Essays

An annotated browser

In ancient times, using a pen name, I wrote a series of short-short stories for use as one-page advertisements, under the heading ‘An annotated browser,’ to promote the shop. These are a few examples.

Counterpane

         It is an established fact in the used book trade that a healthy shop cat will lose one and a half times its body weight in fur every 28 days. On bright winter mornings, with the sun reaching through the front windows to steal the reds and greens from the dust jackets of books displayed there, the cat hair floats, illuminated, on invisible currents.

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About Resolution 451

The old Cincinnati Library 1874-1955

A dialog.

“What’s this?”

“What?”

“This ‘Resolution 451’ business.”

“Not a business. Just a revolution. Like a New Year’s revolution.”

“You mean resolution.”

“Well, yes, but it’s a revolting matter to have to deal with after all the ages..”

“How so? What’s the matter?”

“It’s about time for the peasants to revolt. That’s all. Past time, I think.”

“Why?”

“To save books from perdition. They’re being destroyed, removed, replaced, expurgated, and abridged. Libraries are busy giving up the wealth of their collections for space to install machines that will be out of date in ten our twelve years—machines that operate soft-ware that will be useless in five or six. The arbiters of political correctness are getting rid of anything that does not meet their approval, altering texts they don’t like. Special interest groups are removing books they disagree with. And the publicly funded colleges all assign the same texts. Publishers are refusing to publish books that do not fit with their political templates. Our literature is being lost to morons who read twitter feeds.”

“Wooh! Except for the twittering, that’s always been going on. It’s the way it always was.” read more…

A Time for Books

I have finally done something I had promised to do here years ago. But it is posted at the Bookshop site under ‘annotations.’

Annotations

In the last days of the Republic

I first knowingly encountered the Administrative State in 1972 when I went to City Hall in Boston to get a peddler’s license so that I might sell books and magazines on the street. I was under the delusion (illusion is too kind) that the First Amendment to the Constitution afforded me the right to sell almost any printed matter except pornography, and this being 1972, even that indecency would be overlooked. But the first week out on the street with my yellow pushcart (wittily named De Cart) got me a warning from the constabulary (i.e., the cops) who were charged with enforcement of the laws of the Administrative State, and I was told to get a proper license or I’d get a fifty-dollar fine. read more…

Bronze Age Collapse in the Time of Brady

The spawn of a recent article by Richard Fernandez (https://pjmedia.com/richardfernandez/surprise-collapse/) is a rather gloomy extended thought on my part. It is my tendency to be gloomy, true, but that aside, I have the habit of seeing analogy in most of what I hear and read. This is like a constant echo going on in my head, a second voice not unlike my own, and often results in a stupid slack jawed look on my face when I am engaged in listening to others (either that or I’m just tired). I have even been known to drool on the page of a book in my hands—something akin for me to farting in church. But back to my thesis: The Bronze Age Collapse in our time. read more…

About American Philosophy

The occasion of this post is my recent discovery of a wonderful book by John Kaag entitled American Philosophy, a Love Story. Before I get to any criticism of the work, I should commit myself beyond the adjective ‘wonderful,’ and say that I think it is indeed truly excellent and worthwhile, but worth a great deal more to those who are interested in the genealogy of the ideas that drive our modern world. The rest of you may just get a kick out of the love story. read more…

Observations

Children crave order in their lives. Given the seeming chaos aswirl about them, fixing on the specific edges of a particular blanket or a sequence of events that repeats regularly, like a nap time or snack time, offers them a sense of what and when. There is comfort to place and as they learn the words for the objects they encounter daily they are pleased to discover an identity to things. You can witness the joy of their recognition.

This is all very simplistic, of course. More is going on in those new minds that we can readily understand, but there is much that can be seen and heard that is common to any child, no matter the culture or circumstance. They enjoy the order of shapes and colors. And if they are given the chance, they enjoy changing the order when they are able, exerting some control over the objects about them. The more they discover they can manipulate their world, the greater joy they find in it, and the faster they learn. read more…

It’s a calendared thing

It is a calendared thing
To mark the beginning,
And once again to start
As if there’s an end to it,
And the year is complete
And something new commenced;
As if you might do over,
Or bid farewell and goodbye
To what you have done—
Little or all that it is;
For what you did
Is what you’re doing
And what you’ve done
Is what you’re pursuing.

Sing Auld Lang Syne, my dear
And bid time return, again,
To find the best you’ve lost,
Or forget the things undone—
But resolution is not enough.
It’s what you’re doing,
And not the seasons you’ve rung.
Auld acquaintance will not forget
The hurt you’ve wrought
Or the love you’ve brought
And the weather will not beget
Or better any or all of that,
Unless you change your course.
So, choose your destination!

The Bookseller’s Dilemma

Booksellers are a lot like actors. It is a cliche that actors will too often assume they are capable of the accomplishments of the characters they portray and come to believe that they know what a character actually felt. Booksellers often see themselves as possessing the wisdom that is in the books they sell, whereas they only possess the books. The playacting of children is in many ways a rehearsal for the actions of adults. The empathy felt by the reader will often extend into everyday life. That is the power of books, just as it is the wonder felt by an audience in suspended disbelief watching a portrayal in a movie or on the stage. read more…

The Arrogance

I suppose it is the arrogance that offends me most. Not the stupidity. An individual can be correct and be arrogant and thus offensive. I am usually willing to forgive stupidity because such foolishness comes to me so easily. But stupidity, at least on a case by case basis, can be cured. Arrogance, not so much. It is the arrogant who kill other people on the road as often as themselves, who ruin other peoples lives with politics without care, and who assume knowledge they do not have to crush the creativity of others. And that’s just for starters. The more I think about it, the more instances of arrogance reveal themselves as the crux of most of the bad situations in life. read more…

Neither frangible nor fungible

That some would have you believe your liberties are fragile and must be protected by government, or that you must trade your liberty in one thing to have it in another, is in the very nature of tyrants, despots, and town clerks. Your freedom is your domain, alone. There is no other ruler than yourself. If you choose to trade off some portion of your liberties to another purpose, for instance working in an office for pay, understand that it still exists, however hidden, and is only misplaced. You can no more rid yourself of the responsibility for your freedom than you can willfully stop your breath. Thus, when others assume your rights and act in your name, you must protest, if you can. And if for convenience you remain silent, you betray yourself. You may obey the town clerk to achieve some other purpose, but the freedom you have sacrificed is not extinct—it is simply held in jail by another who holds a gun and that you must obey for the moment in order to survive. read more…

A guest at the feast of memory

What we all must learn, I suppose, or else lose ourselves completely, is that very little in the world is really about us. My experience fifty years ago at Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro Vermont was peripheral to that time and place—not secondary or marginal or incidental—but a tangent. It changed my life and the lives of others who went there, but each in our own way.

A week ago, as I drove home in the September twilight from the first and only class reunion, I was alone at a feast of memories. It was a rich two hour meal. But very little of that could have been shared, even if the other two fellows who had gathered with me that day had been in the car as well. Yes, only the three of us. read more…

That’s great! Against banality in it’s prime

I should be ashamed of myself, but I will probably use the word carelessly again this very day. But still, I am ashamed of myself for it. There is not an easier word to use for both what is in fact the best and what is simply terrific, or momentarily special, or even unexpectedly good. And this unfortunate lexi-con comes to mind again whenever I have been called to account for the best in literature.

What is ‘Great Literature,’ which is to say, ‘What makes literature great?’ Such written stuff is often alluded to, without excuse, or explanation. Austen, Homer, Bronte, Hemingway, Eliot, Frost, Cather, Joyce, Melville, Byron, Shelly, et al. But the question ought to be asked, if for no other reason than to define the premises and allow you to recognize other works for what they are. That is unless you like being told what to read—in which case there is no point going further here. read more…

At the postmodern multi-perplex

More screens but still nothing worth knowing

(from the novel in progress A Republic of Books, more of which can be found elsewhere on this ethereal site)

 

What is to be done? It is the question that comes shortly after you have asked, ‘what part do I play?”

And well that you should ask.

What are the chthonic joys of living underground, beneath the heel of the walking dead? The term ‘underground’ is metaphor today, much used and abused, mostly by those who would like to see themselves as some sort of ‘resistance,’ but don’t know what to resist without being told and haven’t the guts for their convictions, without being paid, much less the intelligence to understand the consequences of their resentments. Just about the same as it was in the 1960’s. Many of the slogans are even the same, but with history no longer taught, the latest generation of youth wouldn’t know. read more…

Notes in ink on the age of television

The book of my lifetime had only a vague but passing resemblance to those made by the Dutch emigrant to England, Wynken de Worde—like a cousin whose mother might have had extracurricular interests. The paper, the ink, the typography, the binding, and the covers of the year 1500 were all unlike anything I knew. Nevertheless, those handmade and crafted volumes were true relatives to the pale and near bloodless objects I read—devoured, really—bought and sold, wrote and published myself. And, this now ancient trade of bookmaking might have been my legacy, at least in some alternate universe that I might even write about someday, but in this corporeal and existential world we occupy, my grandchildren will not know the book.

The importance of this is incalculable. Even to the smallest detail. They will not know the pause of the page, the texture even, of manufactured paper, the smell of ink and glue in the gutters, or the feel and weight of a volume in hand. They will not understand the importance of typography in giving comfort to the eye, pleasing the mind, and aiding comprehension, perception and interpretation. That much, and more, to be had before the first word is read! read more…

What’s all this, then?

[A post-preamble to A Republic of Books, portions of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]

 

This is my chance, then, to cast myself in the hero’s role. I’ve been a humble author and bookseller for all these years. (Allow me my hyperbole—at least I’m much humbled.) I don’t run into tall buildings to save women and children while other’s flee. (My knees have never been that strong, but do the women need the saving anymore?) My eyes are not good enough to fly jet planes or hit a fast ball. I sell old books and a few that are new, and write what I cannot sell. And though the writing has been much ignored, it is a witness to what I do and what I’ve done—that is, for sixty-eight years I have done pretty much what suited me. And here, at last, is a chance to do what is arguably better if not best. The argument is not settled. That I have waited until now, when I have so little left to lose, may be some mitigation of your judgment of all this, perhaps. Or that the overwhelming risk of failure at this point makes any effort romantically futile (and possibly planned that way). That I should have done more to prevent what has finally come to pass might cast me into the lower ranks of Dante’s hell, but at least I won’t be letting a good collapse of Western Civilization go waste. There is a story here to be written, and if it transpires that there is no one left to read it, so be it. That is at least consistent with all else. (The whine you hear is not self pity, but the wind in the gears.) I sally forth. My armor is the truth. I have a worthy truck for my steed. My companion is—well, we’ll work that out. read more…

notes on the revolution:

an ongoing ramble

Oh, the incorporate me.

 The ‘corporation’ as it has been recreated in modern business and law represents a large portion of our current problem and a significant cause thereof.

Oddly, interestingly, and contrarily, under our code of laws, you may not own a person. That is known as slavery. Yet you may own a corporation, or shares in a corporation, just as you may own a car or a house. However, a car is not currently entitled to vote. Nor a house. Nor a corporation, per se. A person is. A corporation is property. It can be sold. But according to the authorities, a corporation is a person . . . Got that. If you don’t it’s because you are not a sophisticated thinker—i.e., its your own fault. Most importantly, and included in this status as a human being, a corporation has limited liability. Now, if you run out of money, or are the cause of a misadventure, you are liable for your debts. If a corporation runs out of money, tough luck. You can read about this case law in many places, and this status has existed in our country for almost two centuries and has been upheld by no less than the Supreme Court of the United States in 1819 (Dartmouth College vs. Woodward), or here http://www.oyez.org/cases/1792-1850/1818/1818_0/. read more…

Of ‘Children and Fish’

I was just rereading the great Richard Mitchell essay, ‘Children and Fish,’ and thinking it was my favorite of all. It is a difficult choice to make, given my appreciation of the others, but certainly I have read it more often and find myself considering it anew with each reading. The subject of what we make of ourselves was the particular point that hooked my thoughts this time.

One measure of Mitchell’s depth and breadth is that he could read a turgid socialist polemic like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and find something edifying. In this case, it was in the clear representation of a negative: Bellamy’s ruthless idea of human rights. Wading through the weeds of such thought, tiresome and full of poisonous ticks, had kept me from ever finishing the book, but Mitchell, always the good teacher and likely made immune to such foolishness by the annual inoculation of live virus in sophomoric term papers, has extracted the lie that is the very linchpin of the socialist state.

Remember now that Looking Backward was a stunning bestseller in its day. Stunning in all the senses of the word. How this came to be is another subject for another time, but it explains the mind of a certain intellectual strata of the late Nineteenth Century and how the thinking of people as diverse as Margaret Sanger and Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey and Eugene V. Debs might have developed. It was a ‘can do’ age and the idea that people could be educated to be good—as in, to act in a socially acceptable manner—was afoot as well as in a lot of heads. Never mind asking what ‘good’ is.

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The flea is with us

71Ew4KATtbLIn the foreword to his excellent and now near classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that it was Aldous Huxley and not George Orwell who recognized the greater danger to our modern society. “But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think . . . What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no reason to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” I would accuse Postman of prescience, given the overwhelming onslaught of irrelevance in this age of the internet, if it were not already true, as he well documents, in those tamer times of television and the three major networks. Now, thirty years hence, I fear the damage is wholly done. The flea is with us.

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Stewing on the ambiguities

The American dream may not be what it once was, but it is still there.

Entering small towns, from California to Maine, you may be struck by how similar they appear, displaying again and again the natural gallimaufry of a single culture that spans a continent. But this awareness is even greater when you stop and speak to the people themselves. Some of this continuity is frozen in the outward brass of the chain stores, of course, but it goes far deeper. The culture you can still find beyond the suburbs was not invented by Ray Crock and Sam Walton. Most of these people are conceived and raised to a behavior that is at once sweet and pleasantly sour, churned by the dash to butter as well as buttermilk. read more…