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Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close. 

My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  

That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras. 

I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end. 

The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.) 

I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. 

The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man. 

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud. 

Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on. 

There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life. 

From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read. 

Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Shakespeare & Co., Paris

I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy. 

What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.

And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible. 

One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.

And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change. 

So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it. 

everymans-library-lede-pic

As I’ve become older, I have become less tolerant of badly-designed, -printed and or -bound books. When I was younger, often I didn’t really know the difference, or thought there was nothing I could do about it — I would just have to read whatever volume came to hand.

These days, however, if a book is the wrong size, has print too tiny, or margins to slender, or its binding cracks when opened too often, I simply put it aside and pick up another book.

It helps that the books I read are primarily classics — that is, books that come in various published versions. Best sellers tend to come only in the version their publishers produce, but when it comes to Lucretius or Melville, you can find a choice of version. You don’t have to put up with yellowing paper or brittle glued bindings.

I bring this up, because I have settled on a prodigy of good book production. The paper is acid free, the type is neither too small or too big, the ink is solidly black, the margins adequate for scribbling, the bindings tight and the covers covered in a beautiful linen. As a bonus, each book comes with its own ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. They are sold under the name Everyman’s Library and in the U.S. are an imprint of Knopf.modern-library-2

The current editions are not the same as the classic Everyman’s Library books that are the hidden treasure dug up in every excavation of a dusty old used bookstore in an off-the-way road in rural America. In the past, avid prospectors of used books to read (as opposed to the more modern perversion of seeking first-editions and rare books for a “collection” shown off to visitors and seldom actually read) would seek out Everyman’s books and their American equivalent, Modern Library books. They were cheap, well made and gave you access to all the classic novels and poetry you craved. You can still uncover Modern Library books on the swayback shelves of those bookstores, but some of them have actually become “collectible,” and therefore unaffordable.

everyman-old-style

everyman-old-style-stackThe original Everyman’s Library was devised in 1905 by J.M. Dent and Company in London, with the idea of creating a 1,000 book library of world literature affordable to the ordinary man (and woman). The books originally sold for a shilling apiece (roughly $5 in current U.S. dollars). The books were beautifully designed, in imitation of the books of the Kelmscott Press, and were pocket size and hard cover. I still own several titles, including the entire Spectator series written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, from the 18th century. Four volumes of enameled prose.

The current Everyman’s Library books are full size, with nice curved spines, clean linen hard covers, color coded by which century a book was written in, and offer more than 300 titles. They also produce a series of pocket-sized volumes of poetry that you can carry around with you without tearing open the corners of your jacket pockets.

The first of the new Everyman’s Library I became aware of was when I looked for a version of Tristram Shandy I could read. The one I had was a lousy paperback in dense print with insufficient leading between lines. It was an offset print version poorly inked, meaning the letters often grayed out on the yellowed pages. Pfui. But I found a used copy of the Everyman’s Library version and it was as if the sun shone from behind the clouds and the angels’ sang. I read it cover to cover, enjoyed the hell out of it and realized how much the book design helped me navigate it.

library-of-america-shelf

There is another excellent series of books published as the Library of America, which reprints American classics in beautiful editions. Compared with the Everyman’s Library, the Library of America suffers from slightly smaller type and thinner paper. They are excellently edited and offer many tomes not even available elsewhere (such as William Bartram’s Travels and Francis Parkman’s histories). As I gaze to my left at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my office, I count 49 Library of America book spines. I seek them out in used bookstores to save a few bucks — another advantage of the Everyman’s Library books is that, while they are no longer a shilling apiece, they do run an average of a third less than the Library of America offerings.

best-of-wodehouse-coverI bring all this up because I am presently reading the Everyman’s Library edition of P.G. Wodehouse. It is 840 pages of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Blandings Castle and Mr. Mulliner in prose as frothy as the foam above a double latte. Friends who know me well knot their eyebrows and wonder what’s going on with Nilsen. Where is the man who would rather collate translations of Vergil than dive into a chocolate sundae?

As it turns out, one needs some balance in a life. As I consider my recent reading history I see the obvious pattern. After diving deep (and I mean deep) into Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, I needed to blow off the louring clouds, and took on John Updike’s Bech books — collected, as it turned out, in an Everyman’s Library volume. Enjoyed the heck out of them.

After that I took on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It is three giant volumes long of depression, depravity, injustice, sadism and totalitarianism. I got through the first volume and a half before I had to put it down for a spell. In the interim, I took up Jean Renoir’s memoir of his father. It was a joy to read. I am not a big fan of Pierre Auguste’s paintings, but his son is an excellent writer and I came to value Renoir pere as a man, even if the book didn’t change my thinking about him as an artist.

It felt like diving into the sea, coming up for air, diving down once again, and coming up into the sunlight for relief.

After Renoir, I got back into the Gulag, but soon needed more oxygen, so before I even finished Vol. 2, I headed off to reread Melville’s I and My Chimney — my favorite of his Piazza Tales, and then into A Mencken Chrestomathy, for a good draught of cynicism and cold water before returning to the Solzhenitsyn. But I got sidetracked by another Everyman’s Library book: The Book of Common Prayer.

I don’t know if it was the recent election or what, but I felt I needed the cleansing of some very pure language. You may ask, why would a hardened atheist decide to read Thomas Cranmer’s iconic prayer book? It certainly wasn’t for the theology; it was for the words, so familiar to us, speaking to us of hundreds of years of linguistic tradition, a source of all we take as serious and dignified in the English language. It is hard to turn the page and not find some phrase that is our mother tongue’s subconscious. There is comfort in those cadences.

After that, I took on D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico. I enjoy his travel books more than his fiction. He is one odd fellow, idiosyncratic, often wrong-headed in the extreme, but always fun to read.

Other palate-cleansers I have dipped into include Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

war-and-peaceWhen I have done with Wodehouse, the next in the queue is War and Peace. It is a book that if I were to go to a Roman Catholic confession, I would have to admit, “Father forgive me, for I have sinned. I have never read War and Peace.” I know it is on the list of books that one should have read, but although I had begun the thing several times over the years, I had never found a volume comfortable enough to read. The thing is immense. One version I bought came with a complimentary hydraulic lift to help lug it around.

Then I discovered the Everyman’s Library edition — in three easily handled volumes, breaking up the density into digestible bits. It comes in its own box, with small wheels attached to help roll it around. (Actually, I’m making up the wheels, but it does have its own box.)

It sits there staring at me, waiting for me to finish with Bertie Wooster and challenging me with Pierre Bezukhov. If I make it through — like trudging from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok — I will find something a little lighter to serve as a sherbet dessert before taking up Vol. 3 of the Gulag.

The New York Times runs a feature in its book section called “By the Book,” where famous authors are asked a set of questions. The Times will never get around to me, so I decided I needed to ask myself these standard questions.

Gulag 2

Question: What books are currently on your nightstand?

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1974Answer: I am about 70 pages into the second volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. There are three volumes; I fear my nightstand may collapse. Not only for the weight of the books — they are real doorstops — but for the sagging heaviness of its content. For some reason, I have an unquenchable thirst for validation of my pessimism, for a dim view of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind, and likewise a depressing recognition of the tiny flame of idealism that refuses to be extinguished. I wish I could get rid of it. It always breaks my heart.

Q: That’s fine for your nightstand, but what book are you currently reading?

DublinersCaught me. Yes, I’m 70 pages in to Vol. 2 of the Solzhenitsyn, but it was so depressing, I needed to take a short break. So, I am now finishing up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Turns out it’s nearly as depressing. I’ll be getting back to the Russian as soon as I’m done with the Irishman.

Q: What was the last great book you read?

A: That’s a tough question to answer, because you have to decide where to set the bar. Does the Solzhenitsyn count, even though I’m not finished? Before that, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. But that is for content, not for style (nothing wrong with his prose, but that’s not the reason for picking up that depressing book). Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is one of the best translations I have ever read. I just finished rereading it (again). I read all three of John Updike’s Bech books and reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which I first read in high school when it first came out. But if you mean really great, like Moby Dick or Proust, then I will up the ante, if you want great, the greatest book I have ever read is Homer’s Iliad. How can it be that the first book in our culture is also the greatest? I reread it once a year.

Q: What book did you hate reading as a child?

A: Hands down: I was required in 8th grade to read Oliver Twist. I hated it. I hated, hated, hated it. The teacher had picked out a book she thought each student would most enjoy and I got saddled with Dickens. I don’t know what she saw in me that thought I would enjoy reading a Victorian novel, but it has ruined me for life, not just for Dickens, who I still cannot bear, but for all Victorian literature. The fault is not in the books, but in myself. I grant that. But I feel like I’m chewing an old mattress when I try once more.

Q: Disappointed, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

ogden nashA: We are all inclined to favor certain styles and epochs and to fail to appreciate others. I have never been able to stand Virgil’s Aeneid. It feels completely stiff and academic to me, too literary, too contrived, artificial. I have tried to read many different translations, hoping to find one I could stomach, but so far … no. As for not finishing, I came across a used set of the complete works of Ogden Nash. I so looked forward to wallowing in his wit. Lightweight, yes, but clever. At least, so I thought. Turns out, all the great bits he wrote are already anthologized to death and the stuff that you don’t already know — it turns out there’s a reason you don’t know it. Pedestrian, dull, dated, trying too hard, puerile, or contorted beyond enjoyment. I couldn’t finish it. I’ll keep to the good verses I already know.

Q: What do you read for fun?

brian lambA: My wife makes fun of me by calling me “the man who can’t have fun.” She means I’m always in some serious book of history, or the classics. She means that on weekends, I watch C-Span. (There are some very few beings in this world whose utter humanity and service to humankind recommends them for sainthood and among them I place the Dalai Lama, David Attenborough and Brian Lamb). My wife wants me to go see some popular movie or wear a funny hat for a costume party, and I just cannot get any pleasure from such things. I dread state fairs and Renaissance festivals. Shoot me if you ever see me at a karaoke bar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fun. It’s just that my definition of fun is different from hers. I get the greatest pleasure from listening to Bach or Schoenberg, reading John Milton, viewing films by Tarkovsky and rereading Ovid one more time. I can’t help it. I’m not pretending, or trying to make myself sound more brainy; these are the things I genuinely enjoy. I do them for pleasure. Utter pleasure.

Q: All the time? Really?

A: Well, my wife and I share an enjoyment watching British detective series on TV. American cop shows are too violent for our tastes, and the crimes are always by serial killers, drug kingpins or terrorists. The British series tend to focus on the more mundane crimes we are all more likely to encounter in life, crimes of jealousy, greed, anger. And the British series  often bypass the actual murder, joining the story as the body is found. We love them all, from the wimpiest to the grittiest. Unfortunately, between the two of us, we have defused too many of these mysteries by discovering the most successful trick in fingering the guilty party, and it has nothing to do with clues. It is a metalogic method: Just look for what we call “the unnecessary character,” the supererogatory person in the story — an extra sister not otherwise needed, a solicitor outside the main story, an ex-boyfriend or a retired cop, dragged into the story for reasons not otherwise clear. The unnecessary person rarely fails us.

Q: But this is about books. Do you read mysteries, too?

Bruno CremerA: Sort of. I’m addicted to Maigret books. Whenever I have to decompress from reading more about genocide in Eastern Europe, I pop open another Maigret. But properly speaking, they aren’t mysteries. We often know who the culprit is early in the book. Instead, they are novels about crime, and Georges Simenon fills the pages with vivid characters, drawn in three dimensions. There is little of the piling up of clues and gathering people together at the end to ferret out the killer. Instead, the same books could probably have been written without the crime at all, as perhaps love stories or travel books. I love Simenon as a writer. By the way, we have the DVDs of all the Bruno Cremer Maigret episodes and the British version with Michael Gambon. Watched them all multiple times.

Q: What books give you the most pleasure in the reading?

A: And the re-reading. There are a handful of books I can read over and over and always give me pleasure, not so much in the storytelling — since I already know how it comes out — but in the words. The words, words, words. Certain writers just make my mouth water with the words they use, the metaphorical and playful use they make of them. If I were to make a list of, say, the top five books that give me utter, ecstatic pleasure, they would be: 1. Tristram Shandy; 2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; 3. Paradise Lost; 4. Joyce’s Ulysses; and 5. The Iliad. I cannot get enough of all of them. Oh, and I have to add Chaucer; can’t leave him off. And Moby Dick. Jeez, I love that book. I cannot limit it to five. How could I leave off Ovid’s Metamorphoses?

Q: What books most influenced you as a writer?

Herman MelvilleA: So many people were influenced by Hemingway. I was not. Instead, I loved the long, baroque sentences and richly figurative language of Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, image piled on image with a profuse fertility, leaving me, as a reader, feeling like I was being pulled one way and then another by breakers at the beach. Oddly, I often read secondary works before moving on to the main course. I read all of Melville’s short stories, including Benito Cereno and Billy Budd, before I ever finished Moby Dick. Perhaps because I loved the opening chapter of Moby Dick so much, every time I put the book down and picked it up again, I started from the beginning. I must have read “Loomings” a hundred times before finally moving on to the rest. The other great influence was Henry Miller, not for the obscenity, but for the torrent of words, the forward motion of the narration in such books as Plexus, Tropic of Capricorn and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ve since left Miller behind, but he was a great ignition flame.

Q: Which writers writing today — novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, critics — do you admire most?

A: I am not being disingenuous when I say my favorite living poet is my wife, Carole Steele, whose book, Rust Sings, is full of life and great lines. And I always open my New Yorker to its final pages looking for Anthony Lane.

Q:  What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?

Laurence_Sterne_by_Sir_Joshua_ReynoldsA: First, it would have to be an author in English. I can’t speak ancient Greek. There are some that come to mind, but I’m not sure I really want to know them: Nabokov is too waspish; Faulkner too inebriated; Gibbon too erudite. I go through a list and realize most authors I would rather read than meet. But there is one I would love to spend a lazy afternoon with, talking and making jokes and maybe commiserating a bit — Laurence Sterne. We could share a beer easily. What would I want to know? Not a thing; let’s just talk.

Q: What is your favorite word?

A: We’ve made a pivot (Bernard) in this Q&A, haven’t we. What’s the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page? Not “elbow,” not for me, though it is a fine word. No, I like “smudge,” or perhaps “caliper,” which on the page has both an ascender and a descender, which makes it a good word to compare typefaces with. Really, I can’t pick one word. How does a mother choose among her children? Not possible.

Q: What is your favorite curse word?

A: I rarely curse, which makes it more effective when I do.

Q: If a movie were to be made from your life, who should play you?

michel simon 1A: Ideally, Jean Gabin, but more realistically, Michel Simon.

Q: What sound or noise do you love?

The squall of thousands of Canada geese in a pond and flying overhead. A noise most people find excruciating, but in me, it brings forth the swelling of my chest and the tears one sheds faced with ultimate beauty.

Q: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

A: “Don’t unpack, we’re sending you back for another round.”

RW ca 1975When I was young and just out of college, my ambition was simple: to know everything. I mean, to read and study, and do, and finally to be able to put together all the pieces into a single grand scheme: My own unified field theory. I was not daft, I knew at the time this was an impossibility, but I thought as a goal, it was at least a starting place.

peterson guideOthers in my graduating class had more specific goals — to become a doctor or lawyer or research scientist. Such goals required focus and specialization. They would have to learn all they could about law or medicine or pigeon behavior, but I would be purposely unfocused. I wanted to take in the whole horizon. I collected Peterson guides to learn the names and calls of all the birds, the names of trees and wildflowers. I read all the poetry I could find and all the history, too. Ancient, modern and otherwise. I had books on physics and astronomy, and I listened to all kinds of music and learned to read scores. I was in pig heaven.

encyclopedia brownDo not laugh. Of course this was all silly. But when you are young, you are an idiot. I was no exception, in fact, I was probably the the very model of youthful and ignorant assurance. It helped that I had a retentive memory. Or as I now put it: Facts stick because my brain is gummy. I developed something of a reputation, both as a know-it-all, and as “Encyclopedia Brown.” One girlfriend used to make spare cash by betting her coworkers that when I came to pick her up after work, that I would be able to answer a question they thought they could stump me with. “Who was the first secretary-general of the U.N?” “Trygve Lie,” I would say, and money would change hands.

These were sparse years: With no specialization, it was hard to find a meaningful job. I didn’t much care, as long as I had enough money to feed myself and rent a garret apartment. Recreational reading included the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. I was a vacuum cleaner.

I do not know where this drive to learn came from, but I have always had it. Others may learn for reasons of usefulness; I never thought about the pragmatic aspects of knowledge: The learning was the end itself. More, more, I wanted more.

You might point out that a vast accumulation of fact is not really erudition, and that merely knowing bits of fact confetti is not the same as understanding or wisdom. For me, back then, that was beside the point. I wasn’t concerned with wisdom, I just wanted to know everything.

I was lucky, I didn’t have to live with me. I’m sure I drove people nuts with my Cliff Clavin act.

Audubon's Mockingbird

Audubon’s Mockingbird

Time passes and it is now 50 years since I first entered college and took up the study of ancient Greek and the poetry of Chaucer. My memory is no longer so acute. I cannot always bring up the name of the Duchesnea indica or the Mimus polyglottos. But in the long course of years, I have absorbed so much minutiae that it has all transmuted into something else. I cannot call it wisdom; I’m still an idiot. But, at 68, I have accumulated so much experience, I have a very different perspective. The simple enthusiasms of youth have given way to the calmer, chastened complexities of a life both illuminated and deflated. I have no wisdom to impart, but I have observations.

RW at 67In the past, people talked about the wisdom of old age, but now that I am there, I know it isn’t wisdom, it is only the result of long years of witnessing human folly, of many, many head-buttings with the harder facts of existence, and having built up a vast treasury of our own personal mistakes, misunderstandings and imbecilities.

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and each originally came with a short explanation. After the first movement, the remaining ones are: “What the meadow flowers tell me,” “What the forest animals tell me,” “What Man tells me,” “What the angels tell me,” and finally, “What love tells me.” It is clear that no single one of these is sufficient in itself, but the whole presumes all. No single truth suffices.

I hope to present in the next several weeks my humble version of what Gustav loaded into his symphony. The things I have come to understand over nearly seven decades of breathing, seeing, tasting, feeling, dancing, hurting (both transitive and intransitive), and finally coming to some glimpse of loving.

University professors, if they have reached some level of eminence, are occasionally asked to prepare a “last lecture,” which subsumes all the most important lessons they have to give. This is a lecture that cuts through all the burly detail to undiscover the essence of what those details outline.

Me lecturingIt may seem the height of hubris to attempt such a “last lecture,” when I am not a tenured faculty member at an Ivy League academy, and make no claim to exceptional brilliance or wisdom, but the fact is that anyone who lives long enough has a longer view, and sees things differently from when youth fills us with self-righteousness and certainty.

Nor is this one of those inspirational harangues. I am not Mitch Albom and I am not dying immanently, like Randy Pausch. I do not expect to teach you how to be a “better” human being, or to make the world a better place, or disclose the secrets of a happier life. My goal is merely to see a little more clearly and to attempt to make sense of what cannot be made sense of.

In short outline, I have maybe 10 or a dozen themes to fill out, which I hope to do in the next few weeks in this blog spot. It is a challenge I have set myself. Have I learned anything?

gibbon decline and fall horizAs a now former and once long-time member of the Society of Professional Journalists, I was taught — indeed, had it drummed into me — that the best prose style was invisible, that it disappeared like window glass, letting the matter and substance of what was being written be transmitted from one mind to the other effortlessly, almost telepathically, as if it had no need of linguistic intercessor. One should never notice that there were words — black tadpoles — darting across the white expanse of page.

Yet, that was never how I felt in my deep heart’s core. I came to writing through love of reading, and that which I loved to read were words that gave me pleasure in the reading. Certainly, the stories being told carried their own power, and the ideas expressed fertilized and pruned my own ever-growing and expanding sensibility. But for utter pleasure, it was the words. I enjoyed writers who used those words and fashioned elegant sentences with a joyful abandon. I loved those sentences that could fill out a printed page with dependent clauses, semicolons and parenthetical interpolations. Hemingway made a distinction between those writers who were “taker-outers” and those who were “puter-inners.” My heart always went lost to the puter-inners, the piler-on-ers, the expanders and expatiators. I frequently crack a book not for what it has to tell me but for its way of telling it, for its personality, its sparkle.

Until recently, for instance, the New Yorker magazine had two primary and alternating film critics. One — David Denby, who recently retired from the ring — was a sober and thoughtful critic, whose judgment I valued, and whose taste was undeniably similar to my own. I could trust his opinion when I meant to put down my peso for a ticket. But the other — Anthony Lane — gave me joy in the reading. Each week, when the magazine materialized in my mailbox, I opened to the final pages to see who was writing. If Denby, my heart sank a little, not because he was a bad writer, he wasn’t — he was actually a very clear and intelligent crafter of words — but because Lane’s reviews, even when espousing views antithetical to my own, sparkled with wit and inventive phrases; the page bubbled. I looked to Denby for discernment and taste; what I got from Lane was a kind of naughty tickle to my brain, as if he were sharing some ripe piece of villainous gossip. I learned a lot from my schoolmasters, too, but I loved going to the amusement park.

Or, consider author Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to writers, where he warns them away from what Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle:”

“Rule No. 10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the characters head, and the reader either knows what the guys thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

This is all well and good for Elmore Leonard, who wants to make the reader turn the page, as if the last one were worthless, but maybe there was gold in the next. And that is fine for a certain kind of book. It reminds me of the advice given by film director Sam Fuller, when asked what makes a good movie.

“A story,” he said, with a cigar in his teeth.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story.”

But it isn’t the story that gives me the pleasure I seek, it is the hooptedoodle.

Here are a dozen of the books that satisfy my addiction to hooptedoodle, the books I return to over and over just for the sybaritic enjoyment of chewing over their words, gurgling their wine on my palate as I suck in a bit of air to pick up the notes of wood and chocolate, words I can inhale and breathe out like the curl of smoke from a good cigar. I recommend them to you.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


gibbonThis monumental tome, in six volumes, follows its subject with intense scholarship. Gibbon had read all the sources, so that we don’t have to. After all, how much Procopius or Irenaeus have you actually imbibed? But it isn’t the history itself that propels the work, it is Gibbon’s propulsive prose, a piling on of detail and irony that keeps me buried in the pages. I can pick up a volume and dip into it at any point and come away with a full belly. Such wonderful, rich, cream-filled sentences:

“If a man were called to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”gibbon decline and fall

It is Gibbon’s theme that the empire fell because it embraced Christianity. He reaches for his highest caliber irony when discussing what he calls its “superstition.” And although he lives in an age of an established church in England, when everyone was nominally pious, he uses his irony to express what he felt he could not say outright. About the claim of miracles, and of resurrection:

“But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even preternatural kind can no longer occasion any surprise, when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event: that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterward, amongst them many years. At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy and promised Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, that, if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge.”

As the Duke of Gloucester said when the author presented him with a copy, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

nabokovA wicked and malicious book, all verbal skyrockets and Roman candles, there is no more sustained example of literary pyrotechnics in English in the 20th century (the requirement for English disqualifies Finnegans Wake). It tells the story of the nympholept and child molester Humbert Humbert in his own words, which drip with irony from start to finish, yet with a second layer of irony underneath, provided by Nabokov. Humbert freely admits his crime, with charm and erudition, but Nabokov lets us know that however forthcoming Humbert seems to be, there is an imposture in self-revelation. All in virtuoso prose: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he says.

There is misogyny and misanthropy in Humbert, which you can read in his description of a dalliance he has with another amour, Rita:nabokov lolita

“She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, an angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure to her supple back — I think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood.”

“She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.” 

“When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband — and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant — and others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was — and no doubt still is — a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and booster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never enter great little Grainball City.”

A little later:

“Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

joyceJoyce has a reputation for being difficult, but when he wants to be clear, there is no better stylist in the English language. His prose is clear and direct and redolent of the things of this world. If I were to choose a single sentence (or two) that sums up everything I love most in a book, it would be:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

joyce ulyssesBut he can make dire fun of his other protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, and the way the scholar can drown in Aquinian scholasticism. Going down for the third time, Daedalus says:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: At least that if no more, though through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not, a door. Shut your eyes and see.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

melvilleThere is no more perfect example of the “putter-inner” than Melville. He expands; he exfoliates; he swells with words on words. I love his best work like little else in American literature. I can reread I and my Chimney or Bartleby or The Piazza or Benito Cereno over and over again, sucking up the juices. But it is Moby Dick that is the champ. I had trouble reading it at first, not because I found it hard going — quite the opposite — but because I loved its opening chapter so much that each time I picked it up, I found myself not reading where I had left off, but starting anew each time with “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read the first chapter a hundred times before I managed to break through and get to the end.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. melville moby dickThis is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

The pith of the book can be found in Ahab’s description of his hatred of the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq.

sterneThis must be the funniest book in the English language. Sterne manages to make fun of the human condition without ever seeming mean about it. There is a gentleness to it, even when he is close to obscene, as when he opens the book with the very moment of conception for its hero, and the discomfiting dialog between his mother and father at the moment of ejaculation:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost; — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me. sterne tristram shandy— Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?”

 James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

ageeWhile ostensibly, this is a book about white tenant farmers in Alabama in the 1930s, it is almost more about Agee’s guilt over the fact that he is using their misery to make a book, and his empathy for their condition, and his righteous insistence on not falling back on stereotypes and formulae, but to get it absolutely right, to be absolutely accurate, which leads him to vast circumlocutions as he tries to find just the right words.

It is a very hard book to describe, so unlike anything else in the literature, and must be taken in long draughts to get the real flavor of it. Short quotes will not do.

A long section describes him late at night in the Gudger cabin, fretting over his relationship with them. He describes the lamplight and the bare wooden walls, all in minute detail, so we don’t too easily generalize, which, he feels would be a lie. All the while, on the other side of that wall the family sleeps, husband, wife, sister-in-law and four children. agee let us now praise

“.. and there lie sleeping, on two iron beds and on pallets on the floor, a man and his wife and her sister and four children, a girl and three harmed boys. Their lamp is out, their light is done this long while, and not in a long while has any one of them made a sound. Not even straining, can I hear their breathing: rather I have a not quite sensuous knowledge of a sort of suspiration, less breathing than that indiscernible drawing-in of heaven by which plants live, and thus I know they rest and the profundity of their tiredness, as if I were in each one of these seven bodies whose sleeping I can almost touch through this wall, and which in the darkness I so clearly see, with the whole touch and weight of my body: George’s red body, already a little squat with the burden of thirty years, knotted like oakwood, in its clean white cotton summer union suit that it sleeps in; and his wife’s beside him, Annie Mae’s, slender, and sharpened through with bone, that ten years past must have had such a beauty, and now is veined at the breast, and the skin of the breast translucent, delicately shriveled, and blue, and she and her sister Emma are in plain cotton shirts; and the body of Emma, her sister, strong, thick and wide, tall, the breasts set wide and high, shallow and round, not yet those of a full woman, the legs long thick and strong; …”

It goes on. Nothing is easily said in this book; it is all tortured and parsed: allie mae for agee

“The Gudgers’ house, being young, only eight years old, smells a little dryer and cleaner, and more distinctly of its wood, than an average white tenant house, and it has also a certain odor I have never found in other such houses: aside from these sharp yet slight subtleties, it has the odor or odors which are classical in every thoroughly poor white southern country house, and by which such a house could be identified blindfold in any part of the world, among no matter what other odors. It is compacted of many odors and made into one, which is very thin and light on the air, and more subtle that it can seem in analysis, yet very sharply and constantly noticeable. These are its ingredients. The odor of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung, or stored away, not washed. I should further describe the odor of corn: in sweat or on the teeth, and breath, when it is eaten as much as they eat it, it is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor, to which the nearest parallel is the odor of the yellow excrement of a baby. All these odors as I have said are so combined into one that they are all and always present in balance, not at all heavy, yet so searching that all fabrics of bedding and clothes are saturated with them and so clinging that they stand softly out of the fibers of newly laundered clothes. Some of their components are extremely ‘pleasant,’ some are ‘unpleasant’; their sum total has great nostalgic power.”

Mickey Spillane, The Big Kill

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Mickey Spillane said he didn’t have readers, he had customers. “The first page sells the book,” he said, “the last page sells the next book.”spillane the big kill

But there is a vigor in his prose, tinged with kitsch, for sure, but still vivid in the extreme. You could find examples in almost any of the books, but this is from The Big Kill:

“It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world.
The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.

Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot. One of the drunks wanted to dance and she gave him a shove. So he danced with the other drunk.

She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.”

Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

If there were ever an author who required you to have a dictionary beside your reading table, it was Durrell. He would choose “pegamoid” and “objurgation,” as a dare. In his books, language is the readers’ usufruct, somewhere in the banlieus of usage. durrell justine

The Alexandria Quartet are four novels that tell the same story, each from the point of view of a different actor. We find out that no one really understands what is happening, but it is happening in Alexandria, Egypt, and is populated by espionage, love-sickness, sex and camels. Durrell’s prose is as perfumed as it comes, and the books, as a unit, are perhaps best read when the reader is still young; older, you have less patience for the exoticism and the verbal barnacles crusting the pages. I love it.

I’ll give only a short tasting, from the last volume, Clea:

“The whole quarter lay drowsing in the umbrageous violet of approaching nightfall. A sky of palpitating velours which was cut into the stark flare of a thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig Street, that night, like a velvet rind. Only the lighted tips of the minarets rose above it in their slender invisible stalks — appeared hanging suspended in the sky; trembling slightly with the haze as if about to expand their hoods like cobras.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

thoreauThoreau mixed ancient Greek writers with agronomy; no philosopher had so much to say about beans since Pythagoras. What elevates his style is a mixture of close observation with nature and the ability to fly, like Icarus, up to the heavens in vast sweeps of inspired hooha. Metaphors grow like weeds in his paragraphs, and we are all the richer for it. There is something Shakespearean about his means of expression: A rich overflowing of imagery, mixed, we might say, like a salad, and unpruned like a feral apple tree. He simply can’t stop making new metaphors:

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“That’s not writing, that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. But there is power in it. Kerouac set out across the country in the late 1940s, with peanut butter sandwiches and a part-of-the-way bus ticket. He ended up a sorry, alcoholic travesty, ruined by the popular image of the beatnik. kerouacBut his book is better than that. Even if he sometimes forgets Elmore Leonard’s Fifth Rule of Good Writing: “Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, Dean said, was exactly like Rollo Greb. Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socket it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play is chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat. These were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial.”

H.L. Mencken, Prejudices, Series I-VI

menckenMy personal hero, Mencken was a sour old pessimist, a journalist through and through, who never let sentiment cloud his prejudice. Almost anything he wrote is worth reading, not so much for the ideas therein, which are sometimes lamentable, but for the vigor and spark of their saying. I can read his work endlessly, like eating popcorn or Fritos, and never get tired of it.

“Of all forms of the uplift, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music. The theory behind it is that a taste for music is an elevating passion, and that if the great masses of the plain people could be inoculated with it they would cease to herd into the moving-picture theaters, or to listen to Socialists, or to beat their wives and children. The defect in this theory lies in the fact that such a taste, granting it to be elevating, simply cannot be implanted. Either it is born in a man or it is not born in him. If it is, then he will get gratification for it at whatever cost — he will hear music if hell freezes over. But if it isn’t, then no amount of education will ever change him — he will remain stone deaf until the last sad scene on the gallows.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

burton 2Finally, there is Robert Burton (1577-1640), the great magpie of English literature, who put everything he could stuff into his one big book. It purports to be about melancholy — depression, as we know it — but really, it has no boundaries. Burton cannot say something once, but must, like Walt Whitman in his cataloguing mania, say it three, four, five times over, in slightly varying phraseology, just to make his point, to emphasize it, to make it clear, to ram it home, to buttonhole you and make sure you have got it.

This is a particularly juicy section, in which he discusses sex and the contemptus mundi of the sallow-skinned blue-stockings that in our own day, as much as in his, make our lives less gaudy and fleshy.

“Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a Bachelor myself, and lead a Monastick life in a College. I am truly a very unfit person to talk about these subjects, I confess ‘tis an indecorum and as Pallas, a Virgin, blushed, when Jupiter by chance spake of Love matters in her presence and turned away her face, I will check myself; though my subject necessarily require it, I will say no more.

burton anatomyAnd yet I must and will say something more, add a word or two on behalf of Maids and Widows, in favour of all such distressed parties, in commiseration of their present estate. And as I cannot choose but condole their mishap that labour of this infirmity, and are destitute of help in this case, so must I needs inveigh against them that are in fault, more than manifest causes, and as bitterly tax those tyrannizing pseudo-politicians’ superstitious orders, rash vows, hard-hearted parents, guardians, unnatural friends, allies, (call them how you will), those careless and stupid overseers, that, out of worldly respects, covetousness, supine negligence, their own private ends, (because, meanwhile, it is well for him), can so severely reject stubbornly neglect and impiously contemn, without all remorse and pity the tears, sighs, groans, and grievous miseries, of such poor souls committed to their charge. How odious and abominable are those superstitious and rash vows of Popish Monasteries, so to bind and enforce men and women to vow virginity, to lead a single life against the laws of nature, opposite to religion, policy and humanity, so to starve, to offer violence to, to suppress the vigour of youth! by rigourous statutes, severe laws, vain persuasions, to debar them of that to which by their innate temperature they are so furiously inclined, urgently carried, and sometimes precipitated, even irresistibly led, to the prejudice of their souls’ health, and good estate of body and mind! and all for base and private respects, to maintain their gross superstition, to enrich themselves and their territories, as they falsely suppose, by hindering some marriages, that the world be not full of beggars, and their parishes pestered with orphans! Stupid politicians!

Stupid politicians, indeed!

 

 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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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.”

flaxman

As I get older, so do the books I find most congenial.

I admit I’ve always been something of an old pedant and have always spent more time with what other people have called “serious” books rather than best-sellers or recent worthies. But age has only exaggerated this tendency.
wright moon 2

Perhaps it is because as I’ve gotten older, the distance between the old tomes and the present seems shorter and shorter, almost to the point of disappearing.

For many readers, such books as the Iliad or Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem incredibly distant, in a past that is so vastly divorced from the concerns of today that they question the relevance. But for me, the space between then and now has become compressed and it is in those old authors that I find an urgency and relevance unmatched.

I am now 66 years old — two thirds of a century. It is a time that has passed as swiftly as an eyeblink. I was a boy last Tuesday. My grandmother used to say, with some amazement and some pride that she was born before the Wright Brothers’ flight and lived to see the moon landing. This is a personal, internal sense of history. It is increasingly the way I see the past. yardstick

If I measure the time between now and my birth, and take it as a yardstick, I can get a sense of the it. jesse james

Sixty-six years from my birth is now; 66 years before my birth was the year Jesse James was shot dead — 1882. If I flip my yardstick over one length down the timeline from that, I arrive at 1816, the year Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. One more flip of the yardstick and I’m at 1750, the year Johann Sebastian Bach died. That is, I’m only three lifetimes — three very short, skipping lifetimes from Bach and those last unfinished measures of The Art of the Fugue.

I could keep flipping the yardstick to measure the years before: 1684, 1618, 1552, 1486, 1420, 1354, etc. And I discover it takes only 30 copies of my life before I’m face to face with Caesar Augustus. Only 42 lifetimes and I’m sitting there with Homer. Forty-two of my own short lifetimes — not enough to fill a bus. So, you see, the past increasingly does not feel long ago, does not feel alien, does not feel irrelevant. It feels contiguous. I can measure it all out in lifespans I can imagine and visualize it in a way impossible with the more Saganesque “billions and billions” of the cosmos.

Heck, I can take that yardstick back far enough to see them painting the caves at Lascaux and I haven’t even filled up a jumbo-jet.

World War II ended three years before I was born; it is fresh in my culture’s memory and a constant in television documentaries. Troy fell three millennia ago and it hardly seems any different to me. It is all connected and I feel the fibers of my blood and sinew in the pulse of history.

So, the paroxysms of current events, which feel so dire to those younger than me, feel like familiar blips when taken in the long view. I do not know if we will survive them, but chances are we will. And even the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur or the beheadings by Islamists seem merely familiar excrescenses of an eternal human tendency, and in fact pale compared not merely with the Shoah, but with the extermination of Native Americans, the pyramids of skulls left by Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, or the smiting of the Canaanites and Jebusites ordered by Jehovah (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). According to scientist and author Jared Diamond, it is possible that Neanderthals disappeared under just such a fatwah. skull pyramid

So, when I open Homer’s Iliad and find in its opening lines grief and the corpses of “so many fighters leaving their naked flesh to be devoured by dogs and vultures,” it is no more removed than Afghanistan or Gaza.

“Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

I am constantly amazed that the first book in the Western canon should never have been bested. The Iliad has a breadth of vision unmatched by anything else I am familiar with. It is always the first on my list.

homer bustHomer describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not just with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.

There is little so vivid as Homer’s description of battle. Yes, our modern understanding of war — at least those of us who have not been in it — has more to do with battalions and artillery, but even in modern warfare, the experience of it from the inside is personal: one human soldier and the chaos that threatens to erase him (or her) and the light that comes in through his eyes.

“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …

“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …

Tarantino is playing catch up.iliad mitchell

It isn’t merely the violence that is shown us, but the desires, the pity, the sorrows and the triumphs. I try and re-read the Iliad once a year, and each time in a different translation. Last year, it was Alexander Pope’s. This year, it is the recent one by Stephen Mitchell. I’ve read in past years, translations by Robert Fagles, Richmond Lattimore, Walter Benjamin Smith with Walter Miller (illustrated by the great Neoclassical designs of John Flaxman), and George Chapman.

(Of these, I recommend Fagles for first-timers. Chapman is rough sledding, despite the reputation Keats gave it in his sonnet.)

If I ever have to shrink my library down to something I can carry in a duffel, it would include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible and a Shakespeare.

Ah, but I would have to make room for a Milton, too.

NEXT: A grand finale