Finally, some good news. H. Albertus Boli, Ll.D., the inventor of the letter “M” and the man who organized the construction of Portugal, is back.
Perhaps there will be some additions to Flora Pittsburghensis, but that may be too much to hope for.
I injured my leg a couple of weeks ago, which has limited my photography. The doctor is upbeat and says I should recover fully in a few more weeks, but until then don’t expect much to look at here.
None of the current anime have held my interest. When I do feel like watching something, it’s an old show such as Shingu, where you can find the largest human yawn in Japan, above. I might give Sarazanmai another try, though probably not during my lunch hour at the office. Josh notes, among other things, that “[t]he art is often very pretty.”
As I mentioned earlier, I finally persuaded myself to get a Kindle. I’d like to say that real, physical, print-and-paper books are clearly superior in every respect, but in fact the Kindle has one overwhelming advantage: I can make the type larger. I can read for hours now before my eyes get tired, and I’ve been taking advantage of that. Beside The Lord of the Rings, I also read Honor at Stake on Joseph Moore’s recommendation; it’s fun. I followed that with Dracula, which I hadn’t looked at since high school. Whatever your academic obsession is, you can pursue it in Stoker’s book (from Wikipedia):
In the last several decades, literary and cultural scholars have offered diverse analyses of Stoker’s novel and the character of Count Dracula. C.F. Bentley reads Dracula as an embodiment of the Freudian id. Carol A. Senf reads the novel as a response to the New Woman archetype, while Christopher Craft sees Dracula as embodying latent homosexuality and sees the text as an example of a ‘characteristic, if hyperbolic instance of Victorian anxiety over the potential fluidity of gender roles’. Stephen D. Arata interprets the events of the novel as anxiety over colonialism and racial mixing, and Talia Schaffer construes the novel as an indictment of Oscar Wilde. Franco Moretti reads Dracula as a figure of monopoly capitalism, though Hollis Robbins suggests that Dracula’s inability to participate in social conventions and to forge business partnerships undermines his power. Richard Noll reads Dracula within the context of 19th century alienism (psychiatry) and asylum medicine. D. Bruno Starrs understands the novel to be a pro-Catholic pamphlet promoting proselytization. Dracula is one of Five Books most recommended books with literary scholars, science writers and novelists citing it as a influential text for topics such as sex in Victorian Literature, best horror books and criminology.
Considered simply as a vampire story, it’s not bad, though the plot occasionally requires that the characters act like idiots.
Other fiction re-read include The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Time Machine, both good despite their authors’ quirks.
I’m in the middle of one of my periodic re-readings of The Lord of the Rings. While looking for a large, easy-to-read map of Middle Earth, I came across a map of Scotland done LotR style.
I came across a short biography of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated several of Tolkien’s works. She also did the pictures for the Narnia books, though she didn’t have the same rapport with Lewis as with JRRT.
After a long day of storms, the clouds to the west are starting to thin out. I just looked out the front door: the setting sun colored the overcast sky a dull, glowering red, perhaps a bit too appropriate to my reading.
I recently got a Kindle, and I spent part of yesteday evening stocking it with cheap public-domain books. Some of the collections I considered were category “best sellers,” but not the categories I would have expected.
The quality of the electronic editions varies greatly. In general, the large collections are worth the dollar or two they cost, but not always. Some are highly readable and easily navigable, but others are little more than unedited OCR text. Also, omnibus collections often dispense with the original illustrations. The Pre-Raphaelitish plates and drawings that are part of the charm of Andrew Lang’s colorful books are missing from the construction law best seller.
Further details about the Amazon, from a 1929 study1:
… I recall that when Damon Knight asked me back in the ’60s whom I was reading I wrote back and said “J.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and Mark’s Engineer’s Handbook.”
I’ve been meaning to write a short essay on Gene Wolfe, the last great American writer, who died last month. I don’t know when I’ll get it done, though, so here are a some notes and quotes instead.
I don’t remember which was the first Wolfe story I read. It might have been “Trip, Trap” in an early Orbit anthology. But the novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” made it clear to me that he operated on a level far beyond Asimov or Clarke in skill, imagination and depth. His stories improved with re-reading. His name in the table of contents was sufficient reason to purchase any anthology, and I bought every book of his as soon as it appeared in paperback.
From a 1988 interview:
… I’d argue that SF represents literature’s real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature’s mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.
The worst dictators were often bibliophiles. The young Lenin read Virgil and other Roman authors in the original Latin. He was also a fan of Jack London. Mussolini at one point was the honorary president of the International Mark Twain Society. Hitler “… had a special fondness for the literature of a land he could not subjugate: England. Hitler preferred Shakespeare to Goethe and he was also fond of tales of far-off lands, such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.”
Mao Zedong’s bedroom was full of books even as his minions in the Cultural Revolution wrought havoc outside. The Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha enjoyed vampire novels. Fidel Castro loved Ernest Hemingway and reviewed Gabriel García Márquez’s novels before publication. In 2015, the Ayatollah Khameini took to Twitter to praise the works of Mikhail Sholokhov and Alexei Tolstoy, Leo’s less talented, pro-Bolshevik cousin….
What does this mean for our understanding of literature itself? At the very least, the fact that some of history’s worst mass murderers were avid bibliophiles should kill any lingering notion that there is something innately ennobling about the book. Literature is far too ambiguous for that. We take what we want from it and dictators are no different. When Lenin wrote his essay on the religious-vegetarian-pacifist Tolstoy, he focused on the prophet’s “pent-up hatred”. When Mussolini read Dante, he enjoyed the poet’s invective best of all.
It is also striking that all these well-read men preferred mediocrity to masterpieces. Just as their political theories reduced the ambiguities of history to simplistic narratives of good and evil, they were most inspired by crude tales with a moral or political message.
Poe’s poetry was allegedly improved by translation into French. Something similar happens with H.P. Lovecraft. His prose
… is indigestible: so very mannered that sometimes it comes off as a parody. The saving grace comes when Lovecraft’s work is translated into a Romance language. I’ve read Lovecraft in Italian and in Castilian, as with this particular book [El horror de Dunwich], and his prose becomes more elegant and less heavy simply because Romance languages are more parenthetical and better support long-winded periods.
Could a great—or even a readable—Latin poet have possibly emerged in eighteenth-century Guatemala?
If your Latin is in good working order, you might want to take a look into the works of the 18th-century Jesuit Father Rafael Landívar. Vulcanologists might find something of interest there.
An appreciation of Camille Paglia. Yeah, she’s crazy, but she’s interesting crazy.
Holy foolishness: Once upon a time, one found Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue on nearly every reading Catholic’s bookshelf. He wrote the story in 1928, just in time for the Depression. 20 years later he wrote a couple more novels. I might have to track them down, though I expect that some of the writing will make me cringe.2
(Via Amy Welborn.)
The United States’ copyright laws are insane. Canada’s are more reasonable. I recently discovered quite a bit of Cordwainer Smith is available at the Canadian site Fadedpage. It’s missing some essential stories, e.g. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” but it includes some of my favorites, such as “Under Old Earth” and “Western Science Is So Wonderful,”1 as well as many others such as “Think Blue, Count Two,” “A Planet Named Shayol,” the Casher O’Neill stories and, of course, “Scanners Live in Vain.” (Update: there is a fair amount of Smith at archive.org, though most of it is less convenient to read than the offerings at Fadedpage.)
Isegoria discovers my favorite of Poul Anderson’s books, The High Crusade. I gather there was a lousy movie made from it, but I have a hunch that it would serve well as the basis for a good anime series.
Those who know their Who might hear something familiar here:
To the list of famous coke-heads, you can add a pope or two.
Words of wisdom Further silliness from here and there:
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.
‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
(The second and fourth lines of each stanza should be indented, but I don’t know a simple way to make WordPress do that.)
Listen to Auden reading his poem here.
Here is the true and proper retelling of the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
The Little Girl and the Wolf
by James Thurber
One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.
When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.
Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.
This story is presented as a service for those who watched the first episode of Grimms’ Notes: The Animation, an undistinguished recent offering from Crunchyroll.
From a news release that crossed my desk this morning:1
While at St. Christina the Astonishing, Mr. Redacted has become known for growing and developing the school’s professional staff and implementing a new community system to enhance the relationships among both students and faculty.
From Polysics’ “Plus Chicker:”
AKA! One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Eighty-nine!
It’s baby baby baby baby portable rock!
Ok! Something in my reality might have broke.
AKA! One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Eight-nine!
I’ll always do my thing.
I’ll always do my thing.
I lied too, ever since I saw you.
Which excerpt conveys more meaning?
One of the books I (re)read during my recent trip was The Man Who Was Thursday. The cover of the 1971 paperback edition, above, depicts a moment from chapter X. Those who’ve read the book might amuse themselves by seeing how many errors they can spot.
Incidentally, Chesterton’s novel is possibly the most realistic spy novel ever published:
Thirty years ago, a British newspaper took an unscientific survey of current and former intelligence agents, asking them which fictional work best captured the realities of their profession. Would it be John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum? To the amazement of most readers, the book that won easily was G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, published in 1908….
… Soon, even police agencies themselves had no idea whether a given attack was the work of real terrorists, or of agents and provocateurs notionally working for the regime. In this wilderness of mirrors, the only certain facts were provocation and deception. “Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything?” However fantastic The Man Who Was Thursday might appear, it was describing the stark realities of counter-subversion, with all their moral ambiguities. And that was what gave the book its appeal to latter day spooks.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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!
Washington Irving, Fenimore James Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.