Living among books

Joseph Epstein on The Bookish Life:

Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.

Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence.1

In the risky generalization department, slow readers tend to be better readers—more careful, more critical, more thoughtful. I myself rarely read more than twenty-five or thirty pages of a serious book in a single sitting. Reading a novel by Thomas Mann, a short story by Chekhov, a historical work by ­Theodor Mommsen, essays by Max Beerbohm, why would I wish to rush through them? Savoring them seems more sensible. After all, you never know when you will pass this way again.

“The art of not reading is a very important one,” Schopenhauer wrote.

It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.

Against Evelyn Wood

Fillyjonk:

(I have never read particularly fast, but maybe that’s not such an awful thing: I do find when I read more slowly my comprehension and memory for what I’ve read is much better).

Which brings to mind an old favorite story, R.A. Lafferty’s “The Primary Education of the Camiroi.” The text is not available online,1 and I’m too lazy to transcribe the relevant passages, so I’ll link instead to Alan Jacobs:

I recommend a story by one of the all-time great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty. The story is called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate their educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting experience for the Iowans — they interview one girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly comments that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute.

“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi,” one of the adults says, “are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth. We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”

So maybe what matters most is not how many books we read, but how thoroughly we read them.

The delegation’s ultimate recommendations for Dubuque schools include “b.) A little constructive book-burning, particularly in the education field. c.) Judicious hanging of certain malingering students.”

The story is in Nine Hundred Grandmothers. (If you find the book at a reasonable price (good luck) and are new to Lafferty, I suggest starting with the last story and working your way to the front of the book. The first few stories are not the Lafferty I like best.)

Too many futures

The heavy-duty shelves where I kept the bulk of my science-fiction library collapsed. Rather than replace the shelves, I’ve decided that it’s time to cull the collection. This won’t be easy; discarding books is something I just don’t do. However, I’m unlikely ever to read most of these again, and there’s no point in hanging on to them. I need to grit my teeth and haul at least two-thirds of them to Goodwill this weekend.

So, what stays, and what goes?

Some decisions are easy. All of R.A. Lafferty, all of Gene Wolfe, all of Philip K. Dick stay on my shelves. The multitudinous Roger Elwood anthologies can all go, every single one. Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, Cordwainer Smith all stay. Ditto Poul Anderson, William Tenn and John Sladek. George R.R. Martin goes.

Others are more difficult. Early Alfred Bester, before his disappearance, was very good; after his return, he was a different, lesser writer. I’ll keep the older books and discard the later ones. Much of Samuel Delany goes not to Goodwill but straight to the trash, but I’ll hang on to his Driftglass collection. I’ll probably keep all of Ursula K. Le Guin, even though nothing she wrote after The Lathe of Heaven has held my interest. Similarly, I’ll keep all of Joanna Russ, though it’s mainly the Alyx stories that I reread.1 Frederick Pohl’s short story collections stay, but all his novels except perhaps Gateway are expendable. And so on, and so on.

And then there are the anthologies. I have lots of anthologies. Let’s see…. The Judith Merrill best-of-the-year volumes are of historical interest and contain surprises — I discovered George P. Elliott’s “Among the Dangs” and Muriel Spark’s “Portobello Road” in #7. The Carr, Wollheim and Carr/Wollheim annuals are where I first encountered many of my favorite writers, including Lafferty and Wolfe. These stay. The many other year’s best anthologies are less useful and ultimately probably not worth the shelf space. Other anthologies go to Goodwill unless there is a particular story I like in one that I don’t have elsewhere, though I might hang on to Damon Knight’s Orbit series.

The sorting should occupy my evenings for the rest of the week.

From Leigh Brackett to Rian Johnson

David Breitenbeck:

I don’t want to make a generalization, but it really does seem like the quality of film and filmmakers has steeply declined even in the thirty-odd years since Return of the Jedi. Even absent George Lucas’s quixotic attempt to write and direct the entire prequel trilogy himself after decades of comparative idleness, we have a huge, multi-billion dollar company like Disney staking a massive investment in these films and the best they can come up with is the uneven Rogue One. The quality of writing and storytelling in these later films is nothing short of an embarrassment, at times offensively so, and now we don’t even have the excuse of George Lucas trying to make it a personal project. This is a branch of the top entertainment media company in the world throwing enormous amounts of money and promotion at a project with The Last Jedi as the result. Meanwhile, some forty years ago, that same ‘branch’ made The Empire Strikes Back.

Something certainly changed in the meantime, whatever it might have been. Somehow we went from Leigh Brackett to Rian Johnson.

Armando Simón:

This invisible crisis in literature becomes self-evident if we list all of the great fiction writers in fifty year increments….
In fact, the evidence practically shouts out at you. The pattern that emerges is surprisingly that of a bell shaped curve!

1800-1850
Washington Irving, Fenimore James Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

1851-1900
Edward Hale, Harriet B. Stowe, Henry Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Joel Harris, Mark Twain, Mary dodge, Louisa Alcott, Bret Harte, Henry James, Horatio Alger, William D. Howells, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville.

1901-1950
Upton Sinclair, Booth Tarkington, Owen Wister, Sarah O. Jewett, Edith Wharton, O. Henry, T. S. Eliot, Zora Hurston, Richard Wright, Christopher Isherwood, B. Traven, Margaret Mitchell, John Steinbeck, Walter Clark, Walter Edmons, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Cronell Woolrich, John Marquand, William Saroyan, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Sara Teasdale, John Dos Passos, Clarence Day, Thorne Smith, Pearl Buck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Robert Penn Warren, H. P. Lovecraft, Jack Schaefer, Marjorie K. Rawlings.

1951-2000
Anais Nin, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Robert Frost, Mario Puzo, Shirley Jackson, Charles Jackson, James Thurber, James McCain, Leon Uris, Robert Ruark, James Michener, Ayn Rand, Joyce Carol Oats, John Toole, Robert Heinlein, Saul Bellow, Isaac Asimov, Raymond Chandler, Taylor Caldwell, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Tom Wolfe.

2001-2018
*no entry

What is most alarming is that there is no new generation of high quality writers in sight to take up the torch. All of the writers that came into prominence in the last period are already dead, or like I said, have one foot in the grave.1

Are these observations accurate? It’s easy to believe that western civilization is in rapid decline, but I’m too disconnected from contemporary American culture to say if that’s actually the case.

By the book

The Maximum Leader, by way of Robbo:

I was recently challenged….to post the covers of 7 books I love. These photos are to be without reviews, explanation, or other comments. Like [my challenger], I will post my covers in one go. Also, like [my challenger], I will break the rules in a number of ways. I am going to post 8 covers rather than 7.

I’ll play, too. Here are seven, plus one more, of my favorites. Make of them what you will.

Continue reading “By the book”

Today’s quote

George Weigel on Tom Wolfe:

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that here was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

By the co-author of Gyűrűkúra

Since you can’t do much gardening outdoors in February, you might as well read some books. One I regularly consult is Henry Beard‘s Gardening: A Gardener’s Dictionary, illustrated by Roy McKie. Beard may be familiar as the author of such works as Latin for All Occasions and Zen for Cats. Those with long memories might remember him as the most reliably funny writer at National Lampoon and as one of the scholars responsible for the volume variously known as Nuda Pierścieni, Loru sorbusten herrasta, or Bored of the Rings. He’s also an expert on bad golf.

Gardening has been out of print for years, but used copies are available for reasonable prices. Here are a few of the definitions.

Yard
1. (penology) dusty open area where hard labor is performed. 2. (horticulture) dusty open area where hard labor is performed.

Vermiculite
Obscure order of nuns dedicated to gardening. Like other devotional orders, the sisters take the traditional vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, but in keeping with the demanding nature of their calling, the Vermiculites are the only such group with a special dispensation to drink, smoke, swear, and throw things.

Rot
Gardening advice.

Pest
Any creature that eats green vegetables without being compelled to.

Narcissus
Wonderful, early-blooming flower with an unsatisfactory plural form. Botanists have been searching for a suitable ending for years but their attempts — narcissi (1947), narcissusses (1954), narcissus for both singular and plural (1958) and multinarcissus and polynarcissus (1962, 1963) — haven’t enjoyed any real acceptance, and thus, gardeners still prefer to plant the easily pluralized daffodil or jonquil.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit
The state flower of Maryland. Shortly after being named, the designation was challenged by atheist groups who sued to have it removed on the constitutional grounds that its selection promoted religion. In a compromise that appears to have pleased no one, the plant was retained but officially renamed “Fred-in-a-phone-booth.”

Hose
Crude, but effective and totally safe type of scythe towed through gardens to flatten flower beds and level vegetable plantings.

Grape
Uninteresting larval stage of wine.

Garden
One of a vast number of free outdoor restaurants operated by charity-minded amateurs in a effort to provide healthful, balanced meals for insects, birds, and animals.

Fence
Wire barrier erected to protect garden produce against animal pests that lack wings, paws, teeth, or brains, and cannot leap, tunnel, climb, or fly.

Brochures and Catalogs
Forms of entertaining fiction published by nurseries, seedsmen, and tool manufacturers.

Bluegrass
Rare lawn condition in which normally brown, crisp lawns develop odd patches of a sort of hazy green growth. Don’t be alarmed! These strangely colored areas usually disappear within a few weeks.

Autumn
Delightful season that runs from the disposal of the last zucchini to the arrival of the first catalog.

Trinomial poets

Apparently there used to be a tradition in the blogosphere that one posted a favorite poem on February 2. Although I’ve been active online for over fifteen years now if you count the group blog I first posted on, I don’t remember that. However, it’s not a bad idea, so why not? There’s still about 30 minutes of Groundhog’s Day left.

The phrase “walloping window blind” popped into my mind recently. It occurred in a poem that I particularly liked when I was much shorter than I am today.

“A Nautical Ballad,” by Charles Edward Carryl

A capital ship for an ocean trip,
Was the ‘Walloping Window-Blind’;
No gale that blew dismayed her crew
Or troubled the captain’s mind.
The man at the wheel was taught to feel
Contempt for the wildest blow,
And it often appeared, when the weather had cleared,
That he’d been in his bunk below.

‘The boatswain’s mate was very sedate,
Yet fond of amusement, too;
And he played hop-scotch with the starboard watch,
While the captain tickled the crew.
And the gunner we had was apparently mad,
For he sat on the after rail,
And fired salutes with the captain’s boots,
In the teeth of the booming gale.

‘The captain sat in a commodore’s hat
And dined in a royal way
On toasted pigs and pickles and figs
And gummery bread each day.
But the cook was Dutch and behaved as such;
For the diet he gave the crew
Was a number of tons of hot-cross buns
Prepared with sugar and glue.

‘All nautical pride we laid aside,
And we cast the vessel ashore
On the Gulliby Isles, where the Poohpooh smiles,
And the Rumbletumbunders roar.
And we sat on the edge of a sandy ledge
And shot at the whistling bee;
And the cinnamon-bats wore water-proof hats
As they danced in the sounding sea.

‘On rubgub bark, from dawn to dark,
We fed, till we all had grown
Uncommonly shrunk, when a Chinese junk
Came by from the torriby zone.
She was stubby and square, but we didn’t much care,
And we cheerily put to sea;
And we left the crew of the junk to chew
The bark of the rubgub tree.’

This brought to mind another poem from the same book. I thought this was hysterically funny when my age was in the middle single digits.

“Eletelephony,” by Laura Elizabeth Richards

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant—
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone—
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I’ve got it right.)
Howe’er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee—
(I fear I’d better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

Some years later I discovered Lewis Carroll.

Additions to The Rules

Walker’s Law: Absent evidence to the contrary, assume everything is a scam.

The Strong Misanthropic Principle: The universe exists in order to screw with us.

(From here.)

Walker, incidentally, is one of the most interesting book reviewers around and is always worth reading (except maybe for the coding stuff, which is Not My Thing).

Sparkling prose

A hundred years ago today, Muriel Spark, my favorite Major Catholic Writer of the 20th Century,1 was born in Edinburgh. To celebrate, the Scottish literary magazine The Bottle Imp has published an issue devoted to her writing. Overall, the articles are interesting, readable and free of academese, though of course no substitute for reading Spark herself.

If you haven’t read Spark, do so. Before she was a novelist, she was a poet, and her prose is a pleasure to read. Her novels are precisely as long as they need to be and not one word longer. Her best-known, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is a good one to start with, as is Memento Mori, a funny story about old people dying. (There’s more to it than that, of course.) There are also her short stories.

(Via Amy Welborn, who has written on Spark.)

Greetings from East Feffy Foofy

A long time ago, back before the last ice age, I came across a short piece called something like “In Space with Runyon Jones” in a collection of science fiction stories. It was a series of vignettes in which the young Jones encounters a variety of aliens while traveling in spaceships, which the editor of the anthology had gleaned from a novel by Norman Corwin. I was curious to read the rest of the book, but it was long out of print by then, and has never been reprinted. I never found it in any library or used book store.

A few years ago, I remembered the story and thought that perhaps it might be possible to locate a copy of the book online. While searching, I found that Corwin’s story had first been a radio play, “Odyssey of Runyon Jones,” broadcast in 1941. It’s available here. Once you accustom your ears to the low-fidelity sound, it’s entertaining listening. Runyon’s dog Pootzy has been hit by a car and killed, and Runyon wants him back. He braves bureaucracy, meets Father Time and Mother Nature, and eventually finds his way to Curgatory and a trick ending.

Ten years later, Corwin turned the radio play into the novel Dog in the Sky, of which I eventually located an affordable copy. In addition to expanding the episodes in the play, he introduced a sub-plot involving a Mr. B.L.Z. Bubb, a bureaucrat very interested in Runyon’s quest, and adds details of Runyon’s adventures as he travels from planet to planet. The Bubb business is never very interesting and it eventually fizzles out, but the aliens Runyon meets are what caught my attention in the excerpts I read years ago, and are what might make the book worth reprinting someday. There are quite a variety of them, including an interplanetary perfume salesman, a lonely robot, a very important businessman from Venus, and a spooky cat/woman. And a certain 62Kru:

62Kru returned to his monologue as though nothing had happened. “Love is science. Science is love. That is all the protons and isotopes know, and all they need to know. The beta ray hankers for the gamma, both are enamored of the delta, and all in turn adore the lambda.
You see, friend, we Hankerites deplore the fact that the galaxies are rushing away from each other. This is because of a misunderstanding which occurred some billions of years ago. We aim to rectify, restore and reunite the estranged universe, to bind all together under the harmonious love of the true Hruh, whose throne is everywhere and anywhere. Blasphemers and atheists have tried to prove that Hruh is really nothing but
but the true Hankerite is unshakable in his faith, resolute in his virtue, confident in the supremacy and inviolability of love, and we have already killed several million disbelievers to prove this.

*****

Something else I stumbled across at Archive.org: the A.M. Yankovic/W. Carlos version of “Peter and the Wolf.” It’s not the best example of either’s work, but it has its moments. The recording is probably still under copyright, so it may disappear from the site at any moment.

(My favorite version is the that by the Royal Ballet School, with Anthony Dowell as narrator and Grandfather. It starts here.)

Just wondering

Is this true? It doesn’t tally with my observations, but I try to minimize my exposure to popular culture.

Something that is often forgotten about J.K. Rowling’s books/movies is that while they started out being almost equally popular among girls and boys (the authoress chose old-fashioned initials to hide her sex from little girl-hating he-men), by the time the eighth and (sort of) final movie in the series finally came out, their appeal was almost wholly to girls, just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s fans are overwhelmingly male.

The bit about Tolkien fans would be news to the rat maiden at the too-long-idle Quenta Nârwenion.

In just 720,000 months

I recently came across mention of the clinesterton beademungen. It reminded me of an old James Blish story, which is available online. Don’t move, count the seconds, and everything will be rodalent. (As I recall, Damon Knight wrote an analysis of the story that was stranger than the story itself.)

Gotta have a Feckle Freezer

Accumulated odds and ends:

Is Obama Catholic? No, and Dennis McDonough is an idiot.

Is the Pope Catholic? That’s a much more interesting question. Edward Feser supplies some useful background, including notes about Popes Honorius, John XXII and Liberius.

Hyperplay will provide hours — well, minutes — of fun for the mathematically inclined and the easily entertained.

Continue reading “Gotta have a Feckle Freezer”

The 1,387,229th Eastern Subordinate Incarnation of a Lohan

I felt like re-reading Cordwainer Smith’s “Western Science Is So Wonderful,” the tale of a local Chinese demon with strong pro-Communist sentiments who wants to study engineering. Rather than climb the stairs to the main library, I found it online here. Smith wrote science fiction on a grand scale, but he could do comedy, too.

The Kelly Freas illustration for the story here.

Cigarettes and spiders

The first episode of Miss Bernard Said. mentioned Yasutaka Tsutsui, and I checked to see if any more of his books have been translated into English. A quick search showed nothing new. However, I did find translations of a few of his stories online:

Rumors about Me

The Last of the Smokers

Descent into Yoppa Valley

The first two are satirical; the third is strange.

I also looked for Henry Kuttner’s “The Twonky.” I couldn’t find the text online, but I did find a podcast. (Scroll down to the bottom.)