Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Night Off From Reading

Aside from receiving a beautiful book in the mail today called Categories on the Beauty of Physics (it uses art and literature to teach physics and you can see some of the art here), I have nothing bookish. This is due to the fact that I *gasp* did not read last night. Not a single word. Now that I think about it, it may accoount for why I feel a bit off kilter today. Instead of reading, my Bookman and I worked on a jigsaw puzzle. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and I don't regret not reading. Sometimes it's good to take a break for a day. Now I'm anxious to do some reading tonight before the State of the Union address comes on TV. That way I will at least start off with normal blood pressure. I will probably need to read one of William Cook's suggestions on his Top Ten Books About Comedians afterwards though to cheer myself up.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Monday Mish Mash

It's been a couple of weeks since I picked up Clarissa. I left her hanging so I could make it through the 1,000+ pages of Cryptonomicon. Now that I'm done with that and my fellow geeky bookgroupies got together over a delicious breakfast to discuss it, I am able to return to the trials of the dithering heroine. (btw, our next book is Cloud Atlas). Clarissa is currently holed up in a farmhouse not far from one of Lord M's estates (Lord M is Lovelace's uncle). Clarissa insists that Lovelace leave her so that the world does not think that they ran away together and so she can make negotiations with her family. Lovelace refuses to leave her on the pretense that someone from her family might find her and try to take her away knowing full well that no one from her family is pursuing them. Now they are each playing cat and mouse with the prospect of her taking rooms in London. If Lovelace seems too excited about her being there Clarissa is determined not to go. Lovelace is determined to get her there while making it seem like it was all Clarissa's idea. And his plan is working as she just authorized him to let some rooms for her from a respectable widow. Clarissa's friend Anna keeps telling her that she needs to marry Lovelace as soon as possible but Clarissa still thinks she can get out of it. Silly girl! I also just started a new book called Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother by Douglas A. Martin. I had a little trouble getting into it at first because it is not a straightforward narrative. The plot is chronological but the story is told in a very impressionistic sort of way. Now that I am used to it I am enjoying it very much. Here is a sample:

He needs some friends of his own sex. There were the village boys, but their father doesn't want his son fooling around with them. He doesn't want his son drinking. He has had his own problems with such. Inside the bar, his son would become very popular with the boys, as he talks a way none of them could, entertained them. He talked a purple streak. He's just watering himself in the bar, whetting his appetite. He's still going to be somebody someday. At ten, he was writing before his sisters. He was the boy, so he's learned everything first. In him, his sister Charlotte thinks she sees her mental equal. Home instruction given by their father has prepared him for nothing, except for perhaps one day tutoring boys as he himself had been tutored, or going into the Church. The larger world, the wider world, it so tempts and scares him, and their father still wants to keep him close. Branwell has good stories to tell at the bar.
Not bad, huh? And finally in this mish mash of a post, something bookish only because it takes place in a library. Here's a short little film made by college students dressed up as Pacman and one of the ghosts and running through the school library.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Where is the Wisdom?

So I'm reading Harold Bloom and I finally get to the chapter for which I decided to read Where Shall Wisdom Be Found in the first place: Montaigne and Bacon. And I am disappointed. Aside from the giggles I've gotten from some of Bloom's more outrageous statements which have nothing to do with the the topic of the book, the book has been a great let down. I expected a certain erudition, a certain level of scholarship and I have not found it. Instead I find statements which I am just supposed to accept because of the reputation of the person making them instead of statements with well reasoned arguments backing them. It is still unclear to me what it is Bloom considers Wisdom Literature, nor is it clear what he considers the meaning of wisdom to be. He considers Cervantes to be the preeminent novelist, Montaigne the preeminent essayist, and Shakespeare the preeminent playwright and the most god-like writer humanity has ever produced. Every author and character is compared to Shakespeare and Hamlet. Surprisingly, Bloom does not name Hamlet as a work of wisdom literature. Instead he chooses King Lear and Macbeth but declares their wisdom to be a negative wisdom and veers off into a discussion of nihilism. And when it comes to his discussion of Montaigne he begins promisingly enough by stating that Montaigne goes beyond wisdom because he confronts you with his concern for your own enlightenment and consciousness. He then begins to talk about Montaigne's influence, mentions that T.S. Eliot once commented that readers of Montaigne are "thoroughly infected" by him, and then zooms off into his pet topic, the anxiety of influence. In this case it is Pascal who hated and admired Montaigne, who tried to out Montaigne Montaigne and failed miserably at it. And of course, there is the obligatory incendiary statement:

Is that wisdom that can be linked to the reading of the strongest literature? You don't need to appoint yourself defender of canonical literature to show others that period pieces and commercial rubbish cannot yield any wisdom, let alone the strength that is the wisdom Montaigne exalts.
I've made it halfway through the book at this point. I'll stick with it until the end, but I'm afraid I won't be finding any wisdom in this book.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Montaigne's Legacy

It's Saturday and that means Montaigne! At least until I finish The Cambridge Companion. There is an interesting essay in this book by Warren Boutcher that explains just why Montaigne was (and is) so amazing. It all centers around the word patron which during Montaigne's time had two distinct meanings. One meaning is that of "pattern" or "mould" as in someone you pattern yourself after. The other is patron as in someone who patronizes the arts, but it is more complicated than that. An arts patron in Montaigne's time was very different than in our time. In the Renaissance a patron was believed to actually make art. He (sometimes she) had money and privilege and would use that money and privilege to commission a book or a building or a painting. The patron was seen as the one who gathered all the materials and skilled people together for the creation of art, and in so doing was given the credit for its creation. Patronage was always done for a reason, there was always a design--furthering a reputation, gaining political points, fame, glory. Patrons also wrote books. Their books amounted to telling other people what to write, but they got all the credit. Books during Montaigne's time were either written by patrons or by scholars. In either case, the books were merely accumulations of other people's thoughts. It was a matter of choosing the right pieces of other books to bring together for your own to prove your argument. This gave you and your book authority. And authority was what everyone was looking for because authority could further your reputation, your career, your fortune. Then, along came Montaigne who had no designs of patronage, though he did have designs to be a patron--someone after whom others could model their lives. He declared that the only authority he needed was himself. He freed himself from the tradition of his time by taking up the study of himself. This then gave him the liberty to criticize and judge contemporary society as he saw it. He was original in a time when no one else was and it earned him fame and honor--distinctions upon which he had no designs. He was called the "French Socrates" by the Vatican and, though he was careful in limiting how and about what one could make personal criticisms, he was also seen as the "Luther of secular philosophy." He opened the door not only for a new art form--the personal essay--but also a new way of thinking.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Million Little Comments

I have not read James Frey's now infamous memoir and I can't say that I have been all that interested in the bruhaha, but I was reading the Onion and couldn't resist this. And because of the stink, it appears a new trend in memoirs is about to begin--the disclaimer sticker. It's a bit ridiculous if you ask me, which you haven't. But I must wonder, do people really believe that an author remembers word for word exactly what he and other people said and did 10 years ago? Five years ago? Last year? I'm lucky if I remember things I said and did from a week ago. Do memoir readers really expect complete and utter Truth? Do people not realize that writing a memoir is like when they tell their favorite story about that family Christmas get together six years ago when Grandma dropped the turkey on the floor and Uncle Edgar drank too much wine and passed out in the cranberries? You embellish the story to make it funnier and more interesting, you put Dad's words in Mom's mouth because it makes the story better. Writers do the same thing. I don't think that means they lie, but if you tell it exactly how it happened it's kinda boring. I do expect a certain truth in memoir, I mean if the author says she spent the summer in France when she was 18 and goes into detail about all the people and sites and what not, but she actually spent the summer in France just last year when she was 28, not 18, that's something else entirely. That's lying. Maybe I'm missing something but it all seems so silly. On a different note, some of you may recall me mentioning a few times over the last several months that my Bookman and I are planning a trip to Hay in April. Well, we got the trip all planned and were about to finalize everything when it all fell apart. The problem is our diabetic who cat needs an insulin shot every day at 5:30 am and 5:30 pm give or take 30 minutes. The person who was going to care for our cat is not going to be able to arrange her schedule to fit the cat's needs. A desperate search for an alternate solution has turned up no one and boarding a special needs cat and our dog would cost almost as much per day as our B&B. So the trip to Hay has been indefinitely postponed. We're still going to take a vacation but we've moved it to May and the B&B will be our own house. We're planning day trips and other fun literary and non-literary activities. It's not Hay, but it will still be fun. And at least when the opportunity to go to Hay does arise, we've already got everything planned, all we need to do it book the room and buy the plane tickets.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bloom and Reading

Read a bit of Where Shall Wisdom Be Found last night and came upon this passage:

We read, I think, to repair our solitude, though pragmatically the better we read, the more solitary we become. I cannot regard reading as a vice, but then also it is not a virtue. Thinking in Hegel is one thing; in Goethe, it is quite another. Hegel is not a wisdom writer; Goethe is. The deepest motive for reading has to be the quest for wisdom. Worldly wisdom is rarely wise, or even prudential. Shakespeare, grandest of entertainers, also is the wisest of teachers, though the burden of his teaching may be nihilism, which is the lesson of King Lear. I am not a joyous nihilist, since I am a schoolteacher by profession.
There is quite a lot going on in this passage but what caught my attention is Bloom's reasons for reading because for me they ring true. One of the reasons I liked reading so much when I was a kid was because I was lonely. Reading is a solitary endeavor and by undertaking it, I separated myself even further from my peers. But of course when I was lost in a book I did not feel lonely at all. As far as reading as a quest for wisdom, I don't think of my reading in that way, but I enjoy reading because I like to find out how other people live. It doesn't matter that the other people are fictional; I am still inserting myself into another place and another life that does not belong to me; I become an invisible character in someone else's story. I wouldn't expect Bloom to consider reading a vice, but neither would I have expected him not to consider it a virtue. As a reader I like to think of myself as somehow better than non-readers (it is a snobby attitude, I know). But I can see Bloom's point. It isn't the act of reading itself that is virtuous, it is what one does with the reading that matters. And so I think I begin to get a glimmer of understanding as to why he believes there are certain books that must be read. It doesn't mean I agree with him, only that I have gained a bit of insight into his point of view.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Good and Creepy

I finished reading The Ghost Writer by John Harwood last night. What a fun book this was! From the very beginning the book had a certain eerie, something isn't quite right atmosphere to it. At the center of the story is Gerard, first as a boy and then as an adult, completely innocent as to what is really going on. And why should he think something odd? His mother is a little looney and the only thing he has to hold onto, his only friend, is Alice, a penfriend who lives somewhere in Sussex. Unlike most penfriend relationships, however, this one does not die as the two grow older but becomes more and more intimate. Between caring for his mother who demands that he be home by dark everyday, and writing to Alice, Gerard manages to go to university and become a librarian. He has no social life, does not date other women, and his co-workers are convinced he is gay and just hasn't realized it yet. Raised on his mother's euphoric stories of her childhood home of Staplefield in England, and his romantic feelings for Alice, Gerard wants nothing more than to leave behind the dry heat of Australia for the cool damp of England. When he finally manages to get there, events do not turn out as planned. About that I will say nothing else so as not to spoil anything for someone who has not read the book. I loved the gothic feeling of this book. One of my favorite parts of the book is the various stories within the story. The stories are all of a supernatural bent and delightfully spooky. The spookiness of the stories helps intensify the uneasy feelings that the main story generates until both come crashing together at the end. Since I am a horror wimp, I was worried about having bad dreams after I finished but I am happy to say that my sleep was untroubled. This does not mean the books wasn't scary, it definitely gave me chills, but there was enough specificity to the events of the story that my imagination did not take hold of it enough to create a gothic horror story starring me. So if you, too, are a horror story wimp, this book is okay to read. Another note for potential readers of this book. The ending is left wide open, there is no nice and tidy closure. I loved the inconclusive end, but if you are someone who needs to know what exactly happened, you will not be satisfied here. For everyone else, if you have not read the book and are looking for a light read and a few goose bumps, this is one you will enjoy.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Listening to Poetry

My Bookman and I had a pleasant evening yesterday working on a jigsaw puzzle and listening to the Frank O'Hara CD from the Voice of the Poet series. I don't ever recall reading any O'Hara and I don't know how I managed to miss him. This guy is great! Plus he does not use The Poet Voice when he reads. I wish there was an indication about where some of these poems were recorded. In some of them you can hear car horns in the background. In others it sounds like he is standing next to a fish aquarium. In some he could be standing in a kitchen while someone is washing dishes in the sink. And in a few it sounds like he could be reading to those patronizing a bathroom. But no matter where it sounded like he was reading, he read well. This was one enjoyable CD. I thought I'd give you a few samples of my favorites. This first is called "Poem" as many of his poems seem to have been titled, and was written in 1960:

Some days I feel that I exude a fine dust like that attributed to Pylades in the famous Chronica nera areopagitica when it was found and it's because an excavationist has reached the inner chamber of my heart and rustled the paper bearing your name I don't like that stranger sneezing over our love
He has a great sense of humor which comes out in single lines like the above or in this one, also called "Poem" and written in 1962:
Lana Turner has collapsed! I was trotting along and suddenly it started raining and snowing and you said it was hailing but hailing hits you on the head hard so it was really snowing and raining and I was in such a hurry to meet you but the traffic was acting exactly like the sky and suddenly I see a headline LANA TURNER HAD COLLAPSED! there is no snow in Hollywood there is no rain in California I have been to lots of parties and acted perfectly disgraceful but I never actually collapsed oh Lana Turner we love you get up
But it's not all fun and games. He's got several poems that took my breath away, most notably "Ave Maria" and "Ode to Joy." Both of these are too long to excerpt here, but you can listen to "Ode to Joy" at Random House here. O'Hara died at the age of 40 after being hit by a speeding dune buggy at 3 am when he was walking home from a party on Fire Island. The irony of this is that a month before at a party he and friends were talking about what they were most afraid of and he said "living past 40." At that point he had just turned 40 and a month later he was dead. Be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Can't Let Go

Did you think that just because I finished reading Montaigne's Essays you were safe from more things Montaigne? Think again! I began reading The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne and after only the introduction and the first essay it is already turning out to be quite good. I learned some interesting biographical bits about the man. For instance he was imprisoned in the Bastille in July 1588 by the overzealous Ligueurs, a staunch Catholic "Association" that seemed to enjoy killing Huguenots. Montaigne was Catholic but did not belong to the Ligue, instead he was sympathetic to the Politique thinkers who believed that only a strong monarchy could ensure order. The Liguers, while adamantly Catholic, were also anti-monarchy and Montaigne happened to be in Paris when they barricaded the city. But Montaigne was not long in the Bastille due to the kindly intervention of Catherine de' Medici. Another interesting tidbit, Montaigne was considered sort of noveau riche for his time period. Montainge comes from a family of merchants. During the late 1400s and early 1500s France had a booming economy and Montaigne's great-grandfather made quite a bit of cash. The actual aristocracy was not doing so well, however, and Grandpa bought the estate of Montaigne from it's previous owner in 1477. The laws in France at the time declared that if you could hold noble land for three generations, the third generation and onward (as long as they still held the land) could call themselves noble. Montaigne's actual family name is Eyquem, but because he was the third generation he was able to take the noble title of Montaigne. Montainge, however, was a provincial estate in Bordeaux and while it had a solid income, it was not spectacular which is why the man Montaigne and his wife had to manage the castle and vineyards themselves instead of hiring someone to do it for them. But it is also helped save his property from being overrun by the wars of religion. Montaigne spoke Gascon and came into contact with the peasants who worked his land and the other people employed on his estate on a daily basis. We already know he was a pretty good guy, and when your boss is not a tyrant it is hard to find a good reason for an uprising even if you are a Huguenot and he is Catholic. Montaigne writes in one of his essays (sorry, can't remember which one) that some of his laborers decided one day that they were going to take over the castle. The mob rode up to the gate and asked to be let in. Montaigne knew exactly what was afoot and let them in calling them all by name and chatting them up, pretending he had know idea what was going on until the mob decided on their own to change their mind and left peacefully. All that and I've hardly begun. This book is going to be fun!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Codes and Computers

I have returned from the land of Flu. I have not been there in a very long time. Since I can't remember when last I had the flu I didn't remember what getting it felt like so ended up very surprised. Now that I am on the other side of it, I hope that I have many years ahead of me in which to forget again. When the worst of it passed and I felt like I could read I had plenty of material on hand. I wanted something not too taxing. At first I thought The Ghost Writer would be great but between my fever and the scary face on the cover of the book I was worried what kind of dreams I'd end up having. So, since I was entering the last bit of Cryptonomicon where all the pieces begin to fall together in an exciting rush to the end, I went for that. What a fun book it ended up being. It's one of those books that takes place in past and present simultaneously with some of the same characters in both parts as well as the descendants of other characters in the present part. The story that takes place in the past happens during World War Two and intermingles code breaking, the creation of the digital computer and gold into intersecting plotlines. The present story takes place in the nebulous present but guessing sometime around the late 90s (not so present anymore, but it doesn't feel that way) and intermingles modern day computer encryption, code breaking and gold in intersecting plotlines. By the end it all merges into one story in the present. While nearly always interesting and filled with some great humor, the book could have used a bit of editing--the mass market is a little over 1100 pages long. But what I would have edited out--mathematical explanations of codes, etc--is probably what the main audience of this book loved so much. Or maybe I should have somehow managed to read the entire book while under the influence of a fever because somehow the math started to make sense to my hot brain. Then again, maybe it didn't make sense and I just thought that it did. I do not unreservedly recommend this book. It has a high geek factor and therefore you must at least be on the geek fringe to enjoy the book. I do not consider myself a geek. I'm more of a geek groupie or something. I'm just geeky enough to find a book like Cryptonomicon really cool, but not geeky enough to read the appendix on one of the codes in the book and try my own hand at encryption. Though since I read this for my occasional book group, I suspect at least one of them actually is just geeky enough to try and figure out how to code something. I'll find out next weekend unless she wishes to leave a confessional comment before then.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Amost Human

Thanks everyone for all of your well wishes. I am feeling almost human again. Yesterday was devoted to sleeping and eating an occasional graham cracker. Today I am actually able to read. A very good sign!

Thursday, January 19, 2006


The flu got me.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

It's Getting Hot, Hot, Hot!

Is it getting warmer or is it just me? After reading Bill McKibben's global warming essay and book review I'm convinced I am not experiencing some kind of super weird and WWWAAAAYYYY too early form of menopause. I know there is something really wrong when winter after winter in Minnesota, not exactly a balmy place to be November through April seem to be getting more and more mild. I mean it was 25 degrees today, supposed to be 30 tomorrow and two weeks ago it was 45. In January! It's supposed to be about 10 degrees or lower this time of year. I mean, what are we going to do when we can't complain about the cold anymore? The books under review sound fascinating, especially Thin Ice. But I am not inclined to read them for fear that they will make me even more depressed over the state of the world. I mean, McKibben's concluding sentences are enough to make a person cry:

We are forced to face the fact that a century's carelessness is now melting away the world's storehouses of ice, a melting whose momentum may be nearing the irreversible. It's as if we were stripping the spectrum of a color, or eradicating one note from every octave. There are almost no words for such a change: it's no wonder that scientists have to struggle to get across the enormity of what is happening.
How is it that humans manage to be so smart and so stupid at the same time?

Yee Haw!

For the cowboy poet in us all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Fun with Harold

Here are some quotes of interest from chapter two of Harold Bloom's book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found. Chapter two is ostensibly about the "contest" between Plato and Homer. Remember, Plato banned poets from his ideal republic and Bloom has this Freudian thing on writers needing to destroy their predecessors.

Perhaps Homer rendered Plato even more troubled, for even the most luminous exchanges in the dialogues cannot challenge the heroic pathos of the Iliad, which, with the Yahwist [aka "J"], Dante, Cervantes, and Shakespeare, continues to set the standard for high literature.
Plato cannot win on heroic pathos, nor can he out philosophize Shakespeare who wasn't even born until hundreds of years later:
Shakespeare, most capacious of intellects, could outflank any philosopher.
But wait, I thought this chapter was about Plato and Homer:
Plato carries what, to me, is a darker burden, for the more anguished quarrel is between poetry and theology, inaugurated by Plato's Socrates in the Republic, and still prevalent, except that the ideologies of Resentment have largely displaced theology. Thus, I have heard Emerson and Whitman denounced as "racists," and some years back, after teaching King Lear, I received an anonymous note informing me that every class I had ever conducted was "an act of violence against the women of Yale." Doubtless it is unfair to call such lemmings "Platonists," since probably they have never read the Republic or the Laws, but the legacy is clear enough.
Well, maybe not. I wonder how many times Bloom has grumped about that anonymous note? What makes me laugh most is the fact the he still has the note since he quotes directly from it instead of paraphrasing! Let's see if this next forwards any argument about Plato and Homer:
The supreme poets--Homer, Dante, Petrach, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Walt Whitman, Yeats--would none of them be acceptable to the Platonic Socrates. When we read Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, can we really believe that the supreme music is philosophy? That Plato, in aesthetic eminence, stands near to Homer and Dante reasonably could be argued, but he dwindles in proximity to Shakespeare, as all must do.
When exactly did Shakespeare obtain god status? Poor Plato doesn't have a chance:
According to [Friedrich] Solmenson, Plato began [in the Republic] by expurgating everything colorful and all-too-human in the Homeric gods. That destroys the Iliad and the Odyssey, or would, except that Homer--like Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Chaucer--is indestructible, which was a lifelong frustration for the moralizing and finally totalitarian Plato, who in the Laws sets the prototype for Franco, Stalin, Mao. Since expurgating Homer did not work, Plato resorted to cosmological movement as a a grand machine, a theory of change to sweep away Homeric dominance of Greek education. A weird astrology ensued that remains of interest only to scholars, while students go on reading Homer (or would, if we still had universities, rather than mediaversities of multiculturalism).
Okay so Shakespeare is head god and Homer, Dante, Cervantes, etc are second-class gods. Meanwhile, Plato is godless and a totalitarian despot as are the multiculturalists who have invaded universities. Am I reading that right? Are you getting tired of this yet? Only a few more:
If your quest is for a wisdom within the bounds of reason, rather than of wonder, then go back to Plato and his progeny, down through David Hume to Wittenstein. Plato, I think, would have approved the reservations concerning Shakespeare expressed by Hume and by Wittgenstein. But even a long life is too short to receive everything Shakespeare is capable of giving you.
But what about Homer? I thought this chapter was about Plato and Homer? Oh wait, maybe...
I begin to believe that whether Homer was one poet, or two, or a whole phalanx of singers of tales, is pragmatically no more useful than our deranged obsessions which insist that Shakespeare was written by anyone except Shakespeare: the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, Lucy Negro (London's leading East Indian sex worker), or the impostor named William Shakespeare who impersonated William Shakespeare. I delight in the London society that, each month, unsolicitedly sends me it circulars demonstrating that all of Lewis Carroll was composed by Queen Victoria. Recently, I mourned when reading the obituary of the founder of the American Flat Earth Society.
That's enough this time around. I have probably tried your patience. The next chapter is about Shakespeare. Oh and Cervantes too. And Shakespeare.

Monday, January 16, 2006

On Experience, Part Two

In the first half of Montaigne's essay "On Experience" he takes on the study of Law as it represents the mind. In the second half of the essay, Montaigne takes on Medicine using himself as a case study. Montaigne suffered from "the stone." In his time there was no treatment for gallstones or kidney stones. You just had to suffer. And suffer Montaigne did with what is called "colic paroxysms." Montaigne's father died from the stone and it was such a painful and dreaded disease that early on in his essays before he had it, Montaigne writes about justifications for suicide should his health or mind ever reach a state he found intolerable. Montaigne is a devout Catholic too which means he could put his immortal soul in peril if he committed suicide. But as time wore on and he began to suffer from the stone he found that it was not as bad as his imagination had made him believe. He could bear the pain. He also discovered that he liked living more than he liked the idea of dying. While Law represented the mind and the soul, Medicine represents experience and the body. Montaigne is a smart and observant man who knows that the Art of Medicine is an inexact art and often times cause more harm than good:

There are several gentlemen for whom I feel pity: through the stupidity of their doctors they shut themselves up indoors while still young and healthy; it would be better to put up with a chill rather than forever to forgo joining in common everyday life outdoors. What a grievous skill medicine is, disparaging for us the more delightful hours of the day. Let us extend our hold on things by every means we possess.
In Montaigne's view, medicine is out to take away and limit the life of a man and the pleasures of the body with its prescriptions of dos and don'ts. Those who are sick and need treatment are told to change their habits, to not go out, to not eat certain foods to eat things that taste bad, such sudden and shocking changes Montaigne believes, does the sick a worse turn producing "bewilderment and trauma" that could not be endured by a healthy man. Montaigne takes most umbrage with diets that doctors prescribe the ill: "On this side we have the illness hurting us, on the other the diet. Since we must risk being wrong, let us risk what gives us pleasure, rather. The world does the reverse, thinking that nothing does you good unless it hurts: pleasantness is suspect." And besides, the art of medicine has not reached a point where there is any kind of certainty. Montaigne insists that if one doctor tells you that you should not drink wine or eat a particular food, he will find you another doctor who disagrees with the first. Sickness is part of life and as such Montaigne believes
We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life.
Now I don't think Montaigne is saying that if there is something to help us through an illness to forget it and be miserable. I think the point he is trying to make is that illness comes to us all at different times and in one form or another, it is something we cannot avoid and so must learn how to accept it. I like the metaphor of the musician he uses--you cannot sing unless you have all the notes at your disposal. A few pages later he also reminds us, "you are not dying because you are ill: you are dying because you are alive; Death can kill you well enough without illness to help her." "Anyone who is afraid of suffering suffers already of being afraid," writes Montaigne. Illness and blessing each has their course and we should take our pleasures as we can whenever we can even the very simple ones: "I cannot recall ever having scabies, but scratching is one of the most delightful of Nature's bounties: and it is always ready to hand! But its neighbour, inconveniently close, is regret for having done it. I mainly practise it on my ears, which from time to time itch inside." We must find our pleasures and stick to them. Montaigne loved to eat and admits to a tendency to over eat. So instead of dieting he goes to meals late. This allows him to eat but keeps him from eating too much since dinner is half over by the time he sits down. If doctors had their way, they would impose stricter and stricter diets, there would be no end of it and Montaigne's chief pleasure would be denied him. But while Montaigne encourages the pursuit of pleasure he admits "I who boast that I so sedulously and so individually welcome the pleasures of this life find virtually nothing but wind in them when I examine them in detail. But then we too are nothing but wind. And the wind (more wise than we are) delights in its rushing and blowing, and is content with its own role without yearning for qualities which are nothing to do with it such as immovability or density." It is here that Montaigne suddenly turns the essay into an argument on the proper way to live. Living is "not only the most basic of your employments, it is the most glorious...If you have been able to examine and manage your own life you have achieved the greatest task of all." Montaigne believes that "our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials for a book: not to win provinces in battles but order and tranquility for the conduct of our life. Our most great and glorious achievement is to live our life fittingly." To do that we must bring mind and body, the divine and the earthy together. Separate they are each inadequate:
Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upwards and forwards as in knowing how to find one's place and to draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding. Nothing is so beautiful, so right, as acting as a man should: nor is any learning so arduous as knowing how to live this life naturally and well. And the most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.
Montaigne goes on to say that a person's "soul should assist and applaud the body, not refuse to participate in its natural pleasures but delight in it as if it were its husband, contributing, if it is wise enough, moderation, lest those pleasures become confounded with pain through want of discernment." The mind and the body are necessary to be a whole person. Without the mind we are nothing but stupid beasts, without the body we are nothing at all. Montaigne encourages everyone to "love life and cultivate it," to "accept wholeheartedly and thankfully what Nature has done" and to "delight in that fact" and "be proud of it." Our time is limited and it is madness to desire to escape from your humanity, argues Montaigne. He quotes an inscription with which the Athenians honored Pompey when he visited their city: "Thou art a god in so far as thou recognizes that thou art a man." For Montaigne, the most God-like thing a person can do is "to know how to enjoy our being as we ought." Montaigne notes that "we seek other attributes because we do not understand the use of our own; and having no knowledge of what is within, we sally forth outside ourselves." He goes on to remind us that even if we get up on stilts, we still walk with our legs and even if we find ourselves sitting upon the highest throne, we are still sitting on our arses. And here I find myself at the end of Montaigne's essays. I'm rather sad about it since I have spent so much time and grown so fond of the man. That is one of the great things about books and reading, how we can become so attached to someone fictional or real, alive or dead, how these characters can become like friends. I am not going to leave Montaigne just yet though, I'll be reading The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne to find out what other people think of him. And besides, one of the other great things about books is that I can open Montaigne's essays any time and meet him there upon the pages. I'll end now with one final quote from "On Experience" which has been filled with so many quotable passages:
I have a lexicon all to myself: I 'pass' the time when tide and time are sticky and unpleasant: when good, I do not want to 'pass' time, I savour it and hold on to it. We must run the gauntlet through the bad and recline on the good. 'Pastimes' and 'to pass the time' are everyday expressions which correspond to the practice of those clever folk who think that they can use their life most profitably by letting it leak and slip away, by-passing it or avoiding it and (as far as they can manage to do so) ignoring it and fleeing from it as painful and contemptible. But I know life to be something different: I find it to be both of great account and delightful--even as I grasp it now in its final waning; Nature has given it into our hands garnished with such attributes, such agreeable ones, that if it weighs on us, if it slips uselessly from us, we have but ourselves to blame.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

On Experience, Part One

Well, I have officially read all of Montaigne's essays. Aside from the overly revealing bits of personal bodily information I mentioned yesterday, "On Experience" is a fantastic essay. It is the culmination of all the thought that came before it. Montaigne saw this essay as the conclusion of his quest, the one he began with the first essay and here completes successfully, his search to study and know himself. "On Experience" is about experience versus knowledge, the soul versus the body. For most of philosophy and intellectual society, it had to be one or the other, but Montaigne argues here that the two are complimentary and privileging one over the other does a person a great disservice. Both body and mind are required to be in harmony in order to find true wisdom and understanding:

Is it not an error to reckon some functions to be less worthy because they are necessities? They will never beat it out of my head anyway that the marriage of Pleasure to Necessity (with whom, according to an ancient, the gods ever conspire) is a most suitable match. What are we trying to achieve by taking limbs wrought together into so interlocked and kindly a compact and tearing them asunder in divorce? On the contrary let us tie them together by mutual duties. Let the mind awaken and quicken the heaviness of the body: let the body arrest the lightness of the mind and fix it fast.
Montaigne works up to this final argument by first discussing the to major "Arts" of his day, the art of Law and the art of Medicine. The Law for Montaigne represents the mind, it is an intellectual pursuit of knowledge that becomes more and more abstracted as it progresses. The main problem is words. They are ultimately inadequate. A law may be written in the narrowest, most precise language possible but in reality, it will not match any single person's experience. And so we have judges who interpret the law and then we have lawyers who interpret the interpretations and pretty soon "all we do is gloss each other" and "learning to understand the learned" becomes "the chief and most celebrated thing that we learn." Laws are made by fools, by "vain authorities who can resolve nothing." In Montaigne's opinion, "no person commits crimes more grossly, widely or regularly than do our laws." Montaigne believes that laws are made in order to make examples out of the people who break them. This then is supposed to keep other people from committing the same crime. The problem with this as Montaigne sees it is that the law is trying to make examples of other people's experience for people who cannot even learn from their own personal experience. That is why, Montaigne declares, that he studies himself "more than any other subject." Montaigne obeys the laws of men because he has to, but what we should really be following are the laws of Nature. This takes us back to Montaigne's belief that Nature is a book that can be read and understood with the help of God (he argues this fully in his essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond"). If we learn to read the Book of Nature and study ourselves, our experience will tell us all we need to know in order to be wise, we just have to listen to it. "This application which I have long devoted to studying myself also trains me to judge passably well of others," writes Montaigne. To see one's own life reflected in the lives of others allows one to acquire a broader understanding of the world. This does not give you leave to judge freely of other people, however, unless you are prepared to hear yourself "frankly judged." Next Montaigne turns to Medicine whose realm lies entirely within experience and the body. But this is already going long, so I'm going to take a break and be back with part two either later or tomorrow.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Montaigne's a "Regular" Guy

Montainge's essay "On Experience" is the final essay. It is also about 150 pages long. I have not yet managed to finish it. Maybe I am trying to drag it out a bit, not wanting to be done. I have noticed, comparing his early essays to his late ones, that the farther on he gets the more personally revealing he becomes. In the beginning he disclosed very little about himself other than his opinion and maybe a bit about his study, the Wars of Religion in which he fought, or hints about personal friendships. In the last few essays I have learned about his sex drive and a few sexual encounters, lots about his gallstones and the difficulty and pain of passing them, and in this essay I learn that he can hold his urine for up to ten hours or more and he and his bowels have a regular rendezvous at nearly the same time every day. He verged into the realm of TOO MUCH INFORMATION with that one. I now have images of Montaigne and his chamber pot stuck in my head. Eeeww! Off to finish reading the essay. I hope he doesn't reveal any further information about his bowels. Or urine. Or vomitting which he has also mentioned.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Collecting Links

I've been collecting links of interest so thought tonight would be a good night for them since I will soon scurry away to watch Dancing with the Stars. I'm a sucker for ballroom dancing.

  • The Modern Muse Project. From Meg herself, creator of the project:
    The project began because of a personal interest in this topic -- for about seven years, I have been the muse to a poet friend of mine, and I've never understood the dynamic we have. Our poet-muse relationship seemed very different from the muses I've read about for previous literary figures. My own curiosity kept me wondering about contemporary artist/author-muse relationships and their own special dynamic. I would like to explore more of these relationships, examine common threads between them as well as distinctions, and -- most of all -- to celebrate these individuals and the work that comes from their relationship.
    And there's a blog
  • If you are a lit blogger you might have received the press release in your email box, if not, then, Void Magazine's current issue is books to film
  • According to Book Standard 2005 was a good year for book sales. Of course 75% of the sales went to only 200 books
  • Sony hopes it has the answer to your ebook dreams. The digital book reader supposedly has print display nearly as sharp as paper. Only problem is it will cost you US$300-$400 just for the reader. You still have to buy the books!
  • A report from the MLA Convention, publishers realize that people actually like the physical act of reading a book. (link via Bookslut)
  • This is not book related but still sure to help you sleep better tonight. Finally, scientists have figured out how bees fly. See, don't you feel better already?
  • Wednesday, January 11, 2006

    Bloomin' Wisdom

    I started reading Harold Bloom's Where Shall Wisdom Be Found last night. I have never read anything by Bloom, always thinking him too much of a pompous know-it-all to bother. I thought maybe I was just prejudiced, so I began reading, attempting to keep an open mind. Well, after about 40 pages I feel confident in saying that Bloom really is a pompous know-it-all. He's definitely a brilliant man and in spite of his opinions, is not a pontificator. Or maybe he is and I am just finding it so darn amusing that I don't care. So I thought I'd give you some examples for you to judge for yourselves. In his introduction he writes:

    I have only three criteria for what I go on reading and teaching: aesthetic splendor, intellectual power, wisdom. Societal pressures and journalistic fashions may obscure these standards for a time, but mere Period Pieces never endure. The mind always returns to its needs for beauty, truth, and insight.
    I love how he moves so effortlessly from the three standards being his personal criteria to making them universal criteria. Chapter one is about Job and Ecclesiastes. He discusses Job first and, while a great piece of poetry, finds is ultimately unsatisfactory. Ecclesiastes in the other hand
    is my personal favorite among all the works of the Bible, I will comment upon it rather fully. My ideal literary critic, Samuel Johnson, was profoundly affected by it. Besides, a book on wisdom and literature must brood upon Koheleth [Hebrew for Ecclesiastes], for it comes first to mind whenever wisdom literature is mentioned.
    This gave me giggles because Samuel Johnson has nothing to do with the discussion and not only does he manage to slip him in, but he also gets to give critics everywhere a jab by claiming Johnson as the ideal. And then he has to follow it up with a naturally anyone who thinks about wisdom lit thinks first about Ecclesiastes. Naturally. I do. Don't you? Further on in the chapter he brings in Shakespeare who he feels was greatly influences by Ecclesiastes. Bloom first quotes from the final chapter of Ecclesiastes which ends "Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher; all is vanity." The he lays this out there: "These eight verses deserve repetition until you possess them by memory, as you should much of Shakespeare." My giggles progressed to a guffaw. I'm sure having most of Shakespeare by heart would be wonderful, but where would I get the time? The second chapter is on Homer and Plato. Bloom doesn't like Plato much since Plato banned poets from the ideal republic. Bloom is so bothered by this that he insists Plato must surely have been joking and we modern readers are just not clued in to the rampant irony in Plato's works. In spite of his dislike of Plato, Bloom rereads the Republic regularly
    to receive a wisdom that chastens my fury against all ideology. What Andrew Ford calls "the sound of ideology" rises up from the Republic, ultimate ancestor of all current commissars of Resentment who throng our academies, and who zealously continue the destruction of literary study. "The aesthetics of song," Ford writes, is in the Republic "always discussed in terms of a social psychology and in relations to political goals." I have returned to teaching after a year spent recovering from ill health, and I have resumed my practice of advising any potential student to vote with her or his feet (grand American idiom!) if they expect to discuss cultural politics in my classroom. It is a long way down and out from Plato to our contemporary lemmings, but the Republic inaugurates their Puritanism.
    Wow. "Commissars of Resentment." "Contemporary lemmings." No one can accuse Bloom of being wishy-washy and having no opinions! I'm looking forward to reading more of this book to see what other zingers Bloom tosses out.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2006


    Feeling a little uninspired this evening. It might have something to do with the headache I've had since this morning when I had a closed-door meeting with another coworker who had something florally stinky in her office. I am allergic to florally stinky things and she has a very small office. She is technologically stressed out right now and some of the things we were meeting about were on her computer. So I've been droopy ever since. Though I did perk up for my meeting with the boss and when lunch time rolled around. Amazing how that works. I did find out about a really cool book group that I might have to drag myself to. It is called the Artist's Bookshelf and is a co-sponsored group with the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library and the Walker Art Center. The group focuses on shared themes between contemporary literature and contemporary art. Very cool. The next meeting is February 2 for a discussion of The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life, and Vice Versa by Michael Kimmelman. I just heard about this book recently and thought maybe I could read it in time, but even though the Friends of the Library are involved, the library isn't. There are only three copies of the book. One is locked up at the Central Library until it's grand opening in May. One is checked out until January 31st, and the other is due soon but has a hold on it. So I am aiming for the March 2nd discussion of Octavia Butler's Fledgling which I have sitting on my TBR shelf. There will be a related art exhibit at the time of the work of Kiki Smith. I am woefully deficient when it comes to contemporary art and know nothing about her but there will be a free tour of the exhibition before the book group meets. Having until March also gives me time to get through the books I am in the middle of as well as Where Shall Wisdom be Found? which I just picked up from the library today. Off to read!

    Monday, January 09, 2006

    Books and Television

    The Ghost Writer has a few stories within stories. Here is a bit from one of those that I found amusing. Frederick is a writer, a poet to be exact:

    She was still absorbed in contemplation of Lydia's portrait when Frederick returned with the tea-tray. But he did not seem to notice, and instead launched into an account of how he had that morning read and reviewed four three-decker novels without cutting a single page, delivered his copy, and sold all four in pristine condition in Fleet Street in time for lunch. Julia felt a certain pang at the thought of judgment being passed so lightly upon all those months or years of hard authorial labour.
    That explains quite a bit about some reviews I've read! I have decided not to cover up the scary woman's face on the book's cover because even if I can't see it, I will know it is there. And knowing it is there is worse than actually seeing it. And in it's so stupid the government must have thought of it news, US television signals are set to go 100% digital as of February 17, 2009. There are an estimated 70 million TV sets that will be affected. Mine is one of them. 50 million of these sets are hooked up to cable or satellite and will be fine. But 20 million of them, mine included, will no longer be able to pick up a TV signal. Since I only watch 1-2 hours of television a week, I don't really care. But my government cares. Congress has set aside $1.5 billion--billion!--in order to issue vouchers to the folks who have outdated TVs. I'll be eligible for not one, but two vouchers worth $40 each (I'm not sure why two vouchers and not one for $80). I am then to go buy a converter box so I can continue to watch the mind-numbing crap that passes for entertainment these days. I have an idea. Why doesn't the government issue vouchers that can be used for books? Now that would truly be money well spent.

    Sunday, January 08, 2006


    And old word that should be brought back into common usage: Stultiloquy. It means foolish babbling as in "The politician gave an excellent stultiloquy. "Stultiloquence" might also be useful. Both words are from the Latin "stultiloquus", speaking foolishly, which is derived from "stultus", foolish, plus "loquus", that speaks. This pithy is word is gleaned from World Wide Words. In case you have not heard, M.H. Abrams is retiring from his post as editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, the cornerstone of college English Lit survey classes. Taking over is Stephen Greenblatt who has been deputy editor since the 90s. I still have my edition from college. It's a fat and impressive book to have on the shelf. Plus, it comes in handy for reference. I spent some time with Clarissa last night. She's gone from trying not to marry Mr. Solmes to trying not to marry Mr. Lovelace. Between Clarissa's friend Anna Howe encouraging her to marry Lovelace as soon as possible and Lovelace proposing to Clarissa as frequently as propriety permits, Clarissa is doomed. I wouldn't think she could hold out for long, but she's already proven to be a stubborn girl and there's no telling how many pages of her letters of woe I'll have to get through before she gives in. I also spent some time with Brian Greene. For the most part I've gotten over my fear of the earth's oxygen having a quantum moment and reappearing on the dark side of the moon. We've moved on to something even weirder. That is the universe is nonlocal. What that means is that particles have pairs and what you do to one particle over here also affects its partner particle over there, even if the particles are miles and miles apart, even if the particles are a universe apart. Imagine the implications. Go ahead. Go imagine. And have a nice Sunday while you're at it.

    Saturday, January 07, 2006

    Socrates was an Ugly Dude with a Beautiful Soul

    Like most of Montaigne's essays, "On Physiognomy" ranges far and wide. Montaigne is a man who thinks on paper. He begins with a kernel of an idea, and as he writes it brings up another idea and off he goes following a new thread until he brings it back around to the original kernel for a bit and then off he goes again, chasing down another thought. The kernel in this particular essay is Socrates. He was an ugly man. By the standards of the art of physiognomy, he should have been a cruel and horrible person. Socrates even commented that his soul would indeed be ugly if he had not corrected it by education. Montaigne notes the irony of an ugly man so in love with all that is beautiful. While Socrates had ugly packaging, there has never been a man whose thinking is more sublime, yet simple, according to Montaigne. Socrates drew his inductions from the ordinary and common, he "keeps his feet on the ground, dealing with the most useful subjects at a quiet and everyday pace, advancing at the rate of human life towards both death and the harshest of ordeals that can ever occur." His ideas are commonplace and unadorned, whereas Montaigne sees his contemporary society (and it could be said of ours too) "has been prepared to appreciate nothing but ostentation: nowadays you can fill men up with nothing but wind and then bounce them about like balloons." The beauty of Socrates is that he teaches us we "are richer than we think" and that it all lies within. Not only that, he shows us how to find the riches and make use of them. For all of Montaigne's philosophizing throughout his essays, here he comes to believe that philosophy is useless unless it teaches a person how to live. But except for Socrates, Montaigne finds that "philosophy...commands us to have death ever before our eyes, to anticipate it and to consider it beforehand, and then she gives us rules and caveats in order to forestall our being hurt by our reflections and our foresight!" Montaigne has come to realize that dying is easy, "if you do not know how to die, never mind. Nature will tell you how to do it on the spot, plainly and adequately. She will do this job for you most punctiliously: do not worry about it." Philosophy makes a mistake in being concerned with teaching how to die. Montaigne concludes it is not right to teach people how to die when they don't know how to live. "Death is indeed the ending of life," he writes, "but it is not its objective. Life must be its own objective, its own purpose." There you have the kernel of the essay. Montaigne's thoughts on the purpose of philosophy and on death have taken a 180° turn from where they were previously. Way back in "To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die" I didn't like him so much. But here he proves to be an okay guy. Places that his thoughts zoom off to in this essay: peasants teach us simplicity; the Wars of Religion and war in general; desire for and dangers of knowledge; the plague and its effects on him personally; his essays and the quotations he borrows; his own good looks and how they have twice helped him out of a dangerous situations. Montaigne has a tendency to romanticize the peasants, but he offers up interesting thoughts on all of the topics he touches on. I will not go into them here, but read the essay sometime if you get the chance. Next week is the last Montaigne essay: "On Experience"

    Thursday, January 05, 2006

    Squeamish Beware

    Along with the books that I am reading, I keep several books next to the bed that I am not reading. These books are, theoretically, Up Next. But the Up Next books seldom are. They sit there for weeks or months as I pass them by for books I requested from the library or books just bought or a passing whim. I either eventually get to the Up Next books or I get so tired of looking at them I switch them out with other books from the TBR shelf. I decided last night that I really did need a break from the long books I am in the middle of and actually picked up and Up Next book. The Ghost Writer by John Harwood has been an Up Next book for about six months. It grabbed me from the first page. It has delightfully gothic undertones and some passages that gave me the creeps like this one:

    Instead of mayflies we had Portuguese millipedes, uncountable armies of them, coming up out of the leaf litter when the autumn rain set in, armoured, segmented, swarming towards light. In winter, if my father forgot to spray the paths, the inside walls [of the house] would turn black overnight.
    But that is just the start of the bugs, there's more:
    In summer the millipedes went underground and the ants came in, an endless black column that no amount of poison would keep out of the food cupboard for more than a few hours. Kitchen ants were not supposed to bite but if you stood too long barefoot near one of their trails you would feel the nip nip nip of tiny jaws. Outside in the yard we had fierce orange bull ants whose bite was like a red-hot needle; and, for a season, two nests of the dreaded inchmen. Half a dozen of those could put you in hospital; if you slipped and fell against the mound you were as good as dead. Likewise if you were foolish enough to leave an open can of soft drink unguarded: a wasp would climb in through the hole, sting your throat as you swallowed and you would choke to death. Funnel-web and redback spiders lurked in the woodpile behind the shed; you had to wear heavy rubber gloves to gather firewood until we changed over to bottled gas, and stamp very loudly as you approached in case a deadly brown snake like the one that killed Mrs. Noonan's cat was sharing the woodpile with the spiders.
    Had enough? No?
    At Staplefield they did not need flywire and could leave their windows open on summer nights. We had fine mesh screen on all the doors and windows, to keep out the small black flies which rose in clouds around the back door when anyone approached, clogging your eyes and nostrils and crawling into your ears, and huge lumbering blowflies that according to my mother vomited whatever they had last eaten over your food as soon as your back was turned. But no wire, however fine, would keep out the flying ants that swarmed on the first hot night of spring, worming through the mesh to form a dense cloud around the light bulb. In the morning, feebly twitching bodies lay in a drift of severed wings.
    Blech. The book is not about bugs, however. It is about Gerard who lives in Mawson, Australia and his penfriend Alice who lives somewhere in Sussex, England. The narrator is Gerard and in the beginning he is thirteen. His mother is possibly insane, at the least mentally ill. His father does not much of anything but go to work and come home and and play with his model trains in the garage. Gerard's mother is a little creepy. Gerard's penfriend is a little creepy. The bugs are a lot creepy. And the cover of the book is so creepy I cringe every time I look at it. It's the woman's face. It's on the spine too. I have to cover it up when I'm not reading it so I can't see it. I am a major chicken when it comes to horror. But this book isn't supposed to be a horror story, just gothic and creepy. We'll see if I can make it through. I wonder how long I will last before I have to put post-its over the woman's face?

    Wednesday, January 04, 2006


    Trawling through a few books of literary trivia I found out that Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela was a bestseller in its time. It, like Clarissa, is an epistolary novel. Richardson got lots of letter writing practice as a boy. At the age of 13 he regularly wrote love letters for three young women who didn't know what to write about to their lovers! I can only imagine what those letters must have been like. Richardson was also one of many authors placed on the Catholic Church's Index. Quite a surprise given the solid virtue of his heroines. Moving on to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was the first American lecturer known to have received a fee. He got $5 for himself and oats for his horse. And here are some things to make you feel both old and dumb:

  • Blaise Pacal invented his own geometry by age 11
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a novel before he was 13 and started college when he was 16
  • William Holmes McGuffey of McGuffey Reader fame, became a teacher at the age of 13
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson was composing blank verse by the time he was 8 and by 14 he'd written two plays a lots of poems
  • John Stuart Mill learned Greek by age 3 and was teaching his brothers Latin, Euclid and algebra by the time he was 8
  • Jean Arthur Rimbaud wrote one of his most famous poems, "Le Bateau Ivre," when he was only 16
  • These tidbits have been culled from The Literary Life and Other Curiosities and Literature Lover's Book of Lists

    Tuesday, January 03, 2006

    So Hard

    It's my first day back to work after the holidays and is was so hard. Besides having a few extra things to do because I was gone for a little over a week, it was as though I'd never had a vacation. Sigh. Maybe it's because I went back to work today, but I am sitting here looking at the books I am in the middle of and thinking, "I should start something new." A sign of stress or a sign of being crazy? I'll leave you to decide. I heard a review on NPR of a new book called The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. What caught, me aside from the reviewer's enthusiasm for the book, is that he described the main character as a young girl who loves to read. How can I not put this book on my wishlist? Ali Smith won the Whitbread today for The Accidental. She beat out the boys--Rushdie, Hornby and Wilson. You go girl! I have not read the book. Looks like I'll be adding that one to my wishlist too. I feel my New Year's Resolutions ebbing away already. And if you need further evidence that book publishers don't know a good book when they see it, The NY Times reports that The Sunday Times of London sent around to 20 publishers and agents two typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of two different novels. All but one of the people who received them rejected them. Turns out the books that were sent out were Stanley Middleton's Holiday and V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State. Both books have won a Booker and Naipaul won a Nobel in 2001. How sad is that?

    Monday, January 02, 2006


    Something has happened in Clarissa! Lovelace has--gasp!--tricked her into running away with him! It only took until page 370! Lovelace is either very patient, very desperate, or maybe a little of both to put up with Clarissa's dithering for that long. Of course Clarissa is shocked--shocked!--at Lovelace's betrayal and is living in a state of denial that her family will forgive her and take her back. Silly, silly girl. I've decided that Clarissa's problem is that she thinks her virtue will shield her from everything. Being polite and letting Lovelace know in person that she can't run away with him is more important than her personal safety. She can't imagine that the scoundrel would do anything to tarnish her reputation. She can't imagine that anyone would do anything to tarnish her reputation. It's the same with the piece of property her Grandfather left her. Instead of claiming it and moving there as an independent woman when she had the chance, she didn't want to make waves in the family so relinquished control of it to her father. Now look where it's gotten her. She is a very proud woman and while she might be a very virtuous proud woman, both her pride and her virtue get in the way of her seeing what is really going on. She lives in a fantasy world of her own devising and is ever surprised when her fantasy and real life don't mesh. What's Samuel Richardson playing at with this story? Is it a tale about hubris? Is it an example of how ladies should be virtuous to their doom? Or is it a story about how an unwillingness to compromise one's integrity will get you squashed like a bug by the big bad world? I've got another 1,000 pages to mull it all over.

    Sunday, January 01, 2006

    Resolution Time

    In the fine tradition of making New Year's resolutions knowing full well that they will be broken or forgotten before January is over, here is my attempt at some bookish discipline:

  • Buy fewer books. Who am I kidding on this one? I'm going to Hay in April!
  • Shrink the TBR shelf. The shelf has overflowed and is beginning to take over another shelf. If I buy fewer books I might be able to get the TBR shelf under control. This resolution is evidence that I am delusional.
  • Read a book that makes me tremble in despair like anything by James Joyce. I am currently reading a book on quantum physics yet I am terrified of Joyce. The terror stems from being forced to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school. Perhaps I will tackle that one, confront your fears and all that gibberish.
  • Read The Iliad and if I survive that, read The Odyssey. I have only ever read severe abridgments which basically amount to excerpts of both. Time to read some ur-texts.
  • Read Madame Bovary. I have not read it and I found out not long ago she is frequently referred to as "The Female Don Quixote." Since I read the adventures of the great knight in 2005, it seems only right that I investigate.
  • That's enough to keep me busy for a couple of years. So I suppose I should add one more resolution: read more. Happy New Year everybody. May 2006 be filled with plenty of good books and lots of time in which to read them!

    Just the Facts M'am

    Montaigne's essay "On the Lame" takes it's title from, as Montaigne describes it, a common Italian proverb: "he who has not lain with a lame woman does not know Venus in her sweet perfection." But the essay is not about sex, it's about peoples' willingness to believe just about anything. Montaigne is a man who wants the facts. But he doesn't want made up and imagined facts. He wants facts that are provable, a Renaissance man, he would have fit in well with the Enlightenment too. He complains that we let "our reasons often run ahead of the facts and enjoy such an infinitely wide jurisdiction that they are used to make judgements about the very void and nonentity." The imaginations, inventive powers and idle fancies of humans do us a disservice. Take, for example, miracles. Everyone loves a good miracle. The people who first see the alleged miracle, which amounts, in Montaigne's opinion, to something the witnesses just didn't understand, spread the story. Those who hear the story pick it up and embellish it and spread it and so on and so on and so on because "whoever believes anything reckons that it is a work of charity to convince someone else of it; and to do this he is not at all afraid to add, out of his own invention, whatever his story needs to overcome the resistance and the defects which he thinks there are in the other man's ability to grasp it." And it's not just miracles, it's this whole witch thing too. Montaigne lived during the beginnings of the European witch craze. He was a good Catholic and so believes in Church doctrine that says there are witches. However, he questions the methods and judgments by which men determine whether or not someone is a witch. Montaigne suggests that if there were a witch among them, God Himself would let them know and since He has not done this, then the whole witch thing is matter of opinion. "It is," he writes, "to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them." It was not uncommon for those who protested witch burnings to be accused and burned as a witch. Montaigne knows that: "I am well aware that folks get angry and forbid me to have any doubts about witches on pain of fearsome retribution. A new form or persuasion! Thanks be to God my credo is not to be managed by thumps from anyone's fists." The problem with things like miracles and witches is that when you confront someone about it and ask them for the facts, "they spend more time finding reasons for them than finding out whether they are true. They ignore the whats and expiate on the whys". If he had sons to bring up, Montaigne asserts that he would teach them when venturing an opinion to say such things as "perhaps," "some," "they say," and "I think." He would also teach them, when hearing someone else's opinion, especially if it is given as a fact, to ask things like "what does this mean?" "I do not understand that," and "is that true?" Everyone likes to have an opinion and some of the most celebrated opinions are born from "vain beginnings and trivial causes" (WMDs anyone?). These beginnings are why it makes it so difficult to inquire into them, "for while we are looking for powerful causes and weighty ends worthy of such great fame we lose the real ones: they are so tiny that they escape our view. And indeed for such investigations we need a very wise, diligent and subtle investigator, who is neither partial nor prejudiced." It is difficult to "stiffen your judgement against widely held opinions." Who hasn't at one time or other been swayed by the unfounded opinion of others, only to come to your senses later wondering, "what was I thinking?" It is especially difficult to "stiffen your judgement" when those who have the means to enforce their opinions do so "by commands, force, fire and sword." This makes speaking out or even asking a question, a dangerous thing to do. You're either with us or against us. And if you're against us, that must mean you are a witch or a communist or a terrorist. Montaigne wrote, "it is wretched to be reduced to the point where the best touchstone of truth has become the multitude of believers, at a time when the fools in the crowd are so much more numerous than the wise." Wretched indeed. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Physiognomy"