Sunday, May 30, 2004

Literary Theory

An interesting article in the TLS about French theory in America. It is a review of a book called French Theory by Francois Cusset. The book is about how French theory by the likes of Derrida, Foucault and others made its way into American Universities and took English departments by storm.

The coming of "French theory" to the United States is a story worth telling. The debarkation on American shores of such as Derrida and Foucault, Deleuze and Baudrillard, was not quite predictable. Here was a country that traditionally had no use for metaphysics--a country better known for producing pragmatism and legal realism as philosophical stances--suddenly succumbing to a Francophiliac mania for abstruse thought largely issuing from a tradition of European phenomenology little known in the US and expressed in a taxingly opaque idiom. To the cultural Right, it was clearly an invasion of body-snatchers, and the result was an American intelligentsia whose brains were rotted by the ideological equivalent of absinthe. In the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, deconstruction became a political target, a "spectre haunting American academia", according to a fundraising letter I received from one far-right cultural lobby. The very nature of teaching and scholarship, especially in the humanities, appeared to be threatened by these imports. A kind of cultural protectionism was called for, and a return to what William Bennett, when he was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, called "intellectual authority".
I had the pain and joy of a graduate theory seminar back in the day. It was something new and exciting at my public college in southern California. There were two professors who taught it and both were young. One of the professors had come to us from a big name university and rumors flew that the other college would not give him tenure because of the theory he taught. My college did. I tried to get into his class but ended up in the class of the other professor who had a reputation for being tough. And she was, but so was the material. It was difficult and exciting and forced us to think in ways that we never had before. It was the hardest class I ever took. And one of the most rewarding.
n a larger social context, the result was the culture wars of the 1980s and beyond (they still resonate today). When Bennett, ex his cathedra of the National Endowment for the Humanities, issued his manifesto To Reclaim a Legacy, in 1984, he preached a restoration of "intellectual authority". If the culture wars were not exclusively about theory, French or otherwise, theory nonetheless was at storm centre since it appeared to have subverted the claim that the humanities were the place of unchanging verities, a kind of high table of the best that could be thought and said in the world. The humanities, and particularly literary studies, had no need of theory, which was distracting students from the text. Shakespeare had been supplanted in the curriculum by Derrida. The National Association of Scholars was founded to "save" literature from the theorists.
I never felt distracted from the text or that it was forgotten. Theory provided a different way of looking at and thinking about a text. My professor was a post-structuralist firmly rooted in Foucault's camp, but she gave her students the freedom to make their own decisions and think for themselves, to challenge and question the theories and come up with their own. It was exhilarating and frightening. It made my brain hurt. But it taught me to think about literature and culture and being in ways that I would not have otherwise. Viva la France!

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Dumb with Fear

Montaigne's essay, "On Fear," is a meditation on the effects fear has on a person. Fear's main effect is to engender "even in the most staid of men a terrifying confusion." Fear is the emotion which "readily ravishes our judgement from its proper seat." It conjures up visions of werewolves and goblins and changes a flock of sheep into armoured knights. Fear can put "wings on our heels" and make us run faster both towards and away from the danger. It can make us run around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. And it can give a person strength enough to beat the odds. Armies can win battles when they are out numbered by the enemy and a mother can lift up an overturned car to release her child trapped beneath it in a accident. Fear "sometimes hobbles us and nails our feet to the ground" keeping us from acting at all. As a child I had a recurring nightmare that I was walking home from school when from behind me, Godzilla would appear, heading toward me and my house. I'd try to run both to escape and to warn everyone, but I always found my feet were stuck to the ground. Sometimes I'd be able to run but I wouldn't go anywhere, would find myself running in place with the monster getting closer and closer. I would always wake up from these dreams with my heart pounding and afraid to close my eyes and sleep again. In my waking hours I became scared my dream would come true, afraid that if a terrifying event ever happened I'd become so overwhelmed with fear that I would be unable to act. I no longer have the Godzilla dream, but I am still afraid of being overcome by fear. "It is fear that I am most afraid of," writes Montaigne. A sentiment echoed almost four hundred years later by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." These are thoughts that we should keep in mind today when the government issues vague warnings about terrorist attack plans and we are encouraged to spy on our neighbors, not for fodder for gossip, but because they could be a threat to homeland security.

People with a pressing fear of losing their property or of being driven into exile or enslaved also lose all desire to eat, drink or sleep, whereas those who are actually impoverished, banished or enslaved often enjoy life as much as anyone else. And many people, unable to withstand the stabbing pains of fear, have hanged themselves, drowned themselves or jumped to their deaths, showing us that fear is even more importunate and unbearable than death.
While I don't believe the poor or enslaved lead happy-go-lucky lives, I do think Montaigne has a point. The powerless and disenfranchised don't have as much to lose as those with power and property. It wasn't the nation's poor that jumped out of windows when the stock market crashed in 1929. You cannot live in fear of losing your house or job if you don't have either. Those with much to lose have much to fear whether it be a powerful corporate CEO or a powerful country. But sometimes a change of perspective is needed to discover that the things one fears losing the most are not necessarily the most valuable. Montaigne quotes Virgil's Aeneid:"I stood dumb with fear; my hair stood on end and my voice stuck in my throat." There are so many things in this world to be afraid of both large and small, valid and senseless. Sometimes we can do something about them and sometimes we can't. Fear is a part of life, but it is not life, nor should we be ruled by it. "Fear banishes all wisdom from my heart" (Cicero), and that is no way to live. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Drunkenness"

Friday, May 28, 2004


Posting last night was impossible due to the fact that my Beloved and I were busy watching Return of the King on DVD. We laughed, we cried we cheered. What more could you want from a movie? Now the wait is on for the extended edition. This version will get watched many times over before then with much discussion about what we hope gets added back in. I took the day off today from my paying job for an extra long Memorial Day weekend. I've spent all morning working on my non-paying job of writing. One of the things I am working on is research for an historical novel that takes place in Germany in 1585. There is torture in this novel. I planned to go to the library this afternoon to ask the librarian to help me find books on the history and methods of torture. I wanted pictures too, not of people being tortured, but of the devices like the rack and thumbscrews. Given the current political climate, I was a little nervous about asking for the information. Would a fellow patron overhear and think I was suspicious, my explanation that I am writing a novel lame? She doesn't look like a novelist, maybe she's a terrorist. Would the Feds then come knocking at my door asking questions? I asked my sister if she would vouch for me. She generously said no. Then she asked me why don't I look up the information on the Internet? That stopped me. What an idea. Research on the Internet. I am so biblio-centric that the thought hadn't even crossed my mind. So I did some cautious Googling, worried that I would end up with graphic and/or psycho crap. There was plenty of it, but I managed to find some good information. One of the more interesting sites is the Middle Ages Torture Museum in Rudesheim, Germany. It bills itself as "intriguing" and a "fascinating way to spend your leisure time." There aren't many pictures, but an exhibition catalogue is available which I purchased and downloaded. It makes my guts clench when I read it for more than a few minutes at a time. This is not going to be an easy book to write.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

My Apologies

My apologies for my lack of verbosity this week. I am preoccupied with the final episodes of American Idol. There, I said it, my secret is out. After tonight I will be free from my horrible and incomprehensible desire to watch the show. When I'm not wondering if it will be Fantasia or Diana who wins, I have managed to read. I still have eight books going, but my main focus has been on Virginia Woolf's diary and a book I began a few days ago, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and translated by Lucia Graves. I am only on page 62 and I am in love with this book! It's 1945 Barcelona and Daniel's father, a widowed book dealer, takes Daniel to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Daniel is allowed to choose, or be chosen by, one book. It is that book, The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by Julian Carax, that sets the story rolling. The language is gorgeous and delightful, a real feast. I mean, how can any sane person resist writing like this:

The object of my devotion, a plush black pen, adorned with heaven knows how many refinements and flourishes, presided over the shop window as if it were the crown jewels. A Baroque fantasy magnificently wrought in silver and gold that shone like the lighthouse at Alexandria, the nib was a wonder in its own right...I was secretly convinced that with such a marvel one would be able to write anything, from novels to encyclopaedias, and letters whose supernatural power would surpass any postal limitations--a letter written with that pen would reach the most remote corners of the world, even that unknowable place which my father said my mother had gone and from where she would never return.
I can't begin to say how thrilled I am that I still have another 500 pages of this book to read. I'd like to find The Cemetery of Forgotten Books and I'd like that pen too.

Just in case

you've read The Da Vinci Code and wondered what the art looks like, Doubleday will be publishing an illustraed edition of the book sometime in October. And if you have read The Rule of Four or you read my unenthusiatic review of it and weren't completely put off, Davina at Bookbrowse interviews Ian Caldwell, one of the co-authors.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

For Sale

If Anne Rice's house doesn't interest you (see yesterday's post), then why not J.R.R. Tolkein's house? It's for sale for the bargain basement price of 1.5 million British pounds, or a bit over $2.7 million in American dollars.(via Bookninja)

Monday, May 24, 2004


A couple of miscellaneous items for you today. Anne Rice has moved out of her New Orleans house to the suburbs. The house is up for sale and can be yours if the price is right, $3.75 million right. From the sound of the article those who made money off Rice's presence are sad to see her leave. Her neighbors on the other hand seem rather relieved. I have never read anything by E.L. Doctorow but John Leonard's New York Review of Books article has inspired me. Don't look for me to have anything about his books here soon though. I might get one or two of them but they will go into my bedside pile to be read at a later date. And finally, The Guardian reports the latest Harry Potter news and J.K. Rowling now has her own website.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Comment on Comments

I have found Blogger's new comment system to be unsatisfying so have switched back to Haloscan. Sorry if all this switching has caused anyone distress. If it has, you should see a therapist because you have bigger problems you should be worrying about.


The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason is not a book I would normally read; an all plot sort of thriller aimed for bestseller-dom. But because it was a thriller/mystery surrounding a book, I fell for it. The book is a fast read and nothing more than brain candy. Entertaining for a rainy day or the beach. If you don't expect anything more from it, then you will enjoy it. The plot centers around a 500 year old book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance text that scholars are sure has a secret and no one has been able to solve it. Until now. Tom Sullivan, the main character, and from whose point of view the story is told, is a senior at Princeton. Tom's father used to be one of the foremost Hypnerotomachia scholars until he died when Tom was in high school. Tom resented the book because his father always paid more attention to it than he did to Tom. At Princeton Tom meets Paul Harris a fellow student who thinks Tom's father was a god and who is obsessed with the book. Tom and Paul become best friends. Tom finds himself being drawn into the mysteries of the book and becomes trapped in a love-hate relationship with it. The Hypnerotomachia is a real book, though its mysteries remain mysteries in the real world. In The Rule of Four we are told that Tom and Paul are brilliant students, but it still is difficult to believe that two college kids can solve what scholars could not. All of the characters throughout are shallow and their motives are sometimes contrived and often convenient. The actual writing is pedestrian and riddled with grammar problems and clunky sentences. If you cannot suspend your inner editor for sentences like this: "On the way back to the dorm, a Dumpster[sic] has been overturned," then don't open the book. I imagine, however, this book will eventually be made into a movie. It's the kind of book Hollywood likes. If you are looking for a thriller/mystery surrounding a book, I recommend Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose. It is a much more satisfying read than The Rule of Four.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Opposable Thumbs

Montaigne's essay, "On Thumbs," doesn't even fill two entire pages and reads more like an extended dictionary etymology than an essay. The word "thumb" in Latin is pollex meaning "the strong one". The French pouce is derived from the Latin. And, according to the translator's note, the English word for thumb comes from a Sanskrit word also meaning "the strong one." The Greeks had to be different. Their word, anticheir, means "another hand." Thumbs were held in high esteem. "Barbarian" kings used to bind a treaty by "pressing their right hands together and interlocking their thumbs until they had squeezed the blood to their tips, whereupon they lightly pricked them with a needle and sucked each other's blood." And in Greece and Rome if a man had no thumb or had injured his thumb he was excused from military service because he could not firmly grasp his weapon. In Rome, a vote of thumbs up from the crowd got you killed. And in Sparta schoolmasters punished a student by biting the student's thumbs. That's about all Montaigne had to say about thumbs. But it got me to thinking about the stubby digit. Thumbs, after all, are humanity's greatest evolutionary triumph. Think about it. In fact, see how far you can get through your day without using your thumbs. We take our thumbs for granted, and even make fun of them. Aside from thumbs up being a positive expression in America we have some phrases that aren't so approving. When someone is clumsy we say "he's all thumbs" and we "thumb our nose" at someone or something as a dismissive insult. But without the hard-working thumb we'd never be able to "thumb a ride" and thus write inspired road novels. Those of us who quail at such adventure would never be able to "thumb through" the adventurer's novel without that precious digit. And childhood would never be the same without stories of Tom Thumb or Thumbelina. Poor Little Jack Horner in his corner would not be such a good boy if he pulled out that plum with his finger. Be good to your thumbs and they will be good to you. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Fear"

Friday, May 21, 2004

A Good Day to Read a Book

What is it about rainy days that makes a person want to curl up with a book? Even non-bookish people I know comment on days like today, "It's a good day to curl up with a good book and a cup of coffee/tea/hot chocolate." Since I live in Minneapolis I also have the joy of winter. On the coldest and gloomiest days when the sky is low and the flakes are starting to fall and the forecast is predicting 8-12 inches, I want my boss to call and say "Don't come in." Then I imagine myself in thick socks, old baggy sweater and my favorite sweat pants, a hot cup of cocoa on the table beside me, a thick book with an exciting plot, a comfortable chair and an entire uninterrupted day before me in which to read. And today, when it's rain and not snow and I only worked until noon, there is that deep yearning which draws me and a book to a chair. Sunny days don't bring out the urge. I think it's the bad weather days that do because then there is an excuse for "just reading." There is no reason to go outside. My inner child doesn't worry about Mom demanding I get my nose out of the book and my butt off the chair and go out side and play. I don't feel guilty for not weeding the garden or neglecting the dog's walk. I can make excuses for not doing errands and sometimes the people on the TV tell me to not go out unless absolutely necessary. Days like today are a gift from the universe. A Splendor of Letters by Nicholas Basbanes is reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement this week. The reviewer seems to have thought better of it than I did.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Bookstore Tourism

After my post yesterday about Hay, I was browsing through Pages and found a little blurb about Larry Portzline and his "invention" of a new kind of travel, Bookstore Tourism. I could argue that this is not new, at least not to me. My Bookman and I have made forays to Stillwater, a town about an hour from Minneapolis on the banks of the St. Croix river, not for the antique shops like most people go for, but for the bookshops. And when we had the great joy of going to London three years ago we got excited in part because it was our first international trip together, but also because we planned on going book shopping. We stayed with friends of my beloved's family in Kingston Vale. The 500 year old wall of Richmond Park was their backyard fence. When we told them one day we were going to a used book sale on the banks of the Thames across from Parliament, they thought we were nuts. We also spent an afternoon walking up and down Charing Cross Road, both of us having read Helene Hanff's wonderful book, 84, Charing Cross Road. Mark's and Co. is no longer there, in fact we were devasted that there isn't even a bookshop there any longer. Instead, we found an upscale, highly modern cafe. But the British are great for commemoration plaques, and we have pictures of us standing in front of the wall plaque marking where the store used to be. We also took with us on our trip, The Bookshops of London: The Comprehensive Guide for Book Lovers in and Around the Capital, a handy guidebook for sure but like any guidebook, not entirely reliable. After searching for an hour for a tiny side street one afternoon, the shop we were looking for turned out to longer exist. One of our happiest discoveries on that trip was that books are not taxed, at least in London. Our families thought we were nuts too. On our return when they asked about souvenirs we joyously told them about the postcards we'd bought at the National Portrait Gallery that have the portraits of Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters, the matted photo of Virginia Woolf, and the dozen or so books we'd bought. The only non-book related item we bought was a small box of incense from Kew Gardens. The only downside about book shopping on vacation is the weight of the luggage on your return home. I'd love to go to New York someday. I want to go to New York City. Sure, I'd like to see the Statue of Liberty, but when I think of NYC, I think of spending a day browsing at The Strand and visiting the New York Public Library. But I have digressed a bit from Larry Portzline's bookstore tourism. He doesn't arrange the trips for you. His site has a list of trips that people have put together and allows you to post your own trip. He also provides tips on how to plan your own bookstore tour. It's a good site for ideas and if all of your non-bookish friends and family think you're crazy for taking a vacation designed around bookstores, you can go here and not feel like such a freak. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Make Hay While the Sun Shines

The Guardian is offering a chance to win tickets to the Hay Book Festival in Wales on May 28th. Of course it is just tickets to the event itself, you have to provide your own transport. If anyone would like to donate airfare I'd be more than happy to go, take notes and lots of pictures, I'll even buy you a book or two and stand in long lines to have it signed by the author. After all, it'd be the least I could do. If you have never heard of the Hay Book Festival, Hay-on-Wye for that matter, where have you been? Check out the town's website. This place is my dream vacation. It'd be even better to live there as Paul Collins, author of a charming little book, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books got to do. My copy is severely water damaged from my uncontrolled drooling as I read it. Until I win the lottery jackpot I'll just keep saving for the vacation and dreaming about moving there. Sigh.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Thanks Dave

What is becoming of authors? According to an article in the New York Times Book Review yesterday, it is no longer good enough for a writer to simply read from her book and then answer questions. No, the author must perform

But novelists of the recent past seemed to have lacked that passion for performance. A typical reading took place "in a library, a bookstore or community center," with "a polite audience and an extremely unnerved and often inaudible writer," said John Hodgman, creator of the Little Gray Book series. The shift toward performance was evolutionary, said Jonathan Ames, who began performing in 1993 as a way to ease a particularly acute case of writer's block. "The cumulative effect of the dullness created a Darwinian adjustment," said Mr. Ames. "It just began to happen." (He has been known to loosen up an audience by distributing diagrams of his balding pattern, "to let them know I was on top of it.") It was a reading series called McSweeney's -- organized in 1998 by Dave Eggers, a novelist whose skill at extemporaneous riffing drew large crowds and inspired riskier performances among readers -- that set the standard for the new type of reading.
Call me old fashioned, but I like the typical boring reading. I don't go with the main view to be entertained, I go to readings because I like the author and want to bask in the author's presence and see what the person looks like in real life (most I have seen tend to be shorter than I imagined). Of course I appreciate a good and practiced reading. I also hope for a good story or two (P.D. James was marvelous on this front. She had the sixty or so of us captivated with her story of giving birth to one of her children during and air raid in World War II). It's fun to find out a little about the person behind the pen. And people buy books at these readings, I've seen them. I've been them. According to the article, the performances don't generally inspire anyone to buy a book. Perhaps a "typical reading" is as much performance as Arthur Bradford playing a guitar while he reads and then breaking the guitar at the end--author as rock star. But it seems to me if you need a gimmick, then you probably didn't give a good reading in the first place. I think this whole performance thing is more performance art than literature. It has its place, but I hope it doesn't become the expectation. Though Margaret Atwood making me a drink while she reads is kind of appealing. And maybe Hillary Clinton could bake her audiences chocolate chip cookies. That, I'm sure would be a crowd pleaser.

Sunday, May 16, 2004


Montaigne's essay, "On Repenting" is a long and complicated one. Let me begin by saying Montaigne is a Stoic. The Stoics believe that causation is absolute and that everything is fated and unalterable. This is why Montaigne can write that he rarely repents. He believes that repentance is not a regret, but a denial of the rightness of what one had formerly willed:

My doings are ruled by what I am and are in harmony with how I was made. I cannot do better: and the act of repenting does not properly touch such things as are not within our power--that is touched by regretting.
Regret and repentance are two different things for Montaigne. We are all born with a certain nature, some lean toward good and others lean toward evil, but we cannot change who were are. Therefore, if we reason and act within our nature, then there is nothing to repent of. "You cannot extirpate the qualities we are originally born with: you can cover them over and you can hide them." The key is to know a person's character "Anyone can take part in a farce and act the honest man on the trestles: but to be right-ruled within, in you bosom, where anything is licit, where everything is hidden--that's what matters." We should, therefore, govern ourselves in public just as we do in private when no one is watching. If you want to know truly about a person, talk to the children, the spouse, the servants. It is possible for "vicious souls" to be "incited to do good by some outside instigation." It is also possible for "virtuous souls to do evil." This is why souls must be judged in "their settled state, when thy are at home with themselves...or at least when they are nearest to repose in their native place." People can repent, but true repentance for Montaigne is a cleaning out of the soul and body, "Before I call it repentance it must touch me everywhere, grip my bowels and make them yearn." If the evil from which a person repents is not gotten rid of, then "there has been no cure." Montaigne warns us of the elderly who claim they are wise and have given up all of their vices. Don't believe it he says. Just because you are old doesn't mean you have given up your vices. Vices are given up, yes, but not by choice; age forces us to relinquish what in our youth we had no intention of abandoning:
Our appetites are few when we are old: and once they are over we are seized by a profound disgust. I can see nothing of conscience in that: chagrin and feebleness imprint on us a lax and snotty virtue.
In the end Montaigne declares, "If I had to live again, I would live as I have done; I neither regret the past nor fear the future." The Stoic beliefs that Montaigne holds perhaps makes such a statement easier to make. But I believe in free will. There is much that goes into making a person's character, some of it chosen, some of it not. But in the end, it is the individual's responsibility for who he or she is and becomes. I agree that true repentance requires the expurgation of the vice (no bowel movement required), but I don't think it should be such a rare thing. Unfortunately it is. Why repent if you don't have to? If are you convincingly contrite and put on a good show, you can get away with murder. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Thumbs"

New Comments

Well, Blogger has gone and changed things all around last week and added comments to their own site so I don't have to farm them out any longer. Blogger couldn't set it up automatically though so I had to do it manually. I hope I did it right. Please let me know if you have any trouble or notice anything weird by emailing me at wellred2 at earthlink dot net. Thanks!

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Gods in America

I know it's usually the day I do my Montaigne essay, but you'll just have to wait until tomorrow because I finished American Gods by Neil Gaiman this afternoon and have to tell you all about it. American Gods is the kind of book that takes its time. It creates itself layer upon layer like a painting. It takes a long time for anything big to happen but along the way, there is plenty going on. There are twists and turns and dead ends and seeming dead ends, and surprises, big surprises. And there are ideas. The main idea is that America is inhospitable to gods. Which god? All of them, though Gaiman deftly leaves out the God of the Old Testament and the New. But all of the other gods and demi-gods are here Odin and Kali and Bast and Horus and Easter. And there are new gods too--Media and Technology and hundreds of others, the gods of things modern and digital. The old gods were brought here by the immigrants and travelers who came to the land and brought their gods with them. But the people that remember and believe in the old gods are mostly gone and the gods are turned into grifters and salesmen, undertakers, drunks and crazies. The old gods are the ones who say again and again "This is not a good country for gods." But the new gods are young and fat and believe they will last forever and want to do away with the old gods once and for all. They do not yet realize that

People believe....It's what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.
And it is the eventual disbelief and disillusionment that then leave the conjured things abandoned and struggling to remain alive in the world. So there you have the main theme and the plot too for that matter. The story, however, belongs to Shadow. He gets caught up in the battle between the gods. He is hired to work for the old gods. He doesn't ask questions; he isn't paid to ask questions. He just does his job. But his job becomes increasingly more difficult and more enlightening as he deals with god after god. Shadow's story becomes a spiritual journey as well as a journey of self-discovery. I won't tell you anymore than that for fear of giving something away. American Gods is a satisfying book. It fills you up like a hearty stew on a cold winter's night. But like anything truly delicious, it leaves you wishing you weren't so full so you can eat more. I have a copy of Gaiman's Neverwhere, but I have to let this book digest for awhile.

Thursday, May 13, 2004


Have you ever been obsessed with a book? I can't say that I have. Sure, there have been some books in my life that I thought were great and told people about them whenever possible. But I've never been obsessed. Have you ever been so obsessed with a book that you bought more than one copy? Obviously I haven't. My Bookman has however. One book in particular comes to mind, M.K. Wren's A Gift Upon the Shore. It's a great book, but my dearest felt compelled "rescue" the book from used bookstores whenever he came across it. This went on for several months. We had one first edition hard cover that stayed in mylar on the bookshelf, but the beat up paperbacks that had been rescued were "reading copies" and would be loaned out to anyone my beloved could foist them upon. Sometimes the book would come back, often times it wouldn't. I haven't caught him rescuing any for a long time now, but I do know that this remains one of his all time favorites. So maybe you've been obsessed enough like my husband to rescue copies of a book or to give everyone on your holiday gift list the same book because you wanted them all to read it. But have you ever been so obsessed with a book that you wanted to track down every single edition ever published? That's what Sid Huttner is doing with his Lucile Project The Lucile project is an attempt to identify at least one surviving copy of each of the 2000 and some odd editions of Lucile by Owen Meredith. Huttner's obsession began innocently enough. After he and his wife moved to Tulsa in 1984 they began to notice the book, always in different editions, in antique shops. So they started buying the books thinking them an interesting example of 19th century cloth bindings. Now they own about 750 copies. More than a little obsessed. There is no indication that Huttner has read the book. I wonder if he has? I'd like to think so. I'm curious to know what the book is about. It must have been a best seller for its time if there were so many editions. It is an interesting idea, this project, but I must admit I am more than a little baffled. I mean, what in the end will be gained by such an endeavor? As far as obessions go though it could be worse.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Fun with Words

Not feeling very bloggy today so this will be short. If you like to read, chances are you like words too. After all, books are made up of thousands of words. So here are two sites that have taken my fancy:

  • Word Spy. Here you can learn about important new words and phrases like "poop fiction" and "geekerati." Today's word is "fiduciary capitalism." The site also offers a vast array of quotations about words.
  • Wold Wide Words. Michael Quinion is a Brit with a passion for words. He researches interesting words and phrases and is as thorough as the OED for which he has written citations. He even has a free newsletter that will be delivered in your email box every week.
That's it for today. I'll try to be more verbose for you tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


My bookish thoughts are rather scattered today. As I mentioned in my May 5th post, I am reading 8 books at the moment and I am unable to finish any of them. I have been focusing lately on American Gods by Neil Gaiman which is getting really interesting, and volume one of Virginia Woolf's diary. I am excited about some new software I got yesterday at Amazon Bookstore Cooperative. It's called My Book Collection. Stupid name but spiffy software for cataloging and tracking my personal library. My dearest and I have been trying since we married our collections to catalog them all. We've had two different kinds of book software before on a PC and we never got past 100 books. Then we changed to Macs and couldn't find any satisfactory software we were willing to purchase so I made a simple AppleWorks database. We've made it to about 100 books. Now I've gone and bought this software. I'll let you know if we make it past 100 books. Wish us luck. Fans of gardening and Eudora Welty will be interested in this CNN news article about the restoration of Welty's garden. The garden was opened to the public last month and the house is being turned into a museum.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

When do You Quit?

Laura Miller in the New York times Sunday Book Review asks "Why subject yourself to an irksome book when so many sublime ones are available?" She suggests that there comes a time in every reader's life when she realizes she doesn't have to finish every book she starts. I remember I came to that point when I was about 19 or so. I was reading a fantasy novel, the title of which I can no longer remember. It was about a dwarf or something and none of the names were pronounceable and the story was deathly dull. I'd struggle through a few pages and put it down. After a few days I'd feel guilty, it must be something wrong with me because it couldn't possibly be the book. I was so naive. I must have guilted myself through about 100 pages of torture before I decided enough was enough. I no longer blame myself for books I can't read but I still give them too much time. I keep thinking that it has to get better. It's just starting off slow, the next chapter will pick up and I'll be glad I stuck with it. Then I find myself halfway through the book. I've invested so much time in it I have to finish it if only to find out what happened. According to Miller, Michael Chabon is merciless, if the book doesn't hook him in the first two or three pages he won't read it. Myla Goldberg gives a book 15-50 pages and a book editor Miller knows allows five pages. But I have read books that have begun well and somewhere in the middle something goes terribly wrong. I always finish these books whether or not I want to. Something about the seething anger they engender keeps me from stopping. And if the book turns out to be particularly bad, I sometimes find myself having a great time making fun of it as I read. Afterwards it's always entertaining to tell other people, in the most melodramatic of ways, what a horrible book it was thereby warning them not to fall for it and garnering laurels for my own great fortitude, a sort of red badge of courage. As I get older I find I am more willing to not finish a book if we don't click. Even so I finish most books I start, occasionally deluding myself by declaring I don't read bad books. But of course I do. Everyone does. The question is, when do you quit?

Saturday, May 08, 2004

When Words Deceive Us

Montaigne's essay "On Giving the Lie" has a dirty sound to the title, sort of dark alley, up to no good. I expected Montaigne to talk about corruption or something. Instead he begins by talking about himself and why he writes his essays. He claims the essays are "for some corner of a library and as a pastime for a neighbour, a relative or a friend who will find pleasure in meeting me and frequenting me again through this portrait." He goes on to say that he hopes the publication of his essays will, at the least, provide wrapping paper for someone's "tunny-fish" or mackerel. In the end, however, it comes down to self-examination. Montaigne claims he is a better man for all of his time spent thinking about himself and his life. And suddenly the essay takes a turn, "But during a time so debased, what man are we to trust when he speaks of himself, seeing there are few, perhaps none, whom we can trust when they speak of others, where they have less to gain from lying?" And here a picture of Fox Mulder's dingy basement office flashes in my mind, and "trust no one" pulses to the X-Files theme song. Montaigne, like Mulder, doesn't let it stop there because "Truth for us nowadays is not what is, but what others can be brought to accept." My brain began to swarm with conspiracy theories. When they subsided I was saddened by the cliched but true, the more things change the more they remain the same. I mean really, you'd think we would have managed to evolve a little since the Renaissance, but apparently not, we've only grown more sophisticated in the myriad ways in which we can "give the lie." Montaigne asks, "Why for us it should be the ultimate verbal insult to accuse us of lying. Whereupon I find it natural for us to protect ourselves from those failings in which we are most sullied. It seems that by resenting the accusation and growing angry about it we unload some of the guilt; we are guilty, in fact, but at least we condemn it for show." Isn't this what is going on right now? Between the government and corporations it comes at us from all sides. The CEOs declare they are appalled at their accountants' cooking the books. The president of the U.S. calls prisoner abuse "abhorrent" and says he had no idea what was going on. The problem with lies is that

Our understanding is conducted solely by means of the word: anyone who falsifies it betrays public society. It is the only tool by which we communicate our wishes and our thoughts; it is our soul's interpreter: if we lack that, we can no longer hold together; we can no longer know each other. When words deceive us, it breaks all intercourse and loosens the bonds of our polity.
Ominous words and sobering thoughts. We may have technology that allows us to communicate in more varied ways, but words are still primary. When those in positions of leadership, be it of a country or a neighborhood gardening club, lie, society breaks down. When it happens rarely, society can recover. But, if it becomes common place? If we are all forced to live our lives with the motto trust no one? What then? If I can't trust my neighbor, how am I going to trust my neighborhood? If I can't trust the President, how can I trust my country? Montaigne believed in both the moral value of his work and truth telling. Self-examination is worthless if you can't even be honest with yourself. Montaigne does not claim to have "so much good in me that I may not tell of it without blushing," but by broadening his scope from self-examination to the importance of truth as a social compact, he successfully criticizes society for its current debasement and raises himself and his essays above it. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Repenting"

Friday, May 07, 2004

I'm a little slow in some of my reading, but In These Times has a great article by Dorothy Allison, "Notes to a Young Feminist"

A few years ago there was a conference in Minneapolis on “Feminism and Rhetoric.” I went as a doctrinaire, whiny feminist. The focus of my rant was directed at younger feminist theorists who were using an arcane language that I found an obstruction to my understanding. I thought not only was it arcane, it was an act of cowardice because they were talking in such high falutin’ language no one knew what the fuck they were saying!
I have felt the same way. What good is theory of any kind when nobody but the small group of people creating it understand it?
What I don’t hear at conferences is what did in fact bring me to feminism. So let’s go back, let’s begin: Rubyfruit Jungle, Riverfinger Women, Meridian, Wise Blood, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, True Story of a Drunken Mother, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law, The Girl, The Salt Eaters, A Woman Is Talking to Death, Edward the Dyke, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, The Bell Jar, Big Blonde and authors like Judy Grahn, Elana Dykewomon, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Carson McCullers, Audre Lorde, Lillian Hellman and Joann Ross.
I have read most, but not all, of these. And I want to know why more books like these aren't being written?
Last week, because the river rose and we got cut off, we all watched TV. And it made me think, what the fuck is it gonna look like when they make the movie of our life? Let me be clear about what I envision as the future of feminism. When they come around to make the movie of your life, when someone comes around to write the biography of you, as that feminist icon or that revolutionary, world-changing activist you are about to become, for God’s sake, make it more than anything small or pretty or over-romanticized. Make it as revolutionary as this tradition in which we speak has been. Make it so dangerous that people will be scared and unnerved when they read it. Take risks. Make illegitimate children. Get lots of lovers. Try some stuff! Make some difference. Without that courage, without that outside agitation, there will be no future of feminism. There will be no change in this country. Oh, and along the way, read some novels.
Yeah, don't forget to read some novels.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

New Feature Alert!

Please turn you gaze to the right side of this page and notice if you will the new search box. This site is now searchable! Woo-hoo! Of course I may be more excited than everyone reading this, but hey, what can I say? I hope kind reader, you find it useful. I'd love to hear what you think about it. Beneficial or a waste of space?


As Morning Edition listeners know, Bob Edwards is no longer the host. I will miss his lovely voice telling me the news. But, he has written a book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. He talked about it last Friday night on NOW with Bill Moyers. And this morning he spoke with Renee Montagne about it. You can hear this morning's full interview here. And there are also excerpts from some of Murrow's famous broadcasts. He sounds like he was a brave man, a journalist with intergrity, and a magician with words. Listening to these excerpts I was saddened that we don't have journalists like him any longer. Or maybe we do and I just don't know where they are. Certainly Bill Moyers comes close, but even Moyers won't bite the hand that feeds him and lacks the flair for Murrow's description. What does one do when one longs for journalism like Murrow practiced in a day where making up stories and facts is not uncommon ala The New York Times scandal?

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

On Bookmarks

I'm talking about the old fashioned kind of bookmarks, you know, the ones that mark your place in a book. I love bookmarkers but not just any kind. I will not use the kind that slip onto the top of the page. They always claim they won't damage the book but that isn't true. Leave one on for any length of time and it leaves a wrinkle on the page. The marker can't be too thick and keep the book from closing flat. And I like my bookmarks to have some kind of meaning either because it was gifted to me from someone dear or one I bought with a caricature of Virginia Woolf on it. I used to have a very large collection of bookmarks, and I suppose I still do. But it is much smaller than it used to be. When I was in grade school I had a teacher that would reward her students with a new bookmark. it was nothing fancy, a piece of colored construction paper with a sticker on the top and the student's name below it. I loved this teacher and I loved my bookmarks from her. I kept them until the paper was faded and the stickers were falling off. I had other markers too, given to me mostly as birthday or Christmas presents as I was growing up--cats, unicorns, teddy bears. I kept them in a glass jar always handy. It is ironic that I had so many markers because I used to be able to read only one book at a time. Used to. After college I stuck to the one book at a time reading method. But then my husband came along. He always had more than one book going at a time. I couldn't understand how he did it. Then one day I complained that I felt like reading but didn't want to read the book I was in the middle of. "So read a different book," he told me. I'm sure I complained and said I couldn't possibly. He likely told me to stop being so silly and just read a different book. So I did. And it was great. And now I can blame my husband for my current inability to read only one book at a time. How does this relate to bookmarks? Easy. In order to keep the number of books I am in the middle of to a realistic number, I allow myself to read as many books as I have bookmarks for. If I don't have a marker, and it has to be a real marker, not a scrap of paper, I have to finish something before I can start anything new. This works, sort of. I currently am in the middle of eight books. They are, in the order in which I began reading them:

  • Writing and Being by Nadine Gordimer. This is a book of essays I began about a year and a half ago. I made it through the first essay but must have been side tracked because I haven't managed to get back to it since. But I will, eventually. It has a "Pooh's Library" marker in it on which Pooh Bear is stacking books on top of a jar of honey.
  • Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing by Stephen King (out of print). I started this book about a year ago. I loved King's book On Writing and found this on my bookshelf. My husband had acquired it. I haven't picked it up in months, but I will again. I stopped reading it because I was tired of King going on and on in the essay "Horror Fiction." My marker is stuck in the middle of this essay on page 112 of the book. This bookmarker has turtles on it.
  • Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a book of short stories I began in February. I love Le Guin but I am finding that if I read more than one or two of these at a time I get annoyed with them. It's the voice or tone or something. The marker in this one has Pooh Bear tumbling around with his head stuck in a pot of honey. It says "after getting so far it seems a pity not to finish it."
  • Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. This is a great book but slow going. I find I have to be in a focused frame of mind when reading it or it seems like they are writing in another language. This one has a pretty embroidered marker that is patterned after a Turkish rug.
  • Never Threaten to Eat Your Co-Workers: Best of Blogs edited by Alan Graham and Bonnie Burton. This is a book of blog posts the editors deemed "literature." I don't know about that, but they are enjoyable. Still, I only find myself reading it when I have a short attention span and don't want to think. This has a Virginia Woolf bookmark in it.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor. I'm reading this for book group and it is fabulous. However the stories are pretty intense so I'm reading them slowly both to savor and so as not to be overwhelmed. The marker in this book is Christopher Robin dragging Pooh Bear up the stairs. It says "You're just a silly old bear."
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This is good. I started it a few days ago because I wanted to read some fiction other than short stories. This bookmarker has the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings on it.
  • And finally, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume One by Virginia Woolf. Woolf is one of my favorite authors. I've read her juvenile diaries but haven't gotten to her adult ones yet. So here I go. It's good short attention span nonfiction reading. This has my last allowable bookmark in it, a promotional one for a new translation of The Little Prince.
I have more bookmarks but am keeping them away from my books. With the ones in current operation things already seem to be out of hand. I'm in the middle of eight books and can't seem to finish any of them. But the thought of going back to reading one book at a time is unthinkable. And last night I came close to raiding my bookmark stash so I could start reading Pornography of Meat by Carol J. Adams. I. Must. Resist.

Monday, May 03, 2004

"Courage means not scaring others"

I had never heard of Alphonse Daudet before but I bought a copy of In the Land of Pain on a recommendation (Thanks Rosey!). Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was a well known and well respected French novelist, playwright and journalist. Zola, Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, Turgenev were all friends. At the age of 17 Daudet contracted syphilis. After its initial treatment with mercury it went into dormancy and Daudet married and had three children. But in the early 1880s the syphilis returned in the form of a neurosyphilis called tabes dorsalis. This manifestation of the disease is locomotor ataxia, or a progressive inability to control one's movements, and eventual paralysis. Daudet suffered with ever increasing pain for more than twelve years. At one point he considered suicide but his wife insisted he must continue living for her and the children. And so he continued on, "Suffering is nothing. It's all a matter of preventing those you love from suffering." He discovered early on that surrounded by those he loved, he was not willing to make them suffer, so he would deliberately make light of his pain. He realized that while the pain was always new and fresh to him, others quickly grew bored by it. To help him deal with his suffering he turned to writing. In the Land of Pain was meant to be notes toward a novel about Pain. While he continued working and publishing during his declining years, he never did write the novel about pain. We are, however, lucky to be able to read his approximately fifty pages of notes detailing his thoughts about his own pain and its indignities. In the Land of Pain is a sad book, especially if you know someone who suffers from chronic pain. There is a simplicity and a clarity that brings a sort of transcendence to the writing. But even Daudet doubted what he wrote:

Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful.
Still, he wrote. And he lived on and tried to find a cure and when no cure was to be had tried to find relief from the constant pain:
Daudet's advice to his fellow-patients was pragmatic. Illness should be treated as an unwanted guest, to whom no special attention is accorded; daily life should continue as normally as possible. "I don't believe I will get better," he said, "and nor does Charcot. yet I always behave as if my damned pains were going to disappear by tomorrow morning."
The book is well worth an afternoon's reading. While Daudet's pain and decline are sad, the book is not depressing. Julian Barnes did a wonderful job on the translation. He includes an interesting introduction and short biography of Daudet and concludes the book with "A Note on Syphilis." This last part is a fascinating look at Daudet's illness and the "cures" he subjected himself to as well as a historical look at the various treatments for the disease. After reading In the Land of Pain, I, who have never suffered from any kind of long term or serious pain, feel like I understand better what it must be like for those who do suffer. I am also curious to give a Daudet novel a go to find out why Henry James called him "the happiest novelist," and "the most charming story-teller" of his day.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Montaigne the Nudist?

Well, no, not actually. In "On the Custom of Wearing Clothing" Montaigne argues that the wearing of clothing for humans is only a custom.

I therefore hold that just as plants, trees, animals and all living things are naturally equipped with adequate protection from the rigour of the weather--so too are we; but like those who drown the light of day with artificial light, we have drowned our natural means with borrowed ones.
He goes on to point out there are people in far off countries who wear no clothes at all and in his own country there are those who find that a shirt and pants suffice. Of course the ones who have only one shirt and one pair of pants are tramps and peasants and they have to make do because they have no choice. Montaigne does not see it as a matter of class and wealth, but a matter of "Man" being closer to his hardier natural state. He uses examples of great leaders like Caesar who never wore a hat rain or shine, and was healthier for it. But in spite of his assertion that if clothing was natural we would have been born wearing "undergarments and trousers," Montaigne isn't about to join his local nudist colony. He declares that he wears only simple black and white just like his father did. Such a statement leads me to believe that he has nothing against clothes per se, but against extravagant clothing. But meditating on nakedness must have made Montaigne cold because the short essay suddenly turns from clothes to talking about suffering and surviving frigid temperatures. He tells of military expeditions surviving snowstorms, of battles in freezing temperatures, and frozen wine rations. I'm not sure what the point of it is, but according to his earlier thesis, all of the people should have been able to survive the cold nude. Obviously Montaigne never visited Minnesota in January and doesn't really know what cold is. I'd like to see how long he'd survive in only a shirt and pants while standing barefoot in three feet of snow in ten below temperatures with a windchill of minus 30. There are some instances in life when wearing clothes is not a custom but a matter of survival. I wonder, is there are any instances when nudity means survival? I have to agree with Montaigne to a point. Clothing, particularly style, can be customary. But where you live and under what conditions determines both how much clothing you need to wear (survival--you don't see Eskimos seal hunting in the buff, nor do you see Zulus hunting in mukluks), and how much clothing you get to wear (wealth--the tramp with only one shirt and pair of pants, the queen who never wears the same dress twice). I think Montaigne was too busy looking at his precious Greek and Roman ancients on this one and should have been paying more attention to what was going on outside his window. Next week's essay: "On Giving the Lie"