Six for the Books!

Ink Chorus

The dear old Guardian the other day published what the kids call a “listicle” – basically a themed list of items air-pumped into roughly the dimensions of an actual column – on a subject near to my heart: good books about books and reading, and I was right away reminded of a good three dozen such books I’ve loved over the course of my short and sexy life. The Guardian‘s listicle was written by Rebecca Mead, who is herself the author of one of the sub-categories of book – the “bibliomemoir” – she takes as her topic: she wrote My Life in Middlemarch, a book (warmly reviewed by my Open Letters colleague Rohan Maitzen, one of the world’s leading experts on Middlemarch and all things Eliot) about her involvement with George Eliot’s masterpiece. And for her listicle, she includes books like Michael Gorra’s extremely good Portrait of a Novel, about Portrait of a Lady, Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, and Laura Miller’s book The Magician’s Book, about the world of Narnia.

So, in the belated spirit of the thing, here’s a listicle of my own on the subject! Six books I enjoyed about books and reading, to go in your ‘recommended’ file:

so many books coverSo Many Books by Gabriel Zaid – This slim, pocket-sized volume features Zaid’s most polished and dolorous viewpoints about the world of books, written right at the moment when that world was on the edge of transforming itself yet again, this time to accommodate e-readers that Zaid can only dimly imagine (in his list of the superiority of reading books over reading on a computer, he says, for instance, that “books are cheap,” that “books are portable,” that “books can be read without an appointment,” etc. – all objections annihilated by hand-sized e-readers that can be read in the dark and through which an eager reader can purchase a copy of virtually anything at any time of the day or night). Zaid makes a great many literary allusions in a small amount of pages, but the main attraction here, perversely, is watching our author worry about one bookish impossibility after another:

A reader who reads carefully, reflects, engages in lively conversation with other readers, remembers, and rereads can become acquainted with a thousand books in a lifetime. A prodigious or professional reader, who handles and consults books with specific intent, can read perhaps several times as many, rarely more. But there are million of books for sale, dozens of millions in libraries, and uncounted millions of unpublished manuscripts. There are more books to contemplate than stars in a night on the high seas. In this immensity, how is a reader to find his personal constellation, those books that will put his life in communication with the universe? And how is a single book among the millions to find its readers?

(Needless to say, the first time I read that “thousand books in a lifetime” bit, I nearly fainted dead away)

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – I was drawn instantly to this excellent 2011 book, for an obvious reason: I dearly love re-reading (in fact, the only dark on rereadingcloud over my current reading landscape is that the enormously-increased number of new books I now read has greatly reduced my re-reading time and given it the allure of a guilty pleasure). Spacks analyzes the phenomenon of re-reading with a very pleasingly sharp intelligence, getting eventually to the heart of the matter:

Willingness to yield oneself to the text in a way impossible the first time through is, I think, the crucial element in rereading. As denunciations of television customarily points out, reading, unlike tv-watching, is an active process. The reader engages in constant judgment and interpretation, involved in a sequence of challenge and response. The rereader customarily feels less pressure.

end papersShe looks at every aspect of re-reading, including many I hadn’t really thought about myself. I can’t recommend the book enough for fellow re-readers.

End Papers by A. Edward Newton – this 1933 volume of “Literary Recreations” by fussy, fastidious book-collector Newton comes the closest in my listicle to the particular kind of book-about-book whose current master is Nicholas Basbanes: the mania of book-collecting, of rare editions and incunabula and the like. This is the part of the book-world that interests me the least (whenever the Boston Book Fair rolls around, for instance, I give it a wide berth), but it often makes for lively books, and Newton wrote some lively books. In this one, he moves between straightforward appreciations of authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and specific reviews that preserve his garrulous tone, as when he opens a review of Henry Clinton Hutchins’s Robinson Crusoe and Its Printing with, “When a book by an American scholar is favorably reviewed in the London Times Supplement one may conclude that the work has merit; so much merit, in fact that the reviewer has been unable to ‘dust the varlet’s jacket’ as he, no doubt, intended to do at the outset.” I suppose it’s possible that Newton’s books themselves are now collectible – he’d have appreciated that (and expected nothing less).

Reading in Bed edited by Steven Gilbar – This delightful 1995 volume typifies another kind of book-about-book, perhaps thereading in bed most popular kind: the anthology of book-writing. Gilbar collects some of the best such writing here, from Herman Hesse’s “The Magic of the Book” to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Books Which Have Influenced Me” to Hazlitt’s “On Reading Old Books” to, of course, Montaigne’s “The Commerce of Reading.” Books like this – and this is a dandy example – work so well because they bristle with gems you’d otherwise have to hunt through your library to find, like this wonderful bit by Joseph Epstein on the weird ways books fit (and shape) the people who read them:

The one clear advantage of the bookish life over the life of action is that, unlike the latter, the pleasures of the former do not decrease with age. As for the utility of drawing up a list of books, such a list seems almost as useless, and as impossible to follow, as a plan for life. The mystery and the wonder of it is that, somehow or other, the books one needs are the books one finds. But only a very accurate fortune teller could list them for you now and by title.

lost in a bookLost in a Book by Victor Nell – This great, meaty 1988 study of “The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure” is surprisingly almost free from academic jargon, despite having Appendices and a Bibliography as long as your arm. It’s true, the noxious word “ludic” crops up quite often, but the author’s writing style is so winning you can almost ignore it while you’re enjoying his wide-ranging examination of this activity you’re engaging in right now. Just listen to how powerfully good Nell is on this subject:

Reading for pleasure is an extraordinary activity. The black squiggles on the white page are still as the grave, colorless as the moonlit desert; but they give the skilled reader a pleasure as acute as the touch of a loved body, as rousing, colorful, and transfiguring as anything out there in the real world. And yet, the more stirring the book the quieter the reader; pleasure reading breeds a concentration so effortless that the absorbed reader of fiction (transported by the book to some other place, and shielded by it from distraction), who is so often reviled as an escapist and denounced as the victim of a vice as pernicious as tippling in the morning should instead be the envy of every student and every teacher.

I love this book (despite that bit about ‘transportation’ only happening to readers of boring old fiction) and, needless to say, I love re-reading it.

Passions of the Mind by A. S. Byatt – One kind of “book about books” is of course that most rarefied of publishing boondoggles,passions of the mind the collection of old book reviews. The idea of this boondoggle is ancient, and I’ve never really understood how it could possibly have a wide enough appeal to justify a printing press run. And yet somehow the math continues to make these things possible, and one of favorite is this 1991 volume by the great English author of Possession and The Children’s Hour. Here she reflects at length on a wide variety of writers, from Barbara Pym to Iris Murdoch to Robert Browning to – and here we come full circle – George Eliot, whom she celebrates on many grounds, including the personal:

And I, as a woman writer, am grateful that she stands there, hidden behind the revered Victorian sage, and the Great English Tradition – a writer who could make links between mathematical skill and sexual inadequacy, between Parliamentary Reform and a teenager’s silly choice of husband, between Evangelical hypocrisy and medical advance, or its absence. When I was a girl I was impressed by John Davenport’s claim, in a Sunday novel-column, that “nobody had ever really described what it felt like to be a woman.” I now think that wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. People are always describing that, sometimes ad nauseam. George Eliot did that better than most writers, too – because it was not all she did: she made a world, in which intellect and passion, day-to-day cares and movements of whole societies cohere and disintegrate. She offered us scope, not certainties. That is what I would wish to celebrate.


lucy reading about books



Books in My Baggage!

Ink Chorus

books in my baggageOur book today is Lawrence Clark Powell’s utterly delightful 1960 book Books in My Baggage, one of his follow-ups to his very popular earlier work of literary musings, A Passion for Books. I thought about this one lately because I’ve been low-grade fuming for a while now about the purblind convservatism of that TLS squib by Michael Dirda on the now-vanishing old dilemma of packing books for journies – of carrying books in your baggage, in other words.

Of course, back when Powell was writing his essays and book-columns, there was no choice but to lug around books. I remember those days well, when the traveler had to anticipate not only changes in carrying capacity, not only the book-buying potential of various destinations (going to Berlin? No problem. Going to the great Negev? Problem), but also changes in his own reading moods – will I feel like this Muriel Spark novel when I’m sweltering in tropical humidity? Will this new translation of Dostoevsky seem every bit as appealing if read on an endless and miserably uncomfortable train-ride across Russia?

I usually avoided such questions by bringing along only sure-fire all-tested favorites, books (I wrote about them here) that never failed me. And clearly other travelers have taken the same approach, as Powell notes:

A good bookman regards books as part of his essential traveling equipment. When Lawrence of Arabia was in the desert during World War I, two books – The Oxford Book of English Verse and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur – stayed in his baggage with bread and water, when all else was abandoned. A good book speaks to one in these words, “Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.” And the wise man listens.

Powell himself joyfully seconded the line he loved from Cobden-Sanderson’s journal: Sweet God, souse me in literature! – and he read widely and enthusiastically, as these collected pieces show. He can write about Casanova or D. H. Lawrence or collectible editions of Whitman and Melville just as infectiously has he can write about Ivan Bunin, Lawrence Durrell, or the literature of his beloved American Southwest. He constantly has two or three books ‘going, and he can’t do without the internal conversation they constitute; as he writes at the beginning of Books in My Baggage, “This is a book about books, about collecting and reading and living withlucy reading books in my baggage books, at home and abroad, of love for a single volume and lust for eighty thousand”:

It is not about books or libraries in the historical or technical sense, but rather is an effort to see life through books, with the multiple vision reading gives a man. All my life I have traveled with books in my baggage, gone with books at my side, and now in my fifties I find them as necessary as food and air.

Powell died in 2001 and never really had much personal truck with the e-readers Dirda scorns. Re-reading Books in My Baggage (discovered, needless to say, at the Brattle Bookshop) made me wonder what Powell would have thought of the idea of carrying around 200 books on a thin metal slate in his coat pocket instead of 20 printed volumes requiring their own separate satchel. I’d like to think he’d have recognized it for the wonder it is – although maybe he’d have been a bit wistful over the fact that Books in My Baggage would be a very different book if written in 2014. To the best of my knowledge, nobody’s yet written Around the World with my Kindle. Maybe somebody should.







Approaching hoofbeats!

approaching hoofbeats

No doubt some of you spotted the item in your newsfeeds: a recent article noting that both Amazon and Publisher’s Weekly have already produced their lists of the Best Books of 2014, despite the fact that the year still has two months to go. This is of course both canny and craven; on the one hand, such lists are perennially popular, and the early bird gets the worm, and on the other hand, why not publish the thing this early? After all, the whole world basically shuts down from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, right? What with holidays and family and traveling and obnoxiously yelling into cellphones in airports, amiright? Who can expect to get any reading – come on, get real – done in those weeks? The thinking is obviously pandemic, since these big-name entries join a very long list of such lists already published for poor deathwatched 2014.

They serve their purpose, such lists, but as long-time followers of Stevereads will know, their main purpose is as dress rehearsals for the Main Event, the Real Deal, the rollicking Ragnarok of Year-End Book Lists.

I refer, of course, to the annual Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year, now in its eighth year.

This year the Stevereads list will be bigger than ever, and also – in response to requests from you harried gift-shoppers out there – it’ll be earlier, well in time for the holidays instead of kicking off just as they’re ending. I’ve read more books so far in 2014 than in any previous year of my life, and that tally already is considerbly higher than most whole book departments at some media outlets, let alone most individual reviewers. I’ll be putting the gleanings of all that reading at your disposal in only three weeks.

Emphasis on “so far”! In all of my Stevereads Year-End categories, I’m leaving a spot or two open until the last minute. I get an average of ten books in the mail every day (sometimes fewer, yes, but also sometimes twice that), and although most of them have been 2015 items for a while now, there are still plenty of 2014 candidates in all subjects. I’m busily, happily reading all these jonny-come-latelies, and I’m leaving spots open for great (and crappy) books I didn’t see coming. No cutting out early for MY readers!

Can you feel the approaching hoofbeats? I’ve got LOTS of picks to share with all of you, so I thought a friendly reminder was in order!

Comics! If Asgard Falls …

giant size thor 1Our story today is a corker from 1968: “If Asgard Falls …” from Thor Annual #2, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby (with customarily perfect inks by Vince Colletta), the kind of fine hammy high fantasy that always best suits this strangest of all the original crop of Marvel superheroes Lee & Kirby dreamed up, a clean-shaven version of the Norse god Thor, incarnated in the present day as a crime-fighter and Avenger. Don’t get me wrong: Lee & Kirby were such a genius team that they could – and did – create believable scenes where Thor foils bank robbers and mad dictators. But it’s these epic fantasy stories that really allow both writer and artist to cut loose. Here at Stevereads, of course, we’ve looked lovingly at some of those epic fantasy stories, here, here, and here, for instance.

“If Asgard Falls …” is a prime specimen of both how juicy this kind of story can be and how frustrating it can be. The story opens in the fantasy realm of Asgard, home of the Norse gods, where the Tournament of Titans is about to take place, a grand tourney of mock-combat among all the warriors of the extended realms of Asgard, with the winner getting a golden suit of armor. In a charming, quintessentially Stan Lee moment, Thor is standing at attention in his father Odin’s chamber, trying to ignore the whispered calls of his friends outside the thor destroyer 2window while the old man rants and rants and rants:

Yet, well do I remember those hallowed days of yore … when the bludgeoning blade of Odin did strike with the fury of a thousand storms! ‘Twas then the summer of my life … when tall and straight as an oak stood Odin! And now, though minstrels still sing of Odin’s feats … while campfires flicker … thy father hat reached the twilight of his years … ’tis for the young to seize the torch of gallantry and hold it high! Thus has it ever been! Thus shall it ever be! Even the aging lion must one day allow the eager cub to lead the hunt!

“What is this?” Odin finally says, “The attention of the thunder god doth seem to falter!” (Well yes, you old windbag – just about anybody’s attention would) Instead of banishing Thor from Asgard forever in response to this minor infraction – as he’s done countless times in the past and will do countless times in the future – Odin waves off his impetuosity and lets him hurry to the Tournament.

Where foul practice is brewing! In parallel plot-lines, we see Thor and his comrades being thwarted by illegal sorcery in the Tournament even while Thor’s distant, banished brother Loki is sending his spirit-form to Earth in search of a great villain from an earlier Thor storyline: a giant indestructible suit of armor called the Destroyer (those who know the Marvel version of Thor mostly from the movies will recognize the Destroyer from the first of those “Thor” movies) that needs a guest spirit animating it in order to move – enter Loki, who wants to use the Destroyer’s enormous powers in order to take his revenge on Odin and Asgard. Why Odin left the Destroyer’s empty hulk lying around in the ruins of an Asian temple is never answered, but then, “If Asgard Falls …” has more unanswered questions than even Stan Lee usually comes up with.

Starting with the origin of the Destroyer itself. In this issue, Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard’s rainbow bridge, exclaims, “‘Tis the living engine of destruction … created ages ago by Odin himself in the long-forgotten past to guard the planet Earth from ultimate disaster!” And only one page later, Odin himself says, “He was designed to serve Asgard … to be the weapon supreme in an hour of need! Hence, it did please me to make him indestructible!”

thor destroyer 3But regardless of why the Destroyer was created, Loki’s plan at first looks to be going like gangbusters: he’s plowing his way through the warriors assembled for the Tournament, pressing on straight to Odin’s dais, intent on using the Destroyer’s energy powers to bump off the old man. Here at Stevereads, we’ve seen Odin menaced by the Destroyer in other storylines, and in “If Asgard Falls …” (no explanation for the title, either – whether or not Loki succeeds, Asgard’s not endangered, just Odin) the very idea fills Thor with horror. He springs to confront the Destroyer, and in an absolutely professional panel sequence, Kirby shows us Thor’s blitzkrieg attack, culminating with a temporary downing of the Destroyer (“Asgard be praised!” Thor says, “I have achieved the impossible!”).

But the only real way to defeat the construct is to defeat its animating spirit, and when Balder the Brave shows up at the last lucy reading thorminute and tells Odin where he can find distant, exiled Loki, the key is clear – but, Balder wonders, is there time for Odin’s power to reach Loki and shut down his mind? To which Odin answers, “Banish thy fears! Am I not eternal Odin? Though the Destroyer be ready to hurl his bolt of death … ’tis I who possess the power to tear the very fabric of eternity! Thus at my command … let time stand still!”

And time duly does so. Why on Earth – or in Asgard, for that matter – the old goat didn’t just freeze time as soon as the Destroyer showed up (let alone why he was whining on about being old and feeble earlier on), we’re never told. Instead, he fires off a beam of energy that reaches Loki and puts him to sleep, thus causing the Destroyer to topple like a puppet with its strings cut. Then Odin, feeling uncharacteristically magnanimous, grants everybody a golden suit of armor for the day.

It’s a nifty, re-readable little story, one that sold well in 1968 and then sold even better when it was reprinted again in “Giant-Size Thor” #1 in 1975, this time sporting a classic Gil Kane cover that doesn’t even mention the Destroyer. And of course it’s been reprinted two more times, in the “Essential” series of black-and-white reprints and in the “Marvel Masterworks” series of color reprints. It stands as a classic example of the perennial problem of giving Thor a strong enough opponent to keep him busy.

Comics: Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

mignola dracula 6On 8 November we honor the birthday of Bram Stoker, the author of the immortal 1897 novel Dracula, which brought Dracula and humanity-stalking vampires to the popular imagination and lodged them there so firmly that “Dracula” and “vampire” have become easy synonyms.

Dracula has of course been packaged and re-packaged a million times, adapted for the screen and for the stage, pastiched to a fare-thee-well, transplanted to manga and comic books (including a long run as the property of Marvel Comics in Tomb of Dracula, an eminently satisfying 1970s title written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by the great Gene Colan), and right now on Bram Stoker Day, I’m thinking of one outstanding comics adaptation: the four-issue 1993 mini-series written by Roy Thomas and drawn by “Hellboy” creator (and clear Colan successor when it comes to using darkness and shadows in his work) Mike Mignola, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

As you can perhaps tell from the title, this mini-series was an adaptation of an adaptation: it tells in comic book form the version of Stoker’s story that we get in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie from that same year, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The movie is intensely weird. It’s visually fascinating from start to finish, self-consciously hammy in a style often reminiscent of mignola dracula 5Franco Zeffirelli’s opera productions for the Met; for journeys, we get superimposed maps, for supernatural surveillance we get superimposed eyes - that sort of thing. I think it’s easily the most interesting visual representation of Dracula ever done (although to judge from the critical drubbing it’s received, I’m alone in also ranking Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold – in theaters now, but don’t dawdle – near the top of that list), and Gary Oldman is superb as the title character.

Unfortunately, the movie’s casting almost completely falls apart once we step outside of Oldman’s dressing room (Kim Newman wrote a mighty enjoyable might-have-been story about what Coppola’s movie might have been like if it had had uniformly excellent casting). Keanu Reeves is dreadful (and not in the spine-tingling sense) as Jonathan Harker, and for once in his career, he’s not the worst actor in a movie: that dubious distinction here goes to an utterly embarrassing Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. Hopkins quite visibly has no idea what movie he’s in, and since he’s in virtually the whole of it, that steadily distracts from the undeniable directorial flair Coppola was trying to impart.

Luckily, no bad acting can mar a comic book adaptation. True, Roy Thomas is forced to re-tell the peculiar quasi-hysterical, quasi-pornographic version of Dracula that Coppola did (the comics are heavily linked to the movie’s production budget, with trading cards and ‘backstage’ backup features), but it’s amazing what a difference his mignola dracula 2light but skillful touch can make to some of the more silly or banal parts of Coppola’s script (which was based on a screeenplay by James Hart, who did the brilliant screenplay for 2002′s movie adaptation of Tuck Everlasting).

And then there’s the artwork! I consider Mike Mignola to be one of the best comics creators alive today, someone who can virtually do no wrong at a drawing board. He saturates his four issues here with silky darknesses and perfectly-placed slants of light, and as in all his work (this Dracula work clearly presages some of the signature stuff he’d do on Hellboy very shortly afterwards), he exercises a very adept handling of pace: he’s a master of offsetting busy expositional sequences with a single mignola dracula 3brooding snapshot that often manages to convey more than all the preceeding words did. He does front and back covers and all the internal artwork for these four issues.

My own copies of these four issues are slowly falling apart, and unlike with, say old issues of The Avengers or The Justice League, I don’t hold out much hope of ever seeing them in a more durable format. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was made by Columbia Pictures, which has no more interest in the property, and it was adapted for comics by Topps Comics, which is defunct – it would probably take until Stoker’s 200th birthday just to chase down who actually owns these issues (if it were Mignola himself, surely he’d have long since convinced his current paymasters at Dark Horse Comics to reprint them? After all, Hellboy has been a bit of a hit, both in comics and at the movies).


But until their paper stock disintegrates, I can still enjoy re-reading this little gem – say, every year on the 8th of November!


Old Curmudgeons in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

There’s a certain kind of purity-of-the-turf book-article that I expect to encounter on a regular basis in the Penny Press, and yet even though I expect it, the encounters are always a bit depressing. The theme never changes: I’m an old-fashioned reader; I’ll never cozy up to these new-fangled electronic books or electronic reading gizmos, always couched in the attitude of a lonely rearguard defender of the pure and the true. It’s tiresome, I know, but there seems to be an unending hunger for such squibs on the part of my fellow assigning editors.

The culprit this time around crops up in the latest TLS, in the “Freelance” feature, where Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda goes on the old familiar wheeze about digital e-readers. His very inviting specific topic – Dirda is excellent at this kind of inviting topic – is that well-known delicious agony known to book-people of all ages: how to pick which books to pack for a journey. Dirda rightly points out what a reliable little pleasure this ritual can be – I’ve shared that experience many, many times (although during my really intense travel-years, I freed myself from it by always traveling with the same handful of books), so I was nodding as I read Dirda’s article even while I was grimacing at his glancing mention of the undeniable fact that e-readers solve the problem completely.

They do, of course. Prior to a journey, you can load your e-reader with dozens of books – free classics from Project Gutenberg, vast amounts of mainstream backlist in hundreds of genres, and the whole swath of brand new titles. And you can load all those titles in less time than it takes to prowl your bookshelves and pull down one or two – or ten – physical books.

This is simple: there is no argument in favor of the prowling and the pulling-down. To repeat: e-readers simply win this comparison. A writing-program is simply better than a manual typewriter. Satellite weather-tracking is simply better than not knowing a hurricane is coming. And when it comes to ease, speed, portability, and convenience, e-readers are simply better than printed books. The aesthetic experience of curling up with a printed book (and the smell – ye gods, if I hear one more proud Luddite rhapsodize about the lovely smell of printed books), yes – I love it as much as anybody, and nothing can replace it. But the practicalities of books? The getting, the lugging around, even the annotating? There’s no contest.

Dirda’s a smart guy. He knows this as well as anybody, whether he enjoys knowing it or not. He knows that a palm-sized metal slate that’s magically able to be hundreds of books is simply better than hundreds of two-pound bound things, each one of which can necessarily be only one book. But still, he starts in right away about the tangled logistics of choosing which printed books go in the bag:

One should always pack a back-up. That Agatha Christie might turn out to be one you’ve already read or you might find yourself stuck in Iowa an extra day, with only cornfields as fars as the eye can see.

(Dirda being a world-famous book critic and just a tad citified, it’s likely that if he ever finds himself “stuck in Iowa an extra day,” he’ll be stuck in Iowa City, which might be surrounded by cornfields as far as the eye can see but is also home to the splendid Prairie Lights bookstore, where Dirda could easily find some extra titles to save him)

tlsDirda quite delightfully goes through some of the various adventures he’s had with books on the road, and like everybody who reads this author, I was immediately under the spell of his narrative. And then I came to the end of the little piece and had the spell rudely broken – as of course was inevitable, since the thing I bumped up against was the whole point of the piece in the first place:

Nevertheless, I’m not going to buy one of those cutesy e-readers. No pain, no gain – that’s my motto. A man needs to suffer for his art, even if that art is merely writing book reviews.

*Sigh* No pain, no gain – but Dirda’s been in the book-reviewing game long enough to know the pain is the crappy books, not the lugging of the crappy books. If he wants to say he just doesn’t like reading books on those palm-sized metal plates, that’s fine – Luddite, but fine. But this misty suggestion that there’s something more valid, even more grown up about lugging around heavy printed books (they aren’t “cutesy”) – well, that’s just simple low-boil masochism, the intentional preferring of something inconvenient or even painful over a more convenient and less painful alternative. Luddites are almost always masochistic, and masochists are almost always proud of their fear.

It’s just a shame! How much better would it be for readers all over the world, I imagine, if a reader as readable and famous as Dirda (who hardly has a script for being a curmudgeon – he’s younger than I am, and I absolutely love my “cutesy” e-reader) were to write a TLS “Freelance” piece singing the praises of this technology that’s come along and totally evaporated a long-standing irritation of printed books. Instead of saying “BAH – I’ll accept the irritation, because I’m a real reader.”

Still, the holidays are coming – maybe somebody will not only give him a first-rate e-reader (my own suggestion would be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4) but sit there by the fireside under the frosted windows and walk him through its wonders. I’ll cross my fingers for a very different “Freelance” piece in four or five months’ time.

Echoes aplenty in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

One of the little joys of book-reviewing is finding “echoes” of your own reviews in somebody else’s Table of Contents. My beloved Open Letters Monthly, though well-respected in the industry, is virtually unknown outside it (except perhaps for those curious browsers who find one of our blurbs on some new paperback), so it’s extra-pleasing for me to open a journal like the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books and discover that their editors have run a review of something I myself have already reviewed. I like the no-doubt-fraudulent way it creates the illusion that we’re all in this together, encountering the same onrushing tide of new books and making roughly some of the same decisions as to what warrents coverage and what doesn’t.

The latest TLS to hit my mailbox was a perfect case-in-point. Not only was there an Adam Kirsch review of A Voice Still Heard, a collection of Irving Howe essays tlsrecently reviewed by my esteemed colleague Robert Minto, and not only was there a very good Kate Webb review of The Paying Guests, the new Sarah Waters novel recently reviewed by my esteemed colleague Rohan Maitzen, but there was a veritable cacophony of further reviews! Seamus Perry writes at very satisfying length about The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, which I reviewed here; Norma Clarke turns in a superb review of Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (which I reviewed here), even going so far as to point out some of the book’s shortcomings:

[The author's] admiration for Reynolds can sometimes sound like endorsement of the values espoused by his elite subjects. The knowledgeable reader can fill in some gaps and guess how far Reynolds was painting to order or shared those values, but in this respect [the author] doesn’t help. There is almost no information here about how Reynolds reached his decisions – did Frances Crewe ask to be painted with sheep, for example? When he painted Lady Worsley en militaire was that his sensitivity to fashion or was it her choice? How far was he countering satirical cartoonists, such as Gillray, when he presented Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire playing at home with her baby? And did she suggest it? How much did he charge? What did he do if the clients didn’t pay?

There’s also a review by Theodore Rabb of R. J. B. Bosworth’s Italian Venice (which I reviewed here) in which the reviewer praises Bosworth for an excellent job all the while hinting that it might also be a bit of a boring job – although it isn’t, as I can attest.

But then, two critics disagreeing about a book is the kind of disagreements that only strengthen the Republic of Letters, yes? I almost prefer it, whenever I encounter one of these echoes in the Penny Press.

About Boston!

about boston smallOur book today is David McCord’s charming 1948 volume About Boston, a warmly affectionate look at Boston written by a Harvard graduate and long-time professional Harvard booster (and fundraiser! Good Grief, the man could get a donation-check out of a potted geranium) McCord, who was most famous in his own day as a charming poet, although he’s entirely forgotten nowadays. I’ve read all the man’s works many times, but it’s About Boston that calls me back most reliably, so I was extra-pleased recently to find a nice hardcover (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course) that will hold up better to re-readings than the old green paperback that’s been slowly decomposing in my collection for many, many years.

It’s almost inevitable but nonetheless sad to say that the Boston painted in McCord’s book has in large part vanished. Entire enormous construction projects have been planned, undertaken, finished, hated, superseded, and demolished in the interval, and dozens of century-old traditions have gone by the wayside. So what McCord intended as a kind of quasi-guidebook (and which sold very well in that role from bookstores all over Boston) has now become a historical curiosity on it own – and he must have sensed the possibility, because often in his pages he harkens to eternal things … like, for example, the weather:

As we look at Boston and Bostonians, we should at this point look at Boston weather. It is impossible to overlook it. In the Aleutians weather is a menace, in Los Angeles a monotony, in England a mistake; but in Boston it is simply a problem. Old Bostonians never mention it; but not so the stranger. He speaks of it in comparative terms. It is wetter than Kansas, drier than Washington, colder than Virginia, hotter than Minnesota, clearer than the Labrador, foggier than New Mexico, and stranger than all get out.

But McCord slips most naturally into his own memories and taste for anecdotes, and that usually ends him up talking about long-vanished things and people, like his wonderful pen-portrait of Henry Taylor Parker, the long-time theater critic for the dear old Boston Transcript, who lived in book-filled rooms in the Hotel Vendome and pronounced so regularly and infallibly on every show coming through town that many thousands of Bostonians agreed with the old pundit who said (of a different theater critic) that reading him was infinitely preferable to taking in the show in question. McCord gives us a wonderful look at Parker in his prime:lucy reading about boston

He was assumed in London to be a Frenchman, in Paris a German, and in Berlin an Englishman. But people crossed the street to him, as a native, for directions and advice. He used to say that once at Cambridge, England, he was mistaken for an Oxford don. He was, perhaps, the most colorful figure in the ample history of Boston arts and letters. And how vigorously did he live up to his creed: “I’d much rather write than talk.”

But McCord always tries to return to eternal things in order to ground his book – or things he, being a good Bostonian, believes must be eternal:

Crossing Boston Common in the new warmth of an April day, the world seems suddenly as innocent as the blue-gray flocks of pigeons in our path, and as gentle as the light breeze ruffling the newspaper of that old man asleep on a bench. Innocent, gentle, and warm: and the mind gone hunting on the breeze.

The new warmth of April days has fled for the time being in Boston; just very recently, in fact, a weak and temporary approximation of chilly autumn weather has visited the city, and walkers across the Common first thing tomorrow might need to turn up their collars. This, too, will change: the city’s eternal warmth will return mid-week, and reading About Boston couldn’t help but make me wonder what McCord would have thought about shirt-sleeve weather in November – who knows how much more of his book will seem outdated, in another fifty years.




Penguins on Parade: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow!

penguin colophon

Some Penguin Classics are welcome back in new reprints as often as opportunity allows; indeed, the persistence of their reappearances gives us one of the signature comforts of a canon. These works keep getting reprinted, we’re reassured, because some works deserve to be reprinted regularly.

sleepy hollow coverWe can certainly think of the new Penguin Classics edition of Washington Irving that way. The volume – sporting a detail from a terrifically moody painting by the amazingly talented young French fantasy artist Bastien Grivet – is called The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, and it’s a reprint of Irving’s 1820 hit The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in which readers will find such foundational American literary myths as the Spectre Bridegroom, Rip Van Winkle, and, of course, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with its Headless Horseman.

The volume is introduced with a sparkling essay by Irving expert Elizabeth Bradley, who notes that Irving was writing both against the grain and ahead of his time when he concocted the strange and often nostalgic tales of this collection against the better literary judgement of people who considered the young America “not sufficiently sophisticated to have a history, and certainly too green for ghosts.” But as big a pathfinder as Irving undoubtedly was, Bradley wittily cautions against veneration:

To refer to a writer as the Father of American Literature is the quickest way to consign him to anthologies, and to popular oblivion. This is a truism in legend and history alike: Who prefers the dutiful Abraham to his rebellious sons, or Joseph to Jesus? Who – aside from their biographers – remembers the progenitor of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, or Marie Curie? There is no faster way to doom an author than to slap him with a patriotic paternity suit.

There’s no danger of doom for at least one of Irving’s creations: the aforementioned Headless Horseman, who’ll be chasing poor Ichabod Crane through Sleepy Hollow long after all of us are dead and gone (Bradley wryly notes the ongoing TV series on Fox, complete with “extra monsters, time travel, and skinny jeans”) – this has got to be the only Penguin paperback with back-cover blurbs from both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Tim Burton. But re-reading the Sketch Book reminds me how good Irving is at everything he writes. If anything, the vignettes here of an old storybook England on the brink (as Irving saw it, anyway) of fading entirely into the past are often more effective than the more famous tales. Take as just one example the moment he encounters a knight’s grave in lucy reading the headless horseman“Westminster Abbey”:

I paused to contemplate a tomb on which lay the effigy of a knight in complete armour. A large buckler was on one arm; the hands were pressed together in supplication upon the breast; the face was almost covered by the morion; the legs were crossed in token of the warrior’s having been engaged in the holy war. It was the tomb of a crusader; of one of those military enthusiasts, who so strangely mingled religion and romance, and whose exploits form the connecting link between fact and fiction; between the history and the fairy tale. There is something extremely picturesque in the tombs of these adventurers, decorated at they are with rude armorial bearings and gothic sculpture.

Irving goes on that when seeing such things “the imagination is apt to kindle with the legendary associations, the romantic fictions” – and the same holds true for so much of what he wrote himself, both in the Sketch Book and in A History of New York (and especially in Bracebridge Hall). Irving specialized in exactly what he described while remembering that tomb: the connecting link between fact and fiction, between history and fairy tale. So kudos to Penguin Classics for bringing out this pretty new edition of such a quintessential example of that talent. Future Classics volumes reprinting this author’s great Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and particularly his unforgettable The Alhambra would be much appreciated!

Penguin on Parade: The Penguin Book of Witches!


Some Penguin Classics are amazing original productions, which is an odd thing to say about the world’s penguin book of witches coverbest line of reprints. A perfect example – and a timely one, considering the Halloween/Samhain double-whammy that strikes most of the West today – is the new Penguin Book of Witches, a fantastic original anthology of key original documents in the witchcraft craze that swept Europe and colonial America two centuries ago. The collection is edited and curated by Katherine Howe (author of, among other things, the bookseller-favorite witchcraft novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane), who also provides a spirited and thought-provoking Introduction in which she attempts to lay out some clarifying taxonomy:

Belief in witchcraft was not an anomalous throwback to late medieval thought by provincial colonists, nor was it an embarrassing blip in an otherwise steady march to an idealized nationhood. It was not a disease. It was not a superstition. Witchcraft’s presence or absence was constituitive to the colonial order. It was a touchstone that reinforced what was normal and what was aberrant.

What follows are dozens of testimonies, tracts, and depositions ranging across the whole span of the last major Western flare-up of witch-hysteria, from its roots in England to the famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 to the surprisingly long aftermath of Salem in the colonies. Throughout, in addition to the excerpts, Howe provides smart and helpful prefaces to orient students and interested non-specialists, as when she introduces Daemonologie, the 1597 treatise published by King James I:

Most striking to a contemporary reader will be the conflation of the pseudoscientific with the imaginary. In fact, James I was at pains to explain the difference between what was possible through witchcraft and what was merely mental delusion. He also must have grapple with the continually vexing question of why God permits the Devil to have such power. James I’s theodicy took a number of tacks, including the possibility that witchcraft could challenge those with flagging faith to rekindle their belief, but ultimately he resorted to the story of Job to justify the continual ability of Satan to tempt us into sin.

Howe reminds us that the Salem craze was far from the first such outbreak in the American colonies. Her priceless anthology includes fascinating documents from a dark interlude in Hartford, Connecticut in 1662, where at least eight people were executed, and where some of the accused were subjected to the “swim test” of hurling suspected witches into water and watching to see if they float (it was a 17th century catch-22: if you float, you’re guilty and must be hanged; if you drown, you were innocent). The “swim test” was advised by Boston churchman Increase Mather, and the account Howe includes is an arresting lucy reading about witchesglimpse into societal madness:

There were some that had a mind to try whether the stories of witches not being able to sink under water were true; and accordingly a man and woman mentioned in Ann Cole’s Dutch-tone discourse had their hands and feet tied, and so were cast into the water, and they both apparently sam after the manner of a buoy, part under, part above the water. A by-stander imagining that any person bound in that posture would be so born up, offered himself for trial, but being in the like matter gently laid on the waters, he immediately sank right down. This was no legal evidence against the suspected persons, nor were they proceeded against on any such account. However, doubting that a halter would choke them though the water would not, they very fairly took their flight, not having been seen in that part of the world since.

The account concludes with a fascinating nod to the fact that so many of those caught up in this witchcraft hysteria had moments when they themselves sensed their own derailment: “Whether this experiment were lawful, or rather superstitious and magical, we shall enquire afterward.”

As you read this amazing little volume, you increasingly realize that we ourselves are living in that afterward, when the madness has long since faded and witches have become the friendly caricature on the cover of The Penguin Book of Witches and merchandizing themes in a Salem that booms with tourists every Halloween. I haven’t checked, but I’m fairly sure Howe’s excellent little gem is on sale there year-round.


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