and revered texts. When I was young I felt I was already and always behind in my reading. Now I know that to have been untrue. This proved not an altogether bad thing. I read widely and much. I read a great deal more than I do now. If that was because of a false sense of my own inferiority so be it. Now I am also unconcerned by what other people may have read before I did, or with what other people read generally. You buy books? Thank you. As a bookseller I am glad of the custom. Read what you want. I do, more now than I ever did when I was young. What I want to read at this point is likelier to be in my library than on the shelf at the bookstore.

When I was young I read to have read, to be seen reading, to know what I assumed others knew already. I was untroubled by ambiguity in the text -- and ambiguity was big at the time. I read in pursuit of a better education, a better life. Got it. I read in defiance of my actual education and my limited prospects and with all the time in the world. I read with the confidence that I would be better for all the reading I could do. I am. If I am a bit past it now, I got here honestly enough and where I am suits me better. My reduced ambitions better suit both my purse and my person. I am largely content now my contents have settled.

If as is the case right now I want to reread Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson and to read it with friends and strangers in a virtual book club, this seems to strike no one now as odd and I find myself much encouraged by the enthusiasm expressed by my colleagues young and old. It seems my taste now suits my face. I have the figure now of a man who carries antique volumes of The Rambler in the big back pocket of  his loose fit jeans. What was once an endearing eccentricity now looks entirely right and proper, like... well, suspenders on a fat man, I guess. 

Bookstores are suited to fat men in suspenders. If we are lucky they may also have wise men and women, none of them young who know more: how for example shipping actually works as well as how it ought, how school orders are filled and correctly billed, which picture books might be best for this child or from that grandparent, vendors' discounts and the names of publishers' reps, when to return and reorder, what to read and why. In the best of all possible worlds there will again be young booksellers too to teach us what we don't know and to make the place smarter in every sense.  And when this happens again as I have every faith that it will here I'll be, nearer the middle than either end, sitting on the floor shelving low in biography and telling people young and old and largely indifferent that they really ought to read the essays of Samuel Johnson. Young and old we live in hope, yes?

"It is seldom that we find either men or places such as we expect them. Yet it is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded, for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction." --  Idler #58

* The title was assigned Johnson by the comic novelist Tobias Smollett and it mystified me for ages. Turns out "Cham" was yet another older and predictably British mispronunciation/misspelling of Khan. (Ah, my beloved British! They do so love bending the world to their own language!) Smollett's jest stuck. The caricature of Johnson as literary despot was popular and not altogether wrong. It was said, I hasten to add, with a grin and with as much affection as fear.

Monday, February 7, 2022

By Proper Preparatives

Boswell had a problem. He came back to London in 1763 with the express purpose of meeting Samuel Johnson (of course there were the bars and the whores and food too. One can be hungry for more than one thing, yes?) Boswell's first trip to the capital of the not-so-long United Kingdom had been as a college runaway, aged 19. On his return he was a respectable young Scots gentleman with a degree and an allowance. What he didn't have was a proper introduction arranged. He'd tried before he left Edinburgh, but the mutual acquaintance had quarreled with Johnson and they weren't speaking anymore. Then Boswell made friends with a part time actor and full time bookseller named Thomas Davies and Boswell had his way in; Davies knew Johnson, Johnson was coming for tea. Mister Boswell meet Mister Johnson. (There was a slight complication. Johnson liked to grouse about all the Scots coming down to London -- think of a New Yorker meeting tourists from Texas -- and this reputation made Boswell justly nervous. He asked the bookseller not to mention Scotland. Mischievously Davies of course did just that. Boswell said, "I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." Said Johnson, "That, Sir, I find, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help.")

The phrase "proper introduction" now strikes the ear with the same antique and hollow ring as "betrothal" and "prithee." Does anyone outside of a Trollope novel still make a proper introduction in the sense required? Yes, the requisite third party still asks A to meet B, etc., but I can't imagine too many places where it is now unthinkable that A should just walk right up to B and say "Howdy, friend." Perhaps I am just too American and cannot see clearly beyond our limited shores, but other than a business meeting or a gathering of the Austen Society, I cannot think of a circumstance where my permission would be asked to introduce a stranger. For Boswell, this sort of thing was de rigeur. If he wished to know Johnson, and he very much did want, he had to be introduced, properly. The process, simple as it seems, was necessary in Boswell's mind if he was to be received as a gentleman. He had no reason to know that rigid as Johnson was in support of Church, State and the general right way of things, he made a point of talking to everyone just alike and was as happy to meet an honest man in a bookshop or a tavern as in a rectory or a palace, and he was as happy to count a printer's apprentice his friend as the future 9th Laird of Auchinleck. In this, if in nearly nothing else Johnson was a true democrat. It's true, Samuel Johnson believed in maintaining formalities and respecting station and the rest, but only in so far as it promoted civility and the maintenance of Christian civilization -- as Samuel Johnson defined both. Conviviality was if not his highest aspiration -- mustn't forget Heaven, ever, for fear of Hell -- certainly his most fervent hope. Once properly acquainted, he was as likely to call a Baron a blockhead as he was to treat a beggar like a lady, and so ultimately an example to Boswell as to us. With Johnson informality was earned by affection and respect assumed, and woe betide the pretentious, the rude, and the cruel. True he could be and was accused himself of being all three at times, as indeed he was, but no man was quicker to repent or at least apologize, sincerely.

I've noticed that the people who whinge at modern informality tend to be the same people who use "whinge." I recognize that snobbery isn't a specifically European fault, but it is hard to think of how it might be sustained in a country like ours where wealth, at least since the Gilded Age has tended to accumulate not in property but in vulgar heaps of ugly stuff. From Mrs. Astor's grotesque ballroom to the boneyard of  Hearst's California castle to Jeff Bezos' dick-rocket, American money tends to be spent. What gets hoarded up and passed down here seems to be religious paranoia, tax evasion, bad manners and worse politics. More true than not now of most places in the great Capitalist West I should think. Our cultural influence has rarely been to the good, even if our principles are sound. The refinements that are assumed to come from generational wealth, brutal boarding schools, and benevolent management of one's tenantry don't seem to have survived anywhere but maybe Windsor Castle and Romance fiction. 

Like all nostalgia, the longing for manners past hilariously assumes not just money in the pockets of one's ancestors but also statistically unlikely pedigrees. Just as all mad men once thought themselves Napoleon, all the reincarnated white women I meet turn out to have been Cleopatra. One might assume a similar element of fantasy in the Daughters of the American Revolution, say, or at least a touching if easily anticipated disappointment in the elderly white subscribers to Of course all Irish Americans for instance are descended from Kings, but my great grandma took in wash, and so sweet lady, did yours. American ancestry is for hobbyists, and not likely to end in heraldry, and the cult of good manners in America is and has always been largely peopled by ladies whose grandpas spit on the floor. If you are wondering, I have next to no idea who or where I come from beyond the great grandmother I knew or the other I wish I did as she smoked a pipe. Heaven or Hell or history is welcome to the rest. As for civility, I'm for it. On the other hand, etiquette is interesting to me only so far and in the way say dressage might be, as all affectations of nicety may be made interesting in the hands of a great novelist. Otherwise? Use the fork to hand, honey, and no, you can't have a pony.  

I do consider myself an unapologetic anglophile. I am prepared to back that up that claim to start with my library, my Union Jack collapsible umbrella, and my Brit Box subscription (Vera!). I am not however of the "Wasn't it a lovely war?' school, or worse, "Oh, how I miss the Raj!" Just because I fancy reading the novel of manners and don't mind a Lord here or a Lady there doesn't mean I am anxious to return to the class system that was probably a major contributing factor to my folk getting one-way steerage tickets on that boat out of Bristol, or Liverpool, or wherever it was from which they fled. (And no, I don't care.) I love English literature. England? I already live in Seattle. Of rain I don't need more, thanks. For the fields of Eaton or healthy hikes in the Lake District I do not long. I was snubbed once in a London theater by a couple of queens passing down my row. I said something cheerfully inane and had back nothing but a long look down narrow noses. I was thrilled. There's that done, thank you, I remember thinking. Doesn't mean I'm eager to explore the possibility further.

The formality of Johnson's day, of his conversation, and his prose has a charm distinct from the subject at hand. Things with Johnson were done, as best he was able, just as he thought they ought. Addressing even his friends as, "Sir," lends much of what Johnson says a quaint and combative note much in keeping with his reputation, but there's respect there too. His wits were quick, his voice loud, and his manners not always of the best, but his heart was good. His appreciation of form, his reverence of tradition, and his deep fear of Hell, meant that even his meanest impulse was usually followed by repentance and he always regretted hurt. On the page he is if anything even more mindful of doing good while doing well. He believed in an ordered universe as surely as ever did Newton, but again like Sir Isaac, he lived very much in the hope of Heaven and unlike the great physicist Johnson had little confidence in getting there. This I think is the key to reading Johnson's essays, his letters, and his poetry, if it is most obvious in his prayers. He would earn his meager living by his pen. He would always give his God, his King, and his country good service if he could. That established, in his public performance he never hoped less than to be entertaining as well as instructive, readable as well as right. 

His vocabulary and erudition are daunting. His style sometimes stately to the point of being slow-going. His sentences are as rich as hung meat and he serves them up with relish and assumes all the time necessary to make and to take in what he's made. I would argue though this is not the hindrance one might assume. Rhythm is not lacking and neither is music, neither is humor or wit. He sees the world darkly but he looks at it straight. What he says is not always happy and seldom cheerful, but it was almost always worth saying. It is all worth reading. If he rolls when other walk and can not be brought to dance, it does not make his company less good. From him might be learned much, and not just by his example. I am the better when I read him, now I know him a little. He is, as Boswell took such pains to prove, loveable. Bears ought not to be tamed, their majesty and fascination is in their nature, we do them no service in wishing them other than they are. They needn't dance to be entertaining. Even loving them is possible -- at a respectful distance.

                                                                   * * *

As addendum to the gush above, I would add just a note on another kind of introduction, namely those made at the front of books. To my mind a proper introduction to the popular edition of a classic book -- meaning an edition that's meant to be read rather than studied in pursuit of a grade or a degree -- requires just the thing usually lacking; warmth. Perhaps I am needy. Certainly the idea is quaint. But like the "proper introduction" required for Boswell's comfort, I want some enthusiasm and at least the suggestion of friendly feeling for all parties concerned; in this case author, book, and reader. Expertise is good, but less important to me than perhaps it ought to be. In an introduction I would rather be encouraged than lectured. My luck, at least with recent editions of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, would seem to have run out. 

And now I would indulge in exactly the nostalgia I so often mock. Oh, to live in the days of the great Men of Letters (but with penicillin!) My favorite edition of Boswell's big book is edited and introduced quite lightly and well by Augustine Birrell (1850 - 1933), Liberal Party politician, sometime unfortunate Secretary for Ireland, invariably charming essayist and gentleman of letters. Along with gents like George Saintsbury (1845 - 1933), and Edmund Gosse (1849 - 1928), writers like Birrell wrote critical introductions just as they wrote personal essays, letters to the Times, and their memoirs: sharply, briefly, often bemusedly, with enviable confidence and ease, and without any thought to offend or discourage either the shades or the new reader. Such men were in the business of encouraging as much as criticizing. Of the three I mention only Saintsbury I think taught. I bring that up because we seem to be living very much in the time of the professors, at least in so far as introductions.* This is understandable. Economically publishers can only hope their reissues end up on required reading lists. Some like Norton seem to assume no other than than the swot and the drudge will ever read Candide again. Nonetheless I mourn the passing of the literary journalist, the leisured library man, and the introductions meant to be read without a highlighter and straight through.

Of the two best unabridged editions of Boswell's Johnson I found to recommend, one paperback and the other in hard covers, I would encourage the reader to skip either introduction. Both are deadly dull, longer than they ought to be, and with less light and emotion than a graduate lecture on the chemical properties of florescence. In forty-one closely printed pages the paperback Professor manages to share no unseemly enthusiasm for either author or subject, suggest no better reason for reading the book than for regularly eating fiber, and could easily convince the reluctant to avoid the 18th Century entire if its academic proponents write no better than this. The hardback Professor evidently comes from the same hard place. Alas.

The fourth definition in Johnson's Dictionary of the word introduction is, "To bring into writing or discourse by proper preparatives." The introductions I mean the reader to avoid seem to believe that preparative to reading a classic the reader be already bored and not a little lost. They have not so much made a way as erected hurdles. These may serve to get students jumping, but anyone looking to amble or stroll would do better to go well around.

*A happy exception being NYRB which goes determinedly against the trend by hiring professional writers rather than professors to introduce their reissued classics, bless 'em.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022



"Whoso will sequester or distract his minde, let him hardily doe it, if he can, at what time his body is not well at ease..."

-- Michel de Montaigne, from Of Experience, chapter XIII, Florio translation

They lost my underpants. Somewhere between prep, surgery, and recovery, my last little shred of dignity -- or my big ol' man boxer-briefs actually -- were slipped off and put in a bag. Obviously I made it through the surgery. My drawers did not. It was some time before I missed them. Nothing to be done. I asked. No one knew. Apologies. And somewhere a custodian made a face, a decision, and away with my shorts. I could not get out of bed for quite a long while after my kidney stone was addressed. For most of that time restoring my modesty was the least of my worries, but a hospital gown can only do but so much, and then circumstances necessitated. I will spare the reader the details, but when I was to be discharged, I felt I could not decently do without. The ever resourceful duty nurse returned to my room with two options. The first was a large adult diaper seemingly made from a chef's toque and the wool of an entire sheep. The other option was an endearingly tiny pair of very light cotton underwear, presumably retrieved from a children's ward. And so I went home in the diaper.

"Faster than spring-time showers comes thought on thought, And not a thought but thinks on dignity." -- W. Shakespeare, Henry VI, Act III, Scene 1. 

I share an embarrassment to spare the reader worse. The gory details of my illness need not trouble us here. In Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes we find Johnson advising a friend who complained of the sorry state of his gut, "... do not be like the spider, man; and spin conversation thus incessantly out of thy own bowels." But it would be almost impossible to write about kidney stones even to the limited extent I intend without reference to perhaps the most famous sufferer in western literature, Michel de Montaigne (02/28/1533 - 09/13/1592). He was not alone. A stone, or rather the removal of a stone without anesthetic left Samuel Pepys sterile. (He kept the stone with him and showed it to other sufferers to give them courage that they might face the horror of such surgery. I suspect he also liked to show off a little down at the office. No question he was brave, remember, but he made the Royal Navy largely from his desk, rather than on deck. A stone could awe the toughest sea-dog if they understood the cost.) Authors from George Eliot to Asimov to the delightful Michael Perry in his Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy, they've all written of their trials with what Montaigne called, "gravier," id est gravel. But of all the many since, none wrote more bluntly or more famously of this affliction than Montaigne. 

Of Experience is Montaigne's great, galumphing, wander-where-he-will final essay in his third and final book of same. In it his kidneys figure, though they are not his subject. It is his summation, to the extent that he is much interested in conclusions. Not really his style or method. "In all this fine fricassee that I am scribbling here is nothing but a record of the essays of my life..." he writes, and so reinvents a genre; essai in French, essay in English, an attempt in either language. Philosophers tend to propositions and proofs. Montaigne knocks around in his library and basically wonders aloud. He's got more questions than answers. He looks to his books, but his subject is himself. In this he is the first really modern man. 

Quick example from Of Smells. It's the 16th century and bodies are still very much a mystery. Noses are interesting, and smells, and sneezing. "Do you ask me whence comes the custom of blessing those who sneeze?" Safe to say, nobody asked. "We produce three sorts of wind; that which comes from below is too foul; that which comes from the mouth implies some reproach of gluttony; the third is sneezing, and, because it comes from the head and is blameless, we give it this honorable greeting. Do not laugh at this conceit; it is, they say, Aristotle's." Now that might be Aquinas, though Aquinas would have been deeply shocked at the very idea of anyone laughing at either himself or Aristotle. Safe to say Montaigne laughed more than either philosopher and most often at himself. Montaigne had a nose for this sort of thing, and a deep devotion to his classical authors so there's going to be a bit of earthy Horace too, "My nose is quicker to scent a fetid sore or a rank arm pit, than a dog to smell out the hidden sow." He loves a quotation, does Michel, he is made of them, but his only real authority is in himself. "I am never the less a great lover of good smells, and as much abominate the ill ones, which I also scent at a greater distance, I think then other men." Poor man. Not an enviable sensitivity in the 16th century. Oh, and by the way? Venice stinks and Paris is filthy. He knows. He's been.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is perhaps chief among my household Gods. There are others I worship, and many I love, but none to whom I turn more often or with greater trust. Montaigne's Essays are my secular psalter. I keep them by my bed. He comforts me. He makes an unlikely bedfellow, I grant you. I would have little enough in common with this most famous philosopher and diplomat of the French Renaissance had he written any way other than he did. He is his subject and him I like. I like the way he thinks. I sympathize with what he feels. I appreciate his guidance. I am inspired by his attempts.

The night I went to the Emergency Room in agony I was not thinking of Montaigne. Had no idea what was wrong with me. Until I was finally given a sufficiently powerful dose of morphine I could not have spelled my own name let alone Montaigne's. When the doctor said, "You have an 8mm kidney stone," I didn't know if that was significant as I'd never had one before -- it was, by the way -- but I did think: "Montaigne's 'gravel!'"

No one likes being ill, but people do seem to want to talk about it. At a certain age people are as likely to be introduced by way of their diseases as they once were by their professions, we exchange prescription-lists like pleasantries, and symptoms are discussed with all the relish usually reserved for sports and politics. Health is now a topic even more general and more boring than it's absence. The progress of secular society has been such that I am now more shocked by a direct profession of faith than I am hopeful of avoiding unsolicited advice on my diet, my heart-rate, and or my footwear. (Soles to be saved?) "For me health means maintaining my accustomed state without disturbance," says Montaigne simply and I am with him.

In Of Experience he assures me all the best people get kidney stones, "since by preference it attacks the great, its essence partakes of nobility and dignity". We might better assume that peasants ate less and exercised more, but unlike most men of his class and time Montaigne probably knew this, as his eccentric father had put him out to be raised by simple people until he was four, that the boy might be drawn "close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help."  The reader of Montaigne learns quickly not to presume too much the direction of his mind.

I won't attempt to summarize his famous essay. Read it. Suffice it to say he surprises, even about his kidney stones. He says that his mind tells him that his suffering is for his own good, "that I have the stone; that buildings of my age must naturally suffer some leakage," etc. He accepts his illness, as he embraces life, for what it may teach him and what he may learn of himself because of it. Who doesn't like a bit of flattery, for example, "It is a pleasure to hear people say of you: 'there is real strength, there is real endurance.'"  "We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid," he tells me, but not as Johnson might have said this, meaning that we should suffer for our sins and in uncertain hope of the resurrection, but rather in order that we might live. Both essayists had wit and a rather dark vision of life -- so appealing to a reader on his way out of middle age -- but Montaigne's is the readier, and his motto, ''Que s├žay-je?"  -- What do I know? -- might be my own. Hell, Montaigne even expresses a kind of sympathy for the stone: "The stone is often no less attached to life than you. We see men with whom it has continued from their childhood to their extreme old age, and if they had not deserted it, it was ready to accompany them still further. You kill it more often than it kills you; and even if it put before you the image of approaching death, would it not be a kind service to a man of such an age to bring him to meditate upon his end?"

I can't say that I've been brought to meditation, but I have certainly been thinking of my ends in many senses since I was released from the hospital. (Some words are ugly enough without context: "stint," for instance, and "diverticulosis.") By my count I've actually been close to death just twice in my life, once when choking and the other from a burst appendix. In the first case I felt it. The second time a surgeon told me after the fact, going so far as to explain that I had indeed "died on us a couple times, there." Very shocking to hear in one's thirties, though even then I remember thinking, "let it be like that when it happens, not like that piece of beef that tried to kill me." Montaigne was roughly my age now when he died at 59. He had faced death in nearly every likelihood of his time, from disease to war to robbery. When he'd finished his Essays, he was all but done and probably knew it. I have no such sense of my own death, but neither do I anymore discount the possibility. Friends die, and family, and all around me people grow alarmingly old, me not least. Montaigne gives me resolution, if not courage. I've seen good deaths and dying hard and I fancy I am not afraid of the thing itself, but I am of how lonely even the best must be. I would not be so alone if I can help it, while I can help it. And I do not like to think Montaigne alone at his hour. Of course there was a priest. Montaigne could not speak. I hope he was remembering his books. I hope he remembered something at least apt, bless him. 

It is interesting how eager I was for company when I was hospitalized, even when I was in agony and no little ashamed to hear myself moan. I could not have visitors. I was alone. My beloved husband, A. brought me a book. Bless him too. More usually when I am sick I would rather shut the door. Bodies can be embarrassing, particularly our own. When I feel mine has failed me, or I it, I prefer to see to myself if I can. Do not look at me! Leave me to my misery and my Montaigne, though it wasn't Montaigne my husband brought me in the hospital. Didn't matter. I had something to read. In the emergency room and after my need was practical; what I wanted was help, relief, hope of recovery, morphine. Consolation, even pity had an uncharacteristic appeal as well. There is no company so welcome to the seriously ill as an efficient nurse, even one without morphine. A good nurse is good company, however small the conversation. (Conversely no intrusion feels quite so mean as that which interrupts a rare hour of rest at three in the morning just to "check your vitals." Am I not already tethered to machines for that very purpose? Clearly, I am not dead. Go away. Of course my blood pressure is "elevated" when awakened from my first sound sleep in twenty four hours! That blood will keep where it is until morning, you capricious harpy. I fear I was rude, and normally I am a good patient, if not so patient as Montaigne.) 

"Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of healing." Wendell Berry tells us, "Conviviality is healing." So if dying is inevitably to be left eventually alone, and illness isolating even in a crowded room (remember those?), getting better, even the first suggestion that one may, requires other people. Whatever and however one feels in that moment, one must have confirmation, witness. Simple as a nurse to say, "your color's better," or ask after one's returning appetite, as one might a child. "You liked that applesauce, didn't you?"

And other people, the awareness of other people, requires if not dignity at least convention and some semblance of respectability. At a minimum one requires underpants. In E. M. Forster's novel, Howards End I remember he suggested -- tongue firmly in cheek -- that in the age of Democracy, gentility required an umbrella. As an American, I make no claim to gentility. I had no need of an umbrella. Could the janitor not have spared me my underwear?

Absurdity my author understood, and appreciated. "We are not so full of evil as inanity." It is a lesson we need now, is it not? In an age so much preoccupied with dignity and station, Montaigne came to see our ridiculousness as something like our saving grace. Again, a very modern thought. If we would not be fools we must admit the silliness of our circumstances, accept the fragility of our bodies, our mortality, ourselves. We must make the best of things, laugh at what what is risible, endure what we cannot pass. Put on the diaper. Make the duty nurse laugh. Get home.

"Things are not bad in themselves, but our cowardice makes them so." 

In the emergency room I was frightened and in pain and pathetic. I pissed blood and groaned and wept. I know, I know, the stone wasn't bad, it just was, a senseless, brute thing. You're right, Michel. You aren't always, but you are more often than not, more than me. I will think about it. I will read that bit again. I will make an attempt. And you know, mon cher et mort ami, now I think of it, perhaps I wasn't brave until I put on the diaper. That's something, anyway, isn't it? 

And as always, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, I am glad of the company.