In the Penny Press – and Book Purchases!

Tanglewood by Herbert Kupferberg – which I bought because a) it’s full of pictures, which is always fun with a place you’ve visited as often as I’ve been to Tanglewood and b) because my young friend Sebastian recently revealed to me – over a gut-busting all-you-can-eat buffet at Piggers Paradise – that he’d never been there.

The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse – edited by Iona and Peter Opie – which I bought because a) I have a weakness a mile deep for narrative poems (not surprising, considering how out of favor they currently are), and b) I liked very much the unpretentious tone the editors take in their preface: “In fact, this book pretends to be nothing more than a story-book.”

A Shakespeare Companion – F. E. Halliday – which I bought because a) something about its no-nonsense alphabetical run-down of all things Bardic appealed to me, and b) it’s like nothing else I have in what, I realized as I was looking at it this afternoon, is a fairly substantial Shakespeare library (they’re all scattered around the apartment, but they’d fill two bookcases easily if I brought them all together)

Periodicals 26 June 2006

From the mighty TLS:

In the Freelance section, there’s a piece by Michael Greenberg about his lifelong appreciation of and involvement with the New Yorker. At one point Robert Benchley’s grandson refers to the inhabitants of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table as “quivering bundles of insecurity who produced less than they might have because of their lunches,” which is a diplomatic way of saying they drank to such excess so regularly that they impaired their own talents. Alexander Woolcot dreamed of writing ‘the first readable history of American literature;’ Robert Benchley dreamed of writing world-class journalism; and we can only imagine a world in which there are six glittering novels by Dorothy Parker. These people WANTED to do these things, and they had the talent necessary – but they succumbed early and hard to the stupid stereotype that dictates all creative types must be drunks. Fifteen years ago, a young colleague of mine at the bookstore quipped, “I’m a writer – of course I drink.” He now only drinks, and whatever shot he had at giving something to the world is long gone. There are two reasons for this, and you can take them both as gospel: 1) no work of any literary quality has ever been produced by a drunk person, and 2) writers who link their work-production to their drinking (as SO many writers do, either because it ‘puts them in the mood,’ or simply because writing is by and large also nocturnal) eventually stop producing anything good. There’s no way around either of these things, as dozens of young people I’ve known over the years have found out. Sooner or later, you’re either going to abandon the idea you had of actually writing something, or you’re going to abandon alcohol as a means of getting that writing done. One young poet of my acquaintance developed a sickly little routine: he’d get blackout drunk in the evenings and write poetry, then during the next morning’s hellish hangover, he’d ‘revise’ what he’d written the night before – which amounted, every single morning, to wholesale rewriting. I suggested that he enjoy himself in the evenings and simply WRITE his poetry in the mornings, and he shot back ‘I can’t write while I’m hung over.’ To which I responded, ‘You can’t write while you’re drunk either. So what’s the solution?’ He looked at me with pleading in his eyes, but he gave up drinking.

Which isn’t to say it’s not understandable. Writing is loneliest thing in the world. Friends can encourage, but in the intimate moment of it, there’s nobody there but you and whatever you’re trying to yank out of your depths. So: not only lonely but frightening – which makes drinking seem like a perfect solution. The irony of course is that the gifts writers give to readers – and to eternity if they’re lucky – are inevitably the products of EXTRA acuity, a kind of supra-sobriety that is the furthest thing in the world from the comfort of intoxication. I don’t begrudge writers or anybody else that comfort. But – as readers of this site will either know already or quickly suss out – I absolutely detest any implication that writing is the PRODUCT of comfort, whether it be chemical-induced or money-acquired comfort. The Round Table might have had fun, fizzy evenings, but in the process they did something for which I forgive no author: they robbed the future of their first fruits. Writers need to remember that they’re smaller than the future, and utterly beholden to it.

Also in the TLS: Jerry Coyne writes a fascinating – and as always witty – appreciation of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (now undergoing its thirtieth anniversary), a piece marred only by one brief parenthetical. Coyne writes: “According to evolutionary theory, true altruism, in which individuals sacrifice more than they benefit, cannot evolve, and shouldn’t be seen in nonhuman animals. (It isn’t).” Ah, there’s nothing quite like the Oxbridge certainty of that simple ‘it isn’t'! And yet … it is. My young freaky supergenius friend Elmo just two years ago turned the blinding megawattage of his brain to reading natural history, and I’m sure even after only two years he could list dozens of examples of nonhuman animals who display all kinds of altruistic behavior. The only thing these animals CAN’T do is type ‘It isn’t.’ Well, that and praise the daylights out of Dawkins’ book, which is mostly a silly, cowardly little work that only thrives because it uses psuedo-science to validate the hard, fin-de-siecle cynicism of the late 20th-century West.

From the London Review of Books:

Jenny Turner writes a slightly overwrought, slightly meandering piece on Doctor Who, not just the current incarnation but the history of the show. One can only hope most of her daffy psycho-social theorizing is a reflection of the book she’s reviewing (Doctor Who: A Critical Reading of the Series by Kim Newman) and not her own late-night tergiversations. But in any case, she gets things exactly right when it comes to science fiction royalty (and, judging from the quote, so does Newman): “[Tom] Baker is the one everyone remembers, for demographic reasons and because he did it longest, but also because he did it best, animating a Doctor who, as Newman says, ‘thought and felt too fast for any other life-form in the universe.’” One can only agree: the fourth Doctor remains the best, although I’ve been immensely pleased with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor (non-numbered, because honestly, who knows anymore?).

And lastly, a little poem, from the TLS:

Deja-vu

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:
forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

Patrick McGuinness

My Day

Stopped into a hardware store to ask if they’d be willing to make change for a ten. Plopped the enormous book I’m reading on the counter – volume II of Hendrickson’s magnificent, gloriously readable biography of Alexander Hamilton. The pretty young girl behind the counter immediately grabs the book, tells me she’s a history major, flatly declares that Hamilton is was a ‘hottie,’ and then absolutely MAKES MY DAY by saying, with a tone of immediate exasperation, “Stupid Aaron Burr!”

There’s hope for the future yet.

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