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If you are what you read, then I’m confused. A lawyer’s shelves are filled with law books; a doctor’s with medical journals. Tolkien’s shelves were chock with Old- and Middle-English. I look through mine and find no common theme. 

To search for myself among my books, I ventured to take a single shelf and look at its contents to see if they were in any way a mirror in which I could discover my own physiognomy. I didn’t want to pick a shelf that was organized. I have cookbooks here, poetry there, a rack or three of Latin and Greek translations over there. There is one section of all of D.H. Lawrence, another of Henry Miller. Elsewhere, there are art books and Hindu literature. There are sections of history and others of Peterson guides. But in the bedroom, beside the bed, is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that collects the odds and ends that I have been gathering and not yet classified, or not returned, after reading, to their rightful homes. I picked a single layer of that literary cake and investigated what I found there. Make of them what you will. 

Starting at one end of the shelf: 

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. VI – 1665, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, University of California Press, 1972

One of the great horndogs of all times, Samuel Pepys kept a diary, in a peculiar sort of shorthand, from 1660 to 1669 and records much of historical significance, including the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Great Plague of 1665-66. 

“But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”

    — Diary, Aug. 16, 1665

A few days later, on Aug. 22: “I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead bodye therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it — but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing — this disease making us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”

The volume on my shelf covers only 1665, but I have collections that cover the sense of it all. And the overriding sense you get of our Mr. Pepys is a man concerned with money and business, the conduct of government, dinners with fellow bureaucrats, the love he felt for his wife, and the frequent copulations he maintained with his maid, his friends’ maids, their wives, daughters, and the fishmonger’s wives and daughters. How he had time for business and government sometimes seems a marvel. How many times does he write about seeing his maid at the scullery, bent over the dishes, and he lifts her skirts and has his way while she wipes the platters. 

One day, he was surprised by his wife as he sat with the maid on his lap. He writes that his wife “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl with my hand under her coats; and indeed, I was with my hand in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also…” They had to fire the poor maid, but that didn’t stop Pepys from continuing to see her. 

The Orange Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang, Dover Publications, 1968

I used to own all of Lang’s Fairy books, in all colors. But I gave most of them away to my granddaughters when they were still wee bairns. I don’t think they ever really took to them — the books had no touchscreens. The Orange Fairy Book is the only one I can find now. I loved them more for the line-drawing illustrations than the text by such artists as Howard Pyle and H.J. Ford. I didn’t discover these fairy tales until I was in my 20s. My childhood had no such fantasy — when I was maybe 10 years old, I remember telling my parents I didn’t like fiction because “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” I wuz a idjut. But in my 20s, I came across Lang in used book stores and collected as many colors as I could. He published 12 books, with different colors. The Blue Fairy Book and the Red were my favorites, they were also the first published. They contain some of the more familiar Grimms’ tales, Arabian Nights stories and Norwegian folktales.

The Orange Fairy Book widens the scope to African tales and some from India, in addition to the European stories usually found. It was the third from the last entry into Lang’s series and was published in 1906. After it came Olive and Lilac. My original discovery of them came at a time when Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, was current — before he was found largely to be a fraud. But his central point, that fairy tales helped guide a child through the development of mind and personality, still seems accurate. I feel disadvantaged, at least a little, by not having them as a part of my childhood. 

The series was published in beautifully designed paperbacks by Dover Publications, the golden treasury of lost books that became my source for so many of the books that guided my intellectual development, from Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera to Design of Active Site-Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Dover now stays in business selling upper-grade coloring books, kiddie stickers and “thrift editions” of classics in the public domain. You can still purchase Lang’s Fairy Books from Dover. 

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Scribner Classics, 1996

Other than the short stories, which are often marvelous, The Sun Also Rises is the only Hemingway I can abide. I reread it every few years and enjoy the hell out of it. I did read Death in the Afternoon a couple of years ago and enjoyed that, too, although in a sort of ironic way, as if it were a parody of the man. 

“There are only two proper ways to kill bulls with the sword and muleta… A great killer must love to kill; unless he feels it is the best thing he can do, unless he is conscious of its dignity and feels that it is its own reward, he will be incapable of the abnegation that is necessary in real killing. The truly great killer must have a sense of honor and a sense of glory far beyond that of the ordinary bullfighter.”

I learned more about bullfighting than I ever hoped to. I remember as a kid when local TV in New York used to show Mexican bullfights — they didn’t kill the bulls in Mexico. Stations were really hurting for things to broadcast in those early years. They also ran a bunch of jai-alai. And the Saturday Night Fights, with Bill Stern. But I’m getting off point. I also have a fat book of his wartime journalism, Byline: Ernest Hemingway, which is “damn good reporting,” as he might have characterized it. And even in the books I can’t get through, I still find sentences and paragraphs of tremendous power and grace. He was a great writer who wrote bad books. 

But Sun Also Rises has all the fizz and punch that Hemingway is famous for, but before he became Papa — or what I call “Ham-ingway.” The Sun’s excesses feel like a document of its post-war times. Later Hemingway feels like a document of his own almost comic and self-regarding toxic masculinity (perfectly skewered in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris). I have three copies of Sun in the house. I still have the old Scribner paperback that I first read some 40 years ago; then there is the one from this shelf. But I recently bought the new Hemingway Library Edition, with early drafts and deleted chapters and with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway. These last two are both beautiful book designs and immaculately printed.   

I Kid You Not, Jack Paar with John Reddy, Little, Brown and Co., 1960

Before there was Stephen Colbert, before there was David Letterman, before Johnny Carson, there was Jack Paar. He ran The Tonight Show on NBC from 1957 to 1962. He was a squirrelly man with a labile mind, but maybe a bit touchy. In his autobiography, named for his catchphrase, I Kid You Not, his co-author describes him: “Explaining Jack Paar is not easy. He is the world’s tallest elf. He is a paradox and meeting him can be like smoking a filter-tip firecracker … a man whose tranquilizer has been spiked … a tendency to make sudden U-turns in tunnels … broods over the fact that the Indians always lose in TV Westerns … as unrehearsed as a hiccup.”

 I found the book recently in a library sales shelf and picked it up for a dollar, thinking I would weave nostalgia over my childhood television past. And let’s be honest, this is no Great Gatsby — it is a fairly standard celebrity book, full of potted anecdotes and famous names. Still, fairly entertaining for all that. 

“I once asked Zsa Zsa if she thought love was important. ‘Yas, I theenk luff is the most imbortant theeng in a vooman’s life,’ she said throatily. ‘A vooman should keep on marrying and marrying until she finds luff.’” 

Most of the book consists of a set-up paragraph, explaining a situation, followed by a punchline, either by Paar, or more often quoted from Charley Weaver, Alexander King, Genevieve or Oscar Levant. Paar had a stable of guest-star conversationalists and unlike today’s late night, which is an endless series of stars huckstering their latest project, Paar’s guests actually engaged in conversation. 

Sometimes, a book just breezes by without a thought in its head — or mine.  

Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019

I heard Emily Bernard speaking on C-Span and found her mesmerizing. There are two main aspects to her book, both entirely engaging. The most obvious is her discussion of race. She grew up in the South, got her Ph.D. from Yale, married a white man from the North, adopted two babies from Ethiopia and teaches in New England, so, with all this input, there is not a single or blindered approach to her subject, but a willingness to see from all points of view. There is not a droplet of cant in her thinking or writing, but the honest thoughts of a sensitive individual. 

The other is the story of her stabbing. She was attacked by a stranger, a white man, with a knife. He was a schizophrenic, acting on impulse and he attacked six other people in that coffee shop. “I was not stabbed because I was black, but I have always viewed the violence I survived as a metaphor for the violent encounter that has generally characterized American race relations. … There was no connection between us … yet we were suddenly and irreparably bound by a knife, an attachment that cost us both: him, his freedom; me, my wholeness.” 

It is a book beautifully written. Its prose is both clean and evocative. I don’t believe I found a single cliche in its 223 pages. 

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

When my wife died, three years ago, I was buried in a paralyzing grief. We had been together 35 years and, as far as either of was concerned, we were a single entity. Didion’s book was recommended to me and I dived in. 

It is, of course, well written — it is Didion, after all — and it is affecting. I felt a definite kinship with her. If you have lost someone that close, it is like a soldier having been through a war and knowing only those who have shared the experience can genuinely understand. You can appreciate the sympathy of friends, but you know they are outside the event. I got letters and e-mails from one dear friend who had lost a lifetime companion, and even when she didn’t address the loss directly, there was a tacit understanding. Those letters meant more to me than any other kind words. 

But, having read Didion, I had to say that my experience was different from hers. The “magical thinking” she writes about is the feeling that, even though she knows consciously that her husband is dead, there was an autonomic expectation that he might suddenly come through the door: The space of the real world, and the inner space of the mind were out of synch. 

But for me, when I witnessed the life cease being generated by my wife’s ailing body, she simply was no more. The instant she stopped breathing, her skin began to cool under my touch; the flame was extinguished, and I never had even the unconscious hope that it had all been a dream, and that maybe she was still alive. No. Gone. Ewig… Ewig… Ewig

A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Sir Denis Forman, Random House, 1994

My brother- and sister-in-law are crazy about opera. When I visit them, we often watch DVDs of them, and usually the operas few others appreciate, such as Wozzeck, The Cunning Little Vixen, or The Love for Three Oranges. I used to be an opera critic for my newspaper (I was critic for a lot of things — born a critic, not made one). And they gave me this book, which is a comic look at all the repertoire operas. This is not a book you read cover to cover, but dip into for a good laugh and a bit of insight. 

“Death is extremely common [in opera] and has an almost universal characteristic unknown in our world, namely… the doomed person suffers a compulsion to sing. There are few known cases in [opera] where death has occurred without an aria, or at least a cavatina, being delivered… The period [of death] can last for up to a whole act. Not even decapitation can ensure an aria-free death, since the victim is likely to seize any opportunity to break into song on the way to the block.”

I used to own Milton Cross’s Complete Stories of the Great Operas in a beat-up and yellow-paged copy that I used for reference when I was writing. Nowadays, all those reference books that crowded my carrel at the newspaper have been replaced with Wikipedia at my fingertips. And the sodden reverence that Cross brought to the genre has been happily exchanged for Sir Denis’s leavening. 

The book is 955 pages long, so I can’t claim to have finished it, or that I ever will. But I have read all of my favorite operas and Gesamptkunstwerks and had a good yuk. 

And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling Over Niagara…, Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty, Ph.D., Penguin Books, 2017

There are so many ways to die, outside of mortal illness or gunshot wounds. And this book, with a chromed edge of irony, recounts some of the more notable. If you are ever curious about what would happen if you were swallowed by a whale, shot from a cannon or go barreling over Niagara Falls, then even the title of the book should pull you in. 

Each of 45 chapters begins with “What would happen if…” If you were buried alive; if you were hit by a meteorite; if your elevator cable broke; if you were sacrificed in a volcano; if you ate as many cookies as Cookie Monster. (On that last, many things might kill you. “After 60-some cookies, the gaseous side effects of digestion might push the pressure of your stomach beyond its physical capacity. It could explode violently and distribute its fatal chocolate chip cookie content throughout your innards. In other words, death by burping.”}

This is clearly a great book for bathroom reading: short, punchy chapters. Like eating potato chips, reading just one will be a problem. Also: Comes with scientific footnotes to witness for the authors’ predictions. 

Latest Reading, Clive James, Yale University Press, 2015

Clive James knew he was dying when he compiled Latest Readings. He was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010 and decided to spend his remaining time reading and rereading.  “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”

If that sounds like a downer, then you haven’t read Clive James. A more irrepressible mind and curiosity would be hard to come by. This book came out in 2015 and he died in 2019, which means he had a good nine years of reading to pursue. Having announced his impending demise in 2010, he admitted at the time of this book an embarrassment at still being alive. He described himself as “near to death but thankful for life.” And after his Latest Readings, he still had seven more books to publish, one called Sentenced to Life.

He was a major wit (he described the muscled-up Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like a “brown condom filled with walnuts”) and could toss off the bon mot as flippantly as Oscar Levant or Dorothy Parker. 

One essay is specifically “On Wit,” and discusses the ability of Abba Eban to say much with little. He quotes Eban on another politician, “He is a man of few words, but they were enough to express his range of ideas,” and “Yasser Arafat never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” 

In his essay on early Hemingway, he says of The Sun Also Rises, “In the book, scarcely anybody is old enough to have a past. They live in the present moment because they are young, and have to. So they pretend to be experienced.” There is a second essay, later on, called “Hemingway at the End,” which begins:

“Starting with Carlos Baker’s pioneering biography in 1969, called simply Hemingway, I have spent a good part of my adult life reading books about Ernest Hemingway and I don’t want to die among a heap of them, but they keep getting into the house.”

I miss James. He’s one of those writers who, even when I disagree with him violently, I still enjoy reading. Luckily, he’s all over YouTube.

Selected Writing of Herman Melville: Complete Short Stories; Typee; Billy Budd, Foretopman, Herman Melville, Random House Modern Library, 1952

I have always been attracted to writers word by word and sentence by sentence. There are wonderful writers whose prose is clear as water and you never notice it flowing by with hardly a gurgle. They tell their stories and you turn the pages, delighted to find out what happens next. I remember being in a bookstore once and picking up James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. I had always avoided him, thinking he was a talented hack who pumped out books as thick as phonebooks. I thought I might read a page or two to get the flavor of his writing, but only a few moments later, I realized I was 30 pages in and had to stop because the store was closing. I was completely immersed in the story and unaware I was actually reading.

Melville is not like that. You chew on each tasty word and dine on his sentences. I fell in love with Moby Dick, but had the hardest time finishing it, not because I became bored, but because every time I picked up the book anew, I started from the beginning again. “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read “Loomings” more than a hundred times. 

Before I ever finished Moby Dick, I read Israel Potter, Typee, Omoo and The Confidence Man. But what I kept coming back to, over and over, was this Modern Library edition of his selected writings: The Piazza Tales; Billy Budd and Typee. If given the chance, I will read I and My Chimney out loud at a dinner party. The Encantadas enchanted me; Benito Cereno moved me; Bartleby — Ah humanity. 

Melville’s prose is thicker than Southern chicken gravy. It always had a spice of irony in it. It can be comic; it can be tragic. Often both. The sentences can be long as freight trains or short as shunting boxcars. There is always a slightly distracted sensibility behind them.

“When I removed into the country, it was to occupy an old-fashioned farm-house, which had no piazza — a deficiency the more regretted, because not only did I like piazzas, as somehow combining the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors, and it is so pleasant to inspect your thermometer there, but the country round about was such a picture that in berry time no boy climbs hill or crosses vale without coming upon easels planted in every nook, and sun-burnt painters painting there. A very paradise of painters.”

Melville breaks every one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, especially the part about avoiding “hooptedoodle.” Everything Leonard denounces is every reason I love reading. And Melville is the absolute emperor of hooptedoodle. Sometimes, we never ever get to the point.    

Classical Persian Literature, A.J. Arberry, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1967

Sometimes, you are moving through the used bookstore too fast. It is a vast buffet of things you want to grab and take home. And sometimes, you grab a title you don’t take enough time to read carefully. I was visiting brother- and sister-in-law and went to a used bookstore the size of a Safeway. I saw a book spine with “Classical Persian Literature” on it and scooped it up. It was only when I got home that I discovered there was precious little classical Persian literature in it, but was, instead, a dry history of Persian literature. 

I’m sure it is a wonderful history, and will let me know the minute differences between 13th century and 14th century writings from Iran. But the prose has all the dust of scholarship about it. I have not been able to crack into it; it pushes me away. I wanted poetry and I got bricks. I’m sure, also, that Mr. Arthur John Arberry was quite knowledgable, probably one of the world leaders. But I keep this volume around purely as a non-chemical soporific. 

A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of this Choicest Writings, H.L. Mencken, Vintage Books, 1982

Henry Louis Mencken was an often detestable human being, with gender and racial views bordering on the rabid. But he wrote like a dream. I envy his style like few others, and will gobble up anything I can find that he published. 

I have all six volumes of his aptly titled Prejudices, and all three of his autobiographies, to say nothing of the hefty three volumes of The American Language and I have devoured them like peanut-butter cups. When I couldn’t get enough Mencken, having finished all these, I asked Amazon for a copy of his 1949 anthology, A Mencken Chrestomathy. Unfortunately, a good deal of it is reprinted from the Prejudices and memoirs, but enough is new that the book kept me amused for a week or more. And I can dip back in for a recharge at any time. They are all eminently re-readable. 

“The suicide rate, so I am told by an intelligent mortician, is going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive?”

And the next essay, he continues: “I see nothing mysterious about these suicides. The impulse to self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time of other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living. I was myself spared the intellectual humiliations of a college education, but during my late teens, with the enlightening gradually dawning within me, I more than once concluded that death was preferable to life. At that age the sense of humor is in a low state. Later on, by the mysterious working of God’s providence, it usually recovers.”

Reading Mencken is a mix of smiles and winces. A clever turn of phrase here, a rolling diatribe careening along like a freight train, a panegyric or philippic — then, you bump up against some gratuitous generalization about “the negroes” or “the Jews,” and you pull up short. These were common prejudices at the time, but they sour the tongue now. 

You are forced to remember that Mencken also argued for the American acceptance of Jewish refugees in the years before WWII, and lashed out at lynchings and bigotry, apparently not noticing the beam in his own eye. In addition, he had close friendships with both African-Americans and Jews. It was only in the abstract he denigrated them, not that such makes it acceptable. 

Mencken also disapproved of democracy. In this, he seems prescient. “As democracy is perfected, the office [of the presidency] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 1995

The most recent book I’ve finished is Kingsolver’s collection of essays, mixing science and autobiography and more than anything, common sense written with aromatic and redolent words. My first ex-wife found it a few months ago in a used bookstore and bought it for me, thinking I might enjoy it. She was right. 

I confess I have not read any of Kingsolver’s fiction. I’m a bit slow on keeping up with contemporary novels — I’m still too often stuck on Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne — but these essays are infectiously written. 

“I have been gone from Kentucky a long time. Twenty years have done to my hill accent what the washing machine does to my jeans: take out the color and starch, so gradually that I never marked the loss. Something like that has happened to my memories, too, particularly of the places and people I can’t go back and visit because they are gone. The ancient brick building that was my grade school, for example, and both my grandfathers. They’re snapshots of memory for me now, of equivocal focus, loaded with emotion, undisturbed by anyone else’s idea of the truth. The schoolhouse’s plaster ceilings are charted with craters like maps of the moon and likely to crash down without warning. The windows are watery, bubbly glass reinforced with chicken wire. The weary wooden staircases, worn shiny smooth in a path up their middles, wind up to an unknown place overhead where the heavy-footed eighth graders changing classes were called ‘the mules’ by my first-grade teacher, and believing her, I pictured their sharp hooves on the linoleum.”

Over and over Kingsolver metamorphoses physical objects into emotion — not overt, heart-on-sleeve, but recollection, affection, loss — and makes the persuasive case that emotion is more central to being human than paltry thought. Or rather, that when seen properly, thought and emotion are the very same thing.

Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism — A Norton Critical Edition, John Milton, edited by Scott Elledge, W.W. Norton, 1975

I’m afraid people look at me funny when I tell them how much I enjoy reading Milton. They scrunch their eyes and wonder if they should step back slowly. But Milton is wonderful; he is fun. And he tells a whopping good yarn.

I have four copies of Paradise Lost. The first is a compact blue Oxford Standard Authors edition from 1925. When my girlfriend-at-the-time and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in the early 1970s, it was this Milton I tossed into my knapsack for the trip. Yes, I took Milton to the woods. Then there is the larger paperback with the famous Gustave Doré illustrations. And a two-volume complete Milton in a presentation set from 1848, bound in leather, that was a birthday present from my late espoused saint. And then, there is this Norton Critical Edition paperback that I keep near my bed. Its advantage is the explanatory footnotes at the bottom of each page. Some pages have more note than text. I am a little put off that these notes are designed for students and that those students need to be told that “cherub” is singular of “cherubim” or that “pernicious” means “destructive.” 

When I read Milton, I hear in my mind’s ear the same rich and thunderous diapason I hear in J.S. Bach’s organ music. Whole rolling chords and pedal tones. Politicians often attempt rhetorical speech in order to sound more impressive and authoritative, but they always sound phony and pompous, like Foghorn Leghorn. But Milton is the real thing: Language with the weight of 2000 years of background. Yes, he treats English as a baby brother to Latin and does damage to standard grammar to contort his sentence structure. But in return, he gets a language more powerful than any poet before or since. 

“Him the Almighty Power/ Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/ With hideous ruin and combustion down/ To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire,/ Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”

How can you not love such language: “Round he throws his baleful eyes.” 

Perhaps it actually helps that I have no dogs in this fight. I am not a Christian. I can read the Iliad with pleasure and not believe in the Olympians; I can read the Mahabharata without thinking that Krishna or Ganesh are real. The myth of Paradise Lost is compelling, even without being dogma.

—-The Mystery of Georges Simenon: A Biography, Fenton Bresler, Stein and Day, 1985

Georges Simenon was the creator of Inspector Maigret, but the real mystery is how he managed to write so many books, while also diddling so many women. He wrote nearly 500 novels, some whipped off in as short a time as a week. He could, when deadline pressed, write 60 pages a day. The women are not accurately counted. 

Seventy-five of those novels and 28 short stories feature Inspector Jules Maigret, the pipe smoking and uxorious chief of the Paris Police Judiciaire. The books have been made into many movies and TV series, including 52 episodes for French television starring Bruno Cremer and a dozen in English starring Michael Gambon. I have seen them all; I am a Maigret addict. I have also read handfuls of the books, too. They read fast and rivetingly. 

They aren’t really mysteries, though. In most, the reader learns fairly early who the culprits are and the books have their raison d’etre in the finely drawn character studies of their dramatis personae. They really are novels more than your standard mysteries. No suspects are gathered in the last chapter while the detective unmasks the villain. And, indeed, Simenon has written many non-Maigret novels, also with their catchy populations. 

“They do not contain much spine-chilling suspense,” writes biographer Fenton Bresler. “They are dark, taut studies of human beings pushed to the limit of their characters, explored with such deep instinctive knowledge of human nature that they have become part of the syllabus of university examinations, and post-graduate students write learned theses devoted to them.” 

“Yet, for all their sombre value and consummate craftsmanship, they have nearly all been written at breakneck speed in not much more than a week — with, at the end, a compulsive need to indulge in a veritable orgy of sexual activity as ‘a necessary hygienic measure,’ It is here, with sex, that we have our first inkling that the ‘phenomenon’ is also a mystery and the story of Simenon’s own life is as dark and compelling as any of his novels — if only we can get at the truth.”

Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, Thomas Wolfe, Random House Modern Library, 1929

Asheville, North Carolina, is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and about 10 miles to the east, the escarpment drops off to the flatlands. The way up the hill from Old Fort to Asheville is now Interstate 40, an artery which runs from Wilmington, N.C., to Barstow, Calif. In North Carolina it runs from the Atlantic Coastal Plain through the Piedmont, with Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and past Asheville to the Smoky Mountains before hitting Tennessee near Dollywood. But before the Interstate, the looping way up the hill was a gravel road that roughly parallels the old railroad line. In 1880, William Oliver Wolfe took a stage coach up the hill to Asheville to set up his stonecutting business. 

His son, Thomas, fictionalized that trip in the opening chapter of his novel, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929. In the novel, Old Fort becomes Old Stockade and Asheville becomes Altamont. His fictionalized father, Oliver Gant, gets into a coach that climbs its way up the face of the Blue Ridge. “His destination was the little town of Altamont, 24 miles away beyond the rim of the great outer wall of the hills. As the horses strained slowly up the mountain road Oliver’s spirit lifted a little. It was a gray-golden day in late October, bright and windy. There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air; The range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: They were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain. 

“Below him a mountain stream foamed down its rocky bed, and he could see little dots of men laying the track that would coil across the hill toward Altamont. Then the sweating team lipped the gulch of the mountain and, among soaring and lordly ranges that melted away in purple mist, they began the slow descent toward the high plateau on which the town of Altamont was built.”

I have driven that same road many times, avoiding the interstate as less interesting. The railroad that was being constructed while Oliver rode the coach, is now finished and it loops up in switchbacks mostly parallel to the gravel road. You see it peeking through the trees here and there. And I have driven it in October when the season matches that of the book. There is something uncanny about seeing fiction turned palpable, about driving through the trees as if you were driving through prose. 

Persian and Chinese Letters, Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson; and The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith, M Walter Dunne, 1901

I have always loved old books. The letterpress text is textural, embedded into the paper and you can run your finger over the words and feel the bumpiness. There is the smell of the old paper itself. And title pages often have border designs in colored ink, or engraved scrolls. In the older books, there are those long “S” figures that each looks like an “F.” The volumes are beautiful objects, well worthy beyond their content.

I own several books from before 1750 and more from the 19th century, including my trusty History of the Earth and Animated Nature, by Oliver Goldsmith (my copy is from 1825). And there is a History of Redemption on a Plan Entirely Original Exhibiting the Gradual Discovery and Accomplishment of the Divine Purposes in the Salvation of Man; Including a Comprehensive View of Church History and the Fulfilment of Scripture Prophecies by “the late reverend Jonathan Edwards” from 1793, with its stretched leather binding still intact. (They loved long titles back then; it’s part of their charm.) And there is a complete reprint of Addison and Steeles Spectator from around the time of the American Revolution (it is falling apart and missing its title page, but the latest date mentioned in it is 1776). I love them all. 

Goldsmith also wrote a satire on English society and culture called The Citizen of the World, purportedly a series of letters written by a Chinese visitor, Lien Chi, who is mystified at some of the British habits and mores he found. Goldsmith’s book was inspired by a similar one by Baron de Montesquieu, called the Persian Letters, from 1721, in which two fictional Persians leave their seraglio to travel through France and send back letters describing what they found. 

“Coffee is very much used in Paris; there are a great many public houses where it may be had. In some of these they meet to gossip, in others to play at chess. There is one where the coffee is prepared in such a way that it makes those who drink it witty: At least, there is not a single soul who on quitting the house does not believe himself four times wittier than when he entered it.”

My volume is a translation and reprint from 1901, and a so-called “de Luxe Edition, printed by M. Walter Dunne, Publisher, Washington & London. It isn’t the greatest reading, but it is a handsome volume.

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995

Some time ago, on a vacation trip, I came across a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It was all there was to read where we were staying and I  admit to being somewhat embarrassed to read a book about a pedophile, and worse, from his self-justifying point of view, but I also have to admit, it was the best-written book I had come across in ages. The writing was singular; verbal fireworks. I have never come across anything like it. The simple act of reading was fun. There is no other word for it. It was a delight to move from one word to the next, each brighter and crisper and more ironically charged than the last. Lolita is a great book. Not that I want anyone to catch me reading it.

I later picked up his autobiography, Speak, Memory, and loved it, too, although it didn’t have the crashing verbal tides of Lolita. Still, it was compelling.

And so, I found this giant, thick, heavy compilation of Nabokov’s short stories. At 660 pages, it contains 65 stories, some written in English, some translated from Russian. I have admired the spine of this book on my shelf for some time, but found it daunting to pull out and open up. 

“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favorable opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are years between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas — a million times the reader’s average age. In the telescopic field of one’s fancy, through the prism of one’s tears, any particularities it presents should be no more striking than those of existing planets. A rosy globe, marbled with dusky blotches, it is one of the countless objects diligently revolving in the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”

How can any scrupulous writer not admit to being in awe of a phrase like, “the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”? Or, “the telescopic field of one’s fancy” and “the prism of one’s tears.”? 

Perhaps one day, I will work up the gumption to tackle the whole book. After all, I made it through Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This should be child’s play in comparison. 

____________________________

And so, I think over what I have excavated from this layered wooden trove and wonder anew: Who is this who drew magnetically such a heterogeneous collection of mental filings. Spiegel im Spiegel

 Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

rosmal

When we are young, reading opens up a whole new world, infinitely grander than the banal existence we desperately want to escape. puig swing 2We measure our tiny lives up against what seem to us the great works of poetry and literature like some Little Leaguer pretending to swing the bat like Yasiel Puig.

Some of us, wanting to be writers ourselves, spend too many early efforts attempting to imitate the style of the writers we adore. That is why any of us who do eventually become writers hold ritual bonfires of our old manuscripts.

This equation changes as we mature. Where once we compared our lives with the works we read, we now — as our own lives become cluttered with failed loves, office politics, medical emergencies, death of parents or worse, death of children, divorces, betrayals, remarriages, trips, arthritic knees and the recognition that a girl who knew all Dante once should live to bear children to a dunce — turn the whole transaction around: As we age, we in turn test the books we read against the truth of our own lives. Instead of questioning whether we measure up to the glory of our favorite books, we question whether the books measure up to the lives we lead.

It is at this point we can comfortably shed any naive idea of the importance of books and instead realize their genuine value. We give up the shadow for the substance.

For me, this includes the books that most vividly capture the whatness and nowness of the experience of being alive, and those books that most precisely and melodically use language to express fresh thought.

As I read, I rub the words between my fingers like a farmer squeezing the spring mud to see if the soil is dry enough to plow and sow. I value less that prose that deals in ideas qua idea, and more deeply appreciate that which can provide me the richness of touch, smell, sight and sound, give me the living thought of human life in all its variety and with the raw tender flesh of a recent wound.ulysses book cover

I find this in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Exhibit A. There are complaints that the book is “difficult,” although I cannot see any obstructing difficulty. I find the opening chapters some of the best-written and clearest prose in the English tongue. The so-called “experimental” stuff in ensuing chapters are only difficult if you refuse to surf through them a few times and upon re-re-reading, they become nothing more than a practiced set of chord changes you have mastered on a guitar. Hard at first, but eventually natural.joyce

And the world Joyce gives us is as true as any I’ve found between any covers anywhere.

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” This is not merely so descriptive that one can nearly taste the sauteed comestibles, but can do so most because of the sound of the words over the tongue, which is both the organ of language and of gustation. You practically chew the sentence as you speak it, before swallowing and digesting. Feel your cheeks, tongue and lips as you masticate those words.

“He liked the thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

The world as it is, not as you would have it.

I have also read and re-read many times his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is also full of crystal phrases and accurate observation.

Not so much for Finnegan’s Wake, which I cannot, for the life of trying, even enter, much less transcompass its periplus.

milton cameoThe only other writer I know whose words have such aural weight is John Milton, whose Paradise Lost creates worlds and psychologies that I can recognize in those craggy consonants and melodious vowels. Weigh them out in the index of your Bartletts and you find that none but Shakespeare and the King James Bible can best him for having gifted our mother language with so many memorable phrases so completely digested into the language that for most speakers, they have lost their roots. Milton is one of the inventors of our speech.

But it is the thrust of that language and its vivid imagery that keeps me coming back. I cannot help but weep uncontrollably every time I face those final pentameters:

“The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.

They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way.”

This is not theology: It is the reality we all face on becoming adults.auden

There are several poets whose words ring true rather than merely “poetic.” Wystan Auden is the most grown-up poet of the 20th century. There are no castles in his sky.

“I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn, 

Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”

Check the daily paper for reinforcement of this.

And William Yeats, laid to rest, is evermore my honored guest. Not merely for the girl who knew all Dante once, but for so many deeply wise poems scripted in such unforgettable language.yeats eyes closed

“But love has pitched his mansion

In the place of excrement.”

Or, in words that are closer to the bone than most any I have read:

“Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young, 

We loved each other and were ignorant.”

Oh, I want so much to go on. There are so many other books I want to list. When you have been reading for six decades, there are so many that you hold dear to your chest.

But I have tried your patience too long with this series of posts. Through them all I wanted, not merely to share which books have built a person out of me, but how they have done so, in hopes of helping you recognize the same in your own reading life. It is the larger issues that count, not the particular books, which will be different for each of us.ovid medieval

How could I have left off Tristram Shandy, the funniest book I have ever read, or Edward Gibbon, whose irony-drenched sentences pull long loads of dependent clauses and parenthetical complexities — such beautiful writing I cannot hope to approach — or Ovid, dear Ovid, whose Metamorphoses is one of the consoling books of my senescence, and that connects me once again to the long, continuous line of culture of which I am one minuscule link, and I see each writer through history as a flower that turns to fruit and then to seed that turns to seedling, to plant, to flower and to fruit all over again. Each flower like a mouth and each fruit like a word.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Faust reading
A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

My initial response was to laugh at myself, because my list would undoubtedly make me sound like a dusty old pedant. It would include a good number of the “right” or “great” works, but not because I wanted to sound learned, but because they are the ones that have touched me. I can’t help it; given a choice between John Milton and Jonathan Franzen, I will always choose Milton — with no calumny directed at Franzen: It is merely my pleasure. And I mean pleasure.paradise lost

My old newspaper deskmate, Kerry Lengel, who is a very good writer, used to laugh at me because I would wax eloquent about how much I enjoyed reading Paradise Lost. He couldn’t imagine anyone actually enjoying that dense verbiage. But I was genuine about it. Milton gives me tremendous pleasure. I read it not for its theological import, but for its organ-tone language, which I can roll around on my tongue like a good, well-seasoned, well-aged piece of beef. Poetic umami. meat

But the request, sent out on the ether, did make me consider which books have meant the most to me. As we enter an age where printed matter goes the way of papyrus and clay tablets, I wonder at just how decisive have been the books that entered my life.

I don’t expect anyone to be absorbed by the fact that this or that book changed my life. My life is fairly banal. I certainly don’t expect anyone to run out and buy these books in hopes they might change their lives. But, I hope it might be interesting enough to see just how an anthill of tiny black marks on a page can affect the growth of a sensibility, and perhaps reading about it might give someone the urge to consider not merely which books most affected them, but how and why.

There are books we read with no more lasting effect than a sitcom we watch on TV. They are still worth reading, and they add to our experience of life, but they don’t leave lasting footprints. They make up the bulk of our reading.

There are books that we enjoy more than others and that we want to read and reread many times, and when we do, we discover the book itself has grown as we have grown and is completely different from the one we read as a callow youth. Rereading is one of life’s imperatives.

But beyond these, there are the fewer books that completely changed our way of regarding the world, changed our outlook, our philosophy, our very umwelt. They are the life-changing books and they stay under our skin like chiggers for a lifetime.

They are not necessarily the best books, but the ones that altered our lives. When we are children, they may very well be otherwise insignificant books that nevertheless opened our hearts and minds to things we knew not of.

As young adults, they are the books that removed the scales from our eyes, so that we emerged from our adolescent pupae into the brighter world.

As adults, they are the books that re-oriented us and the direction of our lives.

And as old age closes over, they are the books that remind us most powerfully of our connection to the eons.

I cannot winnow the list down to a mere 10. But I can give you a list divided into the different ages of life and how they helped me navigate into the present.

I will consider them over the next several blogs. First, though, I want to look at the books that ruled my childhood. “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.” the world we live in

In 1956, on my eighth birthday, my grandmother gave me a copy of Life magazine’s The World We Live In. I still have it, in its red leatherette binding, although with a few nicks in it. There is no book that more completely threads the boy I was with the man I became.

The chapters of the book — “The Earth is Born,” “The Miracle of the Sea,” “The Face of the Land,” “The Pageant of Life,” “The Starry Universe” — taught me the great variety of life on the planet, and, more important, the great time frame of the cosmos. It instilled in me — or reinforced what was already an inclination — a love for the things of this earth and conversely, though not actually an argument of the book, a mistrust of things merely “spiritual” or conceptual. I wanted to rub it between my fingers; to taste and smell it. dinosaur 2

The photos and illustrations of sea life, dinosaurs, and “The Woods of Home” became a catalog of those things I continue to hold in my cor cordiumall about dinosaurs

There were other books, too. All About Dinosaurs, by Roy Chapman Andrews, which fed my childhood fascination with the Mesozoic, and other in the “All About” series, each taking on some aspect of the natural world. There were the Golden Nature Guides, those tiny books on insects, weather, geology or weeds written or edited by Herbert S. Zim. golden guidesI have lost and rebought copies of most of them throughout my life. I still have about 25 of them, tucked away on my bookshelves, and I still take them out periodically and leaf through their simple illustrations — pictures that lit up my childhood from within.

One can see from the number of hits on Google that Zim bent many twigs for many young readers.

And there was Compton’s Picture Encyclopedia, an edition from the 1930s that our neighbor gave us.comptons It was filled with pictures of autogyros, streamlined trains and soldiers wearing puttees. It further reinforced a vision of the world that infinitely varied and multifarious. There was more to life, clearly, than the New Jersey suburbia I grew up in.

When I was a little older, my parents bought for me a young-adult novel, thinking that I might enjoy it. Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn’t really understand where my little brain was going. I thanked them, but told them outright, “I don’t like fiction; I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.”

Yes, I was an idiot, but who isn’t at that age. autogyros

The bottom line was that my childhood reading put me in touch with the physical world and its magnificent diversity. Even as an adult, I inclined (there is that word again) toward the “thingness” of the world, and later in life, that what Kant calls the “noumenon” can best be reached through awareness and connection with the physical presence of the world, rather than through words and mere ideas. In other words, poetry, not philosophy.

Yes, as the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.

NEXT: The maelstrom of adolescent reading

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

We all have our guilty pleasures. One of mine is the art of John Martin. Actually, I love all the various painters of hysteria and grandiosity, of vast Romantic and Baroque spaces, like the prisons of Piranesi and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

These incredible spaces — and I use the word “incredible” in its technical sense — are projections of the Romantic sensibility, that desire for transcendence and a grasping for the cosmic. And always, with the dark shade of annihilation lurking behind it.

There is a delightful strain of paranoia in the paintings of John Martin (1789-1854). It is that touch of insanity that makes his Romantic landscapes so, well, Romantic. He was known to many as ”Mad Martin.”

He certainly came by it honestly: His brother William called himself the ”philosophical conqueror of the universe” and wrote pamphlets that proved beyond question — to himself at any rate — that the prime element out of which everything in creation is made — is air.

His other brother, Jonathan, is known to history as the ”incendiary of Yorkminster,” after he set fire to Yorkminster Cathedral because of some presumed ecclesiastical insult.

The painter himself devised a vast plan to reform the sewer system of London and held patents on hundreds of inventions of questionable usefulness.

His one lasting invention was the steel mezzotint engraving. The copper and zinc plates used for etching and engraving made beautiful prints, but the edges of the engraved line wore down too soon to make the thousands of copies necessary to feed the growing mass media. Martin’s steel plates, while unable to take the fine and subtle detail of copper, lasted forever.

But fine and subtle weren’t in Martin’s vocabulary, anyway.

Of biblical proportions

Balshazzar's Feast

Balshazzar’s Feast

He specialized in biblical paintings that would make C.B. DeMille seem like a miniaturist in comparison. One painting of Balshazzar’s Feast (he painted several) includes a building 7 miles long.

You can tell, because he includes, among the hundreds of writhing figures, one man standing beside one of the columns in a gallery that extends nearly to the horizon line. If you take that figure, meant to provide scale, at 6 feet tall, you can extrapolate, via the rules of Renaissance perspective, the length of the building. At least, so Martin wrote. When I have tried to follow his directions, the measurements get snarled up in swirling mist and the diminution of distance. But I’ll take his word for it.

The Evening of the Deluge

The Evening of the Deluge

This weakness for gigantism is the defining quality of Martin’s art. Other titles bear this out: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon; The Fall of Ninevah; and trilogies on the themes of The Deluge and Last Judgment.

My favorite is his Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, in which the tiny, exhausted and naked figure of Sadak, in the bottom corner of the canvas, climbs the sublime precipice complete with waterfalls that make Angel Falls in South America look like a drinking fountain.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Martin’s best work is his series of steel mezzotints illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost. He had some trouble drawing figures, which are often awkward, even childish, but he had no trouble imagining and picturing the vastness of time and space. Satan, of course, is his Byronic hero.

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

Martin was enormously popular through the 1820s and ’30s — he was knighted by Leopold I of Belgium in 1833 — and small engraved versions of his huge paintings were as popular in England at the time as Taylor Swift posters are now. He became very wealthy, but lost most of his fortune on his sewer-improvement scheme.

Critical favor turned away from Martin by the time of his death, and a century after his peak fame, his canvases sold for as little as $10.

American landscapes by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran owe much of their sense of hysterical grandeur not merely to the scenery they painted — and exaggerated in the process — but to the Romanticism that inspired Martin. Cole, especially, admitted his debt to the Englishman and at times imitated him outright.

But Martin’s most familiar progeny are heavy-metal bands such as Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Slayer, AC/DC, Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse. There is the same obsession with death, Satan and the black arts. king kong 3

And that sense of dark, vast space, craggy rocks extending to the skies, and winking light back in the distance, was an inspiration to the makers of the original King Kong, too.

It is all driven by an adolescent understanding of what Longinus called ”the Sublime.”