Literary Steps

Came across this photo of great books steps at a university in Lebanon in a post on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog. As a long time list-maker (who did a lot of it when I co-produced a show on world literature),  I’m always interested in choices of this kind.

Lots of these make sense to me, Gilgamesh is an inevitable and reasonable starting point.  I don’t read Arabic so can’t assess those titles. The others are mostly good company, whether literary monuments like Goethe or Dante, or core philosophy texts from The Republic to Thus Spake Zarathustra. And while I get while The Prophet, Steven Hawking, and even Toynbee are there. But the final step appears to be Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead has me a bit stumped, although acknowledgment of the digital age is valid, and perhaps what seemed like a tepid read 20 years ago or so has aged better than I would have predicted. But in the company of Descartes? Kant?  For reals?

I like the collection of books that the Kansas City Public Library built into its architecture too:

Photo by Dean Hochman, Flickr.
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Commonplace Book: Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith (of theThe No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series among many other books) has penned a gentle tribute to W. H. Auden. He’s an enthusiast rather than a scholar in my view, and these “How writer x can change your life” usually leave me cold (is there nothing that can’t be instrumentalized into self-help, even reading for pleasure?)  But this effort charmed me. Here he is recalling a trip to a speaking engagement in Perthshire, Scotland, a beautiful landscape that sets up his claim for the central role books play in the Scottish character.


The library lay at the end of the Roman Road, surrounded by fields in which wheat and barley were yet to ripen—lush green paddocks half-hidden by unruly hedgerows. Rioting nettles, clumps of blackthorn and rowan, wide-leafed docken grew along the side of the road until suddenly we reached an old schoolhouse and an ancient graveyard of weathered gray stones. The organizers appeared and introduced themselves, and I was taken to see the library before the guests arrived.

Belief in the word can assume the qualities of a religious faith. At the time when Lord Drummond built this place to house his precious collection of books, Scotland was prone to outbreaks of lawlessness and fierce local enmities. The lives of many were lived under the heel of powerful local clan chiefs who administered rough justice. Life was hard in every respect: this was not the rich landscape of settled England—Highland Scotland was a place in which people scraped a living and more often than not went to bed hungry.

It was a place of strong religious views. The Scottish Reformation was late but had been passionate and had brought with it a commitment to the setting up of a school in every parish. What later came to be seen as a strong Scottish commitment to education had its roots in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Books were the instruments of truth. Books were the means by which the poor could free themselves of what Auden once described as “the suffering to which they are fairly accustomed.” This attitude toward books has stubbornly survived in Scotland, mirroring, perhaps, the Irish attitude to music: both are consolations that will, in their individual way, always see one through.

Bookstore Quotes and Memories

Loving bookstores and libraries is a trait I inherited from my parents (and theirs) and probably share with many readers of this blog.

Sad to say they are a dwindling breed in D.C. (although far from extinct).  Years ago we had the Trover Shops (three, including a wonderfully quirky one on Capitol Hill), Chapters, on 15th, and Borders (various places including the one where a clothing store is now).  There were lots of others too…Crown Books (a  chain, but would suffice in a pinch. Walden Books similarly.)

There was a drama bookshop in Dupont Circle, as well as Lambda Rising (LGTB bookstores becoming a thing of the past provides a bittersweet touch to progress).  Olsson’s was all over, downtown, Georgetown, and a particularly charming one in Old Town Alexandria. Two stories and lots of wood.

We still have a good set. In fact, Politics and Prose has opened another branch in the Navy Yard, which is encouraging. But I do miss that downstairs at Trover Shop, where Congressional biographies, and tomes on tax law would jostle Chekhov and Shirley Jackson. You never knew what you would find.


And to wrap up, a bit from Calvino on the actual sections of a bookstore:

– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”
— Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”  — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Books as Luxury Goods

TechCrunch has an interesting piece on the difference between print and e-books. It is written by Chris Lavergne, identified as “the CEO of Thought.is and the publisher of Thought Catalog” both unknown to me. (And visits to the sites are a bit mystifying–I think I miss some of the context, or are so far from the core audience that it goes over my head.)

But the bit of the article that caught my eye was a discourse about electronic publishing versus real books:

“The medium is indeed the message

We were surprised to learn that print books and digital books were almost two distinct businesses with totally different operating models. While a print book and an e-book share identical content, they reflect diametrically opposed media formats. Print books are luxury goods and e-books are utility, and this has real implications in the strategy and workflow behind the marketing and production of each.

This technical distinction is also present in consumer behavior. E-books — with their instant access and cheap prices — sell generally 6x more quantities than print books for us. That said, a print book will generally generate 7x more revenue than an e-book. It’s hard to generate revenue on an e-book because the whole premise of the platform is: I want this quickly and at the cheapest price possible. The premise of a print book in the digital age is driven by luxury: I read better on paper… or… I like the feeling of turning a page.

You can’t create much markup on utility, whereas you can create a great deal of markup on luxury. This has been perhaps one of the most important insights driving Thought Catalog Books’ growth. The print books department needs to be run like a luxury goods company, while the e-book department needs to be run like a technology company. The content is the same, but the medium dictates an entirely different business model.”

 

This seems plausible (if arguable) to me. I’m not much of an e-book reader, not because I’m opposed to the format, but just because of the long habit of print books, and more cognitive comfort and personal efficiency with them. (But I do read them once in a while, because I don’t buy them they tend to be oddball classics I can get off of Project Gutenberg. Currently it’s Three Men and a Boat, and previously I read News from Nowhere on my IPad, a singularly inappropriate title for an e-reader, given William Morris’ attitudes about technology).

Books aren’t luxury items for me–luckily enough, but I can see that for somebody who was born digital, books, magazines and eventually newspapers too, are prestige items (like the encyclopedia sets of my youth, or the solemn, and generally unread, volumes by Will and Ariel Durant). It’s an odd thought: a once dominant (and for me still far more companionable and effective) medium is now becoming a prestige lifestyle accessory. What could that status mean for libraries and for publishers? And how might ebooks with their different business model (if the article is correct) find an incentive to address access and literacy world-wide, given that more people have access to electronic devices now than have access to toilets according to the U.N.

Commonplace Book: The Indirect Way

Enjoying economist John Kay’s Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, from which comes this tidbit.

obIn business, in politics, and in our personal lives, we do not often solve problems directly. The objectives we manage are multiple, incommensurable and partly incompatible. The consequences of what we do depend on responses, both natural and human, that we cannot predict. The systems we try to manage are too complex for us to fully understand. We never have the information about the problem, or the future we face that we might wish for

Satisfactory responses in these situations are the result of action, but not the execution of design. These outcomes, achieved obliquely, are the result of iteration and adaptation, experiment and discovery. “Reengineering”–“tossing aside all systems and starting over”–is called for only when systems are seriously dysfunctional. And in almost all cases, the best means of reengineering is not “going back to the beginning and inventing a better way of doing work” but trying models that have been successfully tested elsewhere. This is equally true of our personal lives, our corporate organizations and our social and economic structures.

Random_walk_in2D_closeup
A random walk: as John Kay might say, the best kind.

Commonplace Book: In Praise of, well, books

A couple of quotes about books I’ve encountered recently and wanted to keep track of:

tamerlane
Rare E.A. Poe juvenilia, and much sought by book thieves.

“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon… The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes.” –Umberto Eco

Tipped by a nice post by Adrian Shaughnessy’s post “Books. Still not dead.” on Design Observer

And from Travis McDade’s Thieves of Book Row

“The university I attended, and still attend, is every approachable bookshelf within my knowledge.” Charles Romm, (alas a notorious book thief himself).

Commonplace Book

A few tidbits gleaned from recent reading:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

An inspirational preamble in a book on math pedagogy (subject of my current work project).


In the summer of 1943 I was eight, and my father and mother and small brother and I were at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs. A hot wind blew through that summer, blew until it seemed that before August broke, all the dust in Kansas would be in Colorado, would have drifted over the tar-paper barracks and the temporary strip and stopped only when it hit Pikes Peak. There was not much to do, a summer like that: there was the day they brought in the first B-29, an event to remember but scarcely a vacation program. There was an Officers’ Club, but no swimming pool; all the Officers Club’ had of interest was artificial blue rain behind the bar. The rain interested me a good deal, but I could not spend the summer watching it, so we went, my brother and I, to the movies.

We went three or four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”

As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.

 An unforgettable narrative voice. The opening of Joan Didion’s essay, “John Wayne: A Love Story”


“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”

— R.K. Narayan on a feeling I too have had in many libraries.


And to match elegance in prose, a page from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ Kelmscott Chaucer. Saw a copy in person at the Fogg last week; wow.

chaucer

Commonplace Book: Jacques Bonnet

BonnetStill dipping into Phantom of the Bookshelves, one of those charming books on books that show up from time to time. Chapter 7 addresses a phenomena that many readers encounter.

 

Chapter 7

Real People, Fictional Characters

“The best bacon omelettes I have eaten in my life have been with Alexandre Dumas.”  — Jacques Laurent

Hundreds of thousands of people live in my library. Some are real, others are fictional. The real ones are the so-called imaginary characters in the works of literature, the fictional ones are their authors. We know everything about the former, or at least as much as we are meant to know, everything that is written about a given character in a novel, a story, or a poem in which he or she figures. This character has not grown any older since the author brought him or her into existence, and will remain the same for all eternity. When we hold in our hand the text or texts in which such a person appears, it feels as if we are in possession of everything the author wanted us to know about the character’s acts, words and sometimes, thoughts. The rest doesn’t matter. Nothing is hidden from us. For us, a novel’s characters are real. We may be free to imagine what we don’t know about them, though we know quite well that these are just guesses. And we are free to interpret their words or their silences, but again these will just be interpretations. We know quite a lot about Odysseus, Aeneas or Don Quixote, correspondingly little about Homer, Virgil or Cervantes. Sometimes characters are even deprived of an author as if their creator had discreetly sipped away. Who made up the first version of Don Juan? Who invented Faust? And while we feel sure that Harpagon, Tartuffe or Monsieur Jourdain undeniably exist, what do we know in the end about a certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, whose stage name was Molière. Not very much, not even whether he really wrote all the plays attributed to him.

[…]

Authors are just fictional people, about whom we have a few biographical elements, never enough to make them truly real people. Whereas the biography of a literary character, even if it is incomplete–and explicitly so–is perfectly reliable: it is whatever its creator decided.

malgudi
A real map of a fictional place, R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, which is nonetheless a place that was very real to me when I fell in love with his books in my twenties.

Thought-Provoking Words

From a fascinating review by Gregory Radick of Piers J. Hale’s
POLITICAL DESCENT
Malthus, mutualism, and the politics of evolution in Victorian England in the TLS.

Sheds light on the ideological uses made of Darwin, and many connections across realms that were surprising to me at least.

Near the end he has a side comment about eugenics, from the “future is already here and encoding inequality” beat that is truly eye-opening.

220px-DNA_replication_en.svg
Eugenics, another luxury bauble of late capitalism?

As a scientific-political programme, the deliberate breeding of better humans or, as it came to be known, “eugenics” – another period neologism, introduced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1883 – never recovered from its association with the Nazi death camps. Until then, however, it had enjoyed broad appeal across the political spectrum. In Britain, members of the Malthusian Left who gathered in the Fabian Society, including Shaw, Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were among the earliest supporters. Their preferred means for bringing about a eugenic future was education. The historical lesson many have drawn is that eugenics, however well intentioned, is inevitably coercive and ultimately murderous. But that is not the only possible lesson, and maybe not the best one. In 1996, after a year spent with the Human Genome Project at the behest of the US Library of Congress, the philosopher Philip Kitcher published a remarkable book, The Lives To Come, arguing that, whether we like it or not, the genetic technologies now available make eugenics inescapable, so the choice we face is about the kind of eugenics we have. In Kitcher’s view, the Nazis showed in extremis what not to do, while the Fabians offer more positive inspiration. Better, Kitcher suggests, to teach young people how to think through the social consequences of their reproductive choices, in a society committed to realizing human potential to the full, than to collude with the present regime of “laissez-faire eugenics”, in which those with enough money can buy whatever genetic improvements they can afford, and the rest can fend for themselves.

“Those with enough money can buy whatever [ …] improvements they can afford, and the rest can fend for themselves.” A well-put statement of a widespread state of affairs.

Entire review is fascinating.

Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

Forgotten WaltzAfter slogging through a few disappointing novels recently, decided to treat myself to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz  to reset a bit. (Reading The Gathering a few years back was one of those gobsmacking moments in a reading life, up there with my first encounter of Penelope Fitzgerald.)

Here is the narrator introducing her husband to the reader in a chapter headed, “Love is like a cigarette”:

Let’s start with Conor. Conor is easy. Let’s say he has already arrived, that afternoon in Enniskerry. When I go back into the kitchen he is there, lingering and listening, having a good time. Conor is low and burly and, in the summer of 2002, he is my idea of fun.

Conor never takes his jacket off. Under the jacket is a cardigan, then a shirt, then a T-shirt and under that a tattoo. The wide strap of his bag is slung across his chest, keeping everything tamped down. he is on the mooch. This man never stops checking around him, as though for food. In fact, if he is near food he will be eating it – but neatly, in an intelligent, listening sort of way. his eyes keep traveling the floor and if he looks up it is with great charm: he is caught by something you have said, he thinks you are funny. He might seem preoccupied, but this guy is ready for a good time.

I loved Conor, so I know what I am talking about here. He comes from a line of shopkeepers and pub owners in Youghal, so he likes to watch people and smile. I used to like this about him. And I liked the bag, it was trendy, and his glasses were trendy too, thick-rimmed and sort of fifties, and he shaved his head, which usually annoyed me but it suited him because his skin was so brown and his skull so sizeable. And his neck was large, and his back bulged and sprouted hair from the shoulders down. What can I say? Sometimes it surprised me that the person I loved was so fantastically male, that the slabs of muscle were covered in slabs of solid fat and that the whole of him – all five foot nine, God help us – was fizzed up with hair, so that he became blurred at the edges, when he undressed. No one had told me you could like that sort of thing. But I did.

 

If this style speaks to you, you should go read it. I assure you she manages this deft tonal control–as well as providing an extraordinary vision of a very commonplace set of human predicaments–for all 259 pages.