Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oxford Book of Essays (8)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (8)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Prejudice: “…my father, who having taken his own conversion too literally, never, at bottom, forgave the white world…for having saddled him with a Christ in whom, to judge at least from their treatment of him, they themselves no longer believed.” p. 624. James Baldwin, 1953. ………. Language. “…the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” p. 626. James Baldwin. 1953. ………. Prejudice. “At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.” p. 630. James Baldwin. 1953.

Prejudice. “…American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence of returning to a state in which black men do not exist…one of the greatest errors Americans can make.” p. 632. James Baldwin. 1953. ………. Power. “Yet what, finally, was the effect of absolute power on twelve representative men [the twelve Caesars]? …Suetonius makes it quite plain: disastrous.” p. 637. Gore Vidal. 1959. ………. Personality. “But to deny the dark nature of human personality is not only fatuous but dangerous.” p. 639. Gore Vidal. 1959.

Algeria. “Sartre on Algeria: Anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.” p. 639. Gore Vidal. 1959. ………. Humans. “…half-tamed creatures whose great moral task it is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within—for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster.” p. 640. Gore Vidal. 1959. ………. Fate. “Sometimes I think jokes are the only truly serious response to our absurd fates.” p. 654. PJ Kavanaugh. 1983.

Power brings problems.” p. 659. VS Naipaul. 1967. ………. Faces. “To have stared at the damned thing [his face] so long and yet still not to know what it reveals is a true tribute to the difficulties of self analysis.” p. 666. Joseph Epstein. 1983. ………. “Yet read faces one must, for however unreliable a method it may be, none other exists for taking at least a rough measure of others.” p. 668. Joseph Epstein. 1983. ………. “I know I need to look at, if not deeply into, the eyes of someone with whom I am talking…find myself slightly resentful—perhaps irritated comes closer to it—at having to talk to someone wearing sunglasses.” p. 669. Joseph Epstein. 1983. ………. “Intelligence is more readily gauged in a face than is stupidity.” p. 672. Joseph Epstein. 1983.

Faces. “We read [the faces] most subtly of course of those people we know most closely: our friends, our known enemies, our families; in the faces of such people we can recognize shifting moods, hurt and pride, all the delicate shades of feeling.” p. 672. Joseph Epstein. 1983. ………. “But of that person we supposedly know most intimately, ourself, the project remains hopeless; study photographs of ourselves though we may, stare at our selves in mirrors though we do, our self-scrutiny comes to naught; if you don’t believe me, stop a moment and attempt to describe yourself to someone who has never seen you.” p. 672. Joseph Epstein. 1983.

Comment: And on that note, the inscrutability of our own faces, I bring to a close some of the memorable statements found in essays through the years. RayS.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Oxford Book of Essays (7)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (7)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Buddha. “The drooping eyelids of the great creatures [statues of the Buddha] are heavy with patience and suffering, and the subtle irony which offends us in their raised eyebrows…conveys to us that it is odd that we let our desires subject us to so much torment in the world.” Sir William Empson. 1936. ………. Life. “We are one of many appearances of the thing called life; we are not its perfect image, for it has no image except Life, and life is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time.” Loren Eiseley. 1957. ………. Language. “I think of the thick layers of abstract jargon we carry on top of our heads, of the incessant urge to rename everything in roundabout phrases (‘personal armor system’ = the new army helmet), of the piling up of modifiers before the noun (‘easy-to-store safety’ of the folding ironing board), of the evil passion for agglutinating half-baked ideas into single terms (‘surprizathon’ = advertising goods by lottery)….” Jacques Barzun. 1984.

FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] stands out principally by his astonishing appetite for life and by his apparently complete freedom from fear for the future.” Sir Isaiah Berlin. 1949. ………. FDR…sensed the tendencies of his time and their projections into the future to a most uncommon degree.” Sir Isaiah Berlin. 1949. ………. “Churchill’s nature possessed a dimension of depth—and a corresponding sense of tragic possibilities—which Roosevelt’s light-hearted genius instinctively passed by.” Sir Isaiah Berlin. 1949. ………. “FDR played the game of politics with virtuosity, and both his successes and his failures ere carried off in splendid style; his performance seemed to flow with effortless skill; Churchill is acquainted with darkness as well as light…gives evidence of agonized brooding and slow recovery.” Isaiah Berlin. 1949.

Mistakes are at the base of human thought….” Lewis Thomas. 1979. ………. “If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get any thing useful done.” Lewis Thomas. 1979. ………. “What is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on the error.” Lewis Thomas. 1979. ………. “The lower animals do not have this splendid freedom to make mistakes…are limited, most of them, to absolute infallibility.” Lewis Thomas. 1979.

Fear. Thomas Hobbes: “Man does not move towards positive ends, but away from fear.” H.R. Trevor-Roper. 1945. ………. Genius. “The function of genius is not to give new answers, but to pose new questions….” HR Trevor-Roper. 1945. ……… “Failure is a kind of death.” Robert Warshow. 1948.

Heaven. “It was that verse about becoming again as a little child that caused the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies; if the kingdom of Heaven could be entered only by those fulfilling such a condition, I knew I should be unhappy there…was not the prospect of being deprived of money, keys, wallet, letters, books, long-playing records, drinks, the opposite sex, and other solaces of adulthood that upset me…but having to put up indefinitely with the company of other children, their noise, their nastiness, their boasting, their back-answers, their cruelty, their silliness.” Philip Larkin. 1959.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Oxford Book of Essays (6)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (6)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Marriage. “That the candidates for this blissful condition [marriage] have never seen an example of it [a blissful marriage], nor ever knew anyone who had, makes no difference; that is the ideal and they will achieve it.” p. 436. Katherine Anne Porter. 1948. ………. “If the couple discharged their religious and social obligations, furnished forth a copious progeny, kept their troubles to themselves, maintained public civility and died under the same roof, even if not always on speaking terms, it was rightly regarded as a successful marriage.” p. 437. Katherine Anne Porter. 1948. ………. “But Romantic Love crept into the marriage bed, very stealthily by centuries, bringing its absurd notions about love as eternal springtime and marriage as a personal adventure meant to provide personal happiness.” p. 437. Katherine Anne Porter. 1948.

Marriage. “When a husband is reading aloud, a wife should sit quietly in her chair, relaxed but attentive…should not keep swinging one foot, start to wind her wrist watch, file her fingernails, or clap her hands in an effort to catch a mosquito. A good wife allows the mosquito to bite her when her husband is reading aloud…should not break in to correct her husband’s pronunciation, or to tell him one of his socks is wrong side out.” p. 465. James Thurber. “My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage.” 1953. ……… “A husband should try to remember where things are around the house so that he does not have to wait for his wife to get home from the hairdresser’s before he can put his hands on what he wants. Perhaps every wife should draw for her husband a detailed map of the house, showing clearly the location of everything he might need [but he would probably] lay the map down somewhere and not be able to find it until his wife got home.” p. 465. James Thurber. “My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage.” 1953.

Rural Life. “…the country that has always existed in our imagination, so clean, trim, lavishly colored vs. …agriculture as a pursuit for real farms, with their actual lumbering beasts, their mud and manure…their mortgages and loans and market prices, their long days of wet fields and dirty straw.” p. 470. J.B. Priestley. “The Toy Farm.” 1927. ………. “…that idealized countryside where there are no ugly downpours, no sodden fields and lanes choked with mud, where only the gentlest shower of rain breaks through the sunshine, where everything is as clean as a new pin and fresh from the paint-box, where men and women are innocent and gay and the very beasts are old friends, where sin and suffering and death are not even a distant rumor.” p. 470. J.B. Priestley. “The Toy Farm.” 1927. ………. “…vision of townsmen, longing for the fields in their wilderness of bricks and mortar, a revolt against the ugly mechanical things of today, but a dream that would appear to be as old as civilized man himself, touching men’s imagination when towns were little more than specks in the green countryside. This other country where there was nothing ugly nor any pain or sorrow…haunts the mind of man everywhere and in every age.” p. 471. J.B. Priestley. “The Toy Farm.” 1927.

Dandelions. “The astronomer can tell where the North Star will be ten thousand years hence; the botanist cannot tell where the dandelion will bloom tomorrow.” p. 448. Joseph Wood Krutch. 1950. ………. “Nature, it is true, always holds up the same mirror, but prejudice, habit and education are continually changing the appearance of the objects seen in it.” p. 483. Edmund Wilson. 1927. ………. Life. “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection…and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken by life….” p. 505. George Orwell. 1949.

Journalists. “…usual to evoke as authority some anonymous source…have heard something from the postman, they attribute it to a ‘semi-official statement’; if they have fallen into conversation with a stranger at a bar, they can conscientiously describe him as ‘a source that has hitherto proved unimpeachable’…only when the journalist is reporting a whim of his own…that he defines it as the opinion of ‘well-informed circles.’ ” p. 510. Evelyn Waugh. 1930. ………. Books. “Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives.” p. 515. Graham Greene. 1947. ………. “In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already.” p. 515. Graham Greene. 1947.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oxford Book of Essays (5)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (5)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Solitude. “We are suffering…from the loss of solitude.” p. 355. Bertrand Russell. 1950. ………. The Next Great War. “It may well be that an even worse war is drawing near…a war of the East against the West…a war of liberal civilization against the Mongol hordes.” p. 370. Winston Churchill. 1947. ……….[There's a quote to remember! RayS.] Pride. “But an Englishman cannot be proud of being simple and direct, and still remain simple and direct. The matter of these…virtues: to know them is to kill them.” p. 377. GK Chesterton. 1905.

Happiness. “The one supreme way of making all those processes go right, the process of health, and strength, and grace, and beauty…is to think about something else.” p. 381. GK Chesterton. 1905. ………. Power. Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” p. 390. Lytton Strachey. 1925. ………. Wealth and Poverty. “Here in the coal regions of Pennsylvania was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination—and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats.” p. 392. HL Mencken. 1928.

Parties. “Seeing one another; meeting the others of our race; exchanging remarks; or merely observing in what particular garments they have elected to clothe themselves today; this is so nearly universal a custom that it has become dignified into an entertainment, and we issue to one another invitations to attend such gatherings.” p. 400. Rose Macaulay. 1926. ………. “As a matter of fact, if you succeed in getting into a corner with a friend and talking, be sure you will be very soon torn asunder by an energetic hostess, whose motto is ‘keep them moving.’ ” p. 401. Rose Macaulay. 1926. ………. “I know someone who says that she never can think of anything to say to persons introduced to her at a party except, ‘Do you like parties?’ ” p. 401. Rose Macaulay. 1926.

Parties. “You had better then take up a position in a solitary corner…and merely listen to the noise as to a concert, not endeavoring to form out of it sentences…. The noise of a party will be found a very interesting noise, containing a great variety of different sounds.” p. 401. Rose Macaulay. 1926. ……… Finnegans Wake. “And then there is a curious fact about Finnegans Wake; every other prose book is written in prose; this book is written in speech; speech and prose are not the same thing…have different wave-lengths, for speech moves at the speed of light, where prose moves at the speed of the alphabet, and must be consecutive and grammatical and word perfect…. Finnegans Wake is all speech…soliloquy…dialogue…at times oration…but it is always speech.” p. 412. James Stephens. 1947. ………. Concentration. “There is nothing more concentrated than the perseverance with which a duck preens its feathers or a cat washes its fur.” p. 426. Marianne Moore. 1955.

Fear. “…the real fright came when she discovered that at times her father and mother hated each other; this was like standing on the doorsill of a familiar room and seeing in a lightning flash that the floor was gone, you were on the edge of a bottomless pit.” p. 435. Katherine Anne Porter. 1948. ………. “Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it.” p. 436. Katherine Anne Porter. 1948. ………. “Marriage is not the end but only the beginning of….” p. 436. Katherine Anne Porter. 1948. ………. “Romantic Love, more especially in America, where we are all brought up on it, whether we know it or not…is changeless, faithful, passionate, and its sole end is to render the two lovers happy.” p. 436. Katherine Anne Porter. 1948.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Oxford Book of Essays (4)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (4)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Peace. “God…allows no man peace till he get it in the grave….” p. 267. Mark Twain. 1890s. ………. Republic. “The republic has its advantages; among these is the liberty to say, ‘Down with the Republic!’ ” p. 283. Ambrose Bierce. 1902. ………. PhD. “To interfere with the free development of talent…to foster academic snobbery by the prestige of certain privileged institutions, to transfer accredited value from essential manhood to an outward badge, to blight hopes…to divert the attention of aspiring youth from direct dealings with truth to the passing of examinations….” p. 288. William James. “The Ph.D. Octopus.” 1903.

Childhood. “Civilization is cruel in sending children to bed at the most stimulating time of dusk—summer dusk, especially, is the frolic moment for children.” p. 303. Alice Meynell. 1897. ……….Life. “We live the time that a match flickers….” p. 311. Robert Louis Stevenson. 1878. ………. Death. “The old hear of the death of people about their own age, or even younger, not as if it was a grisly warning, but with a simple child-like pleasure at having outlived someone else….” p. 311. Robert Louis Stevenson. 1878.

Positive Attitude. “Every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind.” p. 316. Robert Louis Stevenson. 1878. ………. Bias. “It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion.” p. 317. Oscar Wilde. 1891. ………. Art. “Art does not spring from inspiration, but it makes others inspired.” p. 318. Oscar Wilde. 1891.

Growth. “The essence of thought, as the essence of life, is growth.” p. 318. Oscar Wilde. 1891. ………. News. “By carefully chronicling the current events of contemporary life, it shows us of what very little importance such events really are.” p. 319. Oscar Wilde. 1891. ………. Youth and Age. “Youth is ever in revolt, age alone brings resignation.” p. 330. James G. Huneker. 1915.

Fanaticism. “Viewed from within, each religion or national fanaticism stands for a good; but in its outward operation it produces and becomes an evil.” p. 245. George Santayana. 1905. ………. Science. “Hardly any man of science, nowadays, sits down to write a great work, because he knows that while he is writing it, others will discover new things that will make it obsolete before it appears.” p. 353. Bertrand Russell. 1950. ………. Fanaticism. “All movements go too far….” p. 354. Bertrand Russell. 1950.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oxford Book of Essays (3)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (3)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Laws. “The end of all civil regulations is to secure private happiness from private malignity; to keep individuals from the power of one another.” p. 76. Samuel Johnson. 1758. ………. Ambiguity. “We find few disputes that are not founded on some ambiguity in the expression.” p. 82. David Hume. 1741. ………. National Stereotypes. “…declared that the Dutch were a parcel of avaricious wretches; the French a set of flattering sycophants; that the Germans were drunken sots, and beastly gluttons; and the Spanish proud, haughty and surly tyrants, but that, in bravery, generosity, clemency, and in every other virtue, the English excelled all the world.” p. 94. Oliver Goldsmith, “On National Prejudices.” 1763.

Life’s Purpose. “…unless we take refuge in the intolerable paradox that the mass of men are created for nothing and are meant to leave life as they entered it.” p. 169. John Henry Newman. 1841. ………. Conservatism and Liberalism. “The two parties which divide the state, the party of conservatism and that of innovation, are very old and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made.” p. 171. Emerson. 1841. ………. “The conservative party in the universe concedes that the radical would talk sufficiently to the purpose if he were still in the garden of Eden; he legislates for man as he ought to be; his theory is right but he makes no allowance for friction; and this omission makes his whole doctrine false.” p. 183. Emerson. p. 1841.

Education. “It has been well said that the highest aim in education is analogous to the highest aim in mathematics, namely to obtain not results but powers; not particular solutions, but the means by which endless solutions may be wrought.” p. 239. George Eliot. 1855. ………. The French. “…means that the French, as a people, have shown more accessibility to ideas than any other people; that prescription and routine have had less hold upon them than upon any other people; that they have shown most readiness to move and to alter at the bidding…of reason.” p. 265. Matthew Arnold. 1863. ………. The English. “Heine: I might settle in England…if it were not that I should find there two things, coal-smoke and Englishmen; I cannot abide either.” p. 245. Matthew Arnold. 1863.

Restraint. “It is needful only to look around us to see that the greatest restrainer of the anti-social tendencies of men is fear, not of the law, but of the opinion of their fellows.” p. 249. T.H. Huxley. 1894. ………. Golden Rule. “…the followers of the ‘golden rule’ may indulge in hopes of heaven, but they must reckon with the certainty that other people will be masters of the earth.” p. 250. T.H. Huxley. 1894. ………. “What would become of the garden if the gardener treated all the weeds and slugs and birds and trespassers as he would like to be treated…?” p. 251. T.H. Huxley. 1894.

Complaints. “…we should be very careful for our own sake not to speak much about what distresses us; expression is apt to carry with it exaggeration, and this exaggerated form becomes henceforth that under which we represent our miseries to ourselves, so that they are thereby increased.” p. 257. Mark Rutherford. 1900. ………. “By perpetually asking for sympathy an end is put to real friendship. p. 258. Mark Rutherford. 1900. [That’s a dangling modifier; but you get the point. RayS.] ………. Fear. “Fright is often prior to an object; that is to say, the fright comes first….” p. 258. Mark Rutherford. 1900.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Oxford Book of Essays (2)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (2)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Possessions. “Somebody says of a virtuous and wise man, ‘that having nothing, he has all’ …his antipode, who, having all things, yet has nothing. p. 28. Abraham Cowley. 1665. ………. Dryden on Chaucer: “The matter and manner of their tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different educations, humors, and callings that each of them would be improper in any other mouth.” p. 31. John Dryden. 1700. ………. Dryden on Chaucer: “We have our forefathers and great-grand-dames all before us, as they were in Chaucer’s days: Their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of Monks and Friars, and Canons and Lady Abbeses, and Nuns; for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature. p. 33. John Dryden. 1700.

Manners. “Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse.” p. 34. Jonathan Swift. 1714. ………. “I have seen a duchess fairly knocked down by the precipitancy of an officious coxcomb running to save her the trouble of opening a door.” p. 36. Jonathan Swift. 1714. ………. Tombstones. “Most of them [tombstones] recorded nothing else of the buried person, but that he was born upon one day and died upon another; the whole history of his life being comprehended in those two circumstances, that are common to mankind….”p. 41. Joseph Addison. 1711.

Life and Death. “…I began to consider with myself what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient cathedral; how men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers, monks and prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common mass; how beauty, strength and youth, with old age, weakness and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.” p. 41. Joseph Addison. 1711. ………. “When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I meet with the griefs of parents upon a tombstone my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind.” p. 43. Joseph Addison. 1711.

Life and Death. “Thus we groan under life, and bewail those who are relieved from it.” p, 55. Richard Steele. 1710. ………. Affectation. “…for there is nothing truer than the trite observation, ‘that people are never ridiculous for being what they really are, but for affecting what they are not.’ ”p. 57. Lord Chesterfield. 1755. ………. People. “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.” p. 69. Samuel Johnson. 1750.

Character. “…more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character by a short conversation with one of his servants than from a formal and studied narrative begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.” p. 70. Samuel Johnson. 1750. ………. Attractiveness. “Few are more frequently envied than those who have the power of forcing attention wherever they come, whose entrance is considered as a promise of felicity, and whose departure is lamented.” p. 72. Samuel Johnson. 1751. ………. Debtors’ Prison. “The confinement, therefore, of any man in the sloth and darkness of a debtors’ prison is a loss to the nation, and no gain to the creditor.” p. 75. Samuel Johnson. 1758.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Oxford Book of Essays (1)

Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (1)

Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.

Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.

Essays. “Even more than most literary forms, the essay defies strict definition.” p. xix. ………. “…distinguishing marks of an essay by Montaigne are intimacy and informality.” p. xix. ………. “Montaigne…merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind.” p. xix. .......... “Essayists are masters of the art of talking on paper….” p. xx.

Revenge. “Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior….” p. 3. F. Bacon, 1625. ………. “You shall read…that we are commanded to forgive our enemies; but you never read that we are commanded to forgive our friends.” p. 3. F. Bacon, 1625. ………. “There is no man doth a wrong for the wrong’s sake: but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure or honor, or the like.” p. 3. F. Bacon, 1625. ………. “This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” p. 4. F. Bacon, 1625. ………. Innovations. “It were good therefore that men in their innovations would follow the example of time itself, which indeed innovateth greatly, but quietly, and by degrees scarce to be perceived.” p. 6. F. Bacon, 1621.

Old Age. “He looks over his former life [the good old man] as a danger well past, and would not hazard himself to begin again.” p. 13. John Earle, 1628. ………. “He [the good old man] has some old stories…but remembers…how oft he has told them.” p. 13. John Earle, 1628. ……….Fortune. “To see how the projectors of the world, like the spoke of the wheel of [a] chariot, are tumbled up and down, from beggary to worship, from worship to honor, from honor to baseness again.” p. 15. Owen Felltham, 1620.

Dreams. “Lamia was ridiculously unjust to sue a young man for a reward, who had confessed that pleasure from her in a dream which she had denied unto his waking senses.” p. 20. Sir Thomas Browne, 1650. [Browne had a habit of talking too much and obscuring his ideas. In this one, a young lady sues a young man because he said in his dream he had pleasure of her, pleasure she would never have given him when they were awake.] ………. Wrath. “Let not the sun go down on your wrath.” p. 22. Thomas Fuller, 1642. ………. “Had Narcissus himself seen his own face when he had been angry, he could never have fallen in love with himself.” p. 22. Thomas Fuller, 1642.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Memento Mori. Muriel Spark.

New York: Time Incorporated. 1958 (1964)

Why read it? If, as a young person, you think old people (over 70) live out their old age serenely, reflecting comfortably on their positive experiences over the years, this novel depicts a very different existence—fretful, self-absorbed, worried about trivial circumstances, hyper-critical of other old people, noting their mental instability, reflecting on affairs and embarrassments during the younger years, using their wills to retain influence over people looking for their inheritance, problems with their bladders, taking pills, no longer valued for their knowledge and as important individuals, wildly suspicions and swiftly dying off because of medical and other causes, including violence and car collisions.

Spark writes with a dead-pan, blank expression as she states matter-of-factly what the characters think, say and do. The result is hilarious—and irreverent—and true to life.

The novel centers around the anonymous caller(s) who phones to say, “Remember that you must die.” (“Memento Mori.”) The old people who receive these calls describe the caller(s) as of different ages and even sexes. The statement is a matter of fact—you old people must remember that you are going to die. And they do. One after another.

The police believe that the calls are the old people’s hallucinations. Could it be a case of mass hysteria? Could it be themselves reminding themselves unconsciously that they know they must die? The caller is never identified, but Alec Warner is a suspect because he takes notes on every one of his friends and acquaintances, in the end even wanting to know if the death was a good one or a bad one and even asking them to take pulse and temperature before and after the bad news he has given them.

Two sets of old people in the novel—wealthy aristocrats and old women in a nursing home, the “Grannies.”

The wealthy have had affairs among themselves that they are trying to keep from being revealed. Then there are relationships with their servants who know all that they did—and Mrs. Pettigrew, the professional maid, who moves from one wealthy family to another and who gradually encourages them to leave their wealth to her. And Charmian, successful writer, and her husband, Godfrey, who have both had affairs, thinking that the other did not know. But their servants and most of their acquaintances did.

The “Grannies” battle the nursing staff and themselves. "Sister Bastard." "Sister Lousy." Miss Taylor, former maid to Charmian, seems to be the voice of a clear, objective intelligence and common sense.

Old age, according to this novelist, is a fitful confusing mix of feelings, memories, incapacities and, at last, death. It is not serenity.

Sample Ideas from the Novel:
“I’ve quite decided to be cremated when my time comes. Cleanest way. Dead bodies under the ground only contaminate our water supplies.” ………. “The priest behind the screen would be committing Granny Barnacle to the sweet Lord; he would be anointing Granny Barnacle’s eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet, asking pardon for the sins she had committed by sight, by hearing, smell, taste and speech, by the touch of her hands and by her very footsteps.” ………. “The chaplain was shaking doleful hands with everyone at the door.”

“The ward sister called them the Baker’s Dozen, not knowing that this is thirteen, but having only heard the phrase; and thus it is that a good many old sayings lose their force.” ………. “Guy had always used to call sisters and brothers sinisters and bothers.” ………. “There is a time for loyalty and a time when loyalty comes to an end.” ………. “If you look for one thing…you frequently find another.” ………. “He [Godfrey] was all the more disturbed by Charmian’s increasing composure. It was not that he wished his wife any harm, but his spirits always seemed to wither in proportion as hers bloomed.” ………. Godfrey: “…having made the mistake of regarding Charmian’s every success as his failure.”

“The ward lay till morning, still and soundless, breathing like one body instead of eleven.” ………. “I would be glad to be let die in peace. But the doctors would be horrified to hear me say it. They are so proud of their new drugs and new methods of treatment—there is always something new. I sometimes fear, at the present rate of discovery, I shall never die.” ………. “One reason writers avoid the subject of old age is that it makes them and their readers uncomfortable.” ………. “As we get older these affairs of the bladder and kidneys do become so important to us.” ………. “Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.”

Quote: “And if the book does nothing else, it demonstrates how hard it is to approach tranquility at the end of a long life marked by the deceits, subterfuges and willful departures from ordinary decency that plague all men at all times.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Ordeal of Mark Twain. Van Wyck Brooks.

New York: Meridian Books. 1920/1955.

Why read it? Twain was a writer who could have made a significant contribution to the world’s literature, but became sidetracked by his success and popularity as a humorist. Possibly explains his extreme bitterness in the latter part of his life. He never fulfilled his destiny. Desired wealth and prestige as well as fulfillment of his creative instinct. He couldn’t have both. “The poet, the artist in him consequently…withered into the cynic and the whole man had become a spiritual valetudinarian [invalid].”

Sample Quotes:

Mark Twain on the afterlife: “Heaven for climate. Hell for society.” p. 179. ………. Mark Twain on America: “In our country…we have these three unspeakably precious things: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and the prudence never to practice either.” p. 105. ……… Mark Twain on art: “Whenever I enjoy anything in art it means that it is mighty poor.” p. 152.

Mark Twain on business: “…the business man shuns everything that distracts him, stimulates him to think or to feel; such things are bad for business.” p. 206. ……… “Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were constantly being suppressed as immoral by the public libraries, and not in rural districts merely: in Denver and Omaha in 1903, in godly Brooklyn as late as 1906.”p. 219. ………. “By temperament, I [Mark Twain] was the kind of person that does things; does them and reflects afterward…could hardly ask for a better definition of immaturity.” p. 149.

Mark Twain on civilization: “My idea of civilization…is that it is a shabby poor thing and full of cruelties, vanities, arrogances, meannesses and hypocrisies; as for the word ["civilization"], I hate the sound of it, for it conveys a lie; and as for the thing itself, I wish it was in hell, where it belongs.” ………. p. 217. Mark Twain: “Another dream that I have…is being compelled to go back to the lecture-platform; I hate that dream…. In it I am always getting up before an audience with nothing to say, trying to be funny; trying to make the audience laugh, realizing that I am only making silly jokes; then the audience realizes it, and pretty soon they commence to get up and leave; that dream always ends by my standing there in the semi-darkness talking to an empty house.” p. 196. ………. Mark Twain: “A man is never anything but what his outside influences have made '"? That every man is strong until his price is named.”

This book presents the dark side of Mark Twain. And these quotes are only a sampling. Rays.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On the Road. Jack Kerouac.

New York: New American Library. 1955.

Why read it? Supposedly written on a roll of toilet paper. According to one friend of mine, that’s about where it belongs. I disagree. It’s a view of America during the 1950’s. Once in a while, we need someone to sense where America and Americans are in their view of America and life. Kerouac and his friends are unconventional people, “Beatniks,” based on the word “beatific.” They rolled across America and back again gathering impressions. If you lived at that time, you will recognize some of what they saw.

In my opinion, Kerouac is part of tradition that began with Crevecouer’s Letters from an American Farmer. The most thorough assessment of America, of course, came during the Great Depression and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Dos Passos chronicled the first three decades of the twentieth century. Kerouac did the same for the 1950’s. Who is going to write the story of America in the technological age, the 1990’s and the first decade of the twenty-first century?

Let’s return now to the 1950’s and post-WWII America.

Sample Quotes:

“This is the story of America: everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.” p. 57. ………. “Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back.” p. 66. ………. “Furthermore we know America, we’re at home; I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it’s the same in every corner.” p. 100.

“In the West, he’d spent a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library.” p. 8. ………. “…and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars….” p. 9. ………. “…a traveling epic…crossing and re-crossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the western stars.” p. 25.

“…but all I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.” p. 57. ………. “…now there’s thoughts in that mind [an old Negro driving a mule wagon] that I would give my last arm to know; to climb in there and find out just what he’s…pondering about….” p. 94. ….…….. “…Dean was tremendously excited about everything he saw, everything he talked about, every detail of every moment that passed.” p. 99. ………. “He began to learn “Yes!” to everything…and hasn’t stopped since.” p. 105.

“What do you want out of life? …. She didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted; she mumbled of jobs, movies, going to her grandmother’s for the summer, wishing she could go to New York…what kind of outfit she would wear…. “ p. 200. ………. “What do you do on a Sunday afternoon? She sat on her porch; the boys went by on bicycles and stopped to chat; she read the funny papers, she reclined in the hammock.” p. 200. ………. “What do you do on a warm summer night? She sat on the porch, she watched the cars in the road; she and her mother made popcorn.” p. 200. ………. “What does your brother do on a warm summer’s night? He rides around on his bicycle, he hangs out in front of the soda fountain; what is he aching to do? What are we all aching to do? What do we want? She didn’t know; she yawned; she was sleepy…she was eighteen and most lovely and lost.” p. 200.

Isn’t it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father’s roof?” p. 89. ………. “…New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities….” p. 89. ………. “He had every right to teach because he spent all his time learning….” p. 119.

“We spent some time trying to sleep on the bench at the railroad ticket office, but the telegraph clicked all night and we couldn’t sleep, and big freights were slamming around outside.” ………. The Rock Island balled by; we saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur; the train bowled off across the plains in the direction of our desires.” ………. “The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have.”

I think we should read this book as one version of the “American Dream.” RayS.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Mayor of Casterbridge. Thomas Hardy.

The Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story of a Man of Character. Thomas Hardy. New York: The Pocket Library. 1886/1956.

Why read it? Novel. The Mayor of Casterbridge is a novel and a mood piece. The mood is of futility, irony and despair that sees life as primarily tragic, punctuated by occasional moment s of happiness. Character is fate. Our mistakes in the past strike us in the present. Life is not to be lived, but to be endured. A mood of pessimism. Vengeance might be the theme of the novel, that vengeance that seeks us out and punishes us for our actions in the past. The wheel of fortune, from being poor to achieving wealth to destitute poverty in both physical circumstances and mind.

This novel might almost seem to be a negative caricature of life—that life is a series of humiliations, a series of mistakes with only a few moments of happiness, serenity, gaiety—call it what you wish.

The novel might almost be a “how-to” on enduring life. It is a vision of life as acceptance of continual disappointment. Of life as being crushed by fate, which seeks you out for destruction. The character of Michael Henchard is of a man who tries to right himself, but who actually creates the conditions of his own self-destruction. In trying to deal with his guilt, he is actually seeking his self-destruction. He is guilty and he needs to be destroyed for it. He knows this and he tries, unconsciously, to bring destruction upon himself.

But his destruction is not all of Henchard’s doing. Things happen to him, things that he can’t control. His wife comes back. He does not know that Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter, that his own daughter has died, that she is the daughter of the man to whom he sold his wife and daughter. He is the victim of misunderstandings between him and his daughter. They are not able to communicate their understanding of the situation in which their relationship has fallen apart.

And the town. It is not only indifferent to Henchard, but to every one.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a mood piece and the mood is that life is Hell created by ourselves, abetted by the machinations of others and by coincidental circumstances.

Sample Quotes:

Henchard…becomes a ‘man of character’ whose whole life will be determined by that youthful crime [while drunk, selling his wife and daughter to another man].” p. v. ………. “…the chronic failure unconsciously seeks out failure in an attempt to work off his feelings of guilt.” p. ix. ………. “…the guilty not merely flagellate themselves but also thrust themselves in the way of bad luck: create what appear to be unlucky accidents. Henchard is such a man. The obligation to punish and degrade the self is at times fairly conscious.” p. ix.

“When a man is said to be worth so much a minute, he’s a man to be considered.” .p. 82. ………. “These tones showed that, though under a long reign of self-control, he had become Mayor and churchwarden and what not, there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff beneath the rind of Michael Henchard as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair.” p. 110. ………. “Misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it.” p. 124.

“But Donald Farfrae was one of those men upon whom an incident is never absolutely lost. He revised impressions from a subsequent point of view, and the impulsive judgment of the moment was not always his permanent one.” p. 237. ………. “…that chaos called consciousness…”p. 117. ………. “I have tried to peruse and learn all my life; but the more I try to know the more ignorant I seem.” p. 295.

“…the secret…of making limited opportunities endurable…. p. 331. ……….”What Henchard had written in the anguish of his dying was respected as far as practicable by Elizabeth-Jane [his step-daughter], though less from a sense of the sacredness of last words, as such, than from her independent knowledge that the man who wrote them meant what he said. She knew the directions to be a piece of the same stuff that his whole life was made of.” p. 331. ………. “He seemed to feel exactly as she felt about life and its surroundings—that they were a tragical rather than a comical thing; that though one could be gay on occasion, moments of gaiety were interludes, and no part of the actual drama.” p. 53.

Life is half full. Depends on how you want to see it. RayS.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Magus. John Fowles.

New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1965.

Why read it? Novel. Well, you’ll have a hard time putting it down. And, more than once, you’ll ask yourself, “What the hell is going on?” Which is the way Nicholas Urfe (an anagram of “fury”?) sees what is happening to him. And you’ll keep on reading.

Hard to summarize the plot of this novel. I think essentially “Conchis” (“Conscious”) is trying to show a bored-with-life, insensitive role player that when everybody is role-playing, we lose our sense of reality. Conchis creates mysterious situations involving Nicholas Urfe who is thereby energized by seeking the solution to the mysteries, solving his problem of boredom with life. But he’s in a maze. He does not understand what is going on around him and to him, except that he is being manipulated by others, especially Conchis, and also by two women. He doesn’t know if people are simply playing roles that Conchis has assigned to them or if they are really what they seem. He feels as if he is losing contact with reality.

The other thing that Conchis is trying to show Urfe is that women are not simply sex objects, but people who are closer to what we mean by God than men. [This novel was written well before The Da Vinci Code.]

We all act as if we are being watched by God Almighty twenty-four hours a day. Urfe feels that he is being watched by Conchis. But the “godgame” [Conchis’s manipulation of people] ends with Urfe’s realization that nobody is watching, nobody cares, and, like the existentialists, he alone must shape his view of reality. There is no “plan.”

The language and ideas in this novel are sometimes so trite, that it’s hard to believe the author wrote them with a straight face: “There are things that words cannot explain.” “There’s only one of everyone.” Sounds like Yogi Berraisms.

On the other hand some of the author’s quotes are quite thought-provoking. His description of war is especially noteworthy as is his vivid evocation of personal interrelationships and conversations, not unlike Henry James. Also like Henry James, the author’s lead character, Conchis, is similar to Dr. Sloper in Washington Square and Ralph in The Portrait of a Lady, someone who likes to observe people in situations, even setting the situations in motion, to see how they handle them. James, however, does not go as far as Conchis who actually stages settings that then involve the protagonist. Urfe on Conchis: “Now I saw Conchis as a sort of novelist sans novel, creating with people, not words….”

All in all, I guess I’ve grown out of this novel. but I enjoyed it when I was younger.

Sample Quotes:

“The most important questions in life can never be answered by anyone except oneself.” p. 149. ………. “It was a beach I had been to before two or three times, and it gave, like many of the island beaches, the lovely illusion that one was the very first man that had ever stood on it.” p. 64. ………. “Like all men not really up to their jobs, he was a stickler for externals and petty…things; and in lieu of an intellect he had accumulated an armory of capitalized key words like Discipline and Tradition and Responsibility. If I ever dared—I seldom did—to argue with him he would produce one of these totem words and cosh [hit with a blackjack] me with it….” p. 11.

“I suppose our accepting what we are must always inhibit our being what we ought to be.” p. 160. ………. “I did not like the colonel at all. He had eyes like razors. They were without a grain of sympathy for what they saw. Nothing but assessment and calculation. If they had been brutal, or lecherous, or sadistic, they would have been better. But they were the eyes of a machine.” p. 279. ………. “What was I? The net sum of countless wrong turnings.” p. 487.

“But all my life I had tried to turn life into fiction….” p. 487. ………. “He [training company commander] was one of the most supremely stupid men I have ever met. He taught me a great deal.” p. 117. ………. “Every truth was a sort of lie; and every lie…a sort of truth.” p. 273.

“She made me talk about myself. She did it by asking blunt questions, and by brushing aside empty answers.” p. 24. ……….”It was supposed to sound spontaneous, but I had been composing it on and off for days.” p. 44. ………. “I was too green to know that all cynicism masks a failure to cope—and impotence….”

The meaning of “Magus” is magician. I suppose Conchis is like the Stage Manager in Our Town who sets up situations like “A Day in Our Town” and “Love and Marriage” and “Death.” The Magus is fun to read. It’s sort of like a detective novel. There are enough twists and turns to keep one’s mind occupied with trying to figure out what’s going on. And there are a few philosophical ideas in it that are worth thinking about. RayS.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Giants in the Earth: O.E. Rolvaag

New York: Harper and Row, Publisher. 1927/1955.

Why read it? Novel. The most vivid description of the experience of pioneering I have ever read. The hardships, both physical and mental, can be felt personally by the reader in a way that history books cannot convey the reality of the experiences of real, live human beings. Beret’s [Per Hansa’s wife’s] irrational fear of the land and the climate: she had come from civilized places to an endless, unforgiving landscape with nothing but a far distant empty horizon. Per does everything he can to overcome her depression, but in the end, she depresses his enthusiasm for farming, and he realizes that not everyone can take on the challenge of being a pioneer. He feels great guilt and helplessness in having brought Beret to this new land. Finally, at her plea, he goes off to find the minister and succumbs to the latest in raging blizzards that seem to be, with the plagues of locusts, part of the land’s venomous hatred for the newcomers.

Vernon Louis Parrington summarizes the novel effectively: “If in one sense the conquest of the continent is the great American epic, in another sense it is the great American tragedy. The vastness of the unexplored reaches, the inhospitality of the wilderness, the want of human aid and comfort when disaster came, these were terrifying things to gentle souls whom fate had not roughhewn for pioneering…. Beret, the wife of Per Hansa, brooding in her sod hut in Dakota, afraid of life and of her own thoughts … is a type of thousands of frontier women who—as the historian Ridpath said of his parents—‘toiled and suffered and died that their children might inherit the promise.’ ”

Sample Quotes:

Per Hansa: “My experience has been that it is mighty easy for one to talk about things he has not tried…. I have sweat blood over this thing—and now I’m no longer equal to it. …have you ever thought what it means for a man to be in constant fear that the mother may do away with her own children—and that, beside, it may be his fault that she has fallen into that state of mind?” p. 374. ………. “She realized now the great forethought he had shown last summer in building the house and stable under one roof… undoubtedly had the warmest house in the neighborhood, and then she enjoyed the company of the animals as she lay awake at night; it felt so cozy and secure to lie there and listen to them” p. 223. ………. “…she’s always had the heavy heart to fight against.” p. 376.

“The urge within drove me on and on, and never would I stop; for I reasoned like this, that where I found happiness others must find it as well.” p. 405. ………. “It seemed to the minister as if the sum total of human tragedy sat talking to him.” p. 372. ………. “The only thing he felt sure of was that he wasn’t on the right track; otherwise, he would have come across the traces of their camps…getting to be a matter of life and death…to find the trail—and find it soon.” p. 16.

“But here he was, the newcomer, who owned nothing and knew nothing, groping about with his dear ones in the endless wilderness.” p. 16. ………. “How will human beings be able to endure this place…. There isn’t even a thing that one can hide behind.” p. 29. ………. “No one put the thought into words, but they all felt it strongly; now they had gone back to the very beginning of things….”

“The faces that gazed into one another were sober now, as silence claimed the little company; but lines of strength and determination on nearly every countenance told of an inward resolve to keep the mood of depression from gaining full control.” p. 32. ………. “Could no living thing exist out here, in the empty, desolate, endless wastes of green and blue?” p. 37. ………. Beret: “Oh, Per, it’s only this—I’m so afraid out here…. It’s all so big and open…so empty.” p. 42.

Anyone who reads American history has to read this novel, which is an example of how good literature, even when dealing with tragedy, makes life worth living—the pioneers who worked and died so that their children could inherit the “promise.” Another novel that makes the same point is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (An’ toe nee’ uh). RayS.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Flowering of New England. Van Wyck Brooks.

New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc. 1952 (1936).

Why read it? Tells the story of the New England Renaissance in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

It was a springtime surge of energy and intellect, a revolution against theology which had crushed the human spirit and confidence. People were no longer willing to be damned. The New England air was filled with a sense of expectation. The present age was the spring season in the moral world.

In Boston, a morning freshness and a thrill of conscious activity. For Bancroft, God was visible in history and history culminated in the United States. There was a springtime feeling in the air, a joyous sense of awakening, a free creativeness and unconscious pride. The New England mind had crystallized. There was a renaissance in Boston, one of those "heats and genial periods" of which Emerson spoke in "English Traits," by which "high tides are caused in the human spirit."

Sample Quotes:

“Longfellow’s remark that ‘every Bostonian speaks as if he were the Pope.’ ” p. 341. ………. “…and every American morning was a Fourth of July.” p. 138. ………. “What was the meaning of these declamations, this cant about the inalienable rights of men in a country where it was known that Jefferson’s nephew had chopped a slave to pieces with an axe, where beating, branding, mutilating slaves, selling them, kicking them, killing them was all in the nature of the situation?" p. 404.

“Whenever he [Christopher Cranch] came back from Italy, he was struck by the look in people’s faces, the hard, weary expression about the mouth, the quick, shrewd eye, the anxious air; everyone seemed to be worried.” p. 259. ………. Emerson: “Observing the rocks, the grasses, the fishes, the insects, the lions, vultures and elephants, he felt a conviction stirring in him that all these forms of life expressed some property in himself.” p. 207. ………. Louis Sullivan: “Form follows function, function creates form.” p. 463.

“…and everyone knew that his book [Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast] had done as much for the sailors as Dickens had done for the debtors and orphans of England and Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the slaves.” p. 320. ………. Of James T. Fields: “He had served his apprenticeship as a bookseller’s clerk and had startled all the other clerks by guessing, whenever a customer entered the shop, the sort of book the customer presently asked for.” p. 492. ………. “…virtues of silence, secrecy and circumspection…. One should keep one’s countenance open but one’s thoughts close.” p. 10.

“A rule of the household of Wendell Phillips’s father, the first mayor of the city of Boston: “Ask no man to do for you anything that you are not able and willing to do for yourself.” p. 11. ………. “He belongs to that noble race of young Americans for whom the true happiness of man consists in the culture of the intelligence.” p. 132. ………. Of James Russell Lowell: “…his leading trait was a gift of pure enjoyment whether of books or garden flowers, walking, talking, smoking, drinking, reading, a gusto that was new…..” p. 321.

The story of a kind of American Renaissance. A time of achievement and excitement about intellect and culture. But the period had its dark side, too. Slavery. The Flowering of New England is one of the most enjoyable books I have read about one of the most unusual times in American history. The Puritans had put a damper on the human spirit. When that damper was removed, the spirit of New England was elevated to a belief that anything and everything could be learned and achieved. But always in the background was the “sin” of slavery. RayS.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

End Zone. Don DeLillo.

New York: Pocket Books. 1973.

Why read it? Novel. The lives of college football players. Gary comes to a small Texas football- ambitious school along with a number of other recruited young men, all of whom have weird obsessions. When the players are not philosophizing about life and the meaning of existence—they are presented as people whose lives are defined by football. When there is no game to prepare for, life is a series of rumors, discussed and embellished, relating to the team.

An interesting sequence is the pick-up football game in the snow. Gradually the off-season players reduce the complications of modern football to the straight run and hit—no deception, no passing. The players need the activity and rhythm of football to give their lives meaning. It is only when engaged in this rhythmic activity that they give evidence of being alive—in motion, but they go through the motions like robots.

Philadelphia Inquirer: “End Zone is no mere football novel any more than Catch-22 was a book about airplanes. Through it runs the same strains of madness, the same wit and wonder.”

Sample Quotes:

“I respect Tweego in a way…thinks in one direction, straight ahead…just aims and fires…has ruthlessness…a distinctly modern characteristic…systems planner…management consultant…nuclear strategist…a question of fantastic single-mindedness. p. 38. ………. “Billy Nast, a reserve back on defense…was in the process of memorizing Rilke’s ninth Duino Elegy in German, a language he did not understand.” p. 51. ………. “So many people have someone else stuck inside them: like inside that big large body of yours there’s a scrawny kid with thick glasses; inside my father there’s a vicious police dog, a fascist killer animal…. Everybody has something stuck inside them; inside me there’s a sloppy emotional over-weight girl…hard to be beautiful…. p.53.

“This is the custom among men who have failed to be heroes; their sons must prove that the seed was not impoverished.” p. 14. ………. “History is no more accurate than prophecy.” p. 60. ………. “I become fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill-ratio, spasm war. p. 17.

“Much of the appeal of sport derives from its dependence on elegant gibberish.” p. 90. ………. “Most lives are guided by clich├ęs.” p. 54. ………. “Out on a deep pattern, I watched the ball spiral toward me, nose dropping now, laces spinning, my hands up and fingers spread, eyes following the ball right into my hands, here, now, and then lengthening my stride, breaking toward the middle, sensing myself on large-screen color TV as I veered into the end zone.” p. 49.

“War is the ultimate realization of modern technology.” p. 65. ………. “We prove ourselves, our manhood, in other ways than going off to war, in making money, in skydiving, in hunting mountain lions with bow and arrow, in acquiring power of one kind or another.” p. 65. ………. “Today we can say that war is a test of opposing technologies.” p. 65. ………. “Words don’t explain, they don’t clarify, they don’t express; they’re pain killers; everything becomes abstract.” p. 66.

I think Don DeLillo is a first-rate writer. You can sense his insights into life from some of the preceding quotes. Although End Zone is about much more than college football, you will realize that the novel does portray accurately the nature of college football, the physical punishment, the pain of loss, the almost robotic ritual of the game. Because of DeLillo’s ideas, End Zone is one of my favorite modern novels. RayS.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Da Vinci Code: A Novel

Dan Brown. New York: Doubleday. 2003.

Why read it? For the fun of it. Robert Langdon, an archaeologist and symbologist, and Sophie Neveau, a police cryptographer, become caught up in a race to find the Holy Grail, which is not a cup, but papers that show Mary Magdalene to be the wife of Christ. I heard one person say that she was afraid to read this novel, because she might lose her faith in the Catholic Church.

However, it is just a novel, with numerous twists—people who are not what they seem, people they trust who turn into enemies, people who aggressively hunt them down but then become themselves victims. The goal of those who want the Holy Grail is to destroy the Catholic Church because if it were ever known that Christ married Magdalene and founded a line—to which Sophie learns she belongs—the male-dominated Church would be shown to be a lie. Christ, it is suggested in the novel, wanted his wife Mary Magdalene, to found his church, not the Apostles. If she had, it would have been a church dominated by the “sacred feminine,” not the male-dominated institution it has been throughout history.

In the end, Langdon finds the location of the Holy Grail in France, but he can “keep a secret.”

Many people, of course, have read the novel and probably seen the movie. However, would these readers select the same significant sentences as mine?

Sample quotes:

“The threat Mary Magdalene posed to the men of the early Church was potentially ruinous. Not only was she the woman to whom Jesus had assigned the task of founding the Church, but she also had physical proof that the Church’s newly proclaimed deity had spawned a mortal blood line. The Church, in order to defend itself against the Magdalene’s power, perpetuated her image as a whore and buried evidence of Christ’s marriage to her, thereby defusing any potential claims that Christ had a surviving bloodline and was a mortal prophet.” p. 254. ………. “The early Church feared that if Christ’s lineage were permitted to grow, the secret of Jesus and Magdalene would eventually surface and challenge the fundamental Catholic doctrine of a divine Messiah who did not consort with women or engage in sexual union.” p. 257. ………. “The quest for the Holy Grail is the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene. A Journey to pray at the feet of the outcast one.” p. 454.

Comment: Once again, as in Lolita, the theme overshadows the novel. The Da Vinci Code is an ordinary mystery novel with a shocking theme. And it probably made millions. If you’re going to write a book, don’t bother with details; just find a theme that shocks the public. The rest of the book won’t matter that much.

I left out some quotes dealing with sex. A bit too graphic for me. The gist of the idea is that men knew God first by sexual union with a woman, the first step in loving God. Langdon: “Man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.” Sophie: “Orgasm as prayer?”
RayS.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Criticism: The Major Texts

Ed. Walter Jackson Bate. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, Inc. 1952.

Why read it? This is a textbook from my days as an English major. It is actually a compilation of famous statements on literature by literary critics. If you like reading the literary classics, you will find this book invaluable.

Some sample quotes:

“If the student can vividly see the end of art as a heightened awareness of reality….” p. x. ………. “…the classical attitude has always meant a comparative lack of interest…in the artist himself—in the psychological character of his imagination…and especially in his own subjective feelings…. Art should seek to be objective.” p. 3. ………. “ ‘Imitation’: …especially important to cut off any associations with photographic copying…an attempt to offer an active counterpart of its model.” pp. 4-5. ………. “…optimistic confidence in the ability of reason…to reach final and conclusive answers.”

According to Aristotle: “The plot must contain within itself the conditions that lead to its culmination rather than rely on mere chance or some external deus ex machina who suddenly resolves all the difficulties artificially.” p. 15. ………. Aristotle: “…the main character of tragedy should have a ‘tragic flaw’ … not to allow the character to be simply the victim of unpredictable and undeserved calamities…a man of some stature ‘brought from prosperity to adversity’ as a result ‘of some great error or frailty.’ ” ………. “ ‘Katharsis’: Through pity and fear effecting a …purgation of these emotions…operates by a process which first excites and then tranquilizes emotion.” pp. 17-18.

“ ‘Probability’ implies that the culmination of what happens arises naturally and inevitably, by causal interrelation, out of what precedes it.” p. 16. ………. “…the tragic fall is much greater to the degree…that he himself is aware…of what is happening.” p. 16. ………. Aristotle: “Comedy…consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” p. 22.

If you enjoyed reading these thoughts by Aristotle on art and tragedy and comedy, then you will enjoy the ideas of the other critics quoted in this book. RayS.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Collection of Essays. George Orwell.

New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1945-1953.

Why read it? Mainly for two essays, “Shooting an Elephant,” in which the white man is a slave to colonial native expectations and “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell admits that readers will easily find in his own writing examples of the same mistakes he has criticized. For instance, he rails against use of the passive voice in a sentence that is, itself, in the passive voice.

Other topics:
Crossgates School where he was not the "right" kind of boy.
Dickens
Dickens’s criticism of institutions: change the spirit, not the institution.
Kipling: a jingo who wrote in platitudes.
Gandhi: self-aggrandizement?
The Spanish Civil War: the horrors of real war.

Orwell concludes by saying that throughout all of his life his writing was directly or indirectly against totalitarianism.

Some sample quotes:

“I have never been back to Crossgates [School]…. And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big school room, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself.” p. 47. ………. “When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested, generation after generation, have left behind them no record whatever.” p. 201. ………. “Words of this kind [democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic] are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” p. 162.

“No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens.” p. 60. ………. “In Gandhi’s case the question…one feels inclined to ask is: To what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity—by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power.” p. 171. ………. “...before one can even speak about Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his works…. It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life…can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person…. Kipling is a jingo imperialist…. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives….” p. 116.

“The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political re-generation….” p. 157. ………. Ecclesiastes in the original: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” [The same in modern English]: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. [Ray’s attempt: Regardless of talent, people need to be lucky in order to succeed.] p. 163. ………. “People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in arctic lumber camps: this is called 'elimination of unreliable elements.' Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” p. 167.

To see vivid examples of such euphemistic phrases, simply read the history of the Nazis. RayS.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Catch-22. Novel. Joseph Heller.

New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1955/1961.

Why read it? "Set on an imaginary Pacific island of Pianosa during World War II, the novel centers on the anti-hero Captain Yossarian and his attempts to survive the fanatical lunacy of his bomber squadron's commanders long enough to get home. With the death toll rising, the quota of bombing missions required for home-leave is repeatedly increased. By pleading insanity, Yossarian hopes to find a way out until the doctor quotes the notorious Catch-22: A man would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't, he was sane and had to. The phrase became a part of the American lexicon, indicating any dilemma, especially one that seems diabolically constructed." From Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia.

To anyone who has ever participated in the military, the thought has had to cross the mind about the irony of an autocratic society’s safeguarding the freedom-loving democratic United States. The two societies are absolutely opposed to each other. But then again so is the society of business corporations. This irony is clearly displayed throughout the novel, Catch-22. Heller pokes fun at military thinking and autocratic illogic in which subordinates are at the mercy of the arbitrary commands of higher ranking officers. Books and films reveal the psychotic thinking of power-hungry officers in the U.S. military. The closest parallel to Catch-22 is in the essays of Tolstoy that are included in War and Peace. Anyone who wants to see illustrations of the concept of irony need only read either of these novels. Another example of poking fun at military thinking is in the film M*A*S*H.

I think being in the military is the best guarantee that democracy will survive in the U.S. On the other hand, many people like being told what to do and not to have to think for themselves. Someone once told me that that attitude was the reason for the popularity of the Mormon religion. Maybe democracy is not so secure after all.

Some sample quotes:

“The frog is almost five hundred million years old; could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as…the frog?” p. 249. ………. “He was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” ………. “Hungry Joe collected lists of fatal diseases and arranged them in alphabetical order so that he could put his finger without delay on any one he wanted to worry about.” p. 177.

“Colonel Cathcart was indefatigable that way, an industrious, intense, dedicated military tactician who calculated day and night in the service of himself.” p. 193. ………. “…brooded inconsolably over the terrible ineradicable impressions he knew he kept making on people of prominence who were scarcely aware that he was even alive.” p. 193. ………. “Colonel Cathcart lived by his wits in an unstable arithmetical world…of overwhelmingly imaginary triumphs and catastrophic imaginary defeats.” p. 193.

“He oscillated hourly between anguish and exhilaration, multiplying fantastically the grandeur of his victories and exaggerating tragically the seriousness of his defeats.” p. 193. ………. “…sensitive to everyone’s weakness but his own and found everyone absurd but himself.” p. 328. ………. “That goddam, red-faced, big-cheeked curly headed, buck-toothed rat bastard son of a bitch!” p. 156.

“What preposterous madness to float in thin air two miles high on an inch or two of metal, sustained from death by the meager skill and intelligence of two vapid strangers, a beardless kid named Huple and a nervous nut like Dobbs.” p. 340. ………. “And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways, Yossarian continued…. There’s nothing so mysterious about it; He’s not working at all; He’s playing or else He’s forgotten all about us.” p. 184. ………. “…the lifelong trust he had placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God….”

The curse on p. 156 is one of the better ones I have heard or read. Heller explodes more than one myth in Catch-22. These quotes are just the beginning of Heller’s outrageous report on the world as it is and people as they are. RayS.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Anthem. (Novel) Ayn Rand

New York: New American Library. 1946.

Why read it? Novel. The world of the future—a collectivist future. The sacred word that unites society in that future is “WE.” Man must live and work, not for himself, but for others. To be alone in this world is a crime, a great Transgression. The protagonist comes to realize that the really sacred word is “I,” “Ego.” “Anthem” means a choral composition involving a sacred text. The word is based on “anti--,” meaning “against.” The protagonist sets up a counter-anthem to “WE,” “I” or “EGO.”

Flat emotionless prose. Short, simple words. Human beings are spiritless. They are beaten down, living in fear. They may not, in any way, deal with ideas, others’ or their own. Sentence structure seems to be simple. Not much variety in sentence structure. Not many complex sentences.

In a sense this novel is a corrective for the desire to make the goal of education social good, and is the antithesis to the practice of encouraging group cooperation, as opposed to the emphasis on individualization in the 1960s.

Raises the question of the role of the individual vs. the role of cooperation in society. Can’t have one to the exclusion of the other. The great Communist scare was about to be unleashed when the book was published in 1946.

Some sample quotes:

“…struggle of the individual against a paralyzing collectivization. “ ………. “the necessity of a social justification for all activities and all existence is now taken for granted.” p. vii. ………. “WE know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone.” p. 11.

“We are nothing, mankind is all.” p. 16. ………. “We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the state.” p. 16. ………. Thus must all men live until they are forty. At forty, they are worn out. At forty, they are sent to the Home of the Useless, where the Old Ones live. The Old Ones do not work, for the state takes care of them. They sit in the sun in the summer and they sit by the fire in winter. They do not speak often, for they are weary. The Old Ones know that they are soon to die.” p. 25.

“…we look upon our brothers and we wonder. The heads of our brothers are bowed. The eyes of our brothers are dull, and never do they look one another in the eyes. The shoulder of our brothers are hunched, and their muscles are drawn, as if their bodies were shrinking and wished to shrink out of sight. And a word steals into our mind, as we look upon our brothers, and that word is fear.” p. 47. ………. “What is not done collectively cannot be good.” p. 81. .......... “I am. I think. I will.” p. 108.

“There is nothing to take man’s freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.” p. 118.

Interesting technique in painting the world without individuality. Stark. Colorless. Plain. Simple. RayS.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Babbitt. Sinclair Lewis.

New York: A Signet Classic. The New American Library. 1922. 1961.

Why read it? Novel. Satire of middle class life in America. In many ways, Babbitt is just like you and me --well, me, anyhow. He blames his wife for everything, including his hangovers. He is an avowed conservative. His possessions make him think he is perfectly happy. He thinks everything should be run like a business. He takes pride in being able to parallel park. He is always hustling. And he always wanted to escape the routine of his life to go live in Maine.

As Mark Shorer says in his Afterword, "Babbitt's tragedy is that he cannot escape being Babbitt. He sees his survival in his conformity to everyone else. Occasionally, when his friend is arrested for murder and when he has a fling, he senses that there is a different existence out there. But he must return to being Babbitt. It's all he knows how to do. In the end, he tells his son who has eloped not to be as he has been, but to live his own life."

Some Sample quotes:

“He who had been a boy very credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in the possible and improbable adventure of each new day.” p. 7. ………. “Epochal as starting the car was the drama of parking it before he entered the office; with front wheels nicking the wrought-steel bumper of the car in front, he stopped, feverishly cramped his steering wheel, slid back into the vacant space and, with eighteen inches of room, maneuvered to bring the car level with the curb…a virile adventure masterfully executed.” p. 29. ………. “The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub…the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce!" p. 17.

“Now, these strikers: Honest, they’re not such bad people; just foolish; they don’t understand the complications of merchandising and profit, the way we businessmen do, but sometimes I think they’re about like the rest of us, and no more hogs for wages than we are for profits.” p. 258. ………. “…I don’t propose to be bullied and rushed into joining anything, and it isn’t a question of whether it’s a good league or a bad league or what the hell kind of a league it is; it’s just a question of my refusing to be told I got to--….” p. 298. ………. “I always say—and believe me, I base it on a pretty fairly extensive mercantile experience—the best is the cheapest in the long run.” p. 48.

“…but I do think that girls who pretend they’re bad by the way they dress really never go any farther.” p. 259. ………. “They fell joyfully into shop-talk, the purest and most rapturous form of conversation.” p. 135. ………. “She was a crusader and, like every crusader, she exulted in the opportunity to be vicious in the name of virtue.” p. 112. ………. College reunion. “The men whom they could not recall they addressed, ‘Well, well, great to see you again, old man; what are you—still doing the same thing?’ ” p. 157.

Babbitt to his son Ted who has just eloped with Eunice Littlefield: “…I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life…don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along…figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods…maybe you’ll carry things on further…don’t know…do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it…. Those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down…. Tell 'em to go to the devil! I’ll back you; take your factory job…. Don’t be scared of the family…nor all of Zenith, nor of yourself, the way I’ve been; go ahead, old man…. The world is yours!”

Babbitt is a classic portrait of suburban middle-class America. I recognize much of Babbitt in myself. The big difference is that I never wanted anything more than suburban middle-class America. Babbitt did. But when I have done what was important to me, when I have told society to go to hell, I have discovered that non-conformity put me into isolation. And I was uncomfortable. RayS.