Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Library

I always start moving projects with my books. This takes more time than you would think as I need to stop and read from dozens of them before I put them in my car. As much as I love any inaminate objects on earth, I love my library. If you don't have the same mania, buying more books when you have piles yet to read, then you may have difficulty understanding this. But, I'm sure you have parallels in your own life, whether it be cars, movies, home decor, fashion or cadavers (you never know who is reading this).

I spend enough time bashing the Thomas Jefferson's ghost here to quote him positively - "I can not live without books." Maybe a slight overstatement, but I could not live as happily without them, that is for sure. Besides, someone gave me a t-shirt for my birthday that bears that quote. So, it must be true.

Here’s a small sample of my meanderings through book world while packing this week. There is no theme to it, in fact, it's variety is what excites me. It is merely a personal celebration and example of why I keep all these books on my shelves even if I will not fully read most of them again. All of the quotes were chosen because I picked up the book to move it, stopped, and read the paragraph quoted, usually at random.

It was all part of the endless fight for recognition of foreigners in the process of becoming Americans. Every Irish kid who made a Jewish kid knuckle under was made to say “Uncle” by an Italian who got his lumps from a German kid, who got his insides kicked out by his old man for street fighting and then went out and beat up an Irish kid to heal his wounds. “I’ll teach you!” was the threat they passed along, Irisher To Jew to Italian to German. Everybody was trying to teach everybody else, all down the line. This is still what I think of when I hear the term “progressive education.”

This is from the best autobiography I have ever read – Harpo Marx’s 1961 Harpo Speaks. He died a few years later. The first 100 pages about his early life growing up in late 19th and early 20th century New York City, are so fascinating, they have seen them published separately as a slim volume. He makes you wonder, though, what good old days?

I was in love with a very beautiful woman who was endowed with all imaginable graces. She had rosy cheeks, a shiny forehead, lips like coral, teeth like pearls, and breasts like pomegranates. Her mouth was like the setting of a gem; her big eyes had a sleepy languor, and her speech was of sugary sweetness. She had a remarkable embonpoint, and her flesh was as soft as fresh butter and pure as the diamond.

This quote is from Sir Richard Burton’s 1886 English translation of the 16th century Arabic The Story of Joaidi contained in The Perfumed Garden, Burton is one of my great heroes and I wrote about him in more depth here on March 15, 2007. If you aren't aware of this 19th century multi-talented adventurer, take a look. Incidentally, if you care, “embonpoint” is French for plumpness. Wish I could say I knew that after 6 years of high school French, but I looked it up.

The valley went darker with dust and smoke, and there were only shadows and a big noise of many cries and hoofs and guns. On the left of where I was I could hear the shod hoofs of the soldiers’ horses going back into the brush and there was shooting everywhere. Then the hoofs came out of the brush, and I came out and was in among men and horses weaving in and out and going upstream, and everybody was yelling, “Hurry! Hurry!” The soldiers were running upstream and we were all mixed there in the twilight and the great noise. I did not see much; but once I saw a Lakota charge at a soldier who stayed behind and fought and was a very brave man. The Lakota took the soldiers’s horse by the bridle, but the soldier killed him with a six-shooter. I was small and could not crowd in, so I did not kill anybody. There were so many ahead of me, and it was all dark and mixed up.

This one is from John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, in which an aged Lakota Indian who was present at Little Big Horn as a child retells his life. The book has come under criticism as to facts about the old Indian that Neihardt left out, but it is a classic nevertheless. My policy is to read everything with cynicism, especially if it sounds too good to be true, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy myself along the way.

Meander tells a story of a lady who had forgotten to try on her wedding-dress the day before the wedding, to the despair of the dressmaker, and remembered it only late in the evening. He connects it with the fact that soon after the marriage she was divorced by her husband. I know a woman now divorced from her husband who, in managing her monetary-affairs, frequently signed documents with her maiden name, many years before she really resumed it. I know of other women who lost their wedding-rings on the honeymoon and know, too, that the course of the marriage lent meaning to this accident. And now one striking example more, with a better ending. It is told of a famous German chemist that his marriage never took place because he forgot the hour of the ceremony and went to the laboratory instead of to the church. He was wise enough to let the matter rest with one attempt, and died unmarried at a ripe age.

From Sigmund Freud’s 1924 A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Freud had been largely discredited (although he still had followers – see Besdine selection below) long before I was a freshman psychology major in college over 30 years ago. I’ve always loved the joke about Sigmund and his daughter in which she tells him about a dream she had where she was smoking one of his cigars. The punch line is -- And Freud says, “Well, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Actually, he really said that in different circumstances but to the same point. Still, historically, aesthetically and iconoclastically, his original writings are fascinating as are biographies about him and collections of his letters. I particularly like The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, by Ernest Jones, 1974) which I don't own. The funny part of the stories Freud relates to us above, is, of course, the importance attached to a wife using a maiden name or losing a wedding ring back then as opposed to now.

It happened after a time that a north wind began to blow with great force, and the ships of Tartars, which lay near the shore of the island, were driven foul of each other. It was decided in a council of the officers that they ought to get away from the land; and accordingly, as soon as the troops were re-embarked, they stood out to sea. The gale, however, increased to such a degree that a number of vessels foundered. By floating on pieces of wreckage, some men reached an island lying about four miles from the coast of Zipangu.

This is from The Travels of Marco Polo, first published around 1298 and still going strong. Zipangu was the Italian word for Japan at the time. He is describing the Great Khan’s attempt to conquer Japan in 1281 (while Marco was visiting) when the island dwellers were saved by a storm. According to the Japanese, they were saved by a “divine wind”. The Japanese word for this is kamikaze” which the Japanese put to good use in WWII.

This book contains the records left us by a man whom, according to the expression he often used himself, we called the Steppenwolf. Whether this manuscript needs any introductory remarks may be open to question. I, however, feel the need of adding a few pages to those of the Steppenwolf in which I try to record my recollections of him. What I know of him is little enough. Indeed, of his past life and origins I know nothing at all. Yet the impression left by his personality has remained, in spite of all, a deep and sympathetic one.

The opening paragraph from one of my favorite novels, Steppenwolf. Does anybody read Hermann Hesse anymore outside of college? I wonder. I overuse the word "riveting" like teenagers overuse "awesome" but I remember finding Steppenwolf riveting all the same. In a nutshell, it is the story of a man torn between his civilized and animal natures. In most of us, the Steppenwolf is not dead, but buried beneath the domesticating miracles of technology, like those enabling this blog, but it cannot be killed entirely. Not surprisingly, the writing of Steppenwolf corresponded with Hesse's marital and other existential problems.

Among thousands of men perhaps one strives for perfection; and among thousands of those who strive perhaps one knows me in truth.

The visible forms of my nature are eight: earth, water, fire, air, ether; the mind, reason, and the sense of “I”.

But beyond my visible nature is my invisible Spirit. This is the fountain of life whereby this universe has its being.

All things have their life in this Life, and I am their beginning and end.

From the Bhagavad Gita, written sometime before the common era, itself a small portion of the Mahabharata, which one could probably best analogize as the Hindu Bible (it is too long to read the whole thing; I've read a one volume English version by one of my favorite authors, R.K. Narayan (see below). In the above quoted excerpt, Krishna, an avatar of the god, Vishnu, is speaking to the human protagonist about his true nature, but it could just as well be Yahweh speaking in the Bible, for all of that. When Robert Oppenheimer watched the first nuclear explosion, he purportedly thought of a quote from Krishna from the Gita including “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. Out loud, according to his brother, he merely said “It worked.” Another witness later observed that he merely looked relieved. I should also note that the Bhagavad Gita is retold by Stephen Pressfield's novel, later a movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance, which seems to be merely a story about golf and life.

His savage barbarity was equaled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge. Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging , he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking his deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.

From Frederick Douglass’ 1845 An American Slave. It is the only full slave narrative I have ever read. To say the least, it was stirring.

For example, Churchill was at the bottom of his class at Harrow. Edison failed dismally and was regarded as a mental defective by his teachers in public school. Einstein had to take time out of high school because of emotional disturbance and inability to conform. He failed his college entrance examinations and had to work a year to prepare himself again. Picasso could not learn to read and write; he was so obsessed with his art that all else was ignored. He was finally permitted to come to class late, a pigeon on his shoulder, a paint brush in his hand and given the widest leeway to wander. But even in this special school, he could not conform. Frequently, learning is possible for men of genius only by private tutoring and individual attention that recognizes the exclusive, unusual person in a one-to-one relationship. Dislike of school and school teachers, even to the point of school phobia, is not unusual in genius.

From Matthew Besdine’s The Unknown Michaelangelo, a slim volume applying the author’s psychoanalytical theory which he termed the Jocasta Complex. It’s a book of which I am fond of mostly because it was edited by my mom, the late Marilyn Eisenberg. Ironically, both the 81 year old Dr. Besdine and my relatively young, 55 year old mother, died within a month or so of each other the following year. Hmmm. Sounds like the first two chapters of a murder mystery. Honestly, not to create any tension in heaven, she didn’t think much of Besdine's theory.

In these propitious waters the acquisitive Phoenicians and the amphibious Greeks developed the art and science of navigation. Here they built ships for the most part larger or faster, and yet more easily handled, than any that had yet sailed the Mediterranean. Slowly, despite pirates and harassing uncertainties , the water routes from Europe and Africa into Asia--through Cypus, Sidon, and Tyre, or through the Aegean and the Black Sea became cheaper than the long land routes, arduous and perilous, that had carried so much of the commerce of Egypt and the Near East. Trade took new lines, multiplied new populations, and created new wealth. Egypt, then Mesopotamia, then Persia withered; Phoenicia deposited and empire of cities along the African coast , in Cicily, and in Spain; and Greece blossomed like a watered rose.

Thus speaks the immortal Will Durant in his The Life of Greece, the second volume of his The Story of Civilization. That volume, published in 1939, sits in a place of pride on my shelves, placed with its ruined binding and faded black cover among the ten newer red covered volumes that make up the full set. I had bought the volume on Greece before the set and could not part with it. Ironically, I gave the newer volume on Greece to an Athenian. Durant wrote so well, and had, literally, such an encyclopedic knowledge of history, that he could be quoted on almost every page would good result.

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named, Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trashfilled two story of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostrils of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

Not from The Hobbit. It is the opening chapter of one of the greatest modern fantasy novels in my mind, although largely forgotten by modern readers. I’m happy to see that The Face in the Frost, first published in 1969, was reissued a few years ago in 2000. I hope it’s not lost. It is rare to find a fantasy novel which does not slavishly copy Tolkien, even if he delves into the same material.

He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of Foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

Jefferson, perhaps overdramatically, alleges one of the crimes of George III in his Declaration of Independence. It's not the part of the Declaration that we usually hear about. Ironically, it is not clear today what Jefferson meant by some of his accusations against Geoge, but this one we can be pretty certain.

The judge sentenced me to two years’ imprisonment. Our star lawyer looked gratified, I should properly have got seven years according to law books, but his fluency knocked five years off, though, if I had been a little careful . . . .

A paragraph from a little book, The Guide, written by my one of my literary gods, R. K. Narayan, an Indian (Asian) who wrote in English. I first read this book in college, as an introduction to Eastern religions. It was a brilliant idea to use it to introduce Hinduism and Buddhism, although there is no real theology in the book at all. It seems to be a story about a man who, although, unsuited to it, becomes a swami. But, when you started thinking in terms of these religions, the clouds cleared from your mind and it rang like a bell. Narayan wrote a few short novels about the clash between traditional and modern life in India in a make believe town, Malgudi, with protaganists both unusual and usually unimportant. I have never owned a copy where the binding did not dissolve (there have been three attempts), so this one sits on the shelf, but falls apart the minute I touch it. Still, I'm keeping it.

The peace that they foist on Muslims is in order to ready and prepare them to be slaughtered, and still the killing goes on. So, if we try to defend ourselves, they call us “terrorists”, and the slaughter still goes on. So it is said that the Prophet observed in truth: “The Hour will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. When a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say” ‘O Muslim, O Servant of God! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’ All the trees will do this except the boxthorn, because it is the tree of the Jews.” And whoever claims that there is permanent peace between us and the Jews has disbelieved what has been sent down through Muhammad; the battle is between us and the enemies of Islam, and it will go on until the Hour—and as for the so-called “Peace” or ‘Peace Award”, that is a gimmick that is given to the biggest bloodshedders. That man, Begin, the perpetrator of the Deir Yassin massacre, was awarded the [Nobel] Peace Prize. That traitor Anwar al-Sadat, the one that sold the land and the [Palestinian] issue and the blood of the martyrs, was awarded the Peace Prize.

Osama bin Laden in an interview ten days after the attack on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers recorded in a 2005 volume: Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden. I always recommend, know thy enemy.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Number 13 of Strunk & White’s landmark, The Elements of Style. I celebrate the book in the breach, by violating many of it’s instructions on a regular basis, but it is the most readable grammar guide in the world and I have on more than one occasion picked up the little book and read it straight through at a sitting. Didnt hurt; probably helped.

In fact, Hitler postponed D-Day from August 25 to September 1, and entered into direct negotiation with Poland, as Chamberlain desired. His object was not, however, to reach an agreement with Poland, but to give His Majesty’s Government every opportunity to escape from their guarantee. Their thoughts, like those of Parliament and the nation, were upon a different plane. It is a curious fact about the British Islanders, who hate drill and have not been invaded for nearly a thousand years, that as danger comes nearer and grows, they become progressively less nervous; when it is imminent, they are fierce; when it is mortal, they are fearless. These habits have led them into some very narrow escapes.

From Churchill’s 1948 The Gathering Storm, Vol. 1 of The Second World War, describing the state of England’s courage just before the war began. At least, it was what Winston would like to have thought. The work is only incomplete in that Churchill could not speak of what we now call the Enigma secret, the allies' cracking of Germany's secret codes.

One of the great differences between the fairies and us is that they never do anything useful. When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies. They look tremendously busy, you know, as if they had not a moment to spare, but if you were to ask them what they were doing, they could not tell you in the least. They are frightfully ignorant, and everything they do is make-believe.

From J. M. Barrie’s 1902 Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which is not the same as Peter Pan, which was first a play and then a novel. It actually preceded the more famous work by a couple of years, but first as a part of another novel that none of us could care less about anymore before it was ever published separately. In this earlier story we learn of Peter's origin. It is not a great work in itself the way the immortal Peter Pan is, but interesting as part of the story.

Seriously, I do have to move some books now, but this was fun (maybe just for me) and I expect to do it again sometime. If I've inspired anyone to pick up one of these books, then that is a bonus.

If everything I own goes up in smoke, let these piles of highly flammable paper survive and I will be satisfied.

1 comment:

  1. You are a lovable old nerd. You may share my mug of mead anytime. Wassail!

    ReplyDelete

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .