September 23rd, 2016

Hypocritical Blather in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

Like plenty of other people (perhaps particularly other beagle-fanciers), I loved Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish in most of its various incarnations over the years, and I read it eagerly even when, as was very often the case, I disagreed with the author. I was disappointed when he rather ostentatiously announced his retirement from blogging last year, so I was naturally interested when I saw that he commanded the cover article spot of the September 19 issue of New York magazine, a piece called “I Used to Be a Human Being.” It went into the piece eagerly.

And almost instantly regretted it, and then kept on regretting it throughout the length of the piece. Instead of reading the piece I’d hoped for, in which Sullivan looked back on his whirlwind years masterminding The Dish, I realized pretty quickly I was reading a piece in which Sullivan recounts his struggles with the Devil.

He’s visiting a religious retreat that’s geared to wean people from their dependence on electronic stimulation. Postulants surrender their cellphones and meditate their way through the cold turkey withdrawal symptoms to a state of inner peace. They’re slowly, patiently desensitized until they reach the point where they can ignore all the “distractions” of modern technology and concentrate again on not concentrating, on simply breathing, on simply being.

Those distractions were stronger for Sullivan than for most people, as he writes in typically vivid prose:

But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success – in big and beautiful data – that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age. I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.

nyrkerAnd he claims that all of this extracted a heavy cost: lethargy, atrophied muscles, “four bronchial infections in 12 months” and a general feeling of disconnection from the world. Sullivan lists all the usual suspects: Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Tinder (that one crops up regularly), combines them with the round-the-clock needs of running The Dish, and paints a dire picture of the results:

Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.

Like all people who convince themselves they’re addicts, Sullivan promptly does two things: he declares that he had no control over his addiction – and that none of us do: “When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other – routed through our social networks – we are close to helpless” – and he turns around and heaps scorn on the Promised Land now that he’s sure he himself doesn’t want to live there anymore. He describes a great, frantic blight ruled by shadowy overlords:

We absorb this “content” (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow.

It’s preposterous, of course, but the whole thing is preposterous. Phony screeds like this one are zero-sum games that practically write themselves, and it’s disappointing that Sullivan doesn’t bother to rise above the formula (there are potted blocks of exposition about Internet growth, the religious life, and, Gawd help us, the invention of the printing press). He makes mechanical references to Thoreau and to comedian Louis C.K.’s idiotic rant on a late-night TV show, talks about how when you take a subway ride these days, everybody’s attention is glued to their glowing little screens, gets in some references to the pretty blue sky … all of it so by-the-numbers that I found myself just waiting for the tell-tale signs of outright hypocrisy. Those signs are always the same: the writer elevates the tedium and waste of the Good Olde Days into some kind of Golden Age when people really did things and really paid attention. “Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and ‘wasted’ time in the achievement of practical goals,” he writes. “But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes from accomplishing daily tasks well …” And so on.

There was no satisfaction in wasting an hour trying to find that particular used bookshop in a city where you’ve never been. There was no satisfaction in being completely stranded if your car has a flat tired on a side road at night. There was no pride of workmanship in crawl-typing through carbon papers in order to get four pages of clean copy. All of that is nonsense, and Sullivan knows it’s nonsense (the piece ends as they all do, with him inching back, with hand-waving reluctance, to the world of electronic ‘distractions’). He can go to as many ostentatious yuppie “retreats” as he wants, but he wouldn’t go back again to missing important phone calls or being out of touch with his loved ones – or getting lost, ever – if his life depended on it. He’s cashing a New York paycheck by decrying something he never stopped using and praising things that did nothing but irritate him when they were the only games in town. All of it is just the click-bait harrumphing of a middle-aged man aping an old man.

Witless minnows? Nobody made Sullivan click on anything. Nobody made him abandon his self-control in such a ridiculous, adolescent way. Nobody made him hunch over his computer without taking breaks to walk, or talk, or fight off bronchitis. And likewise nobody made him walk away from it all, as mystifying as that decision was. Through talent and skill and a great deal of hard work, he built The Dish into something truly remarkable; if he needed time off from it in order to unwind, he should have booked a cruise or hiked the Appalachian Trail or showed a little more creative commitment to to Tinder. He’d have come back refreshed to the job he rightly celebrates as having been thrilling and satisfying … and the rest of us would have been spared Pollyanna bull crap like “I Used To Be a Human Being.”

September 17th, 2016

Wagging Tails!

wagging-tailsOur book today is a little treasure from deep, deep in the shadowy recesses of my personal library: a much-loved 1955 volume called Wagging Tails: An Album of Dogs, written by Marguerite Henry and drawn by Wesley Dennis. It’s an exuberantly friendly, colorful book full of friendly dogs, a book put out by Rand McNally that’s dedicated to two dogs: to Alex, “whose tail wags like a metronome,” and to Dice, “who is clean but not spotless.” I completely fell in love with it when I first read it, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

Marguerite Henry is at first glance an unlikely-seeming author for a book of dogs. She was famously – and universally beloved – at the height of her powers back in the 1940s and ’50s as the author of horse books, not dog books. Black Gold, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, Misty of Chincoteague, and King of the Wind, which won the Newbery Award … these and a dozen other books were so famous that word of their worth had crossed the interspecies No Man’s Land and reached even the ears of us dog kids. And years later I actually sat down and read Misty and King of the Wind wt1aand immediately understood their popularity: the calm grace with which she captures the electricity of the young girl-horse connection made Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty feel like the wt4bperiod piece I only then realized it was.

But Henry was breezily prolific throughout her career, and she loved animals with the clean, earnest devotion of childhood, which she never quite outgrew. She wrote books about birds and horses and a couple of cats … and dogs. And in as many cases as she could, she tried to secure the artwork of her long-time favorite collaborator, Wesley Dennis, a stiffly picky perfectionist with the face of a prize fighter and the artistic sensibility of a second-tier Landseer. Dennis was a tough man to get to know and an easy man to like once you did, and his drafty old house on Cape Cod could be the most welcoming place in the world to those who’d fought their way through to the artist’s friendship.

I have no idea if Marguerite Henry ever visited that house at Falmouth, but she and pekeDennis forged a great partnership anyway, and by the time the two of them produced Wagging Tails, they’d been working together for a long time – and it shows. The words and the pointerpictures in this book mesh without a hitch.

We get all the breeds that were popular back in the late ’40s. There’s the Dachshund:

On fall nights, after a brisk hour across country, he likes to toast his bones by the fire. As for me, nothing is so nice as to pull of my boots and wriggle my toes under his warm body. Too small? No, indeed. He’s just the right size!

And there’s the Pekingese:

The Pekingese is a paradox. He looks like a morsel of fluff, but left him up and you find him surprisingly heavy. He is built like a lion, massive in front with an enormous shaggy mane. And he is lion-hearted, too. I knew of one who defied even a Great Dane. He would bring out his playthings – his rubber bones and tinklebells – and taking a war-like stance, beagleforefeet wide apart, he would roar in the big fellow’s face.

And there’s the Boxer:

Big and strong as he is, there’s a gentle side to his nature, too. Youngsters can pull his ears and poke his ribs, and he takes it all with gay good humor. As pet and protector, he is full of love and faithfulness for everyone in the household.

I periodically take down my copy of Wagging Tails and read all the way through it in unhurried happiness, reliving the countless times wt6I’ve visited these pages in the past. These are my people – some of them, anyway – these two dozen familiar faces, these chihuahuas and saints and pointers and mutts, and these beagles with their pennant tails pointing straight up as they race along. And every time I re-read the book, I smile the same broad, private smile and remember encountering it for the first time. And I wonder how many vintage ladies of a certain age sometimes pull down their Album of Horses and smile the same smile, grateful for all the memories.

September 11th, 2016

Dürer’s Record of Journeys to Venice and the Low Countries!

doverdurerOur book today is a little-known absolute gem that owes what very limited popular readership it’s ever had in America in the last eighty years to the stalwart old Dover reprint line as it once was – not its reprints of canonical classics, which have always been and continue to be glaringly ugly and editorially unhelpful, but rather the once-extensive line of great nonfiction works they once published in profusion (their current line of nonfiction sticks much closer to the curriculum-friendly great-works mainstream and is therefore much, much more modest in its scope). That line was once gigantic and encompassed everything under the sun – Whistler’s etchings, Mozart’s letters, India sign language, Presidential homes, owl-watching in North America, and dozens more goodies.

Our book today is one such gem: Dürer’s Record of Journeys to Venice and the Low Countries, a 1995 Dover paperback reprint of a hardcover that was first brought out by Boston’s Merrymount Press back in 1913, a volume that itself reprints the letters written by the great Renaissance artist and humanist Albrecht Dürer to his friend Wilibald Pirkheimer in 1506, plus his record of his travels in the Low Countries in 1520 and 1521. Dürer was born in 1471 and shot to early fame as an durerfriendartistic prodigy, as Roger Fry breathlessly asserts in his prissy, fussy Introduction:

Dürer was perhaps the greatest infant prodigy among painters, and the drawing of himself at the age of twelve shows how early he had marked that simple and abrupt sincerity of Gothic draughtsmanship. One is inclined to say that in all his subsequent work he never surpassed this in all that really matters, in all that concerns the essential vision and its adequate presentment. He increased his skill until it became the wonder of the world and entangled him in its seductions; his intellectual apprehension was indefinitely heightened, and his knowledge of natural appearances became encyclopaedic.

By the time he visited Venice, he was famous in the realm of paying patrons and enjoyed a wide-flung web of friends among courtiers, princes, churchmen, and humanists – almost all of whom very energetically durerdoodleliked him. He was a handsome, lanky man with a thrusting-forward face and the most kissable lips in Christendom, but that was only part of the explanation for the near-universal love people felt for him; the bulk of that appeal came from his personality. He was easy, affable, urgently affectionate, and, most disarming of all in what could tend to be an unsmiling era, he was very often genuinely funny.

You can sorta-kinda tell the last point from some of the letters he wrote; you can almost catch the fullness of it from his flashes of self-deprecation, his theatrical lamentations, and of course his doodles. Writing from Venice in 1506, for instance, he shifts from omnivorous intellectual curiosity to rueful exaggeration and back with a suppleness that would have caused his correspondent to laugh out loud while reading it, a nimble shifting that’s atdurerservant least fractionally caught even in this volume’s rather flat English:

As to your question as to when I shall come home. I tell you, so that my lords may make their arrangements, that I shall have finished here in ten days. After that I should like to travel to Bologna to learn the secrets of the art of perspective, which a man there is willing to teach me. I should stay there about eight to ten days and then come back to Venice; after that I should come with the next messenger. How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite.

Dürer’s letters to Pirkheimer capture some of the artist’s voice – naturally, since that was the task of correspondence in that conversation-hungry era that lacked email but would have so rapturously loved it. The jottings he kept while touring the Low Countries fifteen years later had a very different set of purposes, and since it was a more didactic and bookkeeping-type purpose, it can be much more challenging to read these pages durerefor enjoyment, since quite a few passages read like this bit from Antwerp in 1520:

There is sent to Jobst Planckfelt’s inn, and the same evening the Fugger’s factor, by name Bernhard Stecher, invited me and gave us a costly meal – my wife dined at the inn. I paid the driver for bringing us three, 3 florins in gold, and 2 stivers – for carrying the goods.

Historians of the period would drool over such meticulously detailed record-keeping (Dürer notes the prices of everything, and he’s also very good on the sizes of houses and public buildings and the distances between places), of course, but the general reader will find it much rockier reading. The solution is obvious, although since that old Boston hardcover never lucy-explores-durerattempted it, this Dover reprint doesn’t attempt it (the reprint only improves on the original by including a great many more reproductions of Dürer’s artwork, which is no small thing): the solution is to intersperse the Low Country journal entries with letters written and received during that stay. Make that change, and double the number of letters in the Venice section, throw in a livelier Introduction than old Roger Fry attempts, and undergird the whole thing with lively, informative footnotes, and you suddenly have a nice thick volume that makes this Dover edition look like a skeletal prototype, especially if you’re willing to make the financial outlay to reprint lots more artwork.

The resulting volume would be an unmitigated treat, naturally. Here’s hoping we all live to see it some day.

September 8th, 2016

Comrade Loves of the Samurai!

comrade lovesOur book today is Comrade Loves of the Samurai, a pokey little translation by E. Powys Mathers from way back in 1928, when it appeared in a privately-published set of high-class smut called Eastern Love. The set featured two books: selections from the Nanshoku Okagami of the great 17th century Japanese author Saikaku Ihara, here grouped together under the title Comrade Loves of the Samurai, and Songs of the Geisha, a set of court songs of mostly anonymous provenance. In 1972 Tuttle reprinted this little curio in a paperback edition – not, it becomes immediately clear especially in 2016, for its translational value, but rather, as was the case with so many old Tuttle paperbacks, for its historical interest.

Scholar Terrence Barrow tries, in his endearingly fustian way, to strike that note in his Introduction:

In Comrade Loves of the Samurai the theme is the homosexual love of samurai for samurai or the love of samurai for page or court boy bent on becoming a samurai. The subject is potentially sordid, and in modern novels is almost invariably so, but to the old Japanese such love among samurai was quite permissible. The sons of samurai families were urged to form homosexual alliances while youth lasted, and often these loves matured into lifelong companionships.

He doesn’t draw the obvious parallels between such a societal set-up and that of other warrior cultures in history (ancient Greece springs right to mind; Barrow’s paragraph here describes it down to the last loin cloth); that kind of meta-analysis would be well above the pay grade of anything with a title as pandering as Eastern Love. And as charming – in its own way – as this little volume is, it has to be admitted that Mathers’ translation is every bit as kitschy and condescending as Barrow’s introduction. In the grand old tradition of Arthur Waley, Mathers snips and rounds and shapes things as he sees fit, importing an naughty-Edwardian sensibility to a work that, I strongly suspect, is completely free of it in the original. The little editorial asides Saikaku Ihara puts in the mouths of some of his characters, for instance, comes across in Mathers as more strident than sarcastic:

Male love is essentially different from the ordinary love of a man and a woman; and that is why a Prince, even when he has married a beautiful Princess, cannot forget his pages. Woman is a creature of absolutely no importance; but sincere pederastic love is true love.

But the stories in this volume are fascinating even so, especially in the book’s first half, the bits and pieces cobbled together about the boisterous ephebophilia of the samurai class. And peeking out in between the heavy-breathing drama of those bits and pieces are some of the lovely little details of daily life that strike a tone and give and access that’s not quite found anywhere else in 17th century Japanese literature:

There was a little shop in the street of the Yanaka district of Yedo, with a narrow bill hung in the doorway which read: ‘We have a remedy for superfluous hairs. It is equally good for many other ailments.’ Copy-books for students were also sold there; but since these were written by the hand of an old man, no one bought them. A bamboo blind hung between the worn and dirty screens. The trade of that shop was negligible, and the proprietor did not make enough out of it to live by. A graceful pine tree rose above the sloping roof; summer chrysanthemums flourished in the garden, and there was a well of pure water and a pail on the end of a pole. Sometimes birds came and perched on the pail.

Saikaku Ihara was an enigmatic, manic, and strangely appealing figure, a writer who hasn’tlucy reads about comrade loves received anything like his due in English translation. There’ve been no Penguin Classics of his major works (of which, I’d argue, the Nanshoku Okagami is the greatest in its full, weird, raunchy, unexpurgated amplitude), and even The Great Mirror of Male Love had to wait until Paul Schalow’s full 1990 translation to finally get a brief moment in the sun. But the 21st century English-speaking world is more ready for this author than any previous age has been, even his own – so I can always hope to see a big gorgeous Collected Works someday …

September 2nd, 2016

The Cape at Summer’s End: Cape Cod Yesterdays!

ccodyesterdaysOur book today is Cape Cod Yesterdays, which bestselling novelist Joseph C. Lincoln dashed off in 1935 and which went through his customary flurry of reprints, since the man was a storyteller with a golden touch, an immensely popular bestselling author of a century ago who built a large chunk of his career on his skill at doing what he does in Cape Cod Yesterdays: wax nostalgic for Cape Cod.

He often did this by setting his gentle, enormously readable novels in a kind of fantasy-Cape, but in Cape Cod Yesterdays he gives his readers the experience undistilled – he offers his readers a trip to “old times on the Cape – not very, very old times; at the most not more than a generation ago – if you care to travel lazily back to a boyhood or girlhood spent in whole or in part on the ‘right arm of Massachusetts’” and then brings them to those times, ably aided with paintings and drawings by Harold Brett.

This is the #1 favorite – very nearly requisite – occupation of all people who’ve evercape4 spent any time on Cape Cod, in fact: reminiscing about some earlier incarnation of the place, when there were fewer goll-dang amenities, fewer distractions, and most importantly, fewer people. This earlier incarnation is never much earlier – as Lincoln writes, not very, very old – because the people doing the wistful gazing know perfectly well that the very, very old Cape Cod was nothing to get wistful about. No, instead their Shangri-La Cape Cod has to be always just slightly out of reach, lingering at the edge of the recollections of some of the adults in the room:

The motorcar is a comparatively recent invention, but then, counting by lifetimes, so is the railway – for Cape Cod. Many of us can easily remember when the branch railroad to Chatham was built. Before that, you left the train at Harwich and finished your journey by stage.

cape2(Cue a painting by Brett of that Harwich stage trotting away on a crystal blue day)

I make no exception for myself, needless to say: I reminisce about vanished Capes Cod every year at this time, when the subtle changing of the season that began imperceptibly in mid-August finally becomes overt, when shadows lengthen at twilight and early morning dog-walks wear the first tang of autumn chill. I always find myself thinking about Cape Cod at summer’s end, reliving in my memories all the times of my long association with the place. I remember walking beaches and silver forests with little crowds of dogs at my shins (the dogs of my various hosts, plus my own inevitable knot of beagles, their tails straight up in the air like flags); I remember happy feasts and long evenings talking and laughing on screened porches or beachfront balconies; I remember reading in guest-bedrooms under slanted cape1ceilings; I remember poking around in tidal pools for all the curious things that live there; I remember browsing in dust-smelling second-hand bookshops on hot afternoons … and, like Lincoln, I remember with special relish the indescribable joy of hunkering down in an unweatherized Cape house as a storm raged outside:

Those winter winds! How they used to howl and whine and shriek and whistle about the gables of our house when I went upstairs to my small bedroom or when I woke in the morning. At times only a mournful crooning, rising and sinking and whispering at the window. But, at other times, when what the old salts call a “three-day no’theaster” was raging, then they did not croon, they howled. The window sash shook, the panes roared as the torrents of rain were thrown against them, the old house trembled, the bed quivered, the water pitcher on its stand in the corner tinkled against the basin.

cape3Cape Cod Yesterdays has of course itself now become a curio (bedroom water pitchers in stands?), and new Cape-when-I-was-young books have taken its place, featuring grainy black-and-white beach house TV reception, or dodgy Wi-Fi, and they’ll continue (“When I was a boy, you could fly a drone all around Barnstable County without a government permit … ah, those were the days …”) as long as people keep finding things at Cape Cod that they don’t find anywhere else, as long as the Cape keeps on with its effortless way of making beautiful memories. I could write many such books myself – maybe not as many as lucy reads about cape cod yesterdaysJoseph Lincoln did, but many – especially in years like this one, when sad duties keep me from visiting the Cape at all. I can think of the place at summer’s end, but there’s no option of packing a bag and hopping on a bus to one of the two doors that would be open to me if I went.

But I can visit it in my memories, and those memories get more burnished and comfortable with every passing year. I suspect that’s how the whole rigamarole began.

August 29th, 2016

The Penguin Book of English Verse!

penguin book of english verseOur book today is that saddest of all kinds of books, the superseded classic. In this case, we’re talking about The Penguin Book of English Verse – not the massive 2004 version edited in all its splendor by Paul Keegan but rather the 1956 version edited by John Hayward, who had the old-fashioned chutzpah to open his note to the reader by writing: “The chief, if not the only end of poetry, Dryden said, is to delight. It is with this end always in view that the following selection of English poetry has been made.”

To delight! And … Dryden! If the book’s $2 cover price weren’t reason enough for us to suspect we’re far from the fields we know, that would do it. But that’s not the only thing in this old volume (mine is a white-spine musty old mass market paperback, bought at the Harvard Bookstore eight years ago) that feels out of place, out of time; Hayward’s selections are more foursquare and classical than the relatively few variations that appear in the later edition. Both have the same spine and connective tissue, as virtually any big book of English verse must have; there’s always a procession of Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare and Pope and Wordsworth and Shelley, and there are always the odd gems from Donne and, in Hayward’s case, George Herbert, with his intensely subversive poem “Love”:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here;

Love said, you shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then will I serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat;

So I did sit and eat.

Hayward winds his anthology down to Dylan Thomas and Stephen Spender, with the poets and traditions that sprang up in the wake of Auden not yet taken into account as they must be in later anthologies. There’s therefore a rounded-off feeling to this little volume, as artificial a feeling as they no doubt is. Re-reading the book, I found again all the entries that provoked me to bracket or make notes in the margin. I remarked, for instance, on how much I loved the music of John Clare in small doses rather than large helpings, like in his beautiful “Emmonsail’s Heath in lucy reads english verseWinter”:

I love to see the old heath’s withered brake

Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,

While the old heron from the lonely lake

Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing,

And oddling crow in idle motions swing

On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,

Beside whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed.

Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig

Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;

The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn

And for the haw round fields and cloven rove,

And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,

Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain

And hang on little twigs and start again.

I wouldn’t dispense with Paul Keegan’s much bigger volume for all the mud in Egypt, but even so, walking around with this earlier book for a few hot summer days and feeling my affection for it rekindle, I found myself wishing there were room in the Procrustean publishing world for both.

August 20th, 2016

Birds Worth Knowing!

IMG_2774Our book today is a pretty little gem unearthed from the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop: the 1917 classic Birds Worth Knowing by the American author who wrote under the pen name Neltje Blanchan. This particular edition was issued in 1923 as part of the Little Nature Library put out by Doubleday, and it draws from the many bird-books its author wrote during her busy career as a popular nature-writer, bird-books like Bird Neighbors, Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted, and Birds Every Child Should Know. And as an added bonus, the whole thing is illustrated with charming bird-drawings in full color.

Neltje Blanchan’s narration in all of her books is a fruity mixture of kindly condescension and Edwardian moral certainties – it’s the kind of prose PG Wodehouse so perfectly mimicked in My Man Jeeves, when Jeeves undertakes the writing of a book very similar to Birds Worth Knowing, a treacly-cheerful children’s version of Alexander Worple’s American Birds. These books, with their complacent warblersplatitudes in which the animal kingdom is just a dumbshow reflection of the human world, once abounded in bookstores. All such books tended to be written in a lovely prose line, and Blanchan’s are in many ways the best of the type.

She tours her readers through a few dozen of the most colorful and charismatic American birds, from bluebirds and chickadees to catbirds and warblers. The whippoorwill, the woodpecker, the kingfisher, the loon, the shrike, the screech owl, the crow, the blue jay … these and many more emblematic birds are given evocative profiles, and there are verdicts as well, as in the case of the Cooper’s Hawk:

Here is no ally of the farmer, but his foe, the most bold of his robbers, a bloodthristy villain that lives by plundering poultry yards, and tearing the warm fresh from the breasts of game and song birds, one of the few members of his generally useful tribe that deserves the punishment ignorantly meted out to his innocent relatives.

hawkThis book, like all of its source books, is liberally studded with instructions as well, instructions aimed at the then-burgeoning industry of amateur bird-watching. The suburbs were growing exponentially while Blanchan’s books were selling briskly in city bookstores, so there are tips for those new semi-rural enthusiasts:

Perhaps no one thing attracts so many birds about the house as a drinking dish – large enough for a bathtub as well, for birds are not squeamish and certainly no bird delights in the sprinkling of water over his back more than a robin, often aided in his ablutions by the spattering of other bathers. But see to it that this drinking-dish is well raised above the reach of lurking cats.

And what of that most vilified of all standard American birds? Mercifully, our tree sparrowauthor has a broad mind:

When it came to a verdict on the English sparrow, after the most thorough and impartial trial any bird ever received, every thumb, alas! Was turned down. But having proven itself fittest to survive in the struggle for existence after ages of competition with the birds of the Old World, being obedient to nature’s greatest law, it will defy man’s legislation to exterminate it. Toilers in our overpopulated cities, children of the slums, see at least one bird that is not afraid to live among them the year round … Like the poor, sparrows are always with us. A forced familiarity with mischief-making members of the class has bred contempt for them, even among many bird lovers.

IMG_2781The book’s illustrations are blurry, bygone-delightful things, complete with the usual gestures at locational signals – a marsh for the marsh birds, a twilit barn in the background of a Barn Owl, riotous foliage for the bright warblers, snow falling around the chickadees – and the combined effect is the creation of a world of such innocent wonder that it’s easy to understand why Neltje Blanchan was such a popular author. Even now, finding this book a full century after it first appeared, in a world that’s no longer innocent and whose bird-books now bristle with scientific specifics, it’s easy to fall under the spell again.

August 18th, 2016

Ink Chorus: Bestseller!


Our book today is surely one of the all-time classics of the Ink Chorus: Claud bestsellerCockburn’s 1972, er, bestseller Bestseller, in which our author subjects a dozen bygone bestselling novels to a forensic examination that’s both erudite and often hilarious, biting but also oddly sympathetic. He takes a tour through some of the bestselling novels in England from 1900 to 1939, taking advantage of the passage of time to see some reading standards of the previous generation with a more clinical eye, and although the entire book is absolutely invigorating, by far its most enjoyable aspect is also a bit surprising: Cockburn respects the phenomenon of the bestseller itself. It’s true that he liberally spreads snarky aspersions on the books he’s examining, but he doesn’t for a single paragraph seem to doubt the validity of examining them in the first place, not only as works of (admittedly often wretched) prose but also as invaluable bellwethers:

The bestseller lists are an indispensable guide to problems here arising. You cannot quarrel with them. You can say that they are not an index of literary merit. You can claim the best people did not read the bestsellers. But you cannot deny that if Book X was what a huge majority of book-buyers and book-borrowers wanted to buy or borrow in a given year, or over a period of years, then Book X satisfied a need, and expressed and realized emotions and attitudes to life which the buyers and borrowers did not find expressed or realized elsewhere.

He writes engaging, thought-provoking inspections of such old stand-by hits as The Broad Highway by Jeffery Farnol, When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne, The Beloved Vagabond by W. J. Locke, The Blue Lagoon by H. deVere Stacpoole, and If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson. And along the way, he makes one ice-sharp aside after another about the nature of the book market, the moods of the book-buying public, and some of the assumptions attending wide-demographic works of fiction just in general:

In the Middle Ages drama was based upon the commonly known Christian story, or on other Biblical myths such as the story of Adam and Eve. At that time everyone had a pretty good idea what that serpent was up to. In Athens everyone knew who murdered or was going to murder Agamemnon. Everyone knew that Oedipus was going to kill his father and marry his mother. Nobody was sitting agape in the audience waiting for the moment when someone would rush on stage shouting, ‘Don’t marry her, she’s your mum!’

Cockburn is hypnotically encyclopedic, although he’s more vulnerable than he seems on the surface. Take that initial assertion of his I quoted above, about how you just can’t quarrel with the bestseller list of any day or era being an accurate X-ray, a sure indication of what was satisfying a need with the general reading public: he’s absolutely sure when he’s making that assertion, but he’s almost certainly mistaken, because he’s making the fundamental mistake made by so many amateur students of demography: he’s assuming that if Phenomenon X doesn’t apply to him, it probably doesn’t apply to anybody. Cockburn was a brilliant thinker and an original prose stylist (it almost goes without saying that his entire body of work is out of print in the US, right?); it simply doesn’t occur to him that the vast majority of readers who buy a bestseller are buying it after they already know it’s a bestseller – his assertion fails to take simple lemming-like biddability into account. Books become bestsellers because they answer a need in the reading public, yes; but they also become bestsellers because the reading public is and always has been weirdly desperate for recommendations. Cockburn never needed a book recommendation in his life – most dyed-in-wool book people never do. Which might make it tougher then usual for them to comprehend the fogged-in groping that the vast majority of readers do every time they walk into a bookstore.

But on one aspect of the bestseller as a kind of book, Cockburn is spot-on, and this acuity is seen most clearly in the most famous chapter of Bestseller, the one devoted to E. M. Hull’s enormously successful novel The Sheik, about a proper young lady who’s abducted by a savage-yet-suave wealthy desert warlord. Cockburn makes lucy reads bestsellersome fascinating points about out-and-out pornography in the marketplace, and no reader in 2016 will see those points without noticing how little things have changed:

“Would it not be wiser, after what you have seen today, to recognize that I am master?”

“You mean that you will treat me as you treated that colt this afternoon?” she whispered.

“I mean that you must realize that my will is law.”

“And if I do not?”

“”Then I will teach you, and I think that you will learn – soon.”

She quivered in his hands.

One quick search-and-replace, and you’ve got Twilight, or Fifty Shades of Grey. Satisfies a need indeed …

August 10th, 2016

Genteel Bloodletting in the Penny Press!

tlsI clearly wasn’t the only reader of the mighty TLS who was disappointed by Julian Baggini’s cover article about the ethics of eating animals! I went into the piece with high hopes, which in retrospect I see now was a bit foolish, and Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals felt the same way, writing a letter of objection with a rousing finish:

It is invariably our own often embarrassingly supremacist species that is unaware of what goes on in other animals’ minds. While we send probes into space to search for intelligent forms of life, we are oblivious to the ones all around us, right here on Earth and in Earth’s oceans. Far from making it “difficult” to grapple with the “complex” issue of not eating the other bright sparks in our sphere of interaction, as Baggini posits, it’s actually not only an obligation but also terribly easy to to learn to relate to those whose misfortune it was to end up on humans’ plates; to recognize that when wearing fur or leather, one is in another’s skin; and to stop pretending that mice and monkeys are test tubes with whiskers. The complexity, as amply demonstrated in the books Baggini reviewed, lies in having to craft arguments to avoid the inconvenience of taking that simple decision to stop eating animals. To say that taking animals’ lives is not problematic because once they are dead they feel neither suffering nor loss, as easily applies to snuffing out people you might run into on the street. The adage “No harm, no foul” is shown to be phoney baloney.

And that was just to start things off – the rest of the issue was typically fantastic. Thomas Meaney turned in a tough but ultimately favorable review of Thomas Laqueur’s richly rewarding The Work of the Dead; Timothy Tackett approved of John Hardman’s excellent The Life of Louis XVI, an although the requisite Victorian-themed review wasn’t written by Rohan Maitzen (as all TLS Victorian-themed reviews rightfully should be), it was nevertheless passably readable.

But the highlight of the issue was a blast from the past: a 1982 Kingsley Amis review of John Gardner’s James Bond pastiche novel For Special Services. Amis had a long association with the Bond industry, and he confesses that history right up front – and then beautifully brings the hammer down on the poor book under review:

Quite likely it ill becomes a man placed as I am to say that, whereas its predecessor was bad enough ty any reasonable standard, the present offering is an unrelieved disaster all the way from the aptly forgettable title to the photograph of the author – surely an unflattering likeness – on the back of the jacket. If so that is just my bad luck. On the other hand, perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming. Let me get something like that said before I have to start being funny and clever and risk letting the thing escape through underkill.

He goes on to roast the book over an open fire in paragraph after delightful paragraph, often with hilariously-done asides like when he mentions the fate of one of the book’s villains:

Nobody really cares when she gets thrown among the pythons on the bayou. Well, there are pythons on this bayou.

It’s an acid-etched performance, one that left me desperately wishing for a thousand-page collection of the Kingsley Amis deadline-prose and book reviews. Maybe someday …

August 6th, 2016

The Life of the Robin!

life of the robinOur book today is a wonderful little classic of popular natural history: David Lack’s The Life of the Robin from 1943, in which Lack takes everything known about robins from literature, poetry, and science and pulls it all together to craft a portrait-in-the-round of one of England’s most common birds. “Into the world of the robin we cannot penetrate,” he writes, but his own book – which sold briskly and was reprinted many, many times – comes as close to doing just that as any book could hope to do.

Lack’s prose is clear and smooth; his book reads effortlessly, and his low-key delivery can sometimes downplay the contentious nature of some of the insights he conveys. Watching robins for hours and days and months on end disabused him, for instance, of any idea that these little creatures were mere automata. He noticed personalities, as all bird-watchers do, and he grounded everything in enormous amounts of first-hand observation:

While the sight of red breast feathers normally elicits threat display from the owning cock robin, there is one particular set of red breast feathers which does not produce this effect, namely the red breast feathers belonging to the bird’s own mate. Similarly the hen possesses the shape of a robin but is not struck, and flies away but is not pursued. She has even sung occasionally in her mate’s territory without evoking any hostile demonstration. Clearly the cock distinguishes his hen individually, which is a warning against interpreting his behaviour too rigidly …

The Life of the Robin is a generous little book, often ranging far and wide from its strict subject. In its own quiet, buttoned-up way, it’s also a boisterous book, Lack’s first foray into the publishing world where he would go on to write a small shelf of classics, almost all of them showing a blend of analysis and anecdote that always manages to be both authoritative and fascinating:

Once when I was trying to catch an elusive robin in the house-trap the bird burst into song as it ran about the ground, and it continued to sing for a little after I had caught it and was holding it on its back in my hand. lucy reads about robinsIt is well known that other birds will occasionally sing or display when alarmed. A sudden thunder-clap or bomb often starts them off. As a more spectacular example, when in an Imperial Airways machine over the Kenya Game Reserve, we on several occasions flew close to a male ostrich, at which the latter would go down in the sand, spread its white plumes, and rock gently from side to side in display at the aircraft.

This is the kind of natural history gem that’s truly timeless, stepping outside even the natural fluctuations in population and conservation that happen to any species (even any urban species) in this new epoch of “the Anthropocene.” As a tribute to the combative complexity of the robin, it can’t be beat, and re-reading it always makes me wish equivalent volumes existed for every single species of bird. Where’s the magnum opus for Passer domesticus, one might plaintively ask?