How your automatic spelling checker is like a tyrant—an arrogator and a dictator, a control freak, a stickler, a monocrat, a fusspot, a pedant, a faux-purist, an anti-perfectionist, a saboteur, an autarch, a czar, a usurper, a disciplinarian, a despot, a vandal and worse, and why that is so much like big government. read more…
at play with words
[A bit of flotsam from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be salvaged from elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
So, about ten years ago, for lack of a more useful or rewarding project, I attempted to write a play set in a bookshop very much like my own, and make use of the little I had learned to entertain an audience with loud farce in the same way Buster Keaton once did in silence. That was my goal, in any case. It seemed to me that much of what I did was funny, or at least humorous and certainly laughable.
Because I have always found it so much easier to be critical than generous, and spend too much time on an average day disparaging some author or another to the detriment of my business, I had entitled my little comedy, Knox Books, assuming anyone would know or care that the great Henry Knox had once operated a bookshop in Boston—it was the play on the homonym of his name that I wanted this time. And there could be little confusion between that effort and my later use of the big man in my play with Phillis Wheatley because no one has read that one either. read more…
a little known victory retold
[a shrift from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which can be found elsewhere in this ethereal site]
Given my lack of success, I have been asked more than once why I wanted to write in the first place, much less continue in the effort. Besides the loaded context, there is a certain stupidity inherent to the inquiry that begs to be ignored. I have never known someone who knew exactly why they wanted what they do, other than farmers and those few who take over their father’s business. (Note: we are not culturally advanced enough yet to have as many women following in their mother’s footsteps, but that time will come.) Most people, as I have mentioned before, don’t do what they ever dreamed of doing when they were young, but then again, those who gain some control of their lives often find themselves doing something they like.
Like the many reasons for naming my bookshop what it is, there are at least that many causes for me to write. More than that, I have actually written about those reasons before. But lying in bed the other night and trying to sleep to the rattle of a loose gutter battered by too much rain, I happened to remember one of the best of my excuses. read more…
but if the tree is on a hill, an apple can roll pretty far
[another bite of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
Of all the many failures for which I hold myself responsible, my children are the most discouraging. They have each taken up one or more of my many faults and grafted them onto their own stem. My complaint might sound similar to that of any parent who has wished the best for his family and then, his best advice discarded, watched helplessly as they sallied forth to their own destinies, but I think my unhappiness is at least somewhat deepened by the degree of separation, even when they are in the same room. We love each other, well enough. I have never had any inkling that they do not love me, or their mother, and my own affections have never flagged. But it is a fact that I cannot easily speak with them about any topic closer to our personal lives than the sports results, the places we have gone or would go if we could, eating establishments we have discovered or recollections of all the more mundane things we have done. The present indicative in our own lives is pretty much verboten. Politics is off limits. The news—beyond the reportage of an ongoing catastrophe—is taboo. Philosophy is prohibited. Personal problems (other than medical) are wholly proscribed. And talk of my own work, because it so often transgresses one or more of the above categories, is banned in Boston. read more…
with a virtual wifeful of corrections
[A riff from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which can be read elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
I wrote this a few years ago: ‘He was a virtual husband of cute imperfections and she a veritable wife of helpful corrections. When first they met and fell in love, they lived together happily enough, until married, and only then found the weight of the actual contract too heavy a burden for either of them to bear; his endearing defects became unbearable to live with and the scorn of her complaints left him weary. She was not so very virtuous, and he most nearly imperfectible. He wanted verity, and she needed variety. Their divorce was inevitable.’ read more…
Wherein my education continues.
[another trifle from my alms-basket of words, A Republic of Books, the novel in progress to be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
The door opens abruptly, only seconds after I’ve unlocked it. The customer is in a hurry and makes that clear with several wagging gestures and a quick huff of breath. She is young, in her twenties, and has the sort of blue eyes you see on con-artists and movie actors—hard, as if outlined in black. Maybe its the mascara. The muscles of her cheeks have the stiffened took of pulled taffy. Not pleasant. Her nose extends between her cheeks like the foot of a clam. read more…
is killing ourselves to death
[A mote from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
‘I remember ye olde bookshoppe.’ This will undoubtedly be the subject of countless internet articles in the coming years as the last of us disappear—no, not the internet that we know today. By Moore’s Law, that will be thrice gone, but the names for the bookish parts will still be used, just the way they now abuse so many book terms to identify the ephemeral elements of digital word processing. But what will be recalled in that waxing of nostalgia, will in fact have never been. Just another joke in the dustbin of history. read more…
and the consequences of lying
[ being the latest driblet from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books]
Writing is, fundamentally, a conversation with yourself. That’s it, in the nutshell. (The nut shell of your own head, of course.) Remember to listen to yourself and answer your own questions when you can. Don’t just talk. Be polite. Try to finish the conversation as you would want to with anyone else. Beyond that it’s a dressing up, or down—to gussy or hone. If you can’t talk to yourself, you can’t talk to anybody, so forget about the whole thing. If what you’ve done with your words embarrasses you, revise. Never tell the truth if the lie is better. (A lie is less likely to embarrass you or anyone else.) But tell the truth if you must. And if, after an appropriate period of absence, your words confuse you, revise or recant. If your tone seems strident, soften that. If it feels too serious, make a joke of it. If you can’t laugh at your own joke, remove it and replace the blunder. If the whole thing bores you, toss it in the round file with your other failed efforts—but keep a copy. You may be in a better mood at a later time. And always keep in mind (the afore mentioned nutshell) nothing written is ever lost. read more…
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…
where the grapes of wrath are stored
[Another visit to the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
From the personal and particular back again to the spectacular, it is interesting enough to imagine—conjecture really—what would have happened if James Wilson had not fashioned his three-fifths compromise. There would have been no United States. More likely there would have been three nations, at least two of them above the Mason Dixon line, and all at odds and teeming with the vigor of youth. Such a novel of alternative history still needs to be written.
But then it was still more intriguing for me to think, what if Benjamin Lay, a man seemingly incapable of compromise, had not lived. James Wilson’s fellow delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania was Benjamin Franklin. And Franklin too had once been accepting of slavery. read more…
[another mouthful of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
My argument now is what it always was. Compromise, though it might be necessary at some moment of extreme circumstance, is not by itself a good. And its impossible for me to imagine what would have been if I had been willing to compromise with Margaret. My guess is that our marriage would have been shortened by many years and possibly by several children. Certainly the bookshop would be long closed, if ever opened at all. (She had wanted to go to Europe, remember, and asked me to go with her. Instead, when I refused, she had stayed home to help me get things going. It was she who compromised and was never happy for it. And for my part, had I gone along with her and our natural difference rubbed to a shine by the adventure, could the relationship have lasted? The writing would have been made secondary to some other job in the end, and in my misery I would have made Margaret more miserable than she was to be. Given the choice, I would not give the children up, nor would she, I believe, but the subject has often dawdled in my brain.
From the personal and particular, back again to the spectacular: it is interesting to imagine—conjecture really—what would have happened if James Wilson had not fashioned his three-fifths compromise. There would have been no United States. More likely there would have been three nations, at least two of them above the Mason Dixon line, and all at odds and teeming with the vigor of youth. Such a novel of alternative history still needs to be written.
[Another slip of the novel in progress A Republic of Books]
What is madness, anyway?
As a young man I was most amazed, in a negative way, by what passes for the religion of ‘psychology’ as a purported science, and worse, some branch of medicine, or even just as field of study. Like everyone in my generation, as we had escaped from the shadow of a failed religious past, I was bombarded by Freudian and then Jungian balderdash as an excuse for bad behavior or human stupidity. But always it was proffered as an excuse. One did not seek psychological help for building a house, or starting a business, only for burning the house down or stealing from the pension fund. But as a medicine, the practice of psychology ruined more lives than can ever be accounted for, simply by allowing or even in some cases causing, the troubled and the sick to suffer as prisoners in institutions, or the criminal to go free. In sum, the field of ‘psychology’ has proved itself far worse than, say, bloodletting, which at least had an imaginative basis in ‘bad and good humours’ for cause and effect, or than the more savage lobotomy, with its assumption of a physical basis for the psychosomatic, and mutilation and impairment as a desired result. While most psychological advice is at the level of a Smith and Dale vaudeville routine: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this!” “Don’t do that!” too much of it pretends cures from false reasoning. read more…
Wherein I am reminded of myself
[Another sip of A Republic of Books, the novel in progress, for your enjoyment]
John Yu has been coming in the shop since he was a kid. He is still a kid, but bigger. He went to MIT. He’s at the University of Pennsylvania now, though his parents still live in Brookline, where he grew up. By the time I finally took notice of him he’d been coming in the shop long enough to know the way things worked and he approached me one day, unexpectedly.
He held a book out and asked, “Why do you carry this?” Just like that.
I was kneeling in an aisle trying to maneuver a couple of extra volumes into a space too small. Our heads were about on level.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“That’s a question, not an answer.”
He had me there. read more…
[ A few more notes from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, that might entertain]
When you listen to Helene Grimaud play the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto you understand the music itself a little better, I think. There are other, ‘bigger’ performances. ‘Grander’ performances. But in this one she is paired with Claudio Abbado conducting and it is quieter presentation of the work and you are not overcome with the brilliance as much as the substance. I am not qualified to criticize Martha Agerich’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Third, by comparison. It is stupendous, I know. I have loved it for the better part of my life. But the composer is such a genius of the language of music that I wonder if I am missing some of what he has to say simply by the overwhelming technical virtuosity of Argerich playing. She overwhelms you. You can’t escape. But with Grimaud, I’ve had people in the shop stop their browsing and stand in awe to listen.
This was the matter in my head the next day as I tried to write, not only because I had the Rachmaninov playing while I worked. What I was doing with my story had me trapped by the presentation. I had to concentrate more on the substance than the circumstance. What more was there to say than that humanity had failed an obligation to itself. The blatant proof of that was in their very absence from the Earth, was it not? And that was like saying that God’s creation had failed. Was that possible? Wasn’t the idea now that a creation of mankind itself, not of God, could possibly save the day—and perhaps even enough to draw the link back again to God? read more…
[Another titillation from A Republic of Books, the novel in progress, the rest of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
Smelling guns and firing roses
a killing with kindness
‘There are more booby traps in the original Constitution of the United States than in a congress of naked women—not intentional, to my reading, but the by-product of the authors’ inexperience, never having done this sort of thing before in public and thus lacking the judgment to avoid such mistakes—including those greater matters such as slavery and women’s suffrage, and the more subtle ones such as the stultifying tenure of incumbency, the easy corruption of public office through ‘pay to play,’ the false front put up by supposed ‘checks and balances’ weighted like a thumb on a butcher’s scale in favor of the Presidency, and the so-called ‘electoral college’ meant to avoid the uneducated stupidity of the mob by preserving the idiocy of the powers that be, each of which have wrecked their own special havoc—but the one we have to fear the most once more, at this particular juncture of our history, when all the others have already played themselves out in the worst way again and again, is the power given to the Supreme Court by itself (at the behest of Chief Justice John Marshall) in 1803, in the case of Marbury vs. Madison. This was an unconstitutional act by every measure, and set the standard for all the extracurricular judicial hijinks to come.’
That was the key element in my blog of that morning. I figured the bit about boobies would raise the appropriate hackles among the humorless pseudo-feminists. read more…
[A tasty new collop that speaks for itself, taken from the work in progress, A Republic of Books]
However, my favorite scene in that book is the encounter between Henry Knox, Phillis Wheatley, and John Peters, her future husband. I liked it so much that I have already written a play from it!
Scene: December, 1773. Henry Knox’s London Bookshop. A young black woman, Phillis Wheatley, small in stature and neat in domestic dress, softly enters, and closes the door quietly. She is carrying a package. Henry Knox, behind his counter and doing bookkeeping, pretends not to take notice. A black man, John Peters, as tall as Knox but thin and wearing shabby laborer’s cloths, with a leather apron, is already in the far aisle, stage left, browsing the history books there. The woman slips into the aisle at the far right, and sits on a stool, taking a volume from a lower shelf. read more…
[ Yet another morsel of John Finn to be eaten alone or with the greater meal]
“The thunder had rumbled at my heels all the way, but the shower had passed off in another direction; though if it had not, I half believed that I should get above it. I at length reached the last house but one, where the path to the summit diverged to the right, while the summit itself rose directly in front. But I determined to follow up the valley to its head, and then finding my own route up the steep as the shorter and more adventurous way. I had thought of returning to the house, which was well kept and so nobly placed, the next day, and perhaps remaining a week there if I could find entertainment. Its mistress was a frank and hospitable young woman, who stood before me in a dishabille, busily and unconcernedly combing her long black hair while she kept talking, giving her head the necessary toss with each sweep of the comb, with her lively, sparkling eyes full of interest in that lower world from which I had come, talking all the while as familiarly as if she had known me for years, and reminding me of a cousin of mine. She at first had taken me for a student from Williamstown, for they went by in parties, she said, either riding or waking, almost every pleasant day, and were a pretty wild set of fellows; but they never went by the way I was going.”
It was that short bit, only a small fragment of recollection within the larger work, which had inspired me to write an entire novel about the young Thoreau. I had wanted to know more about that black haired young woman, but the Thoreau of the journal pressed on. read more…
[a tasty portion from another novel, John Finn, written a while back. It seems to work by itself.]
It seems to me that if a novel isn’t about a man and a woman then it ought to be about why it’s not about a man and a woman. I’ve come to this conclusion rather slowly over the years.
Still, even if it’s true, the thought irritates me. It’s a little too pat. Wasn’t this just the kind of thing Chekhov liked to say?
Appropriately, this was what played in my mind as I drove up Interstate 93 toward Lebanon, New Hampshire on Tuesday. I was trying to come to an understanding of the character I had created for my eighteenth century loyalist, Izaak Andrews, without insinuating my own experience into the situation—No, that’s too strong. Insinuation is fine. You have to write what you know. What I did not want was for the situation in my own life to blind my understanding of what might have happened to Izaak. He was becoming a much more sympathetic character than I had originally imagined him to be.
He had lost so much for his beliefs. His home. His country. And he had lost a daughter. read more…
[A titbit taste of the work in progress A Republic of Books]
In fact, all of this was the very subject of a couple of the novels and a play in the past few years. And it does seem now that my entire life is just a series of imagined events—the small stuff of what I had actually lived as a mere bookseller, all of it book dust really, mixed with my own hemoglobin, laid thin like handmade paper is done and then racked up to dry on the bones of some plot or another that is really only something I have observed in the lives of others and stolen for my own purposes. It seemed that I never found the time to live the adventures I wanted to write about. Or found the courage to. Though some of those stories offered more solace, I think—especially in retrospect—than others; even those that took place in a world that had not yet been. The future imperfect was a useful tense for writing. read more…
[Yet another scrap of a chapter from the unfinished novel in progress A Republic of Books]
I wrote that novel just last year. Not so funny the way I always placed my hero’s in their forties. Just a bit of cheap psychology, really. Those were easily my own best years. It was another chance to relive the moments lost and correct the past imperfect.
But that sort of pettiness did not always dictate. I had used the detail about the Hutcheson book before. That kind of continuity is something I want in my work. The details matter. read more…