Posts from March 2015

March 14th, 2015

On Crime Writing!

on crime writingOur book today is another skimpy little thing, a 1973 Capra chapbook combining two essays by the crime fiction writer who worked under the pen name of Ross MacDonald, and although it fits in with our deep-breath respite from enormous whopping volumes, it’s also undeniable in this case that we probably don’t want this particular booklet to be much longer than it is. MacDonald led a storied life, and he wrote two dozen murder mystery novels starring his stoical, capable, boring gumshoe Lew Archer. Those novels tended to be over-praised in MacDonald’s lifetime, and some of his stuff has been ushered into the Library of America in our own time, but like so many of his fellow hardboiled-detective authors, the man could overestimate his professorial capabilities.

The two pieces in this chapbook, The Writer as Detective Hero and Writing the Galton Case, form perfect cases-in-point. In the second, MacDonald takes us through an interesting but fairly standard account of the genesis of one of his most popular novels, The Galton Case, but where his hero Raymond Chandler might have made such an essay crackle with pointed anecdotes, MacDonald hauls in Freud and Oedipus and just generally overdoes things.

He’s far more bearable in the first essay, The Writer as Detective Hero, in which he traces the autobiographical elements in the genre’s most popular characters, from Poe’s Dupin to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Hammett’s Spade to Chandler’s Marlowe. And although this lucy reading ross macdonaldanalysis would be a lot more enjoyable if it weren’t so clearly encouraging the reader to end that sequence with “to MacDonald’s Lew Archer,” it’s still plenty enjoyable, with some neat observations about the nature of the genre’s gimmicks:

Nostalgia for a privileged society accounts for one of the prime attractions of the traditional English detective story and its innumerable American counterparts. Neither wars nor the dissolution of governments and societies interrupt that long weekend in the country house which is often, with more or less unconscious symbolism, cut off by a failure in communications from the outside world.

At one point MacDonald writes, “Detective story writers are often asked why we devote our talents to working in a mere popular convention.” And then he answers his own posed question: “One answer is that there may be more to our use of the convention than meets the eye.” It never seems to occur to him that another answer – more plausible and more obvious to many of his readers, then or now, is: “Because ‘mere popular convention’ is just about as much as your talents can handle.” But maybe that’s a tale for another chapbook.

March 11th, 2015

In the Modern Library: W. H. Prescott!

modern-libraryOur book today is a biggie, a doorstop: it’s the combined volume Modern Library did of William Hickling Prescott‘s The History of the Conquest of Mexico and his The History of the Conquest of Peru. Prescott finished the first in 1843 and the second in 1847, and neither is exactly skimpy in terms of heft – and as a result, this big old Modern Library volume is 1300 pages long, a wonderful round solid feel in the curled hand, exactly the kind of satisfying weight that e-books, for all their manifest superiorities, can’t provide. I carried that satisfying weight around quite a bit during Boston’s ice-bound, snow-buried February; I brought it to the library with me (even though they have a presentation copy); I brought it to lunch; I curled up with it in bed while the blizzards screamed outside the walls.

It’s immensely consoling reading, which is curious, since it narrates unrelievedly awful stuff. lucy reads prescott 1Prescott was the scion of deep Boston money and wasn’t expected to work for a living – and working for a living would have been a real challenge in any case, since Prescott was half-blind due to a tragic injury to one of his eyes while he was at school. He faced a lifetime lived in near-total darkness, but he wanted to accomplish something great in the field of literature, and after a little casting-around for a suitably meaty subject, he decided to concentrate on the litany of bloodshed and conquest that has characterized Mexico and South America for the whole length of time that humans have lived there.

The more he dug into histories of the area (and especially histories of the first contacts European explorers and conquerors had with the native peoples of the areas), the less satisfied he grew with the efforts of all earlier historians. So, through a vast international network of scholars and writers, he set about doing hugely groundbreaking research in primary sources, many of which no historian had ever consulted before.

He had no idea who The History of the Conquest of Mexico would be received; he was as surprised lucy reads prescott 2and pleased as anybody when Boston bookstores couldn’t keep it in stock. And every time I re-read the thing, that surprise always puzzles me; the thing is thunderously grand reading, and Prescott himself must surely have felt that while writing it. He strikes a particular rolling cadence and never loses the pitch of it, not in all these pages, and many more pages besides, since these weren’t the only two books he wrote. When he builds the moment when Cortes is temporarily stymied before “the ancient walls of Tenochtitlan,” we can feel the tension crowding up for release:

The ferocity shown by the Mexicans seems to have been a thing for which Cortes was wholly unprepared. His past experience, his uninterrupted career of victory with a much feebler force at his command, had led him to underrate the military efficiency, if not the valor, of the Indians. The apparent facility, with which the Mexicans had acquiesced in the outrages on their sovereign and themselves, had led him to hold their courage, in particular, too lightly. He could not believe the present assault to be any thing more than a temporary ebullition of the populace, which would soon waste itself by its own fury. And he proposed, on the following day, to sally out and inflict such chastisement on his foes as should bring them to their senses, and show who was master in the capital.

Prescott was encouraged, of course, by the success of The Conquest of Mexico, although anybody who knew him would have agreed such encouragement was an added frill. Once his mind was made up to write this enormous multi-part epic of Spanish power, dismals sales would hardly have lucy reads prescott 3paused him for an afternoon. As it was, he set about the equally grueling research and drafting for The History of the Conquest of Peru, and when it appeared in 1847, it was an even bigger success, both with the general reading public browsing in Park Street bookshops and also with book critics in Boston and London, who loved the book and happily pointed out that the beautifully stately prose line of the previous volume was if anything even grander in the present one:

The news of the great victory was borne on the wings of the wind to Caxamalca; and loud and long was the rejoicing, not only in the camp of Atahuallpa, but in the town and surrounding country; fro all now cam in, eager to offer their congratulations to the victor, and to do him homage. The Prince of Quito no longer hesitated to assume the scarlet borla, the diadem of the Incas. His triumph was complete. He had beaten his enemies on their own ground; had taken their capital; had set his foot on the neck of his rival, and won for himself the ancient sceptre of the Children of the Sun. But the hour of triumph was destined to be that of his deepest humiliation. Atahuallpa was not one of those to whom, in the language of the Grecian bard, “the Gods are willing to reveal themselves.” He had not read the handwriting on the heavens. The small speck, which the clear-sighted eye of his father had discerned on the distant verge of the horizon though little noticed by Atahuallpa, intent on the deadly strife with his brother, had now risen high towards the zenith, spreading wider and wider, till it wrapped the skies in darkness, an was ready to burst in thunders on the devoted nation.

To put it mildly, historians tend not to attempt rhetorical periods like that anymore. The German school of more scientific rationalism that came to dominate the field of history-writing in the generation after Prescott’s death in 1859 set different standards and did a liberal amount of frowning, and suddenly works of history intentionally written to thrill and elevate their readers in addition to informing them were characterized as somewhat down-market, as mere pandering. Even now, historians whose book-sales earn them the label ‘popular’ run the risk of being politely eviscerated for that very popularity in the pages of the TLS.

Still, not all the frowning in the world can make these marvelous books – or this fat Modern Library volume – disappear (there will be a corner of the Boston Athenaeum that is, as it were, forever Prescott), and this last February, while unprecedented storms howled outside, I was mighty glad of that fact.

March 10th, 2015

In the Modern Library: Bulfinch’s Mythology!

modern-libraryOur book today is a truly perennial classic, Bulfinch’s Mythology, a book that’s been consistently in print since it first appeared – and one of those curious items whose own author wouldn’t have recognized it. It’s a one-volume collection of three books by Thomas Bulfinch: The Age of Fable (1855), The Age of Chivalry (1858), and Legends of Charlemagne (1863), but it was only made into its signature Bulfinch’s Mythology by some stuffy old Bostonian after Bulfinch’s death.

The Age of Fable he’d definitely recognize, though, as would virtually everybody else in the English-speaking world back in 1855. Bulfinch was the son of the young America’s greatest architect, Charles Bulfinch, who designed, among other things, the State House perched atop Boston’s modern library bulfinchBeacon Hill (and who, in his youth running around in the city’s winding streets, was quite beautiful). Thomas was well-educated and sharp as a tack, but he was feckless too, and he eventually took a position at a bank more out of haplessness than any fiduciary passion. His passion was in fact literature, and comparatively late in life (our author was born in 1796) he decided to write a book retelling the stories of the world’s mythologies and how those stories are echoed in the great poetry that followed down the centuries. As Bulfinch puts it:

We propose to tell the stories relating to them which have come down to us from the ancients, and which are alluded to by modern poets, essayists, and orators. Our readers may thus at the same time entertained by the most charming fictions which fancy has ever created, and put in possession of information indispensable to every one who would read with intelligence the elegant literature of his own day.

Bulfinch quotes from dozens of poets in the course of The Age of Fable and the two later books he wrote imaginary life coverwhen The Age of Fable became a huge bestseller. He brings out great passages from Milton, Shelley, Keats, Longfellow (of course), Shakespeare, Byron, Pope, and a gallery of others. But reading the book over again just recently (in the Modern Library paperback, which has the same cover illustration as the US paperback of David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life – unintentional though fitting, since Bulfinch retells quite a few stories from Ovid, minus the naughty bits), I smiled extra-big not at the Miltons and the Popes and the Shakespeares, but at all the lesser poets Bulfinch quotes with such naive enthusiasm, now-forgotten figures like Edward Dyer, or Bulfinch’s fellow Bostonian James Russell Lowell:


One after one the stars have risen and set,

Sparkling upon the hoar frost of my chain,

The Bear that prowled all night about the fold

Of the North-star, hath shrunk into his den,

Scared by the blithesome footsteps of the Dawn.


Or syrupy old T. K. Harvey, writing about Cupid and Psyche:


They wove bright fables in the days of old,

When reason borrowed fancy’s painted wings;

When truth’s clear river flowed o’er sands of gold,

And told in son its high and mystic things!

And such the sweet and solemn tale of her

The pilgrim heart, to whom a dream was given,

That led her through the world, – Love’s worshipper, –

To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!


Bulfinch’s Mythology was the sole feature in the landscape for a century when it came to a popular, readable retelling of myth and folklore; it wasn’t supplanted until Edith Hamilton’s Mythology came along in 1942. But it was resoundingly supplanted; students don’t read Bulfinch anymore, lucy reads bulfinchand all of them read Hamilton. There’s a natural progression in that, something almost all super-popular tomes like The Age of Fable must suffer, but it’s a shame; Bulfinch still makes mighty energetic reading, although most of that reading bears little resemblance to the rather elemental forces Alberto Manguel writes about so well in his Foreward to this Modern Library edition:

Just outside the walls we as a society have erected to guard ourselves against complexity and ambiguity, the old stories of revenge an love, of marvelous births and terrible deaths, of metamorphoses and foundations, of curses and quests, continue to haunt us, and seep through the cracks of our stubborn pragmatism.

Probably the discrepancy arises from Manguel not familiarizing himself with the book in question – but you should familiarize yourself with it. Or, as stumped inquirers in Boston parlors a hundred years ago would ask without a moment’s hesitation: Where’s your Bulfinch’s?

March 6th, 2015

The David Foster Wallace Reader

the david foster wallace reader coverOur book today is a truly beautiful thing from 2014, The David Foster Wallace Reader, a collaboration between Little, Brown and Wallace’s literary trust that aims to create a “Greatest Hits collection of novel excerpts, short fiction, and essays that we hope will delight readers who know Wallace’s work already and show those new to him the amazing breadth of subjects, characters, ideas, interiors, landscapes, emotions, and human interaction in his writing.” The book is nearly a thousand pages and includes excerpts from The Broom of the System, The Girl with the Curious Hair, Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, The Pale King, plus bits and pieces of “Teaching Materials” from Wallace’s time in the classroom, including ironic items like this one from his “Guidelines for Writing Helpful Letters of Response to Colleagues’ Stories”: “#11 – Is the writing natural and interesting? Does the story’s narrator sound human, or is the writing puffed up and overly formal, such that the prose seems too ‘written’?”

There isn’t a page of this enormous book, not a single paragraph, that sounds human. All of it so incredibly, so glaringly ‘written’ that it all seems like a parody of the very thing Wallace was implicitly cautioning his students against.

It’s an impossible irony to avoid when reading through this big collection. David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, and for the whole weekend I spent with this generous sampler of his work, I grew more and more irritated over the many and manifest ways the publishing world failed this writer while he was alive. There’s no doubting the intelligence and linguistic ability Wallace displayed from the start of his writing career, but on virtually every page of The David Foster Wallace Reader, I was gritting my teeth, angrily wishing that somewhere along the course of that career some editor had done what all editors are supposed to do.

Even by the time he was writing his first two novels, Wallace had already started doing what he did best: accumulate bad habits. He’d formed them when most people do, in high school and as a college undergrad, in the ranks of the stoner motormouths, the smart-aleck procrastinators. He learned in those years that he was much smarter than most of his teachers and almost all of his friends, and he learned that words could be weapons. And those realizations uncorked a torrent of words, notebooks full of words, an avalanche of words. By the time Wallace was beginning his full-scale work on the book that would become Infinite Jest, he’d learned to wield that avalanche, to direct it at anybody he chose. If an editor sent him a working-up of some manuscript chapter, that editor would get back an avalanche – no simple agreement, no acquiescence, not on a single point, but rather dozens of paragraphs of defense for each point in question, or dozens of pages of defense. These pages were all pitched to a long-learned tone of aggrieved genius trying, grapplingly, to make itself understood, and that tone was a conscious lie, the bad-habit lie of needing to win every late-night dorm room bull-session. And at no point did an editor say: “Please limit your responses to two sentences; I don’t have time to read 225 pages of discussion on every edit your receive.” At no point did an editor say: “Please don’t email me at home; my Inbox has 32 messages from you just tonight.” At no point did an editor say, “Your run-on sentences of ‘explanation’ notwithstanding, you don’t seem to have agreed to any of this last round of our edits.” At no point did an editor say, “Look, enough with the graphomania schtick; cut 400 pages from this manuscript or this house will void your contract and sue you to reclaim its advance.”

David Foster Wallace might have become a genuinely great writer, if he’d ever been edited. Instead, one by one, his editors simply abrogated their responsibility and gave up. Maybe even the worst of them started believing that aggrieved-genius crap. So we get a minuscule bit of Infinite Jest, about AA recovery programs in Boston:

Nobody’s supposed to judge you or snub you for slipping. Everybody’s here to help. Everybody knows that the returning slippee has punished himself enough just being Out There, and that it takes incredible desperation and humility to eat your pride and wobble back In and put the Substance down again after you’ve fucked up the first time and the Substance is calling to you all over again. There’s the sort of sincere compassion about fucking up that empathy makes possible, although some of the AAs will nod smugly when they find out the slippee didn’t take some of the basic suggestions. Even newcomers who can’t even start to quit yet and show up with suspicious flask-sized bulges in their coat pockets and list progressively to starboard as the meeting progresses are urged to keep coming, Hang In, stay as long as they’re not too disruptive. Inebriates are discouraged from driving themselves home after the Lord’s Prayer, but nobody’s going to wrestle your keys away. Boston AA stresses the utter autonomy of the individual member. Please say and do whatever you wish. Of course there are about a dozen basic suggestions, and of course people who cockily decide they don’t wish to abide by the basic suggestions are constantly going back Out There and then wobbling back in with their faces around their knees and confessing from the podium that they didn’t take the suggestions and have paid full price for their willful arrogance and have learned the hard way and but now they’re back, by God, and this time they’re going to follow the suggestions to the bloody letter just see if they don’t.

And if an editor had pointed out that the stylistic gimmick of capitalizing ‘In’ when referring to rejoining the program seems to fall apart later in the passage – that “In” is stand-alone capitalized in the third sentence but not in the ninth, and that the usage should be consistent either way – that editor would have received in reply pages and pages and pages of verbiage (with signature twee footnotes) defending the artistic reason for the inconsistency. And the pages would have been a conscious lie. Wallace would have seen in an instant that he’d just forgotten to uppercase the latter “in,” but then his bad habit of word-avalanche would kick in – where the point is simply to crush the other person into changing your C+ to an A- or agreeing to let you turn in a notebook of saved grocery store receipts as the final project in a personal-writing course, or whatever. In none of those cases did Wallace actually believe what he was writing; he was just addicted to the bad habit of seeing how much he could get away with by cranking up the old why-is-it-so-hard-for-me-to-explain-myself-to-the-world routine. The result was a veritable ocean of stuff that sounds ‘written.’

It wouldn’t be accurate enough to say that Wallace is revered posthumously. He’s worshipped, literally. He has Stations, Devotionals, Apostles, Shrines, Gospels, and, now, a Bible. His writing – especially Infinite Jest – answers a need, and because we’re talking about bad habits, it’s a bad need, the unhealthy need of millennials to think three things: first, that talent doesn’t require craft – just pour everything out, and if somebody – somebody old – tells you to rein it in, even a little, it’s because they just don’t understand (Wallace’s own #1 belief: Nobody’s Understanding Exceeds My Own – bad enough in a man of forty, but revolting in his 20-year-old acolytes); second, that genius doesn’t need to be comprehensible – I’ve watched dozens of people force-march their way through Infinite Jest, hating the experience but not even admitting to themselves that they hate it, getting neither enjoyment nor instruction out of its endless, obnoxious, bratty logorrhea but knowing the whole while that they simply aren’t allowed even to hint that it might be the book’s fault, because they’re already aware that the book is sacred, beyond reproach (I’ve heard forty-something college teachers – frustrated writers, all – pat his books and tell their students “This is stuff we need. Read it. Study it”); and third, that David Foster Wallace was a towering, divine figure – the doo-rag, the sad eyes, the studied “cool older brother” vibe – the Patron Saint of the Smart Lazy.

The David Foster Wallace Reader includes a sample of Wallace’s last work, The Pale King, which opens like this:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M heat: shattercane, lamb’s quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

You can see the powerful imagination at work, definitely (“the arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch”). But it’s a powerful imagination lavished on childish, pointless things – like the humorless, crampingly focused people who make the falling-domino displays that fill the floor of Madison Square Garden. Two hours of slightly tedious watching later, the domino Taj Mahal has successfully fallen, and David Foster Wallace is a large part of the cultural shift that now sternly insists we call such displays genius, that we not dismiss them – or anything – as trivial. You’ve written a “novel” that consists of a 130 pages, each with a single word typed in its center? We’re forbidden to laugh, because you could be the next David Foster Wallace. We read a passage like that one from The Pale King and we see immediately all its flaws. The so-obvious-we-practically-watched-him-do-it Google search for “weird plant names.” The simple list of such names hauled in to simulate profundity. The lazy repetition of insect “business” (with the 345-page ‘memo’ ready and waiting, should you so much as dare to mention it). The cheap, tacked-on final line. And it’s hard to tell which is more frustrating: the fact that his followers lap up such stuff in the sure and certain belief that it’s genius (misunderstood genius, just as I’m misunderstanding it right now, they’ll say), or the fact that none of those followers would ever willingly read the opening to The Return of the Native, let alone acknowledge that its the same opening, only done well.

“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,” wrote a poet who knew a thing or two about craft, “Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.” There’s a forest floor of leaves in this lovely, artfully-produced David Foster Wallace Reader, and acres of covered forest soil aching for sunlight. Wallace devotees all cut into their food budgets in order to add it to their libraries, in worshipful sadness, and their Amazon and Goodreads reviews all echo a flat deus lo volt “Just. Read. It.” And I’ll add it to my library too, and I’ll periodically read around in it. But with a different kind of sadness.

March 4th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Life of the Buddha!


Some Penguin Classics open up windows on alien worlds, and they do so every bit as effectively as the very best sci-fi and fantasy, but through radically different means: by showing us what was, not what wasn’t. A perfect demonstration of this would be the slim and elegant new Penguin Classic penguin life of buddha coveredition of Tenzin Chogyel’s 1740 work The Life of the Lord Victor Shakyamuni, Ornament of One Thousand Lamps for the Fortunate Eon, here given the slightly more manageable title of The Life of the Buddha by its brilliant and unashamedly effervescent translator Kurtis Schaeffer, who assures us in his Introduction that Tenzin Chogyel had what beleaguered readers of pre-modern literature (especially the large student audience at which one can’t help but think this volume is aimed) would consider the best of intentions:

In his telling of the Buddha’s life he endeavors at all times to tell a concise and quickly moving story that is at once exciting and emotionally engrossing. Occasionally he will stop to note an alternate version of a particular episode, or pause to speak directly to the reader about the proper way to pay reverence to the Buddha or to keep him in mind on holy days.Yet he never tarries too long. Tenzin Chogyel is not interested in systematically laying out Buddhist doctrine or prescribing practice. His task is to tell a good story.

Tenzin Chogyel, Schaeffer tells us, was a prolific and respected Bhutanese writer, a leader of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism, and the country’s tenth Lord Abbot, its highest ecclesiastical authority, and he wrote his Life of Buddha two thousand years after the Bodhisattva made his Earthly debut as a concept and a literary figure. And although it can be very jarring to read such a sparse and liturgical work as this Life of Buddha while remembering that it was composed in the same year James Boswell was born (as was no doubt intentional, it very much has the feel of an ancient text), Tenzin Chogyel nonetheless thoroughly grounded his work on a huge variety of literary precedents, foremost among them the huge work by 14 th century historian Buton Rinchendrup, whose History of Buddhism, Schaeffer writes, “is a model of scholastic writing, brimming with quote after quote from Buddhist scriptures, entertaining historical arguments, and theological queries, and it is ever willing to sidestep criticism by posing rhetorical questions only to offer the ‘correct’ answer.”

“This is the treatise’s great strength as a work of Buddhist doctrine,” he tells us sadly, “and it is its great downfall as a compelling work of literature.”

This isn’t a downfall shared by Tenzin Chogyel’s The Life of Buddha, which at 100 pages is as almost as lean and every bit as compelling as any Christian Gospel – especially if you picture a Jesus who, instead of vanishing from sight during his sexy, turbulent teenage years, lived those years to the fullest as the Bodhisattva does, bedding women, debating men and gods, trying his hand at all manner of crafts, beating everybody at feats of strength and skill, and doing it all with a happy, eager smile on his handsome face. I might not agree with Schaeffer’s implication that Buton’s History of Buddhism is too abstruse for Penguin Classics to touch – this is, after all, the publisher who gave us a Penguin Classic of the Domesday Book – but I couldn’t agree more with his characterization of Tenzin Chogyel’s book as too good to miss. I haven’t been this entertained by a Penguin Classic in many, many months, and our translator deserves a lion’s share of the credit for that, since even my untutored eye could easily tell this is a text that, however short, could easily have been rendered inert in less skillful hands.

Instead, Schaeffer perfectly captures the lightning-fast changes of pace and tone that Tenzin lucy reads about the buddhaChogyell crams into his little book, moving from the pathos of prose passages to the sharp tang of poetry, like the verses the seventeen-year-old Bodhisattva hears “wafting” up from the quarters of his harem, reflecting on the various obstacles to true dharma:

The pain of age and illness burns the worlds.

With no protector, people never know

How to depart this blazing fire of death.

They scramble like a bee inside a jar.


Autumn clouds, the three worlds pass fleeting.

We’re born, we die, we’re actors on a stage.

One life, a lightning flash across the sky.

A cascade falling, speeding down the cliff.


This little Life of Buddha is, then, a resounding success and a fantastic addition to the Penguin Classics line. And if Schaeffer’s comments sound like they’re closing the door on a future Penguin of Buton, well, what about a fresh new edition of the seminal Indian life of the Buddha, the Lalitavistara Sutra, referred to by Schaeffer as the Living Out of the Game Scripture, which surely deserves a Penguin Classic of its own? I happen to have a translator in mind.

March 2nd, 2015

Mystery Monday: Lamentation!

mystery monday header

Our book today is Lamentation by C. J. Sansom, the latest of his books to feature the sleuthing adventures of his hunchback Tudor-era lawyer Matthew Shardlake, following Heartstone way back in 2010. This series began with the quietly wonderful 2003 novel Dissolution, and all the strengths so abundantly on display in that first book have ripened nicely book by book. In this latest novel, they’re all on clear display: the prickly character of Shardlake himself, his complicated and constantly-evolving personal life and professional dealings at his Inn of Court, and the confident evocation of the Tudor world, which starts right at the beginning of Lamentation when Shardlake is forced to stand in the crowd and witness the death-by-burning of notorious heretic Anne Askew and three of her fellow prisoners.

The scene is graphically described, and Shardlake’s later reflection on it, though deeply anachronistic, is equally vivid:

“I was there. They made a vast spectacle of it, Bishop Gardiner and half the Privy Council watching from a great covered stage. Treasurer Rowland made me go; Secretary Paget wanted a representative from each of the Inns. So I sat and watched four people burn in agony because they would not believe as King Henry said they should. At least they hung gunpowder round their necks; their heads were eventually blown off. And yes, when I was there, I felt the ground shift beneath me again, like the deck of that foundering ship.”

The year is 1546, and King Henry VIII is dying. His court is convulsed in a chaos of competing factions, many of which are keeping a predatory eye on Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, who sends her agent William Cecil to solicit Shardlake’s help because a potentially-deadly intrigue has recently snared her: a portion of a doctrinally explosive manuscript that was in her possession has been stolen, and she needs Shardlake’s help to find it before it’s used to send her to the block.

Shardlake has always had a quasi-romantic soft spot for the queen, dating back to when she Lamentation_book_coverwas merely Lady Latimer, so despite the fact that he’s already embroiled in a complex law case at his Inn (Sansom dramatizes legal machinery with a skill that would put most contemporary legal-thriller authors to shame), he saddles up to the Queen’s aid – and of course Sansom wouldn’t be the professional he is if the two cases didn’t end up being intricately connected.

There’s a darker shade of worldliness to Lamentation than any of the previous novels, probably because Sansom is allowing the book to reflect the times in which it’s set, black and dangerous years when a tyrant was dying and the only thing anybody could guess about the future was that it would be much worse even than the present. “If only we could all find the essence of true godliness, which is piety, charity, unity,” one character wistfully says at one point. “As well wish for the moon” Shardlake snidely replies.

These are very dense, very rewarding novels – so much so that I was too eager for the newest one to wait until the finished hardcover reached me (I gobbled it up the earliest electronic version I could reach). If you haven’t tried the series yet, find a copy of Dissolution and treat yourself.

March 1st, 2015

A Stevereads Alphabet!


Thanks to the technical wizardry of Open Letters Monthly‘s newest editor, Robert Minto, March debuts a spiffy new look for Stevereads, its first top-to-bottom re-design in almost ten years! To mark the occasion, I thought I’d present a Stevereads alphabet to help orient the hordes of new readers Robert has unconditionally guaranteed me will be helplessly drawn to his vibrant handiwork. Here, then, is one possible shorthand to a great deal of what goes on here at Stevereads:

BostonAthenaeum_BeaconSt_ca1880sA is for the Athenaeum – the stately old pile where I’ve spent a significant chunk of my reading and writing life, and where this Alphabet itself is being written!

B is for Boston – my home town, the greatest city on Earthboston

C is for comics – my permanent sweet-tooth, the 75-year story of the adventures of four-color superheroes over at Marvel and DC … a frequent object of study here at Stevereads

D is for dogs – my sleeping, farting muses, the center of my world.

E is for e-books – It’s astonishing for me to realize that this near-miraculous phenomenon, these dogselectronic book-files that can be downloaded day or night, infinitely annotated, instantly searched, and carried in their hundreds on a stylish sheet of metal no heavier than a paperback, sprang into existence during the brief time since Stevereads started. I occasionally still run across alleged ‘purists’ who claim to avoid e-books on principle, and those alleged purists always seem surprised I’m not one of them. But I was won over the first time an e-book saved me from line-waiting tedium or allowed me to make a deadline or satisfied a specific late-night craving when I was buried in sleeping dogs and would otherwise have had to settle for boring old George Eliot. These things are a technological miracle, plain and simple.

F is for fraud! – The literary world where I make my home is chock-full of such frauds, and take each and every one of them personally, and I’m not exactly shy about that fact.

animalsG is for Gerald of Wales – Of course this whole alphabet could easily just be a list of author names, but I choose Gerald of Wales for a few reasons: a) his obscurity has become a quick shorthand way of needling me for the overall obscurity of some of my reading tastes, b) he wasn’t always obscure! He was the best (and best-selling) author of his century and so illustrates perfectly how unfair obscurity can be, and c) he’s really good! Genuinely enjoyable, as I’ve had occasion to point out from time to time! Pointing out such sometimes-overlooked gems is a big part of what I do here at Stevereads

H is for hauls – book-hauls, that is, with which I indulge myself on a book haul housenearly-daily basis. Books come to the house in a steady stream from publishers and self-published authors (the latter due to another ‘h’ entrant, the Historical Novel Review, for which I have the honor to be the US/worldwide “Indie” editor); they come to the Post Office Box in a steady stream handled so expertly by my prized crew there; and they present themselves to me on the shelves of Boston’s many used-book venues (about which more later). In other words, I take in a great many books in any given week, and the mere sight each individual book-haul still thrills me.

I is for the Internet – Another incredible technological miracle, without which Stevereads wouldn’t be possible. The Internet has supplanted all its clunky predecessors in my life: no more DVDs, no more VCR, no more bookcase devoted to quick-reference tomes, no more TV, no more waiting for snail-mail letters from friends, etc. It’s a blessing.

J is for Jamaica Plain – Once upon a time, I would have described my specific neighborhood as a leafy little enclave, but that was before the Snow-Apocalypse of February 2015, which has buried all of book-haul post officeBoston, including JP, under ten feet of snow and then blanketed it all in sub-zero temperatures preventing the snow-mountains from melting. Nobody now remembers what the old Jamaica Plain used to be like, but there are pictures.

K is for kids’ books – which have brought me many hours of simple pleasure, something I say unhesitatingly even though such a gruesomely large number of copulating, bill-paying adults I know have allowed their reading habits to degenerate to the point where they read nothing else it's a bookbut books written for children.

L is for long books – for which I have a very marked preference!

M is for magazines – I subscribe to a large roll-call of magazines – bunch-of-magazines1The New Yorker, Men’s Journal, Outside, Yankee, The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Nation, The National Review, National Geographic, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, GQ, Esquire, Isaac Asimov’s, the mighty TLS, Publisher’s Weekly, Bookforum, Audubon, Smithsonian, and The Saturday Evening Post (and read an even larger roll-call on a fairly regular basis, everything from Natural History to Reader’s Digest), and my account of their contents – In the Penny Press – has been a staple of Stevereads from the start!

N is for notebooks – not the electronic kind, but a solid paper-and-binding notebook, some variation notebookof which I try to have with me at all times, for writing and jotting purposes.

O is for Open Letters MonthlyNaturally! Open Letters Monthly is the literary journal in whose depths you are currently reading this post of Stevereads! Along with John Cotter (author of the novel Under the Small Lights) and Sam Sacks (fiction critic for The Wall Street Journal), I helped to found Open Letters back in 2007, and it quickly expanded to take on many more editors and to provide us all with a creative home olmwhere we could come together and do some fun work (and on the rare occasions when we all gather in one place, the sheer amount of bookishness sends off ripples in the space-time continuum)!

P is for Penguin Classics – my favorite publisher (no offense to all my other friends in the publishing world) and the basis for my favorite regular feature here at Stevereads, Penguins on Parade!

Q is for quarrels! – I’m fond of them – and I play to win.

R is for re-reading – This admittedly odd behavior is a bookish favorite of mine, accounting for a penguin-colophongood solid percentage of my annual reading-time

S is for StevereadsThe very thing you’re reading! I began it back in August of 2006 and eventually migrated it here to Open Letters once Open Letters was up and running. Here I write about what I’m reading and re-reading, whether it be a Penguin Classic I’ve read six times already or an annoying article in the Penny Press from just this afternoon. I review new books for a living (and for a great deal of fun as well), but here at Stevereads, I present the autobiography of my reading, the personal side of the ongoing process of discovery I find in books. And it’s been an enormous pleasure, writing for all you readers week after week for all these years. I plan to keep at it!

T is for the Throne of Pillows – a semi-mythical sacred location that few have actually seen! A small couch liberally layered and piled with comfy pillows, bookended by sleeping dogs, perfectly positioned for both sunlight and a nearby bookcase, an ideal spot for reading and writing! Every reader and writer should take care to have a Throne of Pillows.

U is for used bookstores – Boston was once a bristling haven of these; decades ago, there were overOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 30, and I had dear old friends (and fluctuating credit) at all of them. And even today, in what the news magazines refer to as a “post-literate” age, Boston is still home to a healthy-enough assortment of places to find interesting books at second-hand prices. And as long-time readers of Stevereads will already know, the king and queen and reigning empress of these is the Brattle Bookshop, one of my homes away from home (where generous gift certificates can always be phoned in for me, ahem-hem). I’ve been going to the Brattle every week for considerably longer than most of the wonderful young people who work there have been alive, and I unfailingly bring all bookish out-of-town guests there, and in between Boston’s endless round of monster snowstorms, I go there regularly still. If you’re in Boston, come and find me there, and I’ll buy you a book.

V is for vindication – This is closely connected to both F and Q, needless to say!

W is for writing – I do what could be called an enormous amount of writing every day, between book bagreviewing and emailing and editing (and of course NaNoWriMo every November, which I wouldn’t miss for all the mud in Egypt) – and of course right here at Stevereads. I very much enjoy writing; unlike virtually everybody I know, I require absolutely no rah-rah inducement to get me to do it.

X is for the x-factor that haunts all reading complacency – and it’s more important to me than might be apparent from my sexy, self-assured outward demeanor! I have a tendency to form strong opinions about what I read, but I detest people for whom the forming of strong opinions is the end of the process rather than the beginning (I mainly detest them because they’re boring, which is something I try never to be). I regularly re-visit authors and schools of writing I’ve biosdismissed in the past (I sometimes document those revisitations here on Stevereads) and I’m often very glad I did. I draw a sharp line between ‘opinionated’ and ‘close-minded,’ and I hope always to be on the right side of that line.

Y is for YouTube – specifically, for BookTube, the fruity YA-obsessed sub-basement of YouTube where all the book-geeks hang out. I discovered BookTube around a year ago, and now it makes up the bulk of my YouTube viewing. The most ‘successful’ BookTubers are noxious, utterly insincere, slick professionals who get in, do their best spastic booktubeHank Green impersonations, collect their ad revenue, and get out … but the vast majority of BookTubers are genuinely – even hopelessly – obsessed with books and reading, and the online community they’ve created is an authentically welcoming place. Hell, if I weren’t bulbous-nosed and buck-toothed and smallpox-scarred, I’d probably start a BookTube channel myself!

Z is for zesti.e. exuberance, which I hope you’ll always find here at Stevereads. Books and reading certainly make me feel all young and zesty, and I aim to convey that here!

book haul used

February 22nd, 2015

Penguins on Parade: Penguin 60s Classics!

penguin colophon

Some Penguin Classics were custom-made to be very handy for traveling, which makes them extra-boston feb 15poignant in the Boston of February 2015, in which nobody packs bags or quick satchels because travel of any kind is impossible and has been for many, many weeks. All flights into or out of Logan Airport have been cancelled, and the large electronic announcement-boards that once told travelers the status of their flights have been dismantled, boxed up, and shipped to more fortunate cities for use in their airports. All roadways were first closed by order of the National Guard and have now been buried under many feet of the snow which has fallen continuously in howling, ripping gales for the last several years. The plucky I’m-an-individual A-holes who thought they’d turn that frown upside-down and don skis for traveling across snow-covered thoroughfares have all been killed and eaten by starving natives driven to such back path 15 feb15desperation by the shuttering of their fifteen local Dunkin Donuts. There are no sidewalks; the narrow, winding goat-paths battered out by the first waves of evacuating citizenry have long since first frozen over and then been buried in fresh snow. But there’s no need for sidewalks in any case, since it’s not possible to leave the house – twenty-foot snowpacks have blocked all doors and windows for many weeks, and those snowpacks themselves have been reinforced by fifty-foot-tall man-thick icicles extending from the roof to what used to be known as the “ground.”

So one of the two clear design-intentions of the famous Penguin Classics ’60s’ – the little square kafka penguin 60spaperbacks the publisher produced in joyous profusion to mark its 60th anniversary of business – is now thwarted: these cute little things were clearly designed both for quick reading – they’re no more than 80 pages apiece – and for quick access, capable of being slipped into a pocket on the way out the door. But nobody in Boston goes out the door anymore. The door was first snow-blocked and then ice-frozen shut, and more snow is falling as I type this, and much more snow is forecast in the upcoming months, followed by freezing sleet, followed by sub-zero temperatures (for a long stretch last week, fey meteorologists from other parts of the world commented, correctly, that Boston was at that point colder than any other place on Earth; none of those meteorologists was cruel enough to add that Boston was also colder than the equatorial regions of Mars). So traveling with my Penguin 60s is out of the question.

But that still leaves enjoying them, and that’s no small thing, because these are very, very enjoyable little books.

wharton penguin 60sThe aforementioned joyous profusion was nerdily sub-categorized, of course (this is Penguin we’re talking about, after all), with different color-codings for different kinds of 60s classics – orange spines for some, black spines for others (there was also a sotto voce sub-categorization of a type also typical of Penguin: a different and slightly brainier set of titles was chosen for UK-only distribution. If asked, Penguin would say this was for copyright reasons, but the whiff of colonial condescension is mighty pronounced). The color-coding doesn’t make much sense in this case, but it certainly breaks up the look of these things on the shelf.

And the 60s themselves are fascinating. At first glance, they seem entirely traditional: a little bit of Beowulf, a few essays of Montaigne, a dialogue from Plato, some short stories by acknowledged masters, etc. But the more you actually read these charming little things, the more you realize how effectively they shift canonical feelings rather than reinforce them.

There are no Introductions. There are no notes. There’s none of the scene-setting for which Penguin Classics are renowned these days. And most of the works themselves are presented free from their own contexts: you get the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – not in a collection of welty penguin 60sArthur Conan Doyle stories, nor even in an anthology of Victorian crime fiction, but rather just standing there, on its own (well, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” is included as well, but you take my meaning). You get Livy’s account of Hannibal crossing the Alps – but only that, not the rest of Livy. Same thing with the enormity of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – here, you just get 85 pages of Gibbon’s thoughts on the subject, not three 800-page books. True, you get the entirety of such short works as Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” or the “Lysistrata” of Aristophanes, but even in such cases, there’s something oddly new-seeming about getting just the slim translation, with no supporting material or contextualization. As strange as it seems, it really can prompt a fresh examination of the works themselves.

Of course, they’re not for everybody. I once handed somebody a gift of the Penguin 60s Classic of Eudora Welty’s famous short story “Why I Live at the PO” and watched as the recipient recoiled in horror and outright refused to accept it (ah, the gracelessness of today’s young people – one of the world’s truly inexhaustible resources) – not because the story isn’t its usual sublime self, but because of lucy reads penguin 60sthe format of the little paperback. But I myself used to love popping one of these little things into a pocket or shoulder-bag when I was headed out for a day that might be long on unforeseen waiting periods and short on good reading material.

I don’t do that anymore, of course. I don’t go outside anymore. I can’t go outside anymore. Which means I’ll miss Penguin’s celebration of their 80th anniversary, which I hear is going to take the form of an entirely new set of little black paperbacks. That celebration will happen out in the wider world where people still have kinds of weather that aren’t snow and freezing sleet.

But I’ll always have my memories of such a world. And I’ll always have these cute little Penguin 60s Classics … at least until I run low on kindling.

February 20th, 2015

The first Stevereads Book Outlet book haul!

Our books today comprise a small Stevereads landmark: my very first book-haul from Book Outlet!

book outlet haul 1As some of you will know, I’m delighted to spend time watching all the enthusiastic young people (and a few old enough to know better!) over in the nerdy, inordinately friendly corner of YouTube known as “BookTube.” I love the camaraderie in the ranks of the second-tier BookTubers I watch regularly (the first-tier of BookTubers, like the first tier of all other kinds of YouTubers, is entirely populated by martinet A-holes who have $15,000 professional lighting systems, bone-deep contempt for their viewers, and not one single scrap of interest in the worth of the ‘content’ they’re making)(so I don’t watch them), and I find their unabashed enthusiasm for all things books and reading completely endearing. I even like some of their shared activities – the “tags” they inflict on each other, the bookshelf-tours they sometimes take their readers on, and of course the “book hauls” they so regularly film, in which they hold their latest book- acquisitions up to the camera and talk about them.

The last is my favorite, I admit. There’s something so geekishly natural about it, not just in terms of the new-owner’s joy of a stack of recently-purchased books but also as a reflection on just how seldom any of us ever really gets to do such a victory-dance in real life. On the two-hour car-ride back from the mighty Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, or on the subway uptown back from the mighty Strand bookstore in New York City, or even just lugging a bulging tote bag of books home from the Brattle, or the Goodwill, or the Boston Public Library Book Sale, I have many times experienced the euphoria of suddenly owning a bunch more good books, but in virtually all of those circumstances, going back many, many years and including many, many different groups of accompanying friends, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anybody I’ve been with has ever asked me any variation of “So! What-all did you just get, and why does it excite you?”

With BookTube book-haul videos, that slight disappointment is, as it were, edited out. Each BookTuber is free to imagine that every single viewer is deeply interested in these new additions to Ye Olde Personal Library – and the resulting enthusiasm is pretty contagious. It’s a reminder to me that I should do more book-haul entries here on Stevereads.

And even inside the ‘shared activities,’ there are deeper buried traits – and the one I couldn’t help noticing was just how many BookTubers seem to buy their books from the online remainder store called Book Outlet. At first I thought their natural first choice would be Amazon, simply for its breadth of selection. Then I thought perhaps the first choice would be the Book Depository, since BookTube is a very international group, and the Book Depository’s shipping is free. Then I thought perhaps BookTubers shy away from those two options because Book Depository is owned by Amazon and Amazon is openly, almost parodically evil – except most of the BookTubers I follow don’t seem like the type who would know that or care.

Whatever the reason (I suspect it has to do with the #1 disease of BookTube, YA fiction, but I’m trying not to think about hqdefaultthat), Book Outlet certainly reigns supreme among BookTubers as the book-buying venue of choice. So even though my own book-buying venue of choice is well-known (a good place to remind you all that the Brattle Bookshop here in snowbound Boston accepts phone orders for gift certificates in any amount, and you need not even be clear on my last name – just call them up – 617-542-0210 – and say “I’d like to buy a gift certificate for Steve” – they’ll know who you mean), I get such enjoyment from BookTube and have made so many delightful email buddies there that I just had to try Book Outlet for myself!

So I spent a while delightedly browsing (what Rose Macaulay wrote about Bookseller Catalogues back in 1935 is every bit as true here in 2015, and it applies equally well to online catalogues as to print ones), then I placed my order and patiently waited. And about ten days later, just before Boston’s fifteenth massive blizzard closed the city down for days, my cute little package came in the mail!

It was just two books, to start with. I didn’t want to overdo things until I knew whether or not I’d like all the non-book essentials of how Book Outlet does business – the efficiency of the shipping, the condition of the books, that sort of thing. But the books came in normal shipping time and in fine condition, so there I was, almost like a BookTuber (only one who’s too old and too ugly and too tech-inept to have a video channel), eagerly opening a book-package from Book Outlet!

My two choices were gems, in their own individual ways. First there was To Crave a Blood Moon, the crave blood moon cover2009 third installment in Sharie Kohler’s “Moon Chasers” series, and it was what the kids on BookTube refer to as a “cover buy” (they’ve got a word for everything! Except maybe “persistent literary pedophilia,” but again, I’m trying not to think about that): because there on the cover (presumably under a full moon – a rather odd cover-omission for a book with this title), looking sultry and semi-shirted as always, is our old friend Paul Marron! In this book, he’s going by the euphonious name of Sebastian Santiago, a half-werewolf desperately trying to hold onto his humanity.

But although his name might be different, his predicament is reassuringly familiar – he’s the chained and helpless captive of a vicious group of “lycans” who are using him as an involuntary sex-stud in an attempt to sire some blood moon photovigorous lycan puppies. When it comes to tight chains and sexual servitude, we know we’re in home territory, and Kohler’s purple prose, um, rises to the occasion:

The only time they ever treated him to [sic] gentleness was when they wanted to rouse [sic] him. Physically, he could not prevent himself from responding. His body had become his worst enemy – his greatest weakness. No matter how he loathed them, they succeeded in using him.

When the lycan group throws beautiful, strong-willed American Ruby Devereux into half-starved Sebastian’s cage in the hopes his hunger will overcome his restraint, all hell breaks loose – but not in the way the lycans expect, and Kohler’s novel quickly romps along from there.

The second book I got from Book Outlet isn’t quite the romp of To Crave a Blood Moon, but I ended up birth of classical europeliking it just as much: it’s The Birth of Classical Europe by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, in a neat Penguin paperback from 2010. I’m a sucker for Troy-to-the-Caesars trots like this one, even though it’s been 270 years since I actually learned anything lucy's first book outlet haul 19 feb 15from any of them. This one is as beautifully put together as all other Penguin paperbacks, and Price and Thonemann do a wonderful, comprehensive job of outlining huge swaths of European and Mediterranean history. My favorite of their many techniques is to remember constantly that the mental and rhetorical forces of history are always at work, shaping the way whole societies see themselves:

The political structures of the Roman Republic familiar in the world of Cicero in the first century BC consisted of the Senate, the people and the magistrates. This tripartite structure was perhaps first articulated by Greek observers of Rome, long used to the system of council, assembly and magistrates in Greek city-states. Polybius, writing in the later second century BC, offered a classic statement of the case, arguing that Rome’s phenomenal strength in his day was derived from the balance between the three elements. Such views, flattering as they were to Rome, were internalized by the Romans, and came to form part of the ways that they thought about their own state. But it would be a mistake to project, as the Romans did, a tripartite analysis of Rome back into the early Republic, let alone the regal period. There are good grounds for thinking that earlier structures were very different.

So I was very pleased with my first-ever Book Outlet book haul! But even so, I realize something key is missing, and that key is made of cardboard: a box was missing! A real Book Outlet book haul consists of so many books that a box – stamped with “Book Outlet” – is required to get them all to my front door. But the folks at Book Outlet are canny: they sent me a coupon for $5 off my next order!

February 19th, 2015

A Spurt of Outrage in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines



Nothing warms up the icy snowbound ventricles quite like a burst of outrage, and I got one of those recently when I encountered a block of pure editorial cowardice in the Penny Press. Specifically, it was in the 5 February 2015 issue of the London Review of Books (although the cover is misprinted as 2014), and perhaps predictably, the subject was the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In the letters column, a reader named Simon Hammond writes:

As a devoted reader of the LRB I am deeply disappointed by your immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. No message of solidarity, no support for freedom of expression. I would have thought that the execution of the editorial staff of a magazine a few hours’ journey from your own office would provoke a more heartfelt response.

To which Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB, replies:

I believe in the right not to be killed for something I say, but I don’t believe I have a right to insult whomever I please. Those – and there are many – who insist that the only acceptable response to the events in Paris is to stand up for ‘freedom of expression’ are allowing people the freedom to say ‘Je suis Charlie’ but nothing else. There are many other things to be said about the attacks and their aftermath: for some of them, see Tariq Ali in this issue …

The craven nature of such stuff is matched by its worminess; the dodge in the reprehensible first line is only deepened by the insinuating obliqueness of the last line – “there are many other things to be said about the attacks” … many things other than ‘freedom of expression,’ that is, and what might those things be? Are they in fact really plural? Can those ‘other things’ really be anything except some damn variation of “Charlie Hebdo had it coming”? Isn’t that the only construction that can be put on the weaselly line “I don’t believe I have the right to insult whomever I please”?

I read Wilmers’ disgusting response to Hammond over and over, trying and failing to see it as anything other than a lrb coverpreemptive plea for mercy from the same people who sent the killers to Charlie Hebdo. Why, except from cowardice, would Wilmer voluntarily, eagerly surrender a right she in fact does possess, the right to insult whomever she pleases? Not slander or libel whomever she pleases – nobody was slandered in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and you famously can’t libel the dead – but insult, which indeed is the kind of freedom-of-expression thing (without the noxious scare-quotes, as if the term is some baroque oddity she found in a dusty old book) the editor of the London Review of Books should defend.

But she directed me to Tariq Ali’s piece in the same issue, so I went and read it, which did nothing at all to calm my outrage. Ali’s piece is of course much longer than Wilmer’s cringing, posturing little paragraph, and if anything it’s more opaque, more careful in its appeasements. Ali is always a careful writer, but I’ve hardly ever seen his prodigious gifts exercised in making less worthy points:

In the week following the atrocities, a wave of moral hysteria swept France. ‘Je suis Charlie’ became almost obligatory … Slowly, a more critical France is beginning to speak up. An opinion poll two days after the big march [in the wake of the shootings] revealed a divided country: 57 per cent were ‘Je suis Charlie’s, but 42 per cent were opposed to hurting the feelings of minorities.

More critical … incredible. As if the thousands of people – including hundreds of writers and intellectuals just like Ali – put no critical thought into their ‘Je suis Charlie’ responses but were just wildly – hysterically – flailing. The baiting-and-switching going on here is even more revolting than the kind Wilmers uses; the opposition being set up between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and hurting the feelings of minorities is revoltingly deceitful in its use of euphemisms. “Je suis Charlie” is not an empty slogan; it’s an expression of solidarity with the idea that satire should be possible without the threat of lethal retaliation. And “hurting the feelings of minorities” is a prelude rather than a point; of course everybody’s opposed to hurting the feelings not just of minorities but of majorities. Of course hurt feelings are bad. But how were the hurt feelings of minorities expressed in this case? With a barrage of very pointed letters from Muslims and Muslim sympathizers cancelling Charlie Hebdo subscriptions? No: with a highly coordinated paramilitary attack designed to murder the Charlie Hebdo staff.

That cowards like Wilmers and Ali are so complacently willing to equate ‘insulting Muslims’ with ‘incurring Muslim violence’ – that they’re apparently willing to live in a world in which you refrain from hurting the feelings of minorities not because hurting feelings is rude but because you’re personally afraid of what will happen if you don’t – would be deplorable enough if they were just private citizens. But in a public intellectual and the editor of the London Review of Books? With the earth still turned on the graves of their slaughtered Charlie Hebdo peers? Freedom of expression had better watch out for its life, if two of its presumed defenders are half-way to Munich the instant clear battle-lines are drawn.

Maybe I’ll enjoy the rest of that LRB … provided nobody’s feelings are hurt …