Monday, June 30, 2008

Hundreds and thousands

Justine Larbalestier has written a thousand blog posts! Hmmmm, word counts certainly do accumulate alarmingly on these things--go and see what she says about the appeal of blogging, I quite agree...

(And perhaps more to the point, pre-order yourself a copy of the truly excellent How To Ditch Your Fairy. I am proud to say that I read an earlier version of this in manuscript, and it is altogether delightful--I can't wait to read the final version!)

Canine costuming

Kant = dog. (Link courtesy of Jane!)


From Hendrik B. G. Casimir's contribution to Niels Bohr: His life and work as seen by his friends and colleagues, ed. S. Rozental:
Sometimes we could entice Bohr to come with us to see a Western or a gangster film we had selected. His comments were always remarkable because he used to introduce some of his ideas on observations and measurements into his criticism. Once, after a thoroughly stupid Tom Mix film, his verdict went about as follows: "I did not like that picture, it was too improbable. That the scoundrel runs off with the beautiful girl is logical, it always happens. That the bridge collapses under their carriage is unlikely but I am willing to accept it. That the heroine remains suspended in mid-air over a precipice is even more unlikely , but again I accept it, I am even willing to accept that at that very moment Tom Mix is coming by on his horse. But that at that very moment there should be a fellow with a motion picture camera to film the whole business that is more than I am willing to believe."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Eel redux

At the Sunday Times, Matt Rudd discusses two new books about wild swimming (I am thinking that Kate Rew's is the one I must get):
Guides to the best wild swimming in Britain are like buses. None for years, then two in a month. It's not quite a trend but we could pretend it is, couldn't we, please, because wild swimming is the one thing that can make everything all right again. No really. It's the thing we've lost in all the health-and-safety tape and the chlorine. We have boxed ourselves into a million turquoise rectangles. Both these books reignite that basic desire to run to the nearest riverbank, tear off all your clothes and jump in. Then jump out again because it's f-f-f-f-f-freezing.

Wild Swim, bus number one, describes the entering of wild waters as a passport to a different world, or worlds. A touch hyperbolic, but bus number two, Wild Swimming, goes further, citing the naturalist Sir Alistair Hardy's evolutionary theory that being in water is more than just a pleasure, it is at the core of the human condition. “During the 10m years of Pliocene world droughts, while our species was busy evolving into uprightness, we did not, suggests Hardy, choose the arid deserts of Africa as our home, but the more tempting shallows of the nearby Indian Ocean. Our subsequent life on dry land is a relatively recent and bereft affair.”

More eel

At the FT, Rahul Jacob lunches with Michael Palin.

Eel two ways

Nico dines on jellied eels.

Friday, June 27, 2008

More nibbly

Carnegie medal winner Emily Gravett employed rats to nibble and pee on the paper she used to paint the pictures for Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears (the story is by Charlotte Higgins at the Guardian):
Over the six-month period in which she was creating the book, Gravett would leave plain pieces of cartridge paper painted with yoghurt in the rats' cage. After a few days, when it came to cleaning it out, she would retrieve a chewed up, peed-on sheet. She then scanned the paper and used the resultant image, mostly overlaying it on to a more textured sheet of paper to create the look she wanted.

Usually, the pee would have dried. Once or twice, it hadn't, leaving Gravett with the "disgusting" task of wiping her scanner clean of rat urine.

Button, she said, was the artistic rat, being "more nibbly" - for which, perhaps, read greedy, because he was also "hugely obese". And they were both marvellous pets, confirmed the author - "just like very small dogs".

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Second best tomorrow

I am a thoroughly predictable creature...

I read this blog post and what did I do?

Yep. Ordered the book from Amazon--mmmmm, that is now the book I most want to read in the world...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The 'traffic'

At the LRB, Jenny Diski has a depressing but interesting piece about visiting South Africa.

Animal doubles

I have just finished reading a most extraordinary book, Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. Hmmm, if I had realized it would be quite such a spectacular read, I would have gotten to it sooner, that is poor book hygiene on my part...

(I am not sure the title really does the book justice. The book itself has a truly novelistic richness, and one of its central interests is the interaction between the nomadic reindeer herders Vitebsky's writing about and the different incarnations of Soviet colonialism in transition during the aftermath of the empire's breakup. Utterly fascinating. Would make an interesting pair with Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl...)

I will turn to the list format in an attempt to conjure up this book's delights, which lie in language as well as in what's said. Here are some passages that especially struck me:
A reindeer sees patterns rather than detail. A man can make a reindeer run towards his companion lying in wait by putting up his parka hood so that the edging of fine fur resembles the bristling shoulder hairs of a wolf with its head down ready to attack. But if two hunters imitate the silhouette of a reindeer, one bending down like a pantomime horse and the other lifting his bow or gun as antlers, it will approach them to investigate.

Fences of larch poles seemed spindly and incongruous on this massive, jagged landscape. But even more than mounted herders with dogs, they nakedly and explicitly directed the movement of reindeer. Apart from helicopters and vaccinations, fences were the main contribution of Soviet scientific management to reindeer herding. Just as the Great Wall of China was designed to deflect invading Mongol armies, so fences rerouted swarming reindeer herds as the ultimate sign that they were no longer wild. As you stumbled over the tussocks along the route of a fence and stepped around the leaning buttresses, and as you ran your hand along the rough coniferous bark of the springy yet firm horizontals, set far enough apart for a reindeer's head to poke through but not its body, you knew you were stroking the very concept of migration control.

Below -40, the school would be closed and children sent home; helicopters and biplanes were not supposed to fly; saliva solidified before it hit the ground, and if you threw hot tea up into the air, it froze and tinkled downward in a patter of tiny crystals.

His best find was a sable in another trap. This would fetch 150 roubles. He sat down on the floor and neatly peeled the skin inside out off the sable's tiny body onto a wooden framework, gently drawing the five bony little fingers of each paw as if through a sleeve.

To a crackly brass-band recording of 'The Slavic Maiden's Farewell' (Stalin's favourite march), a procession of herders filed past a politicians' podium set up on the ice, holding placards aloft with the names of their districts and wearing their finest coats of brown reindeer fur, inlaid with elaborate designs in white. The patterns were mostly geometric and each one was distinctive to a particular village or woman, but some were experimental and one represented a space rocket, complete with strips of exhaust in white reindeer fur.
There is a most amazing description of a white reindeer that has become "intolerably disobedient" being tied to a tree and having "every scrap of antler" sawed off, "right down to the pedicle." The other reindeer come up and kick it, the attacks becoming increasingly violent until finally the reindeer moves off alone and stands in isolation. "I had a sense of reindeer sociality," Vitebsky comments, "of a team that had become exasperated with the bad behaviour of one of their colleagues." The scene of conversation that follows is utterly charming...

And another striking passage concerns the grandfather of one of the older herders, who traveled to Finland in the early 1920s as informant for a linguist making a dictionary of Eveny:
When the political climate hardened in the late 1920s, he was arrested because he had been abroad, and died in prison. The book, a monumental description of the dialect of Sakkyryr, the village built to command the region where the Nikitins traditionally migrated, took fifty years and a second editor before it was ready for publication as a learned tome, with commentary in German. Copies are shelved in scholarly libraries around the world (though it is very specialized and no one in Cambridge had ever signed it out before me). Nikitin's ancestor was killed for telling someone the Eveny words for the objects and processes that make it possible to stay alive on the landscape: the nouns for the kinds of reindeer, the verbs for handling them, the adverbs that explain how these actions are performed: quickly, slowly, tightly, loosely, like this, like that. Probably neither of those scholars in Finland knew what had happened to the man who was the source of the material that had become their life's work.
And the description of how alcohol led the village, in the 1990s, "to resemble a horror movie in which people succumb ed one by one to a zombie plague" is also quite extraordinary; so is the episode, briefly alluded to, in which one of Vitebsky's students get Congress "to spend a million dollars sending reindeer herders from around the Sakha Republic to learn consumer-friendly meat packaging with Doug Drum, known as the Sausage King of Alaska"...

But I will stop here. Highly recommended, in case you could not tell!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Camp pie

From Frank Hedges Butler, Through Lapland with Skis & Reindeer, With Some Account of Ancient Lapland and the Murman Coast (1917; London: T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., 1919):
Living in a cold climate like England, which is only habitable with the aid of the Gulf Stream, makes it natural to go north, and once above the Polar Circle one feels a different being. Monte Carlo for society, dust, wind, and at times cold, Cairo for heat, and British East Africa for big-game shooting, are interesting to visit; but for a real health-giving holiday and rest, latitude 64˚ and higher is difficult to beat. In a few years it will rival Switzerland and large hotels will be built.
At Tromsö on our way up we had telephoned to the Lensman, Herr Hegge, at Karasjok, and he kindly got us two vappus and twelve reindeer, and after three day's journey they arrived at Bosskop. We were sorry to leave Bosskop, but had to prepare now for our departure, and the first thing was to see to our warm clothes for the cold journey and to our provisions.

The chop-boxes were the same I had used in Central Africa when big-game shooting, and were found just the right size to fit on to the sledges. Our provisions consisted of fresh reindeer meat, bread, plain biscuits, tea, sugar, chocolate, French sardines, Danish butter, soups, cheese, jam and marmalade, pepper and salt, Worcester sauce and piccalilli onions, potted meats, Yorkshire ham, bacon, sausages, condensed milk, tinned asparagus from Los Angeles, peas, vegetables, camp pies, service rations, plum puddings, raisins and figs, dried fruits, and rice cakes. We carried also many useful things, including a Primus stove, candles, soap, electric light torches, old Cognac brandy, port and whisky and kümmel, tobacco and cigars and cigarettes, to give to the Lapp girls when photographing them, and sweets for the Lapp children.
Bonus links:

The Frank Hedges Butler albums at the Royal Aero Trust sound absolutely delightful! Hmmmm, if I were a historian instead of a literary critic, I would be able to spend blissful weeks delving around in such things and conceptualizing it as work:
Frank Hedges Butler, a balloonist and pioneer of flying, was born in London on 17 December 1855. He died in 1928. The son of a wine merchant, and one of the first persons in England to own a motor-car, he became the first Hon. Treasurer of the Royal Automobile Club. In September 1901 he made an ascent in a balloon "The City of York" from Crystal Palace in London, accompanied by his daughter Vera and the Hon. Charles Rolls (later of Rolls-Royce). While flying over Sidcup, Vera suggested the formation of an Aero Club and so the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was founded, which in 1910 became the Royal Aero Club. Frank Hedges Butler was the author of a number of books including: "Fifty years of travel by land, water and air".

There are 20 Hedges Butler Albums in the Royal Aero Club Collection. These contain press cuttings, letters, documents, aviation-related sheet music and photographs dealing with aviation paraphernalia and aerial vehicles such as kites, balloons, airships, early gliders and aeroplanes, as well as flying training, etc. The earliest of the press cuttings is dated 1756.
I learn from this site that Miss Vera Hedges Butler was the first British woman to pass her driver's test, in 1900, though she had to drive all the way to Paris as the test had not yet been introduced in Britain... DNB entry for Frank Hedges Butler (Columbia subscribers only)... A few images via the National Portrait Gallery... An excerpt from Barbara Sjoholm's essay on Butler in the Antioch Review. (NB get that!)

(Image courtesy of this site.)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lappish lusciousness

I'm currently in a non-painful but slightly nerve-racking stage of novel-writing, one that's by now very familiar to me, in which I read a lot of books and glean from them some quantity of facts and sensibilities that will ultimately (sooner rather than later, I hope) make me ready to put all the books aside and plunge into the process of actually writing the actual book.

I'm still some days (weeks?) away from that stage, unfortunately, but I'm definitely reading some good stuff...

Here, I'm flagging some things from Lachesis Lapponica, or A Tour in Lapland, Now First Published from the Original Manuscript Journal of the Celebrated Linnaeus; by James Edward Smith, M.D., F.R.S., etc., President of the Linnaean Society, 2 vols. (London: White and Cochrane, 1811) that have nothing to do with anything I'm going to put in the novel but struck me as in one way or another rather enchanting and certainly blog-worthy:

1. I am just ridiculously in love with the language of eighteenth-century things! This opening description achingly nostalgically took me back to the language of the advertisements for stolen goods in 1710s and 1720s London which I borrowed for my first novel. There are all sorts of reasons why my academic specialty is eighteenth-century British literature, but some of them operate purely at the level of gut aesthetics, I find the words here utterly ravishing:
Having been appointed by the Royal Academy of Sciences to travel through Lapland, for the purpose of investigating the three kingdoms of Nature in that country, I prepared my wearing apparel and other necessaries for the journey as follows.

My clothes consisted of a light coat of Westgothland linsey-woolsey cloth without folds, lined with red shalloon, having small cuffs and collar of shag; leather breeches; a round wig; a green leather cap, and a pair of half boots. I carried a small leather bag, half an ell in length, but somewhat less in breadth, furnished on one side with hooks and eyes, so that it could be opened and shut at pleasure. This bag contained one shirt; two pair of false sleeves; two half shirts; an inkstand, pencase, microscope, and spying-glass; a gauze cap to protect me occasionally from the gnats; a comb; my journal, and a parcel of paper stitched for dying plants, both in folio; my manuscript Ornithology, Flora Uplandica, and Characteres generici. I wore a hanger at my side, and carried a small fowling-piece, as well as an octangular stick, graduated for the purpose of measuring. My pocket-book contained a passport from the Governor of Upsal, and a recommendation from the Academy.
2. A bit that made me laugh (in general, Linnaeus does not have an attractive personality, he is opinionated and irritable!):
. . . Here were three young birds and a spotted egg. Of these birds, one was as large as two fists, healthy and brisk, clothed all over with very soft long whitish feathers like wool. This we took away with us to the house. The other two were but half as large. The egg fell to pieces as I took it up, and contained only a small quantity of a thin watery fluid, the abominable smell of which I shall not venture to describe, lest I should excite as much disgust in my readers as myself.
3. Curiosities of the natural-historical sort:
Here was a woman supposed to labour under the misfortune of a brood of frogs in her stomach, owing to her having, in the course of the preceding spring, drunk water which contained the spawn of these animals. She thought she could feel three of them, and that herself, as well as persons who sat near her, could hear them croak. Her uneasiness was in some degree alleviated by drinking brandy. Salt had no effect in destroying the frogs. Another person, who for some years had had the same complaint, took doses of Nux Vomica, and was cured; but even this powerful remedy had been tried on this woman in vain. I advised her to try tar, but that she had already taken without success, having been obliged to throw it up again.
The editor is not very impressed with this account, and adds his own footnote:
Linnaeus writes as if he did not absolutely disbelieve the existence of these frogs, which were as much out of their place as Jonah in the whale's belly. The patient probably laboured under a debility of the stomach and bowels, not uncommon in a more luxurious state of society, which is attended with frequent internal noise from wind, especially when the mind is occasionally agitated. Yet the idea of frogs or toads in the stomach has often been credited. Not many years ago a story appeared in the Norwich paper, of a gentleman's servant having eaten toad-spawn with water cresses, which being hatched, occasioned dreadful uneasiness, till he brought up a large toad by means of an emetic; and this story was said to have been sworn before the mayor of Lynn, as if it had been really true.
4. Linguistic curiosities:
I was here told of a specific to destroy House Crickets (Gryllus domesticus), which consists of grated carrots mixed with arsenic. This they eat greedily, and are all infallibly poisoned.
Or, again:
We had not at this time tasted bread for several days, the stock we had brought with us being entirely exhausted. The rich milk of the reindeer was too luscious to be eaten without bread, and the ordinary or second-rate cheese occasioned such a degree of costiveness as I could no longer endure.

5. Most endearingly, on the Laplanders' relationship with their reindeer:
I could not help wondering how the Laplanders knew such of the herd as they had already milked, from the rest, as they turned each loose as soon as they had done with it. I was answered that every one of them had an appropriate name, which the owners knew perfectly. This seemed to me truly astonishing, as the form and colour are so much alike in all, and the latter varies in each individual every month. The size also varies according to the age of the animal. To be able to distinguish one from another among such multitudes, for they are like ants on an anthill, was beyond my comprehension.

Anagrams from home

One thing that's been cracking me up recently: the Personal Days tour blog!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Berlin walls

At the FT, the outrageously named Ludovic Hunter-Tilney interviews Lou Reed about the subsequent fortunes of his 1973 concept album Berlin.

Swag bellies

Under circumstances altogether different from those actually obtaining in my real life, I would not be at all averse to having a donkey...

"A kind of inevitable rotary way"

At the Guardian, Colm Toibin has an altogether lovely piece about what is certainly my favorite James novel, The Golden Bowl. (Hmmm, I've been thinking I want to reread that, this is another prompt...)

It is almost a pity to excerpt a piece that is so good as a whole, but here's an especially stimulating bit:
This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations the writer can begin to put substance on, changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mysteriously.

Mule tape

A rather amazing story at the Times about hunting wild hogs.

(And here's a bit from Ian Frazier's New Yorker story about feral pigs from a couple years ago.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

The size of a football or a pineapple

Werner Heisenberg's anecdote about fellow physicist Paul Dirac, describing a scene when they were traveling together to Japan, as given by Gino Segre in Faust in Copenhagen:
We were on the steamer from America to Japan, and I liked to take part in the social life on the steamer and, so, for instance, I took part in the dances in the evening. Paul, somehow, didn't like that too much but he would sit in a chair and look at the dances. Once I came back from a dance and took the chair beside him and he asked me, "Heisenberg, why do you dance?" I said, "Well, when there are nice girls, it is a pleasure to dance." He thought for a long time about it, and after about five minutes he said, "Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?"
Light reading this past week: Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (hmmm, I cannot tell how often I reread those books as a child, they certainly contributed deeply to my notion of what a story should be); and a very good thriller, a battered paperback which surfaced as I tidied things up the other week, Peter Abrahams' Hard Rain. You can see the plot twist coming a mile away, but it is nonetheless quite gripping...

Yesterday I was traveling, with airport hours to kill, but was lucky enough to have two highly suitable bits of light reading.

The first, Lee Child's Nothing to Lose, was altogether sublime. Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am obsessed with Child's Jack Reacher novels, which seem to me the utter pinnacle of light reading! Seriously, if you're thinking about writing a novel and you care at all about the virtues of popular fiction (pacing, voice, character, story-telling stuff), these books are worth a read. Lee Child is the Tiger Woods of light reading, he just does it better than everyone else, one feels oneself to be in the presence of greatness! I don't think this one's the best of 'em, but it's still amazingly good, far better than almost everything else that's out there. (Thanks to Levi for standing in line to get me a signed copy at BookExpo!)

The second was something of a disappointment, though even multiple disappointments has not been enough to make me stop reading this addictive series, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures: the latest installment of Laurell K. Hamilton's vampire hunter series, Blood Noir. Go and read the Amazon reviews, they are funny! The last one I read was quite good--it was more built on the original crime/thriller platform that made this series initially so appealing, along with reasonably good character and voice stuff. But the series devolved at some point into vampire-animal-shapeshifter erotica, and the thing about erotica is that it is not interesting to read, the characters are immaterial and there is virtually no plot! So that the weakest of these books just read like the stream-of-consciousness output of someone sitting in a room spooling out pages of wish-fulfillment. Hamilton's definitely got something special as a writer, or we would not all continue to read these books--but this one does not show her at her best...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The crash of skull against skull

More on Ferdinand Mount's autobiography, this time from Fiona MacCarthy in the TLS:
One of the chapters is entitled “Difficulties for Girls”. Those of us who were Mount’s Oxford contemporaries can vouch for what he calls his lack of “the elementary techniques of chatting up, or even chatting”. One dreaded being stranded at a drinks party with this modern incarnation of Sir Flopsy Bashville, the tongue-tied booby in a Restoration play. There was a hopeless purity about him. It is not at all surprising to discover from this book that while other Oxford freshmen were stocking up with Durex, he went out and bought himself a surplice costing £1 17s 6d. Infiltrated into a now rather famous flat in Woodstock Road, inhabited by four sex goddesses from Somerville, our inhibited hero does not know where to look. One of these alarmingly liberated girls, Margaret Callaghan, is now transformed into Baroness Jay of Paddington. Mount is fascinated by such changes worked by time.

Verbal hooks

A Luc Sante playlist at the Times' Paper Cuts blog.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cheap laughs...

... because we cannot always be high-minded round here!

At the Guardian, John Crace 'digests' Anne de Courcy's biography Snowdon:
Tony moved in a fast set in the 50s, and his animal magnetism made him irresistible to both sexes. I wouldn't want to be so vulgar as to say categorically that he might have been a homosexualist but I'm happy to infer that his relationship with the gloriously effete Jeremy Fry might have strayed beyond the bounds of normal aristocratic platonic idealism. And if it did, it was far removed from the vile buggery of the lower orders.

Women also threw themselves at Tony's perfectly chiselled body, and his sense of noblesse oblige led him into a lifelong string of affairs, one of which continues to this day. In order not to cause any distress to the living, I have chosen not to reveal this woman's name, though once she has croaked I will be happy to expose her in the Mail.

The idea!

Werner Heisenberg, "Quantum Theory and Its Interpretation," in Niels Bohr: His life and work as seen by his friends and colleagues, ed. S. Rozental:
Bohr's tendency to philosophical generalization was often stimulated by very simple games. Once, when on a lonely road I threw a stone at a distant telegraph post, and contrary to all expectations the stone hit, he said, "to aim at such a distant object and hit it, is of course impossible. But if one has the impudence to throw in that direction without aiming, and in addition to imagine something so absurd as that one might hit it, yes, then perhaps it can happen. The idea that something perhaps could happen can be stronger than practice and will."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Two lives

Claudia Dreifus interviews novelist and mathematician Manil Suri in the Science Times:

A. There used to be. For the longest time, I pursued my literary interests away from my professional work.

In math, in academia, there’s a strong pressure to do just one thing. You are not taken seriously if you have diverse interests. I remember a colleague who begged me not to tell anyone that he had a piano at home. He was afraid he wouldn’t be thought of as a dedicated mathematician.

So when I was working on my first novel, I didn’t tell people about what I was doing. When I went off to a writer’s colony, my academic colleagues assumed I was working on some esoteric government project. I had at the time a grant from the Air Force. They only learned about the novel after an excerpt was published in The New Yorker.

Many novelists have undemanding day jobs. But I have a profession which takes up huge parts of the psyche. While I worked, or floundered, on my first novel, I sometimes asked myself, “Why make literature?” I wondered if I shouldn’t devote myself exclusively to doing research and improving my standing as a mathematician. That push and pull has eased some since the successful publication of two novels.


A. Through finding innovative ways to do math outreach. That was the bridge.

Lately, I’ve been giving a talk, “The Mathematics of Fiction,” at literature conferences and writers’ colonies. The idea of deconstructing fiction into its simplest building-block components has a far-reaching mathematical analog which I try to bring out. Here at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, I’ve been designing a course where our students do a creative project that requires the use of math.


The Guardian features some of Clive Boursnell's photographs of the old Covent Garden Market.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hard peas

At the Observer, Lionel Shriver writes about her father:
I'm proud of my father and wouldn't be the same person raised by someone else. Yet I have one concern. A penchant for dissatisfaction is a great driver when you're young. At 80, it's self-destructive.

My father remains professionally active; he still writes and travels the world. Yet that proclivity for pushing himself further, always prowling for the next achievement now that the one he's just attained means nothing, is turning on him. No accomplishment is ever enough, no accolade sufficient. He seems haunted by an unfocused disappointment.

Considering that he's been president of a prestigious institution and written a stack of books, it's a mystery what exactly he castigates himself for not having done. I want him to feel replete, to take pride in his industrious, searching, reflective life and to relish the leisure of his twilight. My concern is self-interested. For if a capacity for satiety is not in his nature, it's probably not in mine.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"This is for me the new squid"

Exceptionally appealing writing in Christopher Hirst's Independent feature on fish:
Along with my kilo of Indian Ocean anchovies, I got a doctor fish, a moonfish, a pomfret and some homegrown treats in the form of razor clams, spiky sea-urchins, an ink-drenched cuttlefish and the X-rated geoducks, lolling in tumescent splendour like bivalve porn stars.

C J Jackson, director of the Billingsgate Seafood Training School and co-author of Leith's Fish Bible, briskly accomplished the cleaning of my catch. "The pomfret will need gutting," she said, peering round this plumpish, near-circular creature. "The guts are going to be ... here! As long as you can see the anal vent, you can find the guts." She said that most fish were fairly easy to deal with "as long as you get rid of the head and gills, the guts and the bloodline you'll be OK. I tend to cook fish on the bone. It's tastier, like meat on the bone." Her first step with the doctor fish was to snip off the fearsome scalpels.

Distant reading

Caleb Crain collects some excellent material on the problem of maintaining readerly hygiene in an age of textual surfeit.


At the FT, Sarah Murray on the allure of tiny furniture:
One extraordinary collection – the Beylerian Collection of Small Chairs, which was displayed last year at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design – includes chairs, made by artist and designer friends for George Beylerian, the founder of Material Connexion, a materials resource for designers and manufacturers.

The collection, which contains hundreds of items, includes everything from a chair made as a souvenir for the 1970s exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun to salesmen’s samples, such as an early 20th-century swivel desk chair and a 1940s steel patio chaise longue.

Iconic designer chairs are also represented in miniature form, including Gerrit Rietveld’s 1918 Red and Blue Chair made from painted wood, Josef Hoffmann’s armchair, the Sitzmachine of 1905, and Marcel Breuer’s 1925 Wassily Chair of steel and black leather.
The Beylerian Collection of Small Chairs--could there possibly be a better name?!? Here is a link with some pictures, and here's the page for the "Have a Seat!" exhibition. The image below is from the museum website.

Patio Chaise Lounge (United States), c. 1940s
Metal, vinyl
9 ½ x 15 ½ x 7 ½ in.


A delightful and disturbing Hans Christian Andersen story about a shirt collar. I am steeping myself in the world of these tales this week, and finding it an interesting place to spend some time...

(It seems to me unlikely that Andersen would have known the Herbert poem.)

The era of organisms

Freeman Dyson's beautiful mind. (Via Bookforum.)

"Don't let the demographic exclude you"

At the Guardian, Frank Cottrell Boyce praises Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go and offers a serious argument against the category of young adult fiction:
Having a runaway hero whose pursuers can not only see and track him, but can hear his thoughts too, makes for a tense read. It reminded me in some ways of the Bourne films, where the hero has to work in tiny moments - blinks in the eternal eye of the omnipresent CCTV. What else does this book remind me of? Well, the sexual politics and hysterical fundamentalist religion are bound to recall The Handmaid's Tale. The rural setting, the presence of the river and the pursuit will make you think of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Night of the Hunter

If I have one quibble, it is that I think it should be sitting proudly on the shelf next to these books, rather than being hidden away in the "young adult" ghetto. There's been a lot of fury among authors recently about the proposal to "age-band" children's books, but in a way they're too late. The real disaster has already happened. It's called "young adult" fiction. It used to be the case that you moved on from children's fiction to adult fiction, from The Owl Service, maybe, to Catcher in the Rye. There were, of course, some adult authors who were more fashionable with teenage readers than others - Salinger, Vonnegut, Maya Angelou. But these were chosen by teenagers themselves from the vast world of books. Some time ago, someone saw that trend and turned it into a demographic. Fortunes were made but something crucial was lost. We have already ghettoised teenagers' tastes in music, in clothes and - God forgive us - in food. Can't we at least let them share our reading? Is there anything more depressing than the sight of a "young adult" bookshelf in the corner of the shop. It's the literary equivalent of the "kids' menu" - something that says "please don't bother the grown-ups". If To Kill a Mockingbird were published today, that's where it would be placed, among the chicken nuggets.

This is not just a question of taste. It seems to me that the real purpose of stories and reading is to take you out of yourself and put you somewhere else. Anything that is made to be sold to a particular demographic, however, will always end up reflecting the superficial concerns of that demographic. I've lived through an era in which demographic-fixation murdered popular cinema and replaced a vibrant art form with a kind of digital holding-pen for teenage boys. I think we're in danger of doing the same to fiction. The best young adult fiction - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, A Swift Pure Cry, Noughts and Crosses and so on - strolls out of its category. I've no doubt at all that The Knife of Never Letting Go will do the same. Don't let the demographic exclude you.

"The child grew up and became a policeman"

At the LA Times, Ed Park has a divinely appealing piece about Jim Steinmeyer's Charles Fort biography. I must get that biography, I must read Charles Fort:
Before finding fame as the 20th century's greatest compiler and theorist of weird news, not to mention one of its most audacious and influential autodidacts, Charles Fort (1849-1932) was a journalist and pulp-story writer who amassed inventive ways to describe one thing in terms of something else. Among the few to glimpse these scraps was no less a literary titan than Theodore Dreiser, who was Fort's early magazine editor and steadfast champion. Bowled over, Dreiser offered to buy the odd collection from Fort. "They are better than any thesaurus," he raved, "a new help to letters."

. . . [S]ome of the 25,000 metaphors found their way into [Fort's] tenement-based pulp fiction and "The Outcast Manufacturers" (1909), his only novel. A sailor's forehead has "[e]xactly five wrinkles in it, as if it had been pressing upon banjo strings." One woman possesses a "nose like a tiny model of a subway entrance; nostrils almost perpendicular and shaped like the soles of tiny feet." Steinmeyer writes that Fort would often tinker with the metaphor as it was unfolding, as if "continually whispering into the reader's ear": "[S]he flushed a little -- flushes like goldfish in an aquarium, fluttering in her globe-like, colorless face -- goldfish in a globe of milk, perhaps -- or goldfish struggling in a globe of whitewash, have it."

"It's my interview, so we've got to stay with me"

Deborah Solomon butts heads with Gore Vidal.

"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"

I am sorry to say that it was another night when dinner was better than the play: a sorry state of affairs when the play is Hamlet....

(Short description: over-acting; cheap playing for laughs. Definitely recommended that you not go.)

The most dramatic scene I saw all evening I encountered on the walk over from the subway. (I suppose it was 80th or 81st St.) I came up upon a fellow holding his large brown-and-black brindled hound-type dog hard on the leash--the dog itself had its forepaws on some kind of wrought-iron fence-type thing, and it was eagerly straining towards a very handsome and imperturbable gray tabby cat sitting in the open window of the ground-floor brownstone apartment. Their gazes were locked, it was an amazing battle of wills--the cat was gloating, the dog was tormented!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Deranged penguins

My father and I had a very successful excursion in May that involved lunch here and a viewing of Iron Man at the multiplex a few blocks further up Broadway; it was a day of torrential downpours, we cabbed it across the park in an attempt to see this but the museum was so crowded that we recoiled in horror and beat a retreat on foot through a wet and deserted Central Park...

We laid a similar plan for this week, with Prince Caspian seeming the best bet out of what was available; but in a late-stage development, following the obtaining of a lunch reservation and two Narnian tickets, this review of Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World burst onto the horizon and necessitated a modest change of plan.

(It's playing at Film Forum through June 24 only, and if there is any way for you to get yourself in there and see it, please do so, it's really something quite out of the usual way--it will be shown on the Discovery Channel, I think, but it's well worth seeing on the big screen. Most astonishing and ravishing visual stuff, especially the diving sequences beneath the ice--extraordinary science-fictional sea creatures!--and some delightful interviews with scientists also. Seals; insane penguins; lava lakes! Fairly amazing...)

The Caspian tickets were non-refundable but the showtimes were somewhat incompatible, so we watched the first two-thirds of the movie and then left the theatre and took the subway downtown! I did not see the first Narnia movie; this one was enjoyable but nothing spectacular, though there was one very charming scene of the mice tying up a cat during the castle invasion. I was such a passionate devotee of those books when I was a kid, it is strange to see film adaptations--it's basically impossible for them to have the richness and complexity of the books. The opening chapters of this particular novel include the most vivid descriptions of the children's trek through the forest, including an account of cutting up a bear's carcass for meat that is surely one of the most graphic and memorable scenes in all of Lewis's fiction--not so much of that here, nor of the intense feeling of disagreement and dissatisfaction that arises in a party that has lost its way in the woods. And there is something insufficiently graceful about the way they do the animals, they are slightly grotesque...

(I do like seeing commercial movies, though. This trailer beforehand made me laugh so much, the tears were actually running down my face...)

Partial viewing--hmmm, not bad, it is a way of countering my sense that movies move a bit too slowly because of the way they are committed to a fixed pace as opposed to reading's user-determined ones... Last week, come to think of it, I saw the later two-thirds of an A. R. Gurney play that I cannot on the whole recommend--we had mistaken the curtain time for 8, it was seven, I got the phone call from my theatre-going companion around 7:05 and leaped into a cab. We were both in our seats by 7:25 or so, and it was hard to feel one had missed much--that is a slight and undistinguished comedy, though some of the acting was quite good (especially the actress playing the part of the mother). I am not a foodie, though it is nice when things are delicious I eat for sustenance and to a lesser extent companionship rather than primarily for interest and artistic enjoyment, but it was definitely one of those nights when dinner was better than the play.

A PhD in sitting on kitchen counters

In a slightly surreal Friday-morning development, I find my cousin George Pringle being interviewed by Russell Porter at BoingBoing TV...

Thursday, June 12, 2008


It seems to me regrettable but likely that the TLS reviewer of two recent books about the Neolithic monument has never heard of Spinal Tap....


My verdict on Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks channeling Ian Fleming for the latest Bond installment? Not bad, but seriously undermotivated....

I have not read Fleming for a long time, but I still think that the best of his novels are amazingly good, short and coiled and full of springy momentum: there's a real energy to them. I am a great admirer of Faulks's books, too; I think that Engleby and Charlotte Gray are my two favorites, but I like all of 'em a lot. The magic, however, is not there this time round...

It's partly, I think, that Faulks hews so close to Fleming's line that it feels like pastiche. (I agree with pretty much everything that this reviewer says.) And it raises the question of whether one really wants to read Bond pastiche, especially with the implicit racism/xenophobia that's an inevitable part of this kind of novel (I am not a monster of political correctness, I will unscrupulously reread older fiction steeped in now-suspect attitudes, but it seems to me somewhat odd that Faulks really felt like sitting down and writing this stuff!):
As the plane began its descent, Bond looked out of the window and lit a cigarette. Away to his left, he could see the tops of the Elburz mountains and, beyond them, a faint blue smudge that must be the southern waters of the Caspian Sea. Work had never previously taken him to the Middle East, and for this he was thankful. He regarded the lands between Cyprus and India as the thieving centre of the world. He'd visited Egypt as a child, when he was too young to remember, and had once spent a few days' leave in Beirut, but had found it little more than a smugglers' den--of diamonds from Sierra Leone, arms from Arabia and gold from Aleppo. It was true that the Lebanese women had been far more modern in their attitudes than he'd expected, but he'd been pleased to get back to London
In short, as I say, not bad, but you can do much better in this vein (and really the trouble it is not funny enough, it is butter-wouldn't-melt rather than properly tongue-in-cheek).

I am thinking I might reread some Fleming, but I would also steer the Abondoned reader towards the absolutely and altogether excellent and amusing and delightful The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue--only the second is explicitly Bondian, but they both offer a great fix for the spy-deprived--by Charles Stross, who was nicely profiled/interviewed in the Guardian earlier this week. Or towards Kevin Wignall or Peter Temple, if you want top-quality international suspense fiction of a more serious kind. Or, indeed, towards Lee Child, who seems to me to be writing books that are more imaginatively in the spirit of the best of Bondishness than anything more literally Bonded.

(I have not read Charlie Higson, but I must confess that I am curious, I must get hold of those books and see whether I like 'em. In fact despite all of this cavilling I quite enjoyed Faulks/Fleming and have made a mental note to procure at the library the Fleming novel which was always my favorite, though it is uncharacteristic of the Bond oeuvre as a whole: The Spy Who Loved Me! Because really in the universe of Light Reading, about 60% of all novels have female first-person narrators....)

(Thanks to Gautam for making sure the book arrived in my hands at the earliest possible moment.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A 9 by 9 array

From Reuters, via the New York Times website:
An Australian drugs trial lasting more than three months and costing taxpayers over A$1 million ($947,000) has been aborted after a number of jurors were found to have spent up to half the time playing Sudoku puzzles.

Sydney District Court Judge Peter Zahra cancelled the trial of two men on drugs conspiracy charges after the jury foreperson admitted that four to five jurors had been playing the addictive number sequence game, local media reported. The judge was alerted after some of the jurors were observed writing their notes vertically, rather than horizontally.
More commentary here.

"Too much traffic"

At the Independent, Jeremy Laurance quotes Marianne Legato on her father's stoical response to insomnia:
On another trip, my brother found him sitting on the edge of his bed, smoking, at three in the morning. 'What's the matter, Dad?' he asked. My father answered, pointing to his head: 'Too much traffic.'


Also at the LRB, James Davidson (no relation--though my Scottish grandfather would have found a way to lay genealogical claim to him, as he was convinced that any distinguished Davidson must be a branch of our family!) on myths of Atlantis. A nice example of a literary-critical essay with the richness and complexity of a fiction by Jorge Luis Borges--I believe I have a copy of Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes lying around somewhere, I should dig it out and give it a look....

The canonization

At the LRB, John Lanchester on the Library of America:
I am an abject fan of the Library. I own, I find, ten of its volumes: three of Parkman, one each of Henry James, Adams, Baldwin, Frost and Stevens, the new Wilson, and an anthology of writing about baseball. The books are lovely, lovely objects. They are about the nicest books I have. American books are in general printed to much higher standards than British books. (Ask publishers about that, and they always say that it’s to do with economies of scale: five times as big an audience equals higher print runs equals lower costs equals the possibility to make nicer books. So they say.) The Library takes that tendency about as far as it will go: it’s hard not to take the volumes down from the shelves and stroke them, like a Bond villain fondling a cat.

What is really hard, though, is to read them. The books are so gorgeous, so marmoreal, that I find them unreadable. Not unreadable in the Pierre Bourdieu/Edward Bulwer-Lytton sense, and not unreadable in theory – I want to read them, I really do. It’s just that in practice, I don’t. I once got about a quarter of the way through Parkman’s Oregon Trail and have made two or three failed attempts on Adams’s novel Democracy, but never made it more than about five pages in. Apart from that, it’s been a total bust. As for the Pléiade, my record of ownership is fairly strong, but equally unblemished by actual reading. I have six volumes: three of Proust, two of Simenon, and one of Taoist philosophy (don’t ask). If pressed, I would say that the Pléiade volumes are theoretically more readable, or less not-readable, than the Library of America; something to do with the sexily diminutive format. This is pure theory, however. In practice they are both equally easy to not-read.

That makes 16 volumes of beautifully produced and entirely unread great writing. What is it about these amazingly gorgeous books that makes one not want to read them?
I will resist the impulse to paste in the rest of the piece also--it's very apt, though....

Sunday, June 08, 2008

"A thoroughly alternative night out"

Angus Watson has a delightful short piece at the FT on taking a public bat walk in Regent's Park:
We were given bat-detectors, walkie-talkie-sized machines which make the squeaks audible. You swing the detector about until you hear a squeak, then follow the sound to find the bat. So off we went into the cool Regent’s Park night, about 30 of us, ranging from three- to 60-years-old, plus bat experts.

After a few false sightings, the detectors led us to the first bat, a little pipistrelle flitting overhead, and soon we’d found a whole cloud of bats by the boating lake. They swirled above us, chasing insects like spacecraft in a Star Wars dogfight. Through the detectors, we could hear their alien “bukka-bukka-bukka” hunting calls. Intermittently, a bat’s cries would accelerate into a raspberry sound, then go silent, revealing that the bat had zeroed in, then chomped an insect.

Friday, June 06, 2008


At the Sunday Times, Simon Jenkins reviews David Runciman's Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond:
His essential message is that politics is complex, indeed the most complex of all human activities. We therefore need to know “what sorts of hypocrites we want our politicians to be, and in what sorts of combinations”.

This involves much dirty work. We must grade their mendacities into first and second order hypocrisies. At one level we accept such white lies as are implied by “the basic standards of social conformity...politeness...a desire not to hurt someone else's feelings...good manners”. We promise this and deny that because otherwise life is just not liveable.

At another level, we want to be sure that leaders who make promises (which we may acknowledge as hypocrisies and thus be complicit in) are aware of their hypocrisy, like Trollope's ever-anguished Phineas Finn. In other words, we must appreciate the central paradox, that our rulers be sincere in their insincerity. The general (or the party leader) who predicts victory in a battle certain to end in defeat at least owes it to his followers to plan for that defeat. It is what Orwell called “benign self-deception”.

Although Runciman is often opaque and sometimes disappears into a miasma of his own paradoxes, this is a useful corrective to much journalistic sanctimony. There is no point in denying political hypocrisy “by denouncing it, or taking sides, or seeking some sort of personal insulation from it”. It is embedded in society and ideology. Most (if not all) wars and religions are riddled with the language of hypocrisy. It is a cloud swirling round everything we do and say. The compromises of even so thoughtful a politician as Barack Obama, says Runciman, are “not hypocrisy but instead a form of principled pragmatism”.

The difficulty, and it is immense, is that of which Hobbes warned. When a proclaimed pragmatism strays into self-deception and we lose sight of what is truly at stake, hypocrisy loses its virtue and becomes toxic.

Light reading update

I've had some very decent light reading recently; it's whiled away an hour or two, at any rate....

(Tidying up my apartment also means that all sorts of interesting things to read have resurfaced and rendered themselves accessible and interesting by virtue of no longer being buried in insane mounds of book!)

Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon was excellent. It's a hardboiled/cyberpunk hybrid of a most attractive kind, with the shades of Sterling and Gibson and Stephenson hovering on one side and Chandler heavily weighing down the other end of the see-saw. An attractively baroque plot (in fact I found it virtually impossible to follow, but not in a bad way--that's well within the confines of noir tradition!), and an extremely appealing narrative voice. The fundamental notion the novel explores is that in this intergalactic 26th-century future one's personality is stored in a cortical stack that (if one is wealthy enough) can be backed up frequently enough to render the death of the body virtually irrelevant, as it may be "resleeved" in a new one (a cheap synthetic or, preferably, a real one whose occupant has been temporarily punished for some transgression by long-term custody in a sort of storage chamber). A minority Catholic movement seeks to restore the integrity of the soul by abjuring the practice of resleeving, a notion most of this world's inhabitants greet either as absurd or as an opportunity for various forms of skullduggery. The working-out of the arguments about identity and embodiment is thought-provoking and interesting, and the writing's of a very high quality.

(An aside: I couldn't shake the feeling, right from the set-up of the crime investigation at the start, that in spite of the way this book wears its hipster credentials on its sleeve, the real underlying impulse--surely Morgan had this consciously in mind?--was to pay homage to the extraordinarily memorable opening scenario in Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel? This playful indebtedness gives Morgan's novel the feel of an elaborate intertextual joke--puzzle-like, engaging....)

Tricia Sullivan's Double Vision engaged my attention immediately by offering me an immensely likable though superficially uncharismatic heroine who is preoccupied with her martial arts training and reads Anne McCaffrey novels in the bath!

(Vivid memory of childhood: the pages of my twenty-times-reread copy of Dragonsinger [I cannot find an image of the cover of the edition I had, but it was the companion to this] all bursting out of their mass-market-paperback spine in the way that says I was once dropped in bathwater by a careless but devoted reader who is too attached to this particular copy to replace me!)

Again, aspects of this book are reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll on the one hand (in the fantastical sequences) and several of my favorite urban fantasy writers in the more real-world scenes, and it's occasionally a bit Matrix-ey, but it's a very fresh and imaginative and funny and original-feeling book, I liked it very much indeed.

(Sullivan has a blog that includes a fascinating two-part post on her history of martial arts training that is indispensable reading for anyone who's ever applied him- or herself to mastering a discipline that required submission to the authority of its gatekeepers. And check out the training film she posts here! Hmmmm, my life might be better if I could punch something like that, but it is deeply not in my nature....)

And then I read in lovely huge gulps--because she writes the kind of novels that are impossible to put down once you've started--Joshilyn Jackson's Between, Georgia and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. The first is more my kind of book than the second, I think, but this is an absurdly talented novelist...

I won't be posting much over the weekend, as I'm off to Philadelphia tomorrow to attend a celebration for my mother on the occasion of her retirement. I am proud of her and look forward to seeing the interesting things she will do in the next stage of life! She has taught at Germantown Friends School since 1977, and it has been a rich and honorable career, one that I always hold up in my mind as exemplary. I learned many immensely valuable things from her that help me every day in my work life, both when I teach and when I try and figure out how to make things happen in a tactful but efficient way in the institution I work at!

I quite often have occasion to quote the two things I learned at my mother's knee (she is an elementary-school music teacher, although that title does not really do justice to the scope of her professional life), certainly well-entrenched in my psyche by the time I was six years old:

Sit in the front row and sing loudly.

If it looks like the furniture needs to be moved, just get up and start moving it--don't wait for someone to ask you!

The second point is at odds with the advice commonly given to people on the tenure-track, which is never volunteer for anything and say no as often as you can when people ask you to do things, but though it has sometimes been a tough standard to live up to, I wouldn't have it any other way!

And I suppose I must take this opportunity to make a small announcement, though it feels very strange to do so in public like this. I learned late this afternoon that I have been given tenure at Columbia. I've taught here for eight years, quite a long time in itself, but in another sense it represents the culmination of many more years than that of reading and writing and thinking and learning. Strange indeed--I think it will take a while to sink in....

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


When I was in graduate school, an admirable but to-my-ear-utterly-abhorrently-titled series of talks was introduced: "When Worlds Collide." The phrase itself is innocuous, even appealing, only there seemed to me something intolerably portentous about using it as the rubric for a modest series of talks that paired grad students in the sciences and the humanities to present material from their dissertations!

(I vaguely think that when I did one of these talks myself, I might have left it off my CV because I found the phrase so dire...)

(Another phrase that just makes me want to laugh and squirm, one that it seems to me academics should certainly be banned from using about themselves and probably from using on behalf of colleagues either: speaking truth to power!)

But worlds did happily collide today when Ed Park sent me a very apt e-mail!

And I am happily positioned to follow the advice therein thanks to the generosity of two readers of this blog: Gautam, who has sent me a copy of Devil May Care; and Levi, who waited in line at BEA to get me a signed copy (still in transit) of Lee Child's new Jack Reacher book. (Sarah has had a copy in reserve for me also, only we have both been too busy to rendezvous for a book transfer.) Truly I am blessed....

Monday, June 02, 2008

100 de-bleated goats

On Thursday evening, I FedExed my mark-up of the copy-edited manuscript of Breeding (that's its Amazon page!) back to the copy-editor.

It is hard to feel any sense of accomplishment or completion, as I will still have to go through proofs and make the index.

(The index for my first academic book took me in the region of 65-70 hours to complete, so it is a fairly substantial job, even with some help.)

But the page for the book at the Columbia University Press website looks very lovely to me, as does the cover design (especially the demented little monkey?!?)....
On Saturday I bought a little shopping cart and a lot of boxes and packing tape. On Sunday I returned c. 150 books (my copy-editor would say "ca."!) to the library--I have not photographed 'em, I felt the number would be sufficiently illustrative.

(One of the ones I could not bring myself to return was this. The title caught my attention in the stacks one day when I was looking for something else, and in fact I am definitely going to read it soon, I am contemplating an insane secret-history-of-the-twentieth-century-type project and I've got a stack of Philip K. Dick and assorted other lovelies awaiting my not-the-next-thing-but-maybe-the-one-after attention...)

I also packed up (it was the lazy person's version of the job, I did not stop to sort things properly, I will deal with that at some unspecified point later on when I unpack!) twelve boxes of books and papers that have been basically strewn all over my apartment for transportation to my office--this is a postponeable job, I am thinking they are just going to sit here in boxes for a while now...--and culled from the shelves a fairly large number of books that I will now dispose of to the fellow who sets up his table in front of Milano Market.

(The shoe- and bike-type clutter is an unavoidable byproduct of the triathlon craze....)

(The book situation round here is fairly Tribble-like....)
There is some more sorting-and-ordering to be done--for now I have thrown a large heap of papers into a box, but I must go through this afternoon and see what's in there and make everything either tidy or thrown away.

Also I need to rearrange all the furniture.

But I am well on my way to making the apartment tolerable to me as a writing environment--it is true, I am slightly having to fight the impulse to throw away all the furniture and actually get rid of 80% of my books, we will let that await some future state of full(er)-blown mental insanity, but it is looking (in the parts I have not photographed) nicely bare...

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Stray opuscules

At the WSJ, Luc Sante on culling his library:
I still possess a great many books. I'm not a book collector, though, not at all -- and much less a bibliophile. The discreet charms of the first edition have always eluded me, although I can appreciate a nicely bound volume -- as a consequence I own many second and third printings, which generally cost about 95% less. When I have a choice I go for interesting jackets, elegant typefaces, acid-free paper, but above all I prize compactness. Whenever possible I go for omnibus editions. The more books can fit in a single volume, the happier I am. And I mourn the passing of the pocket-sized paperback, which was once allowed to contain all sorts of material and is now strictly reserved for the kinds of books that inspire gold-embossed titles and peekaboo die-cuts. I like to carry books in my pockets, and trade paperbacks are an awkward fit, except in the dead of winter.

Anyway, I like the entire variety of books: thin little plaquettes, 16-volume histories, drugstore potboilers, privately printed crank pamphlets, ancient volumes in unknown languages, sleek new art editions with lots of white on the pages, forgotten doctoral dissertations from German universities in the 1880s, pornography bought by sailors in Tijuana, technical publications with wildly recondite diagrams... I remember a cartoon I saw as a child in which the books jumped off the shelves and had themselves a party in the bookstore in the middle of the night. Bookcases that hold the greatest diversity seem to present that as a real possibility. By contrast, I recall with a shudder the decorator who came to my store one day to buy 40 feet of books with blue covers. I was not much less disturbed when I once visited a home where the shelves held only hardcovers, all stripped of their jackets, presumably to make for a more subdued surface.

I'm not a snob about books, but I'm probably a show-off -- as who isn't? My showing-off is of a pretty low-key if not completely abstruse sort, though. No one has ever noticed -- much less commented upon -- my collections of minor German Romantics, accounts by UFO abductees, books by and about hoboes, or memoirs by former employees of the New York Evening Graphic. It's rather a closed circle; I impress myself. I once felt a certain anxiety about my book-lined living room -- it was too much, no? It seemed to belong in the same category as the display of framed degrees in prominent places. Books do furnish a room -- in Anthony Powell's titular phrase -- but that room would be the library, equipped with 14-foot built-ins with a rolling ladder, and I've never had one of those. I had to consider which impulse was the stronger: the wish to let the world admire my complete collection of the works of Raymond Roussel, or the wish not to appear a bore. Having books crowd every inch of wall space in the room in which I entertained imposed a certain burden on the conversation, as if dead authors were leaning in, contributing dry, derisive chuckles.
(Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

"Something black, something canine"

Paul Collins has an utterly delightful Henry James bit up at his blog.