Friday, December 30, 2005

First in the hearts of his countrymen

Because I'm like an eight-year-old boy when it comes to American Presidents, here's some Washington stuff I learned from Joseph J. Ellis's wonderful biography, His Excellency, that I read last weekend.

First and perhaps most importantly, I discovered that Washington wore a black velvet suit to his first inauguration. Do you think Elvis's face was on the back?

Also, in the midst of the XYZ Affair, a 1798 crisis in which President John Adams revealed that French operatives demanded a ₤50,000 bribe to meet with American diplomatic envoys trying to defuse tensions and avert war (which was possibly part of some borderline treasonous intriguing on the parts of Jefferson and Madison), Abigail Adams was said to have offered this Fourth of July toast, "John Adams. May he, like Samson, slay thousands of Frenchmen with the jawbone of Jefferson."

In what Ellis convincingly argues was the worst mistake of Washington's career—and one of his few large-scale mistakes, period—Washington agreed to lead the Provisional Army, a newly recreated version of the Continental Army, if disagreements with Napoleonic France came to war. In reality, the Provisional Army was intended by Alexander Hamilton (who was to be in command in Washington's stead until the moment of war with France) as a permanent army that he could use to increase his standing in the Federalist Party, intimidate his rivals, and preemptively attack French possessions in the Americas.

From this vantage point, it seems clear that such a scheme, had it come to fruition, would have been the end of the nascent American republic. As Ellis puts it, "Hamilton had convinced himself that Napoleon's imperial ambitions did include North America, not an implausible conviction, and that he alone possessed the vision and energy not only to thwart such threats, but also to out-Napoleon Napoleon himself." Disaster was averted when John Adams announced, to everyone's surprise, that he would send another peace envoy to France, thereby removing in one stroke the threat of incipient war and the rationale for creating a new army.

The sense of personal indispensability is possibly the belief most dangerous to the health of democracy. Hamilton believed it. George W. Bush believes it. It's almost never true, and it's essential to the functioning of a democracy that that be the case. In essence, in the eyes of government we need to all be like the religious would have us be before god: all the same, one no better or more important than another

And therein, argues Ellis, as others have done, lay Washington's true genius. Despite his misstep regarding the Provisional Army (which he began to regret once the full duplicity of Hamilton's ambitions became clear), Washington always behaved as one who did not think he was indispensable, even in cases—like when he held together the Continental Army at the low point of the war, or when he lent his stature to the new republic as its first president and thereby enabled it to hold its uneasy factions together—when it could be easily argued that he truly was.

Washington gave up power, voluntarily, in situations where lesser men would have grasped for more. He was not indispensable, and believing that he was would have caused him to destroy the very nation he'd been fighting to create. In exchange for that renunciation, he received eternal prestige and the admiration of posterity.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Brevity is the soul of my weekend

Over the Christmas holiday, due to my insatiable nephew, most of my reading consisted cards from Star Wars Monopoly (You win second place in a beauty contest on Kashyyyk. Collect $10.) and from the game Stacey and I made him, Special Delivery: Penguins!

But because even the newfangled children of today have to sleep sometimes, I did get to read some short books. Having been thinking about Tolstoy (due to the central role a copy of War and Peace plays in Special Delivery: Penguins!), I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. After the full meals that are Anna Karenina and War and Peace, it’s a slightly unsatisfying snack. Though Tolstoy delivers interesting brief impressions of a few peripheral characters, his sympathy and understanding—the characteristics that perpetually animate the two masterpieces—is restricted to Ivan. Ivan’s despair at his death is palpable and convincing, but I couldn’t help but want to peep around the door and see what his somewhat caricatured wife was really thinking, why she acted the way she did, and how she would explain her actions to herself. That’s what Anna Karenina and War and Peace deliver: you get to peep around every door, and everyone is, if not explained, at least given the chance to appear in their full humanity.

I followed Tolstoy with, of all people, Stephen King, whose The Colorado Kid appeared in the new Hard Case Crime series this fall as a pulp paperback, complete with newly commissioned lurid cover art, poor-quality paper, and a $6.99 price. It’s the tale of an unidentified dead body (If you want to avoid plot revelations, you should skip the rest of this post.), retailed by two too-crusty-to-be-true aged newspapermen, proprietors of a Maine island weekly, to their attentive young female intern. Throughout, the narrators telegraph the author's intention to provide no solution to the mystery, but it’s still jarring when the last page arrives without any answers. King’s unapologetic afterword attempts to explain his thinking: most of what we know in life is unexplained, and often the answers we give to questions are answers of convenience, designed to let us rest easy rather than be troubled by uncertainty. He’s right, but he’s attempting to defeat a genre that has demonstrated, time and again, that what we want as readers is a sense of order wrested from the chaos of the universe, the convincing lie that elements are not picked at random, but are chosen and patterned and explicable. It’s not just mysteries that do that for us, of course—everything from the Arabian Nights to A Dance to the Music of Time is built around the value of explanation, the sense that in time, the truth will out. King’s defiance is a stunt, solitary and self-destroying: if all mystery stories were like The Colorado Kid, there would soon be no mystery stories.

He's also disingenuously mixing our responses to true stories and our responses to fiction. If we read fiction, in large part, to think about what things might happen to people and how they might behave in response, we read nonfiction to find out what did happen to people and how they did respond. I'm certainly not at the point of fully understanding the ways that the knowledge of reality underlying a story changes our relationship to that story, but it clearly does, and King's trying, at least in part, to pretend otherwise.

And that leads me to the final place King has gone wrong in his thinking: he's ignored a major reason that unsolved mysteries are interesting: they might be soluble. More facts might come to light. We might someday learn for sure what happened to D. B. Cooper. We might learn how Ed Delahanty died. The disappearance of the Roanoke settlers might be explained. Anything is possible, because these are real mysteries.

The mystery of the Colorado Kid, on the other hand, will forever be unsolved, because the one person who might know the answer refuses to solve it. No new facts will come to light, because there are no facts, only fictions, and their creator has declared that we get no more of them. Thus the unsolved mystery becomes, instead, an unfinished mystery, which is a far, far less interesting creature.

This is all not to say that The Colorado Kid is entirely not worth reading. It's a short, fast read. King—perhaps because extreme brevity was part of his remit—doesn’t overwrite, doesn’t splatter gore, doesn’t get sidetracked. He spools out the thread of a good story, doling out details at the right pace and in the right order. He just runs out too soon. And the Hard Case Crime series bears watching: it appears to be, aside from King’s attention-getting volume, a reprint series, to which one can subscribe for $8.99 per month for two volumes. That gimmick in and of itself has hooked me; I'll let you know when I get the first shipment.

Tomorrow, the other books I read over the weekend. I hope you all had a good holiday.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Special Delivery: Penguins!

This blog may languish unloved for a few days until after Christmas.

We're pretty much ready for Christmas, although we've got to put the finishing touches on a board game we're making for my nephew, called "Special Delivery: Penguins!" The premise is that some penguins that Stacey ordered for me have accidentally been delivered to my nephew's house instead, and it's his job to bring them to our house.

We thought of this project after playing The Uncle Wiggily Game with my nephew at Thanksgiving. Based on a series of early-twentieth-century children's books by Howard Garis about a rheumatic rabbit and his forest friends, the board game is simple: cards you draw tell you how many spaces to move toward Doctor Possum's office. Along the way, you encounter forest creatures good and bad.

In our game, there are cards, but there are also penguins, and obstacles such naps and the New Harmony Bridge. There are snacks, and there's a copy of War and Peace, which players take turns reading, then heartily recommending to other players.

In past years, we've made my nephew a couple of children's books. But by "we," what I really mean is that Stacey and I hashed out ideas, then I got her cups of hot tea while she drew and painted for days. This project has been much closer to a true collaboration, with both of us pitching in on all aspects of the game. It's been a lot of fun to make.

I hope he enjoys it. We played through it Sunday with kindly volunteers, and we certainly had a good time. If a seven-year-old will . . . well, I guess we'll know on Christmas.

Have a great holiday, everyone. I hope you find lots of good books under your tree.

PS According to the Wonderful Wikipedia, Howard Garis, working for the Stratemeyer Syndicate wrote not only the Uncle Wiggily books, but under house names he wrote the Tom Swift series and most of the Bobbsey Twins books.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This time, it's the other Jonson

Since I've already covered Samuel Johnson on this blog, it seems only appropriate to give Ben Jonson his due. Fortunately, he turns up in two violent anecdotes (as well as other, less sensational, more literary references) in Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare. The first occurred in late 1598, when Jonson was 26.

Very shortly after the production of Every Man in His Humour Jonson became involved in an argument with an actor and erstwhile colleague from the Admiral's Men, Gabriel Spencer. The quarrel may have arisen from Jonson's recent defection to the Lord Chamberlain's Men, or it may have been entirely personal. Whatever the case a duel was fought in the fields of Shoreditch, close to the Theatre, and Spencer was killed by Jonson's sword. The playwright only saved himself from the gallows by pleading benefit of clergy—that is, by proving he was literate and could read. His thumb was branded with the letter "T," for Tyburn, so that he would not escape a second conviction.

In case you don't know: The Lord Chamberlain's Men were, at the time, the troupe that Shakespeare wrote for and acted in, rivals to the Admiral's Men. The Theatre referred to here is a specific theatre named that, which was responsible for bringing the Latin term, theatrum, into regular—and eventually generic—use as a term for a place where plays are produced. The murderer's brand refers to Tyburn because that was the site of the London gallows, at the present-day site of Marble Arch. And though the value of pleading benefit of clergy diminished over the century or so after Jonson's plea, the option wasn't formally abolished until 1827.

Then in 1600, Jonson gets himself in trouble again, this time over a specific literary quarrel.

In his next play, The Poetaster, he ridiculed [playwright John] Marston as a hack poet and plagiarist. Marston eventually counterattacked with What You Will, in which Jonson was lampooned as an arrogant and insolent failure. In his aggressive manner Jonson then challenged Marston to a duel; since he was already branded on the thumb for murder, this was a foolhardy strategy. He probably guessed, however, that Marston would decline the challenge. Jonson then sought his man in the taverns of London, and found him. Marston pulled a pistol, whereupon Jonson took it from him and thrashed him with it. That is the story that went around London. Jonson repeated it later.

And Peter Ackroyd repeats it now, which is why he is always worth reading.

Somehow, the young hothead Jonson lived to die of old age in 1637 at 65, whereupon he was buried in Westminster Abbey under the inscription, "Oh, Rare Ben Jonson."

Friday, December 16, 2005

Immortality, or Ozymandias Roolz

I didn't have a notebook on me, so I'm reconstructing this from memory, but here's what I read on the construction hoarding on the Garfield station platform last night:

"Man is created to do great works, to make his mark on the world, to create. He should aspire to leave his footprints in the sands of time."

Right below it, in a different color and handwriting:


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Back to Admiral Nelson

The main idea threaded through all of Nicolson's Seize the Fire is that Nelson was a pivotal figure in the transition from the 18th-century culture of sensibility, deference, and acceptance of one's position in society to the first flowerings of Romanticism and its celebration of the individual, the unbridled, and the immediate. It's the difference between Aeneas, a warrior within a system and society, and Achilles, a force of pure rage and individual motivation; at the level of personality, it's Bingley versus Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Nelson, Nicolson argues, though at the head of a disciplined, organized force working as a part of society to protect English commerce, was at the same time a decentralizing bringer of brilliant near-chaos in his tactics, his management of his men, and his own person. The argument is well-supported--one of the best aspects of Seize the Fire is Nicolson's frequent reference to the diaries and letters of individuals great and small--and fairly convincing, though Nelson seems so multi-faceted and complex that he could easily be tricked out in several other, competing theories.

But that's not really what I keep coming back to when I think about Seize the Fire. Rather, it's the press-gangs, and the difference between the officers and the men, between the above- and below-decks life. Nicolson points out several instances which suggest that a change was at the time slowly taking place in how the lower classes were regarded by the upper: not quite imbued by their masters with fully human feelings yet--and certainly not yet worthy of the full, human consideration that fellow officers deserved--but, as the tremendous risks taken by officers and men at Trafalgar to rescue their opposite numbers during an enormous post-battle storm show, their lives weren't entirely, as in past wars, to be thrown away wantonly.

It reminds me of the most interesting moment of ethical thought in The Once and Future King (a book that is full of questions about ethical leadership, friendship, and love), when a young King Arthur decides to bring home the true cost of war to both his men and the opposition. He orders his knights to change tactics: they are not simply to hack at the hapless peasants forced into the front lines, as the knights on the other side will be doing; rather, they are to take the battle directly to the opposing knights, which results, predictably, in much greater casualties among those whom the opposing king considers to be actual people. War, it turns out, is hell. Maybe, just maybe, it shouldn't be waged in such cavalier fashion.

I keep thinking about that, and, in a corollary, about the changes wrought over time in the forces that we, as a society, are willing to allow others to bring to bear on people they have in their power. At the time of Nelson, the press-gang, which would sweep lower-class men off the streets and deposit them on ships bound for the open seas, wherein they would be exposed to mortal danger and sickness, paid poorly and infrequently, and whipped brutally for such offenses as drunkenness and insubordination--was considered an acceptable way to staff His Majesty's fleet. At the time, it was also generally considered acceptable for people to hold certain types of other people as slaves. Women had few rights. And so on--the examples of inhumanity that long ago were considered acceptable are innumerable.

And from a slightly different angle, our attitudes have changed even very recently. More than 50,000 Americans--and at least 1.5 million Vietnamese--died in the Vietnam War before mainstream America began to vigorously argue that we needed to end it. With the Iraq War, we've nearly reached that point as a nation with far, far fewer dead--and all despite the absence of a draft, meaning that the vast majority of Americans are out of any personal danger. Are we, as a nation, getting less cavalier about the lives we're willing to throw away in war? Are we beginning to see the essential humanity--the irreplaceable individuals--behind each KIA?

It's the progressive impulse at work: forever attempt to enlarge the circle of those considered fully eligible to participate in human life, and therefore in the protections we as a society afford, in theory, to all humans--protections from coercion, from danger to life and limb, from oppression. The poor, women, gays, non-WASPs--all these and more are slowly brought into the community of those considered normal, ordinary, acceptable--human. And it's exactly that widening, that growth of inclusion, that conservatism has always fought, and is still fighting, against. Even as recently as the 1970s, Samuel Alito thought the admission of women to Princeton was worth fighting against. It's a principle of inclusion versus a principle of denial, progress against stasis, humanity against inhumanity.

Simultaneously, we aim to tighten the circle of what is acceptable to do to another human, to limit what force can be brought to bear on a person, with the aim of eliminating dehumanizing, brutal treatments that are fundamentally based on arguing that someone is outside that circle of humanity. Practices that would have been considered acceptable mere generations ago--from Jim Crow laws to Japanese-American internment camps to forced sterilization of the developmentally disabled--are considered beyond the pale now.

And it's those two components, the simultaneous widening of one circle and tightening of another, that work together to force actual improvements in human relations in the world. A press-gang is a mind-boggling concept now, slavery even more so. The idea of throwing away lives like Europe did on the Western Front in World War I is sickening. It's important to sometimes remember that, for everything that's clearly going wrong in the world, we have in the past several centuries radically altered our world's conception of who is human and what rights they should be accorded. Tremendous good has been done.

We've obviously still got a long way to go. George Bush can admit, off-hand, that more than 30,000 Iraqis have died because of our war, and most of America responds with a "Ho-hum." Our pundits think the efficacy and acceptability of torture are worthy topics for discussion. African genocide barely gets noticed here.

But that's the idea of progressivism in a nutshell: we don't ever get to give up or decide we're done. Humanity can always be better. It's our job to keep nudging it in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Bard via Ackroyd

I’ve just begun Peter Ackroyd’s enormous new Shakespeare: A Biography, not so much because I am interested in Shakespeare’s life as because I will read pretty much anything Ackroyd writes. His histories and biographies are compulsively readable, full of the clutter and detail and incidental stuffs of everyday life—exactly my kind of history, revealing, as much as possible, what it was actually like to be in the midst of the eras he’s writing about. He’s above all else a master weaver, pulling from countless sources, grabbing a detail here, another there, reminding the reader constantly that there is an astonishing amount that we really can know about the past, how many of life’s bare facts have long been recorded, and how valuable is the work of lesser-known scholars and their obscure monographs. And he’s never in a hurry. If an etymology or anecdote or description is interesting, he’ll be sure to include it.

The brief introductory chapter of Shakespeare is a good example of Ackroyd’s technique. If you like the follwing passage, you’ll like Ackroyd.
When he emerged from the womb into the world of time, with the assistance of a midwife, an infant of the sixteenth century was washed and then “swaddled” by being wrapped tightly in soft cloth. Then he was carried downstairs in order to be presented to the father. After this ritual greeting, he was taken back to the birth-chamber, still warm and dark, where he was laid beside the mother. She was meant to “draw to her all the diseases from the child,” before her infant was put in a cradle. A small portion of butter and honey was usually placed in the baby’s mouth. It was the custom in Warwickshire to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly.
The infant Shakespeare was carried by his father from his birthplace in Henley Street down the High Street and Church Street in to the church itself. The mother was never present at the baptism. John Shakespeare and his newborn son would have been accompanied by the godparents, who were otherwise known as “god-sips” or “gossips.” On this occasion, the godfather was William Smith, a haberdassher and neighbour in Henley Street, The name of the infant was given before he was dipped in the font and the sign of the cross marked upon his forehead. At the font the gossips were exhorted to make sure that William Shakespeare heard sermons and learned the creed as well as the Lord’s Prayer “in the English tongue.” After the baptism a piece of white linen cloth was placed on the head of the child, and remained there until the mother had been “churched” or purified; it was called the “chrisom cloth” and, if the infant died within a month, was used as a shroud. The ceremony of the reformed Anglican faith, in the time of Elizabeth, still favored the presentation of apostle-spoons or christening shirts to the infant, given by the gossips, and the consumption of a christening cake in celebration. They were, after all, celebrating the saving of young William Shakespeare for eternity.

He goes on to tell about the Arden forest—and how it was named by Celtic tribes, the same ones who named the Ardennes forest—and how many trees it took to build a house of the time in Stratford (sixty to eighty) and how many people died of the plague in Stratford in the year of Shakespeare’s birth (237). And that's all in the first four pages! I can’t tear myself away—can you?

PS After reading even a couple of pages of writing featuring archaic English spellings, words that have retained some of their oddities of spelling stand out—tongue, for example, tripped me up temporarily in that passage.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Holiday reading

Every year about this time, I do some holiday reading. For the past several years, I’ve reread “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Most years, I also read one of Dickens’s Christmas books. They’re Dickens at his sappiest and most sentimental, but I enjoy them anyway, and every four or five years I’m rewarded for my patience by getting to read “A Christmas Carol,” Reading it reminds me that part of the reason it’s so infinitely adaptable is that it’s extremely good: the plot is impeccable and the characters—from Scrooge to the spirits to the little boy who buys the turkey for Scrooge—are an splendid mix of the universal and the particular. And the moral is truly woven into the story, as if it grew out of the story rather than, like in the other books, being the architecture on which the story is, awkwardly, hung. I particularly enjoy the scene that bored me most when I was a kid, the game of charades Scrooge sees at his nephew Fred’s Christmas party. The game, and the tone of the fun being poked at Scrooge during it, bring the characters and the party to life in a way that makes the details of a Victorian Christmas seem very near.

This year, however, I chose Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the basis for the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, which he narrated. Shepherd, who was a popular New York radio personality, writes short, unconnected pieces about his childhood in one of the Indiana suburbs of Chicago, painting a vivid, somewhat sentimental picture of the Depression. Originally published, for the most part, in Playboy as short stories, they still read best one at a time; read too many, and Shepherd’s voice begins to lose its novelty.

A Christmas Story
incorporated the stories, holiday or not, that are clearly the best of the book—and if you want to get just those stories, they’ve been published in hardcover this season as A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film. But why buy a shorter book for a dollar more? After all, even in the weakest of the stories, there’s a line here or there that brings a laugh.

For example, in an otherwise just fair piece about fireworks, Shepherd says of a town drunk

Mr. Kissel had found his true medium in the Depression itself. Kissel worked in Idleness the way other artists worked in clay or marble. God only knows what would have happened to him were it not for the Depression. He was a true child of his time. He was also a magnificent Souse. The word “Alcoholic” had not yet come into common usage, at least not in the steel towns of northern Indiana. Nore were there any lurking Freudian fears or explanations for the classical appetite for potage that Kissel nourished. He was a drunk, and knew it. He just lieked the stuff, and glommed onto it whenever the occasion demanded. And if the Store-Boughten variety of Lightining was not available, he concocted his own, using raisins, apricots, Fleischmann’s yeast, molasses, and dead flies.

But Shepherd is at his best when describing the world of kids, the ways adult life, refracted and strange, loomed around them, the way certain objects (Red Ryder BB guns) and ideas (Santa Claus) would temporarily assume inconceivable importance, then be displaced by new and different obsessions. He’s like a Nicholson Baker of Depression childhood, luxuriating in detail, elaborate and minute in his descriptions, never allowing his jaded adult knowledge to interfere with the sheer joy he takes in extravagantly detailing the talismanic objects that make up a kid’s world. And his form—exaggeration mixed with gentle skepticism towards all human endeavor—works well with that perspective, enabling him to play wide-eyed and cynical at the same time. At its best, Shepherd’s writing really does conjure the texture and material life of the period as seen simultaneously by a child and an adult:

For several days the windows of Goldblatt’s department store had been curtained and dark. Their corner window was traditionally a major high-water mark of the pre-Christmas season. It set the tone, the motif of their giant Yuletide Jubilee. . . . This was the heyday of the Seven Dwarfs and their virginal den mother, Snow White. Walt Disney’s seven cutie-pies hammered and sawed, chiseled and painted, while Santa, bouncing Snow White on his mechanical knee, ho-ho-ho’d through eight strategically placed loudspeakers—interspersed by choruses of “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go.” Grumpy sat at the controls of a miniature eight-wheel Rock Island Road steam engine and Sleepy played a marimba, while in the background, inexplicably, Mrs. Claus ceaselessly ironed a red shirt. Sparkling artificial snow drifted down on Shirley Temple dolls, Flexible Flyers, and Tinker Toy sets glowing in the golden spotlight. In the foreground a frontier stockade built of Lincoln Logs was manned by a company of kilted lead Highlanders who were doughtily fending off an attack by six U.S. Army medium tanks. (History has always been vague in Indiana.) A few feet away stood an Arthurian cardboard castle with Raggedy Andy sitting on the drawbridge, his feet in the moat, through which a Lionel freight train burping real smoke went round and round. Dopey say in Amos and Andy’s pedal-operated Fresh Air Taxicab beside a stuffed panda holding a lollipop in his paw, bearing the heart-tugging legend, “Hug me.” From fluffy cotton clouds above, Dionne quintuplet dolls wearing plaid golf knickers hung from billowing parachutes, having just bailed out of a high-flying balsawood Fokker triplane. All in all, Santa’s workshop made Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell. It was a good year.

Sir Gawain—now that’s something different, truly strange and alien. But we’ve got nearly a foot of snow on the ground right now, so the Arthurian winter feasts seem to be a little closer. Now’s the time to start reading it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"Thank God, I have done my duty."

I'm in full sail right now with Adam Nicolson's account of the battle of Trafalgar, Seize the Fire, and until I'm done with that--or have a couple of non-work hours available to write about other books I've read recently that require more complex treatment, I'll give you just this description of Admiral Nelson's approach to the battle, and his command in general.

Nelson wanted a conflict that was indescribable, not in the sense of moral revulsion, but as a plain narrative fact. The pell-mell battle, the anarchy in which the individual fighting energies of individual ships and men were released, could not submit to narrative convention. The fleets become their ships, the ships their men, the men their instinct. Decision-making, moves from admirals to captains, to gun captains, to the powder-monkeys, the surgeons and their assistants buried in the bloody dark of the cockpits. Life—and deat—in Nelsonian battle is atomized, broken into its constituent parts, made to rely not on the large-scale maneuvering of destructive force, but the will to kill and to live. . . . Every ship in all fleets considered that they fought Trafalgar almost entirely on their own.

It's a similar decentralization to what enabled Grant to win in the American Civil War: you find good subordinates, make sure they understand the overall goals, and turn them loose.

Seize the Fire
is a sharp book, and it's getting better towards the end, as Nicolson reveals himself to be very good at illuminating important and interesting details of the battle. It reminds me, yet again, that everything about war is hideous and repugnant, and it leaves me, again, wondering how anyone can actually go through it sane, let alone, as some people seem to, come out wanting more.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Any Tag Line Worth Printing on a Promotional Poster Is Worth at Least Reading Aloud or Thinking about for Ten Seconds

From a poster for Jeffrey Deaver's new Lincoln Rhyme novel, The Twelfth Card:

Any secret worth keeping is worth kililng for.

Hmm. No, I just don't think that's quite right.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Shhh! Alan Furst has a secret

For nearly twenty years, Alan Furst has been writing well-regarded espionage thrillers set in Europe in 1930s and 1940s. A few years ago, on the recommendation of a friend from Oxford University Press, I read one, The Polish Officer. It left me kind of flat. It wasn't bad—it just didn't ever quite engage me. But my regard for my friend's taste was such that when I was browsing recently in a used bookshop near my house, I picked up another one, The World at Night, and my faith was rewarded. It's a solid thriller, in a fully realized setting, managing to convey the frustration, anger, and sadness of France just after the start of the war without forcing the issue.
Furst's writing is good enough that he doesn't fall victim to that. Clunky sentences didn't stop me, and he didn't push too hard for emotional effect; the one fault he's guilty of is over-romanticizing his protagonist, Jean-Claude Casson, a film producer who stumbles into espionage. Casson is conflicted and uncertain, wondering, like all his friends, where the line falls between collaboration and merely attempting to get on with one's life under occupation. He's not a trained agent, and he makes mistakes. Yet he shares with James Bond the ability to always remain an idealized image of manliness—casually good-looking, well-dressed, irresistible to women. For example:

He ran in to the bathroom down the hall and stared into the mirror above the sink. Shit! Well, not much he could do about it now—his shirt was tired, his jacket unpressed. But he'd shaved carefully that morning—he always did—his hair simply looked vaguely arty when he avoided the barber, and his shoes had been good long ago and still were. It was, he thought, his good fortune to be one of those men who couldn't look seedy if he tried.

It's the bit about shaving that ruins it for me, the "he always did." It's too much. Let the guy just look lousy for once. It's the early days of World War II, for god's sake.

But that minor sin is more than balanced by Furst's ability to conjure up a believable wartime atmosphere, a complex plot, and real tension. Both this book and The Polish Officer successfully give the sense of wheels within wheels, layers of secrecy and knowledge that extend, and overlap, the circumscribed world and actions of Furst's protagonists. When Casson happens across an Englishman on a train platform in Spain who's surprisingly helpful, we're left to wonder whether the man was an agent of some sort—and we never learn. Much is left unknown. Characters enter and disappear. Maybe some die; maybe some are double agents. Furst resists the temptation to reveal, to tie things up neatly.

That's a part of what's best in the books, the sense that while the events of the book were, as they happened, matters of life and death to the characters, they might not have actually accomplished anything—probably didn't, to be honest. The war will go on, and more people will die, in public and in secret. People are small and insignificant when nations go about mass killing. But the characters continue risking their lives, much like believers continue to pray without demonstrable results, because to do otherwise ultimately becomes unthinkable.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

For Thanksgiving

The title essay in Edmund Morgan's collection of (mostly) writings from the New York Review of Books, The Genuine Article, is about George Washington. Morgan, like many, has clearly grappled with Washington for a lifetime, yet he still admits to uncertainties about what it was that gave Washington the aura of greatness that nearly all his contemporaries attested to. In a period of eloquent writers and inventive, brilliant thinkers, he was neither. As a general, he lost nearly every battle he commanded. As president, he provoked serious opposition and left as his primary legacy his refusal to seek a third term.

Yet it seems that few who look into his life come away unimpressed. The most perceptive and interesting bit of "The Genuine Article" presents a convincing semi-explanation of Washington's appeal

Washington seems to have been born with a thirst for public respect of a special kind. He wanted nothing more than honor, and he had identified its ingredients so clearly that he knew he would miss getting it if he showed himself wanting it as badly as he did. He wished to be honored by deserving it. If his neighbors placed a high value on graceful ballroom dancing or fine horsemanship, he wanted not simply to have the reputation but to be the most greaceful dancer and the finest horseman. If they honored physical courage, he would give them courage, leading Virginia's militia against the French when he was only twenty-two. In the contest with England, he found the larger cause he needed to gain larger honor and deliberately placed himself in a position to win it by command of the Continental Army. In the end, his own successful quest won him the prestige to honor the cause that had honored him. . . . Washington continually sought to make nature imitate art, to make his life conform to the perfection of character and conduct that was his ideal.

Take a moment and compare that approach to that of our current president. Do you think the 18th-century Karl Rove, powdered wig and all, would have suggested that he step down voluntarily after two terms?

Morgan's whole book is interesting and worth reading, a here-and-there tour through early American history, a type of book I find particularly pleasant, wherein a smart author reads through all sorts of very specialized books and picks out the best parts on our behalf.

Have a good Thanksgiving. Don't forget to thank Tisquantum!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Dr. Johnson

At work recently, I temporarily mixed up Dr. Johnson and Ben Jonson. (Ben Jonson: 17th-century dramatist, rival of Shakespeare, poet; Dr. Johnson: 18th-century lexicographcr, writer, poet, crafter of bons mots (“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," for example.)) That led me to wondering a little about how Johnson went about making his Dictionary, which led me to a new book from FSG, by Henry Hitchings, Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

In under 300 pages, Hitchings manages to present a brief biography of Johnson and a detailed look at his Dictionary and its creation. Hitchings is an engaging writer, and he has spent enough time with the Dictionary and with Johnson that he is able to bring both the man and the book to life. Hitchings’s greatest strength, however, is his ability to understand--and balance--both what the reader needs to know to understand the topic and what he will flat-out enjoy learning, regardless of need.

For example, in explaining the many deficiencies of the several English dictionaries that preceded Johnson’s, he explains

The best work of this period was An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, compiled by Nathan Bailey, a schoolmaster from Stepney. First published in 1721, Bailey’s dictionary went through thirty editions over the next eighty-one years. It was more useful and wide-ranging than its predecessors, but its definitions were often poor: “cat” was defined as “a creature well known,” “to get” was defined simply as “to obtain,” “cool” meant “cooling or cold,” “black” was “a colour,” “strawberry” “a well-known fruit,” and “to wash” meant “to cleanse by washing,” (though “washing” was not defined).

The book is sprinkled with such examples--many from Johnson’s own definitions, for in the course of his Herculean task, he did sometimes come up short. Hitchings covers such omissions, mistakes, and useless recursions (“A ‘poet’ is in essence ‘a writer of poems’; a ‘poem’ is before all else ‘the work of a poet.’”) Most entertaining--and most interesting--for me are the words Johnson defines while admitting he is unclear or uncertain about their meanings.

Commonly judged a dictator--a colossus of authority--he is here, we can see, a more tentative creature. “To swelt” is “to puff in sweat, if that be the meaning.”. . . “To clink,” he informs us, “seems in Spenser to have some unusual sense”; we are provided with the relevant passage so we can work it out for ourselves. Having included the unusual word “urim,” which occurs in Book VI of Paradise Lost, he defers to the authority of Milton’s editor Thomas Newton: “Urim and thummim were something in Aaron’s breastplate; but what, critics and commentators are by no means agreed.” The verb “to worm” means “to deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.” Even more puzzling was “trolmydames,”a word which Shakespeare put in the mouth of the meddlesome pickpocket Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. The defeated lexicographer confesses simply, “Of this word I know not the meaning.”

I’ve emphasized the failures here, primarily because I find them so entertaining, but also because they are a vivid reminder of the true novelty of Johnson’s approach: he was inventing the rules of lexicography as he went along. His dictionary was both the most comprehensive and the most systematic to have been published; he settled on a method, culling words--and supporting quotations--from all the best writers in all fields, and he followed it through. Yet today, the result appears remarkably haphazard--especially to someone like me, obsessed by system and consistency. Certain words appear in definitions but not as headwords, despite Johnson’s having grasped the principle that every word used to define must also itself be defined. Many words that, according to Hitchings, were in fairly common use (for example, athlete, port wine, and nemesis) do not appear at all, while Johnson makes space for words that were (and are) extremely obscure, from scientific terms (ophiophagous, brontology) to Shakespearean insults (jolthead, garlickeater). Some terms have multiple supporting quotations and lengthy etymologies, and some have almost no support. Words are spelled differently as headwords and as components of definitions.

But such lapses are mainly of interest as reminders of the limitations within which Johnson was working--they barely lessen his achievement. Working almost entirely on his own, fighting melancholy and ill health, Johnson composed a dictionary defining nearly 43,000 words, many of which definitions were adopted by the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century later. By the end of Defining the World, the immensity of Johnson’s achievement is clear, and it’s hard not to become one more in the extremely long line of the Doctor’s admirers.

I’ll end with one last word, “tarantula,” and Hitchings’s explanation of Johnson’s definition. It, as well as anything, serves to set Johnson in his own time—and remind us of how impressive it is that, all these years later, we’re still using an English that Johnson would understand, and we’re still talking and reading about his Dictionary.

Johnson tells us that a tarantula “is an insect whose bite is only cured by music.” This curious belief is recorded by Samuel Pepys among others, and had recently been confirmed by a Neapolitan violinsis, who had described in the Gentleman’s Magazine his success in curing a man who had been bitten under the lip of his ear. Johnson, with a touch of self-mockery, quotes Locke: “He that uses the word tarantula, without having any idea of what it stands for, means nothing at all by it.”

Maybe this winter I’ll read Boswell. Oh, and for those who want more Johnson, but don’t want to tackle Rasselas or Boswell’s Life, David R. Godine has a great little book book of Johnson bits, A Johnson Sampler

PS This book is much, much better and more interesting than Simon Winchester's surprisingly popular (and surprisingly poorly written) book about the making of the OED, The Professor and the Madman. Not that books about dictionaries are directly substitutable goods, but if you're picking one . . .

Personal growth

I am taking it as a good sign that, although my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was brought out not once, but twice, at a party at the Rocketship Saturday night, I was not responsible either time.

Neither was I the person who started talking about Jesus at 2:15 a.m.

Maybe this blog is doing me good already!

I did learn that the Shorter defines "Shuddup": Be Quiet! Shut Up! (Yes, the exclamation points are in the definition. Really!) Bob suggested that the definition should include "usually with 'Aw'", but I pointed out that that would be more appropriate for "Shaddup." Sadly, while the Shorter does define "Shaddup," it fails to note it association with "Aw." I suppose for that, I might have to consult the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang--if it ever gets to "S", that is.

Friday, November 18, 2005

What I'm up to here

I’ve been thinking for a good while about starting a new blog, which will probably come as no surprise to people who know me. While I was sure I would enjoy writing one, I didn’t for a time for a couple of reasons. First of all, a diary blog wouldn’t really suit me because, well, nothing very exciting ever happens to me. Which is how I like it. But it seemed that all other possible topics that I might be interested in writing about on a blog were already being written about by people who are much better at it--and more dedicated--than I would be.

In that regard, the Internet reminds me a little of the first weeks of undergraduate life: if you learn nothing else from it, you should learn that for every topic, there are a lot of people who know more than you do, have thought more about it, and who write better about it. Clearly, that shouldn’t stop you from trying to join their ranks, if there’s a topic that sufficiently exercises your passions. Everyone starts from ignorance.

That’s not really my style, either, though. I’m an intellectual dilettante at heart. Part of that is due to laziness—one look at harried graduate students when I was working in a scholarly bookstore was all I needed to convince me that grad school wasn’t for me. But just as much of my dilettantism is due to there being just too much that I’m interested in for me to be able to settle on one topic. Husain Haddaway, in the introduction to his second volume of translations from the Arabian Nights, says, in explaining why he couldn’t comply with the wishes of many readers and translate the whole corpus of tales, “There are other fair creatures in the world.” The thought of concentrating on one author, period, or even area of knowledge to the point where I could consider myself an expert is a deflating, depressing thought. My nature is much more suited to dabbling here and there, learning little bits about many areas while relying for deeper knowledge on those who are single-minded—and dedicated and hard-working—enough to be scholars. Oh, and I'm lazy.

But I still wanted to write a blog. I liked the idea of a regular venue and a reason to work on my writing. I liked the idea of building even a tiny, single-digit community of readers to interact with, like what Jim and I have at our baseball blog. I liked the idea of being able to alert people to interesting pieces of writing or news or information I’d come across.

And that last thought was what decided me. I am known among my small circle of friends for having a bad habit of reading aloud at parties and dinners. I try not to do it much, and I try not to read lengthy passages, but someone will mention something that triggers a thought of a book I’ve been reading, and off I go. My friends are fairly tolerant of this ridiculous behavior--way more tolerant than they should be.

So in a sense, that’s what this blog will be: an attempt to put online all the things I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been reading lately, in an effort, in part, to keep me from being such a tool at parties. After all, one topic that no one—to my knowledge—is currently covering online is What Levi Is Reading Now. And the blog could also serve as a sort of disorganized commonplace book, which is something that only my terrible handwriting has kept me from keeping in the past, as it’s one of my favorite forms. (The one in the American Scholar each quarter is reason enough to subscribe to that journal.)

I envision this blog being a mix of semi-reviews of books (both fiction and non-fiction), interesting bits from those books (always falling under the doctrine of fair use, of course), and the occasional non-book item. I hope to post at least a couple of times a week, depending on what I’m reading, how interesting it is, and how much time I have. I hope you enjoy it.