August 20th, 2016
Our 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 platitudes 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.
This 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 author 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.
The 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
Our book today is surely one of the all-time classics of the Ink Chorus: Claud Cockburn’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 some 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
I 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
Our 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. It 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?
August 1st, 2016
Our book today is a clear, clean classic showing hardly any sign of floorboard decay, a good example of stages in a literary hack’s via dolorosa from griping underdog to griping Grand Dame: it’s Homage to Daniel Shays, Gore Vidal’s smashingly good 1972 volume collecting essays and book reviews from a neat 20-year span, from 1952 to 1972. This book is less than half the length of the career capstone United States, which came out twenty years later – i.e. twenty years closer to the ranting wine-soaked crackpot sage the author would become in his final decade or so.
That later Vidal wore his accumulated grievances like a body armor, every year more layered until, by the end, the man himself had all but vanished inside it. Anger-fueled alcoholic dementia didn’t help matters any – his resentments gradually morphed into a landscape, an alternate reality that struck him as eminently more sensible than the one he was so rudely forced to live in every day. His book won the Pulitzer – they just gave the award to somebody else. He won all the elections – they just gave the offices to somebody else. Throughout most of his life, he fought a successful rearguard action against his besetting mortal sin, envy, but sins are patient stalkers, and Vidal’s consumed him in the last fifteen years of his life, when he almost continuously showed the excruciating bad grace to be a very, very lucky man who whined to be luckier. Interviewing him became indistinguishable from psychoanalyzing him.
But during the years covered by Homage to Daniel Shays, there’s very little overt sign of that later Vidal. In fact, the closest hint comes right at the beginning, in the collection’s first words:
These essays are arranged in chronological order. The first was written twenty years ago, in another world; the latest was written a few months ago. Reading them from first to last, I had the sense of reliving month to month two decades not only of my life but of our most unserene republic turned empire, now turning into something else again. As themes come and go, are developed or abandoned, as politics replaces literature replaces politics again, there is a logical (and sometimes illogical) progression. There are also ironies. As the mandarin author of the first essay surveyed the state of American letters in the forties, he had no idea that he was about to give up the novel for a decade of television, theater, movies, criticism and politics, while the engaged polemicist of 1962 would have been appalled to know that he was soon to abandon actual politics in order to become again (what he had been all along?) a novelist.
You can already see the beginnings of the monumental vocational rifts that will later determine the tripartite structure of United States (the sad pun of the title being, of course, the fact that the various states of Vidal’s being were never united but rather constantly at war); the “mandarin author” (one of the only times anywhere that Vidal inches close to self-criticism, and even here, it’s not exactly meant in a negative sense, is it?) is shifting from one calling to another, brilliant in all of them but rootless, almost homesick. In these razor-sharp essays, Vidal could still use those inner longings, shaping them like a virtuoso into tools he could use to pry secrets out of the writers he examines (most of whom he knew), as in the “Writers and the World” piece he wrote in 1965 for the TLS:
To be outside the World is not necessarily a virtue. To be in the World does not necessarily mean a loss of craft, a fall from grace, a fatness of soul. William Faulkner’s thirty years as a movie writer affected his novels not at all. He could do both. Finally, it is truly impertinent to speculate as to whether or not the effect of this or of that on a writer’s character is good or bad. What is pertinent is the work he does. Mary McCarthy is not less intelligent a literary critic because she plays games on television. But even if her work should shown a sudden falling off, only the simplest moralist would be able to link her appearances as a talking writer to her work as a writing writer.
And slowly, incrementally, we know that the array of critical tricks at his disposal would concentrate and dwindle to one: himself. The Vidal of 1960 was still every bit as narcissistic as extreme good looks can make a man, but he was still very much capable of hustle in a piece, to say nothing of dutiful exposition. And he’s still capable of it a decade later, but he’s much less willing to be bothered, especially if the “review” at hand is one in which he can make himself the star, shoving the book in question off to one side for as long as possible. In “The Fourth Diary of Anais Nin,” which he wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1971, Nin has an assiduous co-star:
Warning to literary historians. Deal warily with Anais’s “facts.” Small example: at our first meeting, she says, I introduced myself as Lieutenant Vidal. First, I would never have used a military title; second, I was plainly a Warrant Officer, in uniform. When I pointed this out to her in the bar of the Punt Royal, she laughed gaily. “You know I never get those things right.” Nor does she correct them. Best of the lines I was not shown (and the one most apt to give pleasure to the employees at Time): “Gore has a prejudice against Negroes.” Oh, dear. Well, I was brought up by my grandfather, a Mississippi-born senator. I have since matured. I now have a prejudice against whites.
It’s very much possible to read blissfully through Homage to Daniel Shays hitting isolated notes like these and willing yourself to forget that in time they would fuse into a grand symphony of solipsism. In these full-power years before United States, a whole variety of Vidals was still possible. The vibrant voice in these pieces might never have become shrill and querulous; the future might never have become the enemy; the past might never have become a forest of sharp-pointed lies and betrayals. As unlikely as it seems even in retrospect, this author might have aged gracefully.
July 21st, 2016
Our book today is a stiff-legged, sniffy, fascinating little thing, From a Writer’s Notebook, a quasi-commonplace book brought out by Van Wyck Brooks in 1958. You can feel the prickliness of the endeavor even from the title, can’t you? “From a Writer’s Notebook,” so carefully distinguishing the author from his proletariat readers – the writer’s droppings, his merest obiter dicta obligingly dispensed to lowly non-writers so they can treasure the wisdom of the master.
Brooks came by such an attitude as naturally as anybody can. He graduated from Harvard in 1908 and published a book a year for the next sixty years, which would give just about anybody a certain arch quality. And besides, the strange hybrid animal that is the writer’s notebook tends to make just about anybody who indulges in it look like a mandarin yutz.
So Brooks can veer from the gloomy (“There are writers who, as writers, ought to die, and the only way to contribute to this end is not to mention them”) to the pretentious:
A seed catalogue – Stumpp and Walter’s – says that if you wish to develop new and beautiful varieties, you must save the weak seedlings. The strongest seedlings are pretty certain to run true to type. Using the words “weak” and “strong” as most people use them, is this not generally true of writers also?
… to the flagrantly hypocritical: “When a writer begins to be successful, when he begins to soar, outwardly but especially inwardly, then, to save him from infatuation, he needs to be pelted with bitter apples.” And since the thing is a notebook, it can narrowly skirt the expectation of greater cohesion we’d demand of almost any other kind of book. After all, a notebook is just jottings, right? Thoughts and impressions recorded on the fly, of interest to readers now only due to the breathtaking profundity of the author. One result is that the pages can get a bit tiring at times:
People who are too agreeable and cultivated lull one insensibly into a kind of fatuity. One gets into a fool’s paradise. That is another reason why, except in small doses, “good society,” – at its best – is not good for writers. For the literary mind needs to be misunderstood; it requires something harsh in the air that surrounds it.
But it’s not all hopeless, mainly because underneath all his backhanded professions of his own genius, Brooks actually was a genius, and it’s fascinating in these pages to watch that genius latch onto all manner of subjects, literary and otherwise, and try to chase those subjects down to some kind of comprehensibility that doesn’t conflict with a lifetime of codified opinions. For instance, Brooks is never more aphoristic than when he’s making offhand comments about other writers; those are always the highlights for me, every time I re-read pieces of A Writer’s Notebook, that and the very real sense of being in the presence of a fiercely active mind, although not a particularly reflective one. When Brooks digs deep into an author’s life and personality, he very often finds himself staring back out of the details – but he doesn’t make the connection. About T. S. Eliot, for example, he writes: “Because he is dictatorial Eliot appeals all the more to an age that desires orthodoxy and desires to conform. How could such an age not wish for a literary pope?”
Nobody in the world coveted that mitre more eagerly than Van Wyck Brooks, and the sense that either he doesn’t know that or he’s daring you to mention it, well, that sense just adds to the fun.
July 16th, 2016
Our book today lands squarely in the category I’ve come to call “Near Misses”: it’s The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads, edited by Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland, and it’s a “Near Miss” because it was brought out by Harvard University Press in February of 2007 – mere weeks before my beloved Open Letters Monthly made its debut on the lit-journal scene, and hence mere weeks before its doors opened to the arrival of review copies from publishers.
Of course, the earliest months of any new journal are always the diciest times to request books from anybody; not only have you yet to secure a sizable audience (unless you’re one of those new lit journals that debuts to widespread acclaim – a truly bizarre phenomenon that nevertheless does occasionally happen), but more importantly, you’ve yet to prove that you know what you’re doing, in terms of reviewing books. By the time Open Letters debuted in March of 2007, almost all of the contacts I myself had made in the publishing world had retired or gone to that big deadline in the sky (with one rather hefty exception, where virtue was rewarded with the top office) – so OLM was forced to start from scratch in terms of getting review copies from publishers.
Even so, I’d certainly have tried for The Urban Whale. It’s a 500-page anthology of 17 scientific papers dealing with many aspects of North Atlantic right whale biology, behavior, and conservation, written by 35 of the leading scientists who study these magnificent creatures for a living – in other words, a mouth-watering example of a “Steve book” if ever there was one. I’d have requested it from the good folks at Harvard University Press, and I’d have hoped for it in the mail. As things happened, I got a copy from a friend who snatched it from the giveaway shelf of an already-established lit journal.
I love the book, and had I received it in the mail for review, I’d have been all fired up to communicate my enthusiasm about it to people who’d otherwise hear “500-page collection of scientific articles about right whales” and walked off in the opposite direction.
I’d have had a great deal of material to work with, in this case. Yes, the tone of most of these articles is fairly dry and academic (with certain exceptions, most notably the chapter called “Enormous Carnivores, Microscopic Food, and a Restaurant That’s Hard to Find” by Mark Baumgartner, Charles Mayo, and Robert Kenney), but the scope of this anthology covers so many different fascinating aspects of the northern right whale’s world that pretty much anybody even vaguely interested in whales (and who in the civilized world isn’t?) will find something to hook them and draw them in. Here we have papers on what these whales eat, where they go, how the sonarscape of their world is warped by the noise of humanity, how humanity’s ocean-going vessels and massive drag-netting presents them with constant dangers – all the very outward inquiries that are the only things we can study about a species that will always remain so utterly mysterious to humans. Right whales cover whole oceans in their travels and conduct their whole lives in worlds far, far from the surface sunlight world of their human observers. Humans will never know anything about what northern right whales think or feel toward each other; we’ll never know how they love their children; we’ll never know how they learn or what amuses them.
This book was 2007’s best summary of what science can know about the northern right whale, and it’s full of low-key nerdy wonders. I didn’t receive it in the mail back then, but I can certainly recommend it now even so.
July 14th, 2016
An old friend and I made plans to meet outside the Boston Public Library this morning on Boylston Street. It was steaming hot and humid, but we both wanted to experience the library for the first time together.
Not the first time visiting the Johnson Building, of course. I’d been going there since the place opened in 1972, when my initial reaction was, “Is this some kind of sick, twisted joke?” The building had been designed by Philip Johnson as a brutal, joyless, frowning, forbidding maximum security penal facility; it had a small handful of low-browed windows, siege-proof granite walls, and a central well letting in just enough natural light to make you feel like you were far, far underground (an impression only strengthened by the vast numbers of muttering, scabrous street people who almost instantly colonized every interior and exterior space of the whole building). At the center of that grudging well of light was a central Information Desk that tended to be staffed by goggle-eyed sweaty-browed angry loners when it was staffed at all. The bathrooms, located in a dank, dripping sub-basement, seldom had toilet paper or running water, but the deep shadows thrown by their faulty ceiling lights were excellent places to score heroin or rent boys, or rent boys on heroin. The contrast with the gorgeous McKim building next door could hardly have been greater.
The McKim building – the place I and a good many other Bostonians are thinking about when we say “the library” – was a palace, not a prison. Its jewel, Bates Hall, had soaring windows, and its courtyard was a little oasis of pure, beautiful relaxation, and it had the nation’s very first children’s room, which was the talk of Boston’s parents for years as a fine place to bring (and perhaps, in a less worried age, leave for a while) their kids. Countless are the hours I spent in the studious serenity of Bates Hall, and countless are the times I retreated there after some bookish errand or other forced me to endure the modernist monstrosities of the Johnson Building next door. For me, the McKim Building was the “real” library, and the great grey granite carbuncle next door was one of those expensive evil concessions to modernity that nobody ever actually likes. By the time major renovations on it began in 2013, I hadn’t visited in years.
But when I saw the news headline that those renovations were now complete – there’d been a ribbon-cutting and everything – I latched onto the company of a fellow bookworm and went to see what all those millions of dollars had bought.
The first difference is obvious long before you go inside: the sidewalk along the entire front of the Johnson Building is now dotted with trees instead of massive plinths of granite that once walled it off from view. The effect is unexpectedly dramatic: you feel like you’re passing a building that wants you to enter, as opposed to one that wants you to go away.
So we ventured inside! The first impression inside the front doors was mildly discordant: the sound of bit-drills. Turns out the ribbon was cut a bit prematurely, as all ribbons tend to be: work is still being done to finish the first-floor cafe.
But that discord almost instantly fades to wonder – the entire Boylston Street first floor of the place is now a vast open space, flooded with natural light from huge, nearly-continuous ground-floor windows, and right in front of you as you walk in is the newly-positioned central Information Desk, redesigned as a “Welcome Center” and outlined in bright panels.
The change from the old massif-bunker atmosphere is simply astonishing – whatever the final tally on the price of this renovation, it was money well-spent.
The New Releases shelves are right there as you walk in, not just handy but also conveniently laid out, very much as books you might end up loving rather than product the library staff resents moving around all day long. There are help desks and BPL staff at hand everywhere – none of the furtive searching through shadows that typified needing help in the bad old days. There are more bathrooms, and they’ve been redesigned for greater wheelchair accessibility. There are water fountains and power outlets scattered all over.
As we moved around the first floor and then went up to the mezzanine and second floor, one of the much-touted features of the redesign became overwhelmingly apparent: the BPL now has a lot of public-access computers. And the more I thought about it, the more this struck me as the heart of the wisdom behind this renovation. When the old McKim building opened in 1895, it proudly welcomed its visitors with the motto that’s still above its front door: “Free To All.” What was meant at the time was of course books but also more than that: all that free access to books (and the quiet in which to read and use them) could mean to the Bostonians who walked through its doors – the freedom and the power that come from access to a world-class library.
In the 21st century, as painful as it might be for a die-hard bookworm such as myself to admit, that freedom and that power no longer come from bound-and-printed paper books. They come from the Internet. The fact that anybody can walk into the new Johnson Building, sit down at any of the 85 terminals, and browse or work online is the exact cultural descendant of that earlier “Free To All.” Where I might once have expected the purist in me to be scowling at the sight of so many computers taking up space that might have gone to more editions of Plutarch, instead the sight made me smile.
Of course, there are still plenty of books, as we saw when we worked our way into the various subject-sections. Only ‘work’ isn’t quite the word, as it certainly was in the dark old pre-redesign days. Back then, there were no labeled subject-sections; instead, there were rows upon rows of tall light-blocking metal stacks differentiated by multiple-digit call numbers and crammed with books that hadn’t been checked out by anybody in twenty years. These rows were narrow, suffocating spaces, tiny corridors that seemed intent on crushing any of the sense of wonder their contents were designed to inspire. The unspoken message was loud and clear: Hurry up and find your book, and then GO.
Again, the “new” Johnson Building setup couldn’t be more different. With so many lower bookcases and so much natural light, the old canyon-effect has been effectively eliminated, and the subject-sections are designated not by a 13-digit call number you had to scribble down or memorize but rather by bright red banners hanging from the ceiling, and by bright red globes shouting the types of books in that area. It’s a trite kind of word to use, but it’s true nonetheless: the whole arrangement was immensely inviting.
By the time we were done touring the place, we were each surprised to realize that we’d easily spent an hour, talking about books the whole time. An hour is a pittance amidst the glories of the McKim Building, but not very long ago, the prospect of spending an hour in the Johnson Building would have been depressing, very nearly alarming. Not so now; we could easily, happily have stayed longer.
Against every one of my expectations, I walked out not only happy but proud: the new renovations to the Johnson Building are so thoughtful, so well-executed, and so successful that it actually feels like Boston has been given an entirely new library. My friend and I aren’t easy patrons to please, and yet we were utterly delighted. So now I have not one but two “real” BPLs – which will be a bit disorienting for a while, but it’s a problem I like having.
July 11th, 2016
Our book today is the latest Star Trek novel, Greg Cox’s Star Trek Legacies: Captain to Captain, the first volume in a new trilogy from Pocket Books commemorating 2016’s 50th anniversary of the original appearance of the “classic” version of the show. The idea is clearly to celebrate the show’s rich history; the plot Cox unfolds is set in the original five-year-mission of the USS Enterprise under the command of Captain James T. Kirk, and he casts that plot backward into the show’s past.
Or at least a version of the show’s past. In Captain to Captain, the Enterprise welcomes a special guest: Captain Una, who for years was an officer on the Enterprise under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, an cool, collected officer enigmatically named “Number One.” She styles the reason for her visit as simply a chance to catch up with her old shipmate Mr. Spock, but in reality she has a secret motive: she wants to steal a special alien artifact she knows is hidden in the the captain’s cabin – knows that because the knowledge of the artifact has been kept a secret from Starfleet but handed down privately from captain and first officer to captain and first officer over the years, starting with Captain Robert April, through Christopher Pike, to James Kirk (if your eyebrow went up, Spock-style, at the prospect of a miracle device not only going unfound during ship-wide refits but also going unused during the drastic emergencies that happen to the Enterprise every week … well, mine did too). Captain Una has come to the Enterprise in order to steal that device and use it to save a small group of crewmates she lost years before – but first, there’s a friendly reception to get through:
The reception, which was being held in the main rec room, had been under way for some time. Officers and enlisted personnel mingled freely, sipping brightly colored drinks while sampling a buffet of exotic hors d’oeuvres from the ship’s galley, including Antosian puff pastries, Rigelian caviar, Illyrian mango slices, and bite-sized cucumber sandwiches. Given that the crew was already overdue for shore leave, Spock judged the festivities good for morale, which he had gradually come to realize was a significant issue with respect to humans and other more emotional species. The party was, of course, being held in honor of Captain Una, who certainly merited such hospitality.
It’s a brick wall, isn’t it? Maybe even a duranium wall. We’re told that the reception was held in the main rec room, as if we’d need to know that in order to get there; we’re told that “officers and enlisted personnel” were present, as if we’re reading the event notice on the ship’s bulletin board; we’re told that all the alien goodies came from the ship’s galley, in case we were wondering if Rigelian caviar came from the engine room; we’re told that Captain Una certainly merited the hospitality, as if Cox himself, not Mr. Spock, were reminding us of that.
It’s sludgy prose, and it fills the book. Captain Una succeeds in stealing her alien MacGuffin and escapes on her sturdy single-person space shuttle. Kirk and Spock quickly discover what they should have been able to predict before it happened and give chase, and by the time they catch up with her, she’s reached her destination: an abandoned alien laboratory on a world contested by the Klingons, who are now in hot pursuit as well. But even at what should be the book’s dramatic high point, everybody still remains not only firmly out of character but unbearably turgid. This is the ship-wide announcement Captain Kirk makes to his crew as they race to a very probable confrontation:
“Attention, all crew. This is the captain speaking. No doubt you are wondering what we are doing here in this disputed region of space. Certain details are classified, but I can tell you this: Captain Una has absconded with a potentially dangerous piece of alien technology that was recovered from Libros III some eighteen years ago, when the Enterprise was under the command of Captain Robert April. We have reason to believe that she is pursuing her own agenda on the planet, but her objective is uncertain and her mission has not been sanctioned by Starfleet Our goal is to recover Captain Una – and the aforementioned technology – before either can fall into the hands of the Klingon Empire. We hope to achieve that goal and return to our previous course with all due speed. Captain out.”
I read every new Star Trek novel, and I honestly have no idea how to explain stuff like this. The authors of these books always profess their long-standing love of the TV show, but who, after watching even two or three episodes only once, could think that endless corporate memorandum sounded anything like the Captain Kirk in the original series?
And what about that original series? In the history of Star Trek book-adaptations (excluding only the early quickie-adaptations done by James Blish, who was working from scripts in any case), the underlying “canon” has always been determined not by other books but by film: if something’s made it to the screen (small or big), it’s canon – and if it hasn’t made it there, it’s not. For instance, throughout Captain to Captain, we’re told that Number One is an Illyrian – because there’s a long fan-fiction history along those lines – but since we’re told nothing at all about Number One in the one filmed episode in which she appears, that’s not canon.
But what about somebody who is canon? I refer to poor Captain Jonathan Archer, the first captain of the Enterprise, who most certainly is canon, having helmed his vessel for several seasons of a fine TV Star Trek show. It’s true that his command took place before that of Captain April, but he’s not even mentioned when the book refers to “the earliest voyages of the Starship Enterprise” – Cox’s clear implication is that he’s working with the pre-Archer timeline of the original show, in which the Enterprise‘s command went first to April, then to Pike, then to Kirk. It was oddly pleasant to re-visit that version of the show’s fictional history, but it still made me feel sorry for poor Captain Archer and his beagle.
The next book in the “Legacies” series will be written by David Mack, who’s written a whole slew of some of the most stodgy Star Trek novels in the bookstore. But there’s a hum-dinger of a big plot buried under Greg Cox’s own stodginess, so I’ll have to hope Mack can tease some of it out.
July 9th, 2016
Our book today is that horrendously-titled 1986 masterpiece But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen? – alternately known as Homage to QWERT YUIOP and Other Writings, a total loss either way and a prime example of why authors should never be allowed to pick the title of their books – especially authors as freakishly widely-read and as whimsical as Anthony Burgess.
But we mustn’t always judge a book by its title! Especially in a case like this, where the book is an enormous gift to the reading world: these are dozens and dozens of book reviews Burgess tossed off for the odd $200 over a span of just about eight years, from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s. The sheer range of books under consideration is staggering: famous novels but also totally forgotten novels, major works of history but also monographs so obscure their authors probably fainted dead away upon learning that Burgess had even heard of them, landmark biographies of fellow dough-faced ex-pat tobacco addicts like Joyce or Beckett but also bagatelles and miscellanies chosen for review solely so that Burgess, a master of bagatelles and miscellanies, could show off a little.
Or show off a lot. Because although the types of books under consideration spans virtually the whole spectrum of literature, there’s really only one subject in this book’s 600 pages, and that subject is Anthony Burgess. No book-critic ever wrote faster entries to reviews (a piece on a collection of Dickens letters opens with “The energy of the man!”; a review of some forgotten compendium begins with “This is not the kind of book you can borrow from the library”), the speed comes partly from jettisoning baggage: Burgess’s “reviews” are often nothing of the kind, since they dispense with the context that readers require. No, the great majority of these great pieces are more like recorded snatches of literary chat, and there’s always only one chatter, and his voice is both fascinating and boorishly certain of its own fascination.
This usually produces a weird kind of double-vision while reading the pieces themselves. The focus is always shifting, foreground to background and back, but the object of the focus is likewise always moving, and it’s always Burgess. And since Anthony Burgess was an old-style Johnsonian man of letters, his fixation on the million hues of his own stained glass genius actually unifies his occasional prose rather than fracturing it into monochrome solipsism. So when he reviews a work that naturally feels like it might have been written by himself, such as John Gardner’s The Life and Times of Chaucer, he can ruminate on its innovations with an insider’s intimacy:
Enough or too much? I see no harm in it. I would go further and say this kind of colour is essential if anything like a book is to be made of Chaucer’s life. When biographical materials are so scanty, as with Shakespeare even more than Chaucer (Chaucer is our Bach, says Gardner, and Shakespeare is our Beethoven: I’m not too happy about that), only a novelist – with his vocational intuition about all people laughing when they’re tickled – can be trusted to make something out of little. And as much as the ‘times’ is made up of Black Prince, Black Death, Lollards, Peasants’ Revolt, the only way in which the biographer can sound like something more than a rehash of Warner and Martin is to make soldiers sneeze in the rain or John of Gaunt grow pale when he discovers there is a bubonic rat in the palace.
And when he reflects on the parlous words-to-screen trade, with which he was likewise first-hand familiar, he can shift an (always idealized) version of himself into the persona of other veterans of the trade, like poor old fellow polymath Robert Graves:
Graves as too old to express much satisfaction in the BBC’s televisual adaptation of I, Claudius, and an earlier contractual screwing ensured that he got no money out of it. It is nearly every writer’s sad story, but Graves has kept his primary vocation inviolate – or rather the very nature of that vocation has not tempted the world’s bemerding fingers.
Of course, the danger of writing always about yourself is that sometimes you slip up and write only about yourself. Burgess drank Kingsley Amis-amounts of alcohol every single day of the period during which these reviews were being dashed off, and maybe that much lubricant made some slipping up inevitable. More than one colleague in his life associated his prose with the word “gibberish” (he joked about it in precisely the tone he always reserved for things he didn’t consider even remotely funny), and it’s one of the first words that springs to mind when confronting, for instance, passages like this:
I have been living in Monaco, which is as much as to say France, for the last two years. French is my language of daily intercourse with shopkeepers and bureaucrats and police, but I avoid the language, and hence the intercourse, as much as I can. I huddle over my typewriter, which, though German, disgorges only English., as I would over a Sussex fire of pearwood or a gasfire in Camberwell. And yet French is my second language; I have known it for forty-five years. I try to explain to myself my seemingly volitional rejection of part of my culture and communicative equipment, a rejection expressed not only in avoiding its use but also refusing to understand it when others speak it. I watch French television and reduce its voices to an unintelligible nasal babble. Why?
Why indeed? And also what, and who, and especially where. But even as gibberish, it’s rakishly grand, and that’s why we come back to the nonfiction of Anthony Burgess (so much of which is scandalously out of print, including this volume – it’s unlikely anybody will ever reprint this terribly-titled tome). As a point-by-point critic, he’s blowzy and frequently incurious, and as a dissector of literature he can be maddeningly indirect; when he thinks something is stupid, he calls it “useful,” and when he likes a book he ignores it and talks about its author instead. But as a reader, nakedly showing us the actual process of reading with all its random associations, embarrassing prejudices, and sudden gasps of wonder, capturing that symphonic mental phenomenon, Burgess is a maestro.