Saturday, June 30, 2012

Thoughts in Privacy

The Journal, 1837-1861
The Journal, 1837-1861 

Friends and companions, get you gone!
'T is my desire to be alone;
Ne'er well, but when my thoughts and I
Do domineer in privacy.
 ------   Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy    

This is a book to read and reread, relishing the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau on life, nature and humanity. He was a complex but simple man, well-read but for all his reading his imagination was on fire with thoughts that were his own and seeds for the ages. He was a journalist in the original sense of the word as one who creates a journal, and his was based on the facts of his life as he lived mainly in Concord and briefly at Walden Pond.
"How simple is the natural connection of events.  We complain greatly of the want of flow and sequence in books, but if the journalist only move himself from Boston to New York, and speak as before, there is link enough.  Is not my life riveted together?  Has it not sequence?  Do not my breathings follow each other naturally?"(Journal, March 20, 1842)
Just as time was "but the stream I go a-fishing in", and his head "is an organ for burrowing," his bean-field produced beans that "have results which are not harvested by me.". We are still reaping these results and, while there are few huts set out beside ponds, there are many people who think about the meaning of a life that is lived with the benefits of Thoreau's seeds of simplicity and thoughtfulness.

"This rain which is now watering my beans and keeping me in the house waters me too. I needed it as much. And what if most are not hoed! Those who send the rain, whom I chiefly respect, will pardon me." (Journal, July 6, 1845)

The Journal, 1837-1861 by Henry David Thoreau, ed. by Damion Searls. New York Review Books, 2009.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Bean-fields and Memories

Notes on Walden, II
"seeds of simplicity"

"A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again."
-  From “Return” by Robinson Jeffers

While reading the chapter of Walden entitled “The Bean-Field” my memories of summer days long ago that I spent in southern Wisconsin interrupted my reading. My personal experience with the slight cornucopia that our backyard garden produced came to mind. Specifically, it was the image of sitting in the back porch of our home with my grandmother that appeared to me;  a pail of just-picked string beans ripe from the garden between us as we snapped the ends off those beans. They would soon be part of dinner along with the leaf lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini and more from the garden. Fresh light fare that was our delight on a summer evening as the day began to cool. This is not a scene that I had thought of for many years but the image is in my mind as clear as if it happened last week – yet last week,  and again yesterday,  and today I was reading the thoughts of Thoreau about his bean-field and their meaning in his life. “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” (p 155) 
I was in the pre-Antaeus stage of my life as I snapped beans with my grandmother, but the memories of field, family, and community from those days are part of my inner being to this day. 
Thoreau's bean-field and other crops were of more import as he describes them becoming “the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields; as some states are civilized, and others half-civilized, and others savage or barbarous, so my field was, though not in a bad sense, a half-cultivated field.” (p 156)
Again, living where I did when I was too young to appreciate such things our flourishing vegetable garden, situated as it was in our backyard, that was the last vestige of civilization (little though we had in our small town) before the lines of trees and acres upon acres of country fields, sometimes ripe with corn, sometimes not.

Thoreau was determined to “know” his beans, I must confess I shared neither his desire nor his determination regarding the beans of my youth, and in knowing his beans Thoreau celebrates them as he does so much of his life at Walden Pond. Beyond the “Pythagorean” experience of cultivating and selling his surplus beans Thoreau expounds on the further, deeper, more lasting experience that he gained:

“I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops. Alas! I said this to myself ; but now another summer is gone, and another, and another, and I am obliged to say to you, Reader, that the seeds which I planted, if indeed they were the seeds of those virtues, were wormeaten or had lost their vitality, and so did not come up. Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid." (pp 163-64)

Just as time was "but the stream I go a-fishing in", and his head "is an organ for burrowing," (p 98) his bean-field produced beans that "have results which are not harvested by me." (p 166).  We are still reaping these results and, while there are few huts set out beside ponds, there are many people who think about the meaning of a life that is lived with the benefits of Thoreau's seeds of simplicity and thoughtfulness.

"This rain which is now watering my beans and keeping me in the house waters me too.  I needed it as much.  And what if most are not hoed!  Those who send the rain, whom I chiefly respect, will pardon me." (Journal, July 6, 1845)

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. by Tim Hunt. Stanford University Press, 2001
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 2004 (1971)
The Journal, 1837-1861 by Henry David Thoreau, ed. by Damion Searls. New York Review Books. 2009

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Thoreau on Living

The Meaning of Walden

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”  - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or, Life in the Woods

The author, John Byron Kuhner made the following astute observation about the meaning of Walden and how it influenced his own writing about Staten Island:

"When I was writing the book, I was reading tons of Thoreau. Walden is called Walden, or, Life in the Woods. My book is Staten Island, or Life in the Boroughs. I did this because I found him so relevant. People think that Thoreau wrote a book about how we all should live in the woods and be self-reliant, and then they castigate him for leading a rather normal life, eating his mother’s cookies or something like that. But his book really wasn’t about going to the Frontier—which he could have done. He basically went to the edge of town, someplace where he was a little less in touch, where he was a little more alone and his life was a little simpler—to Staten Island, if you will. And he didn’t say we should all go live in the woods. He said we should go live where we are."

From “Live Where We Are” a conversation with John Byron Kuhner (Interviewed by GERALD J. RUSSELLO). Staten Island was a blank spot, "the undiscover'd country," until he was offered a job teaching Latin at the Staten Island Academy in 2000. An accomplished Latinist who speaks and writes Latin in an extensive circle of slightly odd friends, he now lives in a one-room cabin in the Catskill Mountains, seeking simplicity, self-knowledge, and beauty in nature. His occasional writing can be found online at  

From the Journal of Thoreau

To the Libraries

February 3, 1852

I have been to the libraries (yesterday) at Cambridge and Boston . It would seem as if all things compelled us to originality . How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of likeminded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens ; they have left no memento of it there ; but if I would read their books I must go to the city, - so strange and repulsive both to them and to me, - and deal with men and institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I Have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price" to pay for access even to the works of Homer, or Cliaucer, or tamixus. Greece and Asia Minor should henceforth bear Iliads and Odysseys as their trees lichens .
But no! if the works of nature are to any extent collected in the forest, the works of man are to a still greater extent collected in the city . I have sometimes imagined a library, i . e . a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city, guarded by cold-blooded and methodical officials and preyed on by bookworms, in which you own no share, and are not likely to, but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest, like the ruins of Central America, where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves, the older books protecting the most modern from the elements, partially buried by the luxuriance of nature, which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness amid wild beasts and wild men. That, to my imagination, seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity, and whose occasion is nature, than the well-preserved edifice, with its well-preserved officials on the side of a city's square. More terrible than lions and tigers these Cerberuses. Access to nature for original observation is secures:
by one ticket, by one kind of expense, but access to the works of your predecessors by a very different kind of expense. All things tend to cherish the originality of the original. Nature, at least, takes no pains to introduce him to the works of his predecessors, but only presents him with her own Opera Omnia.
Is it the lover of nature who has access to all that has been written on the subject of his favorite studies ?


Monday, June 25, 2012

Quote for Today

Henry David Thoreau

On Friendship

"As surely as the sunset in my latest November
shall translate me to the ethereal world,
and remind me of the ruddy morning of youth;
as surely as the last strain of music which falls on my decaying ear
shall make age to be forgotten,
or, in short, the manifold influences of nature
survive during the term of our natural life,
so surely my Friend shall forever be my Friend,
and reflect a ray of God to me,
and time shall foster and adorn and consecrate our Friendship,
no less than the ruins of temples."

from the chapter "Wednesday"
in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Transcendental Poetry

William Ellery Channing was one of the best friends of both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Here is a poem that praises the  "music that the fullest breeze can play In its melodious whisperings in the wood," and expresses the mind of the poet.

A Poet's Hope

Flying--flying beyond all lower regions,
Beyond the light called day, and night's repose,
Where the untrammelled soul, on her wind-pinions
Fearlessly sweeping, defies my earthly woes--
There--there, upon that infinitest sea,
Lady, thy hope--so fair a hope, summons me.

Fall off, ye garments of my misty weather,
Drop from my eyes, ye scales of time's applying;
Am I not godlike? meet not here together
A past and future infinite, defying,
The cold, still, callous moment of to-day?
Am I not master of the calm alway?

Would I could summon from the deep, deep mine,
Glutted with shapely jewels, glittering bright,
One echo of that splendor, call it thine,
And weave it in the strands of living light;
For it is in me, and the sea smiles fair,
And thitherward I rage, on whirling air.

Unloose me, demons of dull care and wants,
I will not stand your slave, I am your king;
Think not within your meshes vile I pant
For the wild liberty of an unclipt wing;
My empire is myself, and I defy
The external; yes! I rule the whole, or die.

All music that the fullest breeze can play
In its melodious whisperings in the wood,
All modulations which entrance the day
And deify a sunlight solitude;
All anthems that the waves sing to the ocean
Are mind for song, and yield to my devotion.

And mind the soft glaze of a loving eye,
And mine the pure shapes of the human form,
And mine the bitterest sorrow's witchery,
And spells enough to make a snow-king warm;
For an undying hope thou breathest me--
Hope which can ride the tossing, foaming sea.

Lady, there is a hope that all men have,
Some mercy for their faults, a grassy place
To rest in, and a flower-strown, gentle grave;
Another hope with purifies our race,
That when that fearful bourne forever past,
They may find rest--and rest so long to last.

I seek it not, I ask not rest for ever,
My path is onward to the farthest shores--
Upbear me in your arms, unceasing river,
That from the soul's clear fountain swiftly pours,
Motionless not, until the end is won,
Which now I feel hath scarcely felt the sun.

To feel, to know, to soar unlimited,
Mid throngs of light-winged angels sweeping far,
And pore upon the realms unvisited,
That tesselate the unseen unthought star,
To be the thing that now I feebly dream
Flashing within my faintest, deepest gleam.

Ah! caverns of my soul! how think your shade,
Where flows that life by which I faintly see--
Wave your bright torches, for I need your aid,
Golden-eyed demons of my ancestry!
Your son though blinded hath a light within,
A heavenly fire which ye from suns did win.

And, lady, in thy hope my life will rise
Like the air-voyager, till I upbear
These heavy curtains of my film eyes,
Into a lighter, more celestial air;
A mortal's hope shall bear me safely on,
Till I the higher region shall have won.

O Time! O death! I clasp you in my arms,
For I can soothe an infinite cold sorrow,
And gaze contented on your icy charms,
And that wild snow-pile, which we call to-morrow;
Sweep on, O soft, and azure-lidded sky,
Earth's waters to your gentle gaze reply.

I am not earth-born, though I here delay;
Hope's child, I summon infiniter powers,
And laugh to see the mild and sunny day
Smile on the shrunk and thin autumnal hours;
I laugh, for hope hath happy place to me,
If my bark sinks, 'tis to another sea.

- William Ellery Channing

Source: Selected Poems of William Ellery Channing. American Transcendentalism Web.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Philosophy and Nature

Notes on Walden, I
"being well as Nature"

"To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.  It is to solve some of the problems of life, not theoretically, but practically." (pp 14-15)

Henry David Thoreau begins Walden with an explanation, this was a brief respite from his "civilized life" that had taken up two years at some time in the past.  Now he is once again a "sojourner in civilized life."  Using the word sojourner suggests the association of material things with civilization.  It also provides a contrast with the natural life that he had experienced at Walden Pond.  But the presence of nature does not prevent Thoreau from quickly turning his narrative to a discourse on his personal life and internal thoughts leading to the comment about philosophers quoted above.  His life at Walden Pond appeared to provide simplicity and independence, two of the criteria listed, but the emphasis in "Economy"--the first chapter of Walden--is on the practical aspects of the life of the philosopher.
These aspects are laid out in an orderly manner that begins with several pages about the "when", "what", and "how" of his life at Walden Pond.  His simple life was one that included only the "necessities", noting that , "the wisest have ever led a more simple and meager life that the poor.  The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward." (p 14)
While what he did, in addition to writing, included:  "To anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!" . . . "trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express!"(p 17)
His paean to nature passes and he continues an orderly disquisition on building his house, its design, his income and outgo, and baking bread.  He describes making his furniture, once again with emphasis on simplicity:  "a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs".  Later, in the "Visitors" chapter, he will explain that his three chairs include "one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society." (p 140)  Multiple visitors were invited to stand while they shared Thoreau's abode.
The "Economy" section is by far the longest in the book and, while Thoreau discusses many more details of his life at the pond, he concludes with a meditation on philanthropy which he decides "that it does not agree with my constitution."  The dismissal of philanthropy, at least for himself, seems curious for one who portrays himself as a philosopher.  Philanthropy originates from the Latin "philanthropia", and originally from the Greek word "philanthropia", meaning "humanity, benevolence," from philanthropos (adj.) "loving mankind, useful to man," from phil- "loving" + anthropos "mankind".  But perhaps Thoreau did not perceive the practice of philanthropy in Concord to coincide with this derivation.  As he says "There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted." (p 74)  He goes on to discuss the issue at length with a concluding and consistent (with his thought) riposte that seems apropos for the end of this first note on Walden.
"If, then, we would indeed restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic, or natural means, let us first be as simple and well as nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores.  Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world."( pp 78-79)
This then seems to bring together the simplicity and practice of the philosopher to be "well as nature ourselves."

Walden by Henry D. Thoreau. Introduction by John Updike, Princeton University Press, 2004 (1854)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Dark Smile

The Companion
The Companion 

"Smiling at people you think are weird or wonderful, or smiling at completely the wrong time, is an excellent thing to do--it really can be quite unnerving." (p 18)

This is a strange novel that can be best described as a variation of black humor that holds an odd assortment of characters together as they try to cope with their lives. But none are stranger than the narrator, Trevor an out-of-work young man from Dublin, who finds a job as a companion to a wheel-chair bound teenager in New York City. The young man, Ed, has his own suite, lined with sound equipment and well provided with CDs, LPs, videos, and porno magazines. His father, a retired judge, is holed up in his study; his grossly obese mother has not got out of bed for ten years, and the three communicate only by internal phones; only the cheerful pot-smoking cook Ellie is the least bit normal. Trevor gets the job because he has the physical strength, an upbeat personality, and apparently some previous experience at a handicapped center in Dublin.
Trevor's experiences with this family are narrated in an uneven manner and, at times during my reading, I found it somewhat difficult to maintain a focus on the story. As the novel unfolds Trevor's personal life is as important as his relationship with the family for whom he works. It is his internal story that Trevor supposedly shares with a Priest and then bits of his past life, his anger and his parents, he shares with the reader.  But the best aspect of the novel is the relationship with Ed.  The strain of caring for Ed demonstrates itself in strange ways. He is a handful, and the pain causes him to lash out, but he and Trevor reach an understanding, and they both become better people. Their relationship is certainly smoother than that of Trevor as narrator, for the Irishman is unreliable as Roche has him sharing details of his life and then admitting that they are lies, a narrative style that is jarring at best and sometimes just annoying. The novel ultimately left me with the feeling of the noir atmosphere that was pervasive throughout, but in the end I would simply describe the book as a dark smile, very dark.

The Companion by  Lorcan Roche. Europa editions, 2010 (2007)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Top Ten Books for Summer Reading

Top Ten Books on my Summer Reading List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  It’s a fun an interesting way to get to know other book bloggers and what they are reading.

This week the topic is “books on my summer reading list”.  Here are ten books, some of which I am already committed to read and some I merely hope to read.  As such it is subject to change without notice.

1.  Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau's literary classic, an elegantly written record of his experiment in simple living.  This is for a class at the University of Chicago's Basic Program of Liberal Education.

2.  Frankenstein or the New Prometheus by Mary Shelley.  This classic novel of supreme horror that has held readers spellbound since its publication in 1816 is often considered the modern foundation of Science Fiction.

3.  Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge.  Victor Serge’s final novel, translated into English for the first time, is at once the most ambitious, bleakest, and most lyrical of this neglected major writer’s works.

4.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.  Heinlein's gripping tale of revolution on the moon in 2076, where "Loonies" are kept poor and oppressed by an Earth-based Authority that turns huge profits at their expense. This along with Frankenstein are also planned readings for a course at the University of Chicago.

5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  This is a reread of the novel considered by many to be the best of Dickens' works.

6.  Hymns and other Poems by Friedrich Holderlin.  This is on my Classics Club list.

7.  Eclogues and Georgics by Virgil.  This was suggested by my reading of Thoreau who himself read widely in the Greek and Roman classics.  I plan to read the David Ferry translations.

8.  Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith.  This is a classic science fiction tale from the 1970s and the only novel from the pen of Smith.

9.  A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.  Humanity's rebirth from ashes, reenacting the eternal drama of the struggle between light and darkness, life and death.

10.  Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell.  I read Mrs. Bridge last fall and enjoyed it so much that I plan to read  this companion volume.  Published a decade after Mrs. Bridge, it is about Walter Bridge, an ambitious lawyer who redoubles his efforts and time at the office whenever he senses that his family needs something, even when what they need is more of him and less of his money.

11+.  Books that did not make the cut but sit near the top of my TBR pile (the one closest to me). include:
In the First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Tree of Man by Patrick White, The Italian Journey by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, A Novel Bookstore by Lawrence Cosse. and Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

First sentences…

…from a few of my favorite books:

“The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.” The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

"In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon." City Boy: My Life in New York in the 1960s and 70s, Edmund White

“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story." Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton

“He awoke, opened his eyes.” The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile;  cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse;  backward in sentiment;  lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow loveable." The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

“These last few days I have thought and thought of the Nordland summer's endless day." Pan, Knut Hamsun

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” Essays of E.B. White

"A screaming comes across the sky." Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

"There was a depression over the Atlantic." The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Walden, or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau

“I am unlike other boys." Maltaverne, Francois Mauriac

"I am twenty-six inches tall, shapely and well proportioned, my head is perhaps a trifle too large." The Dwarf, Par Lagerkvist

…and perhaps the best opening sentence in all of literature:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Friday, June 15, 2012

Creativity and Genius

Notes on the Piano

by Ernst Bacon

Commonplaces entries 'On the piano' . . .

"The realest playing is often pure illusion.  This is shown by the player who, when contending with a defective or untuned instrument. succeeds nevertheless in imagining ideal sounds and transporting his hearers out of all awareness of the piano's blemishes.  He compels them to hear imaginarily along with himself.  This beautiful art is, of course, lost in the recording." (p 151)

"As in climbing high mountains, the progress one makes toward the final summits of mastery are often so slow as to be imperceptible.  The difference between being there and being almost there is something only the Alpinist fully understands." (p 153)

"Why shall we not say "great," and speak of "genius"?  We know what is meant, though we fail in definition.  The tribute we deny our living Olympians, we lavish then on plastic and synthetic gods, rich in things, not to emulate, but only to envy.  It takes courage today to salute greatness." (p 155)

Entitled simply Notes on the Piano, Ernst Bacon has written a book that ranges widely about all aspects of creative life.  As Paul Horgan said, "What he says about aspects of music can apply as strongly to other arts, even to the art of living and feeling as a truly civilized man."  An accomplished composer, pianist, writer, and teacher, he presents an easy and entertaining guide for players at all levels of expertise. The book offers valuable tips on working, listening, and playing habits in five sections that cover "The Performer," "The Learner," "The Player and Writer," "The Observer," and "Technically Speaking."
This is as much an essay on the nature of humanism as it is about the piano.

Notes on the Piano by Ernst Bacon. University of Washington Press,  1973 (1963)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Pursuit of Liberty

Up from the Projects: An Autobiography
Up from the Projects: 
An Autobiography 

"An autobiography permits me to talk about my life as it actually was, or as I recall it, as opposed to risking having someone else--friend or foe--make untruthful statements, wrong assumptions, and distortions." (Preface, x)

Walter Williams begins his autobiography as one might expect, discussing his childhood.  It is one that began in the "projects" in Philadelphia. What one does not expect and what sets the tone for his life and his story is his answer to the question he poses: "What was it like to grow up poor?" He immediately says, "we didn't consider ourselves poor; in fact, being called poor was an insult."(p 4) Thus he turns conventional thinking on its head and alerts the reader that his life and ideas will be unconventional indeed, and sometimes inconvenient and somewhat radical.
He tells his story with simple and clear prose, demurring literary flourishes, providing straightforward reporting about his experiences in school, the army, searching for direction, and the importance of education and family.
I was most impressed that by sharing these experiences he demonstrated a life of integrity, courage, determination through hard work, intellect and curiosity, a sense of humor, and above all an independence in thought and action that, with a bit of luck led him to great achievement in his chosen field of economics. Some notable episodes included his defiance of racial stereotyping during an encounter with the academics of Amherst, his unconventional but principled criticisms of the "Davis Bacon Act" and other government actions, and his courageous decision to not join the Reagan administration. But these were no surprise following his example of independent thinking at UCLA that led him to question his professors including the famed Armen Alchian, and in doing so gaining their admiration for his courage and independent thought. He came into his own during the three decades of his tenure at George Mason University showing determination in developing private funding for the renowned Economics department and eventually leading it as the department head.  Domestic episodes of his life include family scenes that demonstrated the importance of the women in his development: mother, wife and daughter.
I began reading this autobiography somewhat familiar with Williams' thought through his opinion columns and media appearances. My admiration for his defense of the liberty and the free market was increased by great measure learning of his development, not without some stumbles, into a principled leader who deserves the admiration of all who love liberty.

Up from the Projects by Walter E. Williams. Hoover Institution Press, 2010.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Seeds of the Super Human

Seeds of Life
Seeds of Life 
by John Taine

"De Soto began to conceive a mild contempt for the science of electricity as expounded in college texts and popular treatises.  In some indefinable way it all seemed an old legend dimly remembered from a forgotten life.  The rudimentary knowledge of the universal forces of nature was as instinctive in him as breathing.  Had he not 'always' recognized instantly the hidden interplay of natural things as intuitively as he perceived the nonday sun?" (p 48)

One of the many themes of science fiction is that of the super human ... people who have developed or evolved abilities beyond the norm. These super abilities can be explained by natural causes, intentional augmentation or even accident. Seeds of Life is an early twentieth century examplar of this theme.
The novel concerns the creation of a superior human using radiation. The author uses his knowledge of electronics and the inexorable logic of science to build up steadily mounting horror. For Bork, a lab assistant, accidentally discovers a secret of short x-ray waves that can mutate life -- pushing it millions of years ahead or equal millenniums back. He mutates almost overnight into a superman with a mind beyond any of the scientists for whom he had previously worked (it is reminiscent of the Keyes" Flowers for Algernon in this respect). He changes his name and uses his new powers to create amazing technological results, but the same accident also leads to other mutations including an incident where some brown hen eggs revert and what emerges is the common reptile-dinosaur ancestor of birds and mammals. His world becomes even more complicated when his mutations start to wear off and he comes to realize that what he’s set in motion is wrong, but he also can’t stop it.
The plot takes several more twists and turns, but that is not why I enjoyed this novel. Rather it is the imaginative take that it presents of the super human theme. In this it is an excellent early example and compares favorably with the work of later writers including my favorite, A. E. Van Vogt. His novel, Slan, considered a classic of this theme, used the concept of super-beings to explore the themes of racism, prejudice and what it means to be human. Other examples of the use of this theme include Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930), Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935), Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953) and Frederick Pohl's Man Plus (1976).
 The critic Everett F. Bleiler found the opening segment of Seeds of Life to be "fascinating," but that as a whole "it suffers from formal defects, inadequate development at times, superfluity at others, weak characterizations, and problems with tone." Still, he concluded, "the novel is well worth reading for its virtues."   And I would agree, particularly in that its' virtues in its consistent pursuit of the super human theme make this a book that holds the science fiction aficionado's interest to this day.

Seeds of Life by John Taine. Dover Books, 1966 (1931)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hobgoblins of Language

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins 

Definition: An overwhelming fear of using a word more than once in a single sentence, or even in a single paragraph."

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins is a unique reference book about superstitions of writing and writers. When are prohibitions based on personal prejudice rather than good usage? Bernstein covers this question and more in his discussion of the superstitions of usage - "prohibitions deriving from mere personal prejudice or from misguided pedantry or from a cold conservatism that would freeze the language if it could."  You know a book will be fun to read when chapter titles refer to witchcraft, scarecrows, imps and spooks.
Beneath the facetious titles the reader finds a glossary of words demonstrating how language changes, chapters on syntax, idioms, and style. He also sneaks a bibliography into his intriguingly titled preface: "A Word to the Whys".
 The appendix is most interesting; introduced as a "museum" it contains examples of how not to correct usage even as it provides a mixed bag of good, bad and outdated advice. Bernstein admits to this and holds the appendix as a rare but altogether mixed bag of usage.  Including William Cullen Bryant, Ambrose Bierce, and James Gordon Bennett it provides sources that increase the book's value.  Overall this is a delightful book to read and refer to as a writer or reader.

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins by Theodore M. Bernstein. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Classics Club

Reading the Classics

In March 2012, Jillian at A Room of One's Own launched The Classics Club. Basically, the club is a place for classics readers and bloggers to find each other and discuss reading the classics.  The moment I found this club it appealed to me as a serious reader and one who loves reading classics, from Homer to Joyce and beyond.  However, I was not sure what books to include on my list,.  How many should be favorites to reread and how many should be new reads?  Should the list include contemporary literature as well as the ancients?

Then I found a guide to start with right on my shelf of literary reference works.
It is A Temple of Texts by William Gass and it will serve as my foundation for the first fifty on my list of classic books that will get me started in this new endeavor (as if I needed an excuse to read more books).  My goal is to complete this list within the next five years.

William Gass, with whom I was already acquainted through his novel Omensetter's Luck, has an essay, "A Temple of Texts" that recommends "Fifty Literary Pillars".  These will form my starting point for this endeavor.  Here they are in the order they appear in Gass's book:

1. Plato -  Timaeus
2. Aristotle -  Nicomachean Ethics
3. Thucydides -  History of the Peloponnesian War
4. Hobbes -  Leviathan
5. Kant, Immanuel - Critique of Pure Reason
6. Wittgenstein, Ludwig - Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
7. Bachelard, Gaston - Poetics of Space
8. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor - Biographia Literaria
9.*  Hofmannsthal, Hugo Von - The Lord Chandos Letter
10. Malory, Sir Thomnas - Le Morte d'Arthur
11.* Milton, John - Paradise Lost
12. Sterne, Laurence - Tristram Shandy
13.* Woolf, Virginia - Mrs. Dalloway
14. Ford, Ford Madox - Parade's End
15. Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
16. * Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
17. Joyce, James - Ulysses
18. Joyce, James - Finnegan's Wake
19. O'Brien, Flann - At Swim - Two Birds
20. Holderlin, Friedrich - Hymns
21. * Mann, Thomas - Joseph and His Brothers
22. Cortazar, Julio - Hopscotch
23. Borges, Jorge Luis - Labyrinths
24. Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
25. Kafka, Franz - Collected Stories
26. Broch, Hermann, The Sleepwalkers
27.* Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
28. Flaubert, Gustave - Bouvard and Pecochet
29. Svevo, Italo - Zeno's Conscience
30. Stendahl -  The Red and The Black
31. Colette, Break of Day
32. Donne, John - Poems and Sermons
33.* More, Thomas - Utopia
34. Mallarme, Stephane - Un Coup de des
35. Pound, Ezra - Personae
36. Yeats, William Butler - The Tower
37. Stevens, Wallace - Harmonium
38.* James, Henry - The Ambassadors
39.*  Musil, Robert - The Man Without Qualities
40. Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
41. Porter, Katherine Anne - Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
42. Stein, Gertrude - Three Lives
43. Gaddis, William - The Recognitions
44. Hawkes, John - The Lime Twig
45. Rilke, Rainer Maria - The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
46* The Book of Job
47. Rilke, Rainer Maria - Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus
48.* Eliot, George - Middlemarch
49. Freud -  The Interpretation of Dreams
50.* Hesse, Herman - The Glass Bead Game

* These books are my substitutes for others that were in Gass's original list.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bradbury's Speculative Fiction

Ray Bradbury: Mars, Books, and More

"The party moved out into the moonlight, silently. They made their way to the outer rim of the dreaming dead city in the light of the racing twin moons. Their shadows, under them, were double shadows. They did not breathe, or seemed not to, perhaps, for several minutes. They were waiting for something to stir in the dead city, some gray form to rise, some ancient ancestral shape to come galloping across the vacant sea bottom on an ancient, armored steed of impossible lineage, of unbelievable derivation."  (The Martian Chronicles --"And the Moon Be Still as Bright")

Ray Bradbury, the literary, fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery writer died on Tuesday.  I have been a fan of his since reading The Martian Chronicles, and other works including Fahrenheit 451, when I was a teenager.  He became one of my favorite authors almost immediately and his tales, including those of Humans and Martians collected in The Martian Chronicles, were mesmerizing. He grew up in a relatively impoverished family in the 1920s and his early reading was in Edgar Allan Poe (also a favorite of mine since my pre-teen years) and others like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even after he became famous for his own fantastic stories Bradbury was considered an outsider in traditional publishing circles, but maintained popularity with everyday folk. Time magazine labelled Bradbury "poet of the pulps" that seemed to sum up the cognoscenti's opinion of him.     While the Martian Chronicles is a short story collection that reads like a novel as the stories share the theme suggested by the title. He was widely considered to be one of the greatest and most popular American writers of speculative fiction during the twentieth century.
I read these novels more than forty years ago and have reread them since. In my reading I found Bradbury's writing memorable in many ways. In The Martian Chronicles he demonstrates an ability to capture both the wonder of space and its impact on the lives of the people who colonized Mars.  In it NASA repeatedly sends teams to explore; finally, one of them is successful. Rapid settlement follows, much like Westward Expansion in American History. Some colonists are looking for escape from civilization, but most only want to bring civilization to Mars--American civilization, that is. Finally, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and so all the humans go home.  But once more a few humans flee the war and head to Mars; when they get there, they don't make the mistake of trying to recreate American civilization. They have seen that the result of Earth civilization was war, so they burn their maps of Earth and decide to become Martians.  The stories adhere to create a novel with a dreamlike quality that made it different than the average genre fiction. This was noted by another of my favorite authors, Christopher Isherwood. A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the British expatriate writer Christopher Isherwood gave Bradbury the opportunity to put The Martian Chronicles into the hands of a respected critic. Isherwood's glowing review followed and substantially boosted Bradbury's career.
   Fahrenheit 451 has rightly become a classic with its allegoric telling of the dystopian future where books are burned by firefighters. It describes a world where book lovers hide in the forest literally becoming the books that they love in acts of self-preservation. Like the Phoenix, a small band of people survive a holocaust to rise again in the rebirth of a new world. You never forget the opening line: "It was a pleasure to burn."
Bradbury has written many other fictions worth reading, particularly short stories evocative of his own Midwest roots in Waukegan, Illinois. Perhaps my own roots in southern Wisconsin explain in part why I enjoy his writing. Some of his other writings that I have enjoyed over the years include Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and The Stories of Ray Bradbury ( I particularly cherished the collection The Vintage Bradbury).  Perhaps this comment about books by Bradbury is a good way to conclude:
“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Heritage Press, Norwalk Connecticut . 1974 (1950)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2003 (1953)

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Polar Bear, Redux

Run for the Zoo

We ran for the zoo again this year
For the umpteenth time so I had no fear.
The course ran up and then ran down
first on Stockton and then on crackling ground.
We ran around for a bit till we turned in at the Zoo.

Soon it's the middle of the race and then I was there --
I turned to my right and saw a big white Polar Bear.
And just in front of that Polar Bear a bright white bird
Sat on top of a rock, his feathers glistening in the morning sun
We all were together, runners, bear, and bird,  having fun.

The bear did not notice the runners go by
As he slept in the shade in his crag on high.
But we kept going buoyed by the joy of the morning run,
Along with the sight of the Polar Bear and the bird in the sun.

James Henderson, 2012

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Two Poems

There is a June when Corn is cut

There is a June when Corn is cut
And Roses in the Seed—
A Summer briefer than the first
But tenderer indeed

As should a Face supposed the Grave's
Emerge a single Noon
In the Vermilion that it wore
Affect us, and return—

Two Seasons, it is said, exist—
The Summer of the Just,
And this of Ours, diversified
With Prospect, and with Frost—

May not our Second with its First
So infinite compare
That We but recollect the one
The other to prefer? 

Emily Dickinson


Claim the Season

“Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. 
Do not count on them. Leave them alone.”  -  Ayn Rand

Slash and burn,
The seasons turn,
And just as one is yearning for the new
The blasted heat of Summer claims its due.

Take the high road
Where they last sowed
Grass, but now the weeds have wrested the hill.
Can we find respite on this hill?  Dare we - will

we find a way to claim the new season?
Or is there no place here for our reason?

James Henderson, Geography Lessons  (2012)

A Father and Daughter in Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, 
and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinOnce, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler's Berlin.  They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their first year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler's ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain." (p xiii)

Almost since the day it was published I received recommendations from friends that I should read The Devil in the White City. After all, I live in Chicago and I am a reader. But perhaps it is because I am a serious reader that I did not rush to read that book, in fact I have yet to read it. I have seen the author speak on CSPAN's BookTV about his book on Marconi's creation of radio, Thunderstruck, and that book sounded interesting as well. But here I am, in 2012 and instead of those books I have just read his latest, In the Garden of Beasts, primarily because my book group is reading it.
I enjoyed it nonetheless, but not without some misgivings. It is a sort of personal historical narrative that is interesting in the same way as a journalist's report on a current affairs story might be. The exception in Larson's narrative (and it is one that gives an otherwise mundane story all of its narrative kick) is the background events. Indeed, some of his readers may have read other books about the events that form the background for his narrative.
I do have some criticisms of the book: first, Larson is a good writer, but not the master of narrative non-fiction some would claim him to be; second, this story is a straightforward narrative, and with all the background fireworks due to the ascension of Hitler to full-fledged dictator the book is not as exciting as I expected; and, the story is narrowly focused on William Dodd and his daughter Martha. Martha's view of the Nazi's whom she increasingly meets in social situations seems startlingly naive at first, but it evolves as successive realizations impinge upon her psyche:
“The smell of peace is abroad, the air is cold, the skies are brittle, and the leaves have finally fallen. I wear a pony coat with skin like watered silk and muff of lamb. My fingers lie in depths of warmth. I have a jacket of silver sequins and heavy bracelets of rich corals. I wear about my neck a triple thread-like chain of lapis lazulis and pearls. On my face is softness and content like a veil of golden moonlight. And I have never in all my lives been so lonely.”  
While their story is interesting, one wonders why Dodd's wife and son were relegated to the background.
From the beginning, Dodd is out of his element as ambassador in spite of his intelligence and his quoted speeches seem stilted while his attitude toward the professional embassy employees appears provincial. From the opening chapters it is clear that he was not Roosevelt's first or second choice -- in fact it is mere chance that he was recommended to Roosevelt at all. It does not take Dodd long find this out for himself. It is to his credit that, even though he would rather be spending his days writing his history of the old South, he perseveres and works hard to do his best as representative of the United States.
I did enjoy the book as a whole, impressed by the connections Dodd made with other countries' ambassador's and how he kept a level head (his "cool" one might say today) while Berlin and much of Germany was in constantly increasing turmoil. The narrative holds the reader's attention and I experienced not a small bit of suspense. It might even serve as a catalyst to further, more detailed and serious, reading about the history of Hitler and The Third Reich. I know it did for me.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Crown Publishers, 2011