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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…

On the dying of time

And the absence of Flapdragons

[A bit of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, to be found growing elsewhere on this ethereal site.]

For all of my life I have been taught and heard repeatedly all the wrong things about writing, and about how to write. I think of this as the E. B. White school of authorship with John Gardner and David Lodge as adjunct professors—all of them worthy practitioners of the craft, and all of them dead wrong. Dead for sure. As I will be, soon enough. And, in that they have the advantage of some professional success that I do not, this fight would seem to be unfair. Still, I persist with the thought. read more…

The Lincoln Compromise

(Another dram of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, to be found growing elsewhere on this ethereal site)

Abraham Lincoln, whom I love as if he had been an actual character in my life and a member of my family, is one of the great villains of our history. How did a man as introspective and wise as he was make so great a fundamental error as to go to war as a means to control the political disaster he faced in 1861? This is a mystery only more clouded by the thousand biographies written since. Unfortunately, what is commonly known of Lincoln is hagiography. He has been made a saint of the secular state, yet, he was a deeply religious man and what he did was very much tied to his beliefs. What is made clear by those thousand biographies is that we still do not understand the most important aspects of his thinking, and the questions that remain still beg for more illumination. Too much has not been explained. read more…

Who killed Phidias?

When simple murder is not enough

[and yet another bit from the seemingly never ending novel A Republic of Books, that is the ‘work in progress’, more of which is to be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]

I once wrote a novel about Phidias. There is almost nothing to know about the man but what you’ll find indirectly in Plutarch’s Lives, written centuries after. He was a sculptor, painter, teacher, warrior. But before him, art was of the stylized sort you will see on urns at the museum with two-dimensional cartoon figures chasing each other on the circumference. After him Aphrodite might step from the pedestal in front of your very eyes and plant a kiss upon your lips. At least, that’s the sort of thing I thought she might do while spending my hours at the Museum of Fine arts as a kid. And a few times afterward as well. Phidias simply changed the world that we might know—all that we could know. read more…

A note on the little I have learned

And that a man might be an island after all.

[Yet another taste of A Republic of Books, more of which can be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]

I had some reason a few years ago to think about Eden and man’s lost innocence and whatever is the cause of this that we can know. And all that thinking was the making of a book, one of the several that are now lost in the ether file. But let me tell you a little about that.

I once knew a fellow, I’d called him Ethan in the story, who had grown up on the coast of Maine and for much of his youth and early manhood had lived on one of the larger islands there. He was a good fellow, bright, friendly, strong and handsome and naturally charming in his ways. Because employment on the island was limited, Ethan took any job that was offered but more often than not he could be found painting one of the hundred summer homes that city dwellers kept there to have in order to enjoy their own taste of Eden each year, or else rent out to other fortunate families who could afford the price of admission for a week or two in season. But Ethan was also handy with carpentry, plumbing and electrical matters, all things he had learned early in life at the knee of a father, or uncle. Thus, his place in life was set for him like a place at the dinner table. read more…

The seven senses

 

As is so often the case, the Greeks got there first. Perhaps not always exactly or correctly, but at least in spirit. The seven liberal arts, as set out in ancient thought as the keys to education, are grammar, logic, and rhetoric, enhanced by arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Building a home, for instance, might require several of those elements. In ancient Greece, every free person was expected to take part in civic life through the conducting of one’s own affairs, which would necessarily require debate, the ability to defend oneself in court (there were no lawyers), serve on juries, and participate in military service.

A missing element in those requirements that I find interesting is the skill of agriculture. My guess is that animal husbandry and the growing of food stuffs was a given—an assumed chore for every person. But this omission troubles me in the same way that most philosophies do: a grand order is envisioned without recognizing the nature of the human beings who must abide by it. We must eat. We must drink. Some philosophies will address one aspect or another of our human traits, but few will propound their tenets based on what is—more usually envisioning what should be. read more…

The Miserables

In our time, as we watch the headless corpse of France flop in the shadow of a spiritual guillotine, it is difficult to imagine an age where Hector Berlioz and Saint-Saens, Bizet, Debussy and Offenbach filled the concert halls; Rostand, Feydeau, Brieux, Claudel, Labiche, de Vigny, and Daudet played upon the stage; the poetry of Musset and Mallarme, Coppee, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, was whispered in the chambers; the stories of De Maupassant, Proust, Sand, Balzac, Dumas, Flaubert, Zola, Verne, and dozens more filled the bookstalls; and in just a single year, the galleries were hung with new work by Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, and Gauguin. But it was in the midst of that age of giants that one man stood above and apart, as a poet, a dramatist, and preeminently as a novelist. And it is more difficult now to imagine a life so filled, so wholly well spent that he found hours at the corners to do so much else, and very well indeed—to design furniture, to paint, to become involved in the tumult of politics, to critique the work of others, to edit and to publish, to design theatre sets and homes, and to engage in a private life that alone would consume an average man. Such a character as Victor Hugo easily strikes awe in mere mortals. And, evidently, there is a recent hagiography by David Bellos that concentrates on just one of those protean accomplishments, the creation of Les Miserables. read more…

The Miller’s tale

The two original Mad Max films had a certain intelligence behind them, extrapolating an apocalyptic future from the present. And at minimal cost. They were, like the original Star Wars films, game changers. Post-nuclear holocaust could never be the same. The third in the series Beyond Thunderdome, was a mixed bag of misspent money and confused scripting that was little more than an apocalyptic exploitation film and parody of itself. Perhaps that should have been warning enough. But the fourth film in this franchise, Fury Road, the beautifully staged and very expensive reimagining taken from those earlier films by the same writer-director, George Miller, alters the field once again, by taking itself seriously and yet, ironically, suffers all the ills of our present world—technologically sophisticated filmmaking that is morally incoherent. And therein lies a tale that reflects the deepest weakness of modern society, our dependence on technology without moral purpose. read more…

Joe Bailey, and the reason for the dog

[Yet another paring of A Republic of Books, more of which can be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]

 

    Honest cops are a lot like honest reporters. There aren’t many of them around, and they both work for naturally corrupt organizations with political agendas that otherwise fill necessary ends in a society that wants more than its willing to give in return. The question comes up, why do they do it? Comes up a lot. Like every morning when I’m drinking my coffee.

    But this morning was a little different. This morning I got a call from Peter Ignatz and he tells me that they have killed George Jones.

    George was one of the good ones. He was in for over twenty years, had stalled out as Lieutenant because he wouldn’t take the bribes, and should have been good for another ten, at least. Before that he had been a Marine. He could take care of himself. So they shot him in the back.

    My paper is not going to assign me to the story. My editor knows George was a friend of mine. So it’s on me to do what I will. Peter understands that I understand all that.

    The wisdom that can be found in a cup of coffee can be measured by the ounce. I use a pretty large mug, myself. Still, I couldn’t handle all the thoughts. read more…

Yes and No

There are two kinds of people, those who think there are two kinds of people and those who do not, but of course, the latter group are wrong. The very taxonomy of human being, that state of existence so bullied, bloodied, disparaged, idolized, hated, loved, condoned, copied, studied, spied, watched, ignored, rejected, classified, identified, distinguished, too often extinguished, and so totally misunderstood, is incomprehensible unless you use this simple tool. There are two of you and no more.

Some may disparage this realization as the petty enlightenment of a sophist. But sophistic or not, it is true and truth bears a great weight of its own. Many people, too many people it appears, are unable to make a simple choice between good and bad. They choose to make no choice at all which is a choice in itself. 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…

The problem is . . .

The problem is that the two major political forces of our age, socialism and capitalism, are rotten to the core. Ostensibly, socialism is the ‘public’ ownership of property and capitalism is the private ownership of property. In practice, neither is true. Capitalism, functionally the private accumulation of wealth for private means and purposes, becomes a tool of government objectives and a beneficiary of government favoritism as it attempts to make the greatest profit through the cheapest measures. Socialism, given that a true democracy will not function if there is an objection by the majority, assumes total power ‘for the people’ in the hands of the fewest politicians, and inevitably becomes a dictatorship not of the proletariat but of the meanest bully.

It may be argued that there are other political forces at large. Religion, for instance. Currently the strong horse in that field is Islam, largely advantaged by the fact that it is both a religion and a philosophy of government. Both socialism and capitalism see this development as an aberration. It will pass, as it has before. But historically, it does persist. The problem with Islam is that it is an automatic dictatorship and thus has an automatic enemy within—anyone in the population who does not agree. The great advantage of Western society is that it has found an alternative in allowing disagreement to fuel change. This will inevitably make Westerns societies stronger even as they might suffer the wounds of revolution. read more…

Otto Biedermeier is dead.

My guess is that most of you did not even know he was sick.

Sadly, the great filmmaker, Otto Biedermeier has died, and it is perhaps parody that killed him.

And it is for that reason alone that his death is the subject of the sudden novel I have just completed. You see, I was happily in the midst of another story when the news reached me. There seemed to be nothing else to do but put other matters aside and pursue the truth of it. He would have done the same for me.

The year 2016 was a tough one. Still, it was better than I deserved. Howbeit, Otto didn’t make it through. I thought the reason might be important to some. read more…

An open letter to those who might be wondering.

The move from Abington, Massachusetts to Lee, New Hampshire has been better than feared, but perhaps ultimately worse for the simple demonstration of fact that I haven’t the energy, muscle mass, or psychological stamina I once had. There has been an attrition, beginning with moving the old store and that massive accumulation of 30 years from 339 Newbury Street, back in 2003, and then the fire in the business below us at 353 Newbury that ruined the hopes of our new location shortly after, the subsequent move of what was salvaged to warehousing and our apartment in Brookline, and then the later move to Abington in 2006, all of which took more out of me than I wanted to admit. Confessing it here is not by way of an excuse, but a recognition of facts as they are. I am still learning to deal with it. Perhaps too slowly. read more…

Trifles taken from the alms-basket of words

[a bagatelle from A Republic of Books, a ‘novel in progress’ to be found elsewhere on this site]

By the bye, the category I have chosen for my work is ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus,’ as it is found in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, if for no other reason than it allows me the citation as well as the use of three possessives in one sentence: “O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.“ [Costard, act 5, scene 1]. This was, according to the first edition published at London by Cutbert Burby in the year 1598, “A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called, Loves Labors Lost,” and presented before her Highness Elisabeth the First for the previous Christmas.

By God, flap-dragons! read more…

Let us consider Cleisthenes

A fragment of marble from Mount Pentelicus

[being a small sum of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books]

 

Nevertheless, at the end of some days, the weight of such matters does add up. Or perhaps I’m just getting too old for it. Finally alone, and at home, I found myself considering my situation in the larger context. It is too easy to see things subjectively. I was not at the center of this wheel, after all. I was simply at an edge and thus getting more contact.

It was some comfort to me to remember that when Benjamin Franklin was my age, he became a revolutionary. Not overnight, mind you, but in one afternoon.

Certainly he had entertained thoughts of American independence, but not as the sort of government it would soon become. ‘Independence’ was more a relative thing at the time. The meaning of the word was ambiguous and used to mask many permutations of what was, at the bottom line, a subjugation to Crown and Parliament. read more…

All slaves are equal . . .

but some get to live in the big house.

(Oh yes, another potable portion from the novel in progress A Republic of Books, to be found elsewhere on this site.)

A novel is a flimsy currach indeed in which to set out on a journey such as this. The urgency to remain afloat supersedes all else. But a reasonable destination must be chosen and achieved, while most heavy baggage must be left ashore. The number of passengers is necessarily limited, and movement therein is restricted. Nevertheless, we sally forth, if a barging may be called a sally.

Revolutions are not made. They are stumbled upon. Many are attempted. But few revolutionaries avoid the gibbet. One moment the malcontents were arguing among themselves about what sort of association might be allowed with their King, and in the next a courier with news of shots fired at Lexington and Concord arrives. Thence, the ne’er-do-well editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, previously a peace loving chap, has “rejected the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England forever.” The point is, no matter all the talk, not one of those true geniuses that fashioned the old Republic we have now lost had imagined a United States of America before April 1775. read more…

Unto an age of Romanticism, . . .

or On the Beach.

(Perchance, another potable portion from a chapter of A Republic of Books, the ‘novel in progress’ to be found elsewhere on this site.)

When I arrived at 5th Street she answered the door with a deeply caught breath, as if she’s been furiously cleaning things up and I had arrived ten minutes too early. Or maybe she had ridden too fast on her bike. She immediately moved toward me to leave, pulling the door shut behind, but I didn’t budge, which got her plenty close for a moment. I could smell her sweat.

“There’s nothing to see, really.”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

She sighed and backed up.

I already knew from conversation that her apartment was more than twice the size of my place, at less than half the cost. I saw right off now that she likes blues and whites, and a splash of orange—like the orange of an apricot. The blues and whites remind me of a bed-and-breakfast where Margret and I once stayed in Holland. I remember that the bed was hard there. read more…

Beyond the age of reason,

wherein love is lost and found.

(A potable portion from a chapter of A Republic of Books, the ‘novel in progress’ to be found elsewhere on this site.)

Has our Thirty Years’ War only just begun, or has it ended long since and the news simply not yet arrived via a slow internet connection? I have often felt that way about history—in my youth especially. In those days the various socialist religions had long been at odds, much as the Catholics and Protestants of the Reformation once were—Christian killing Christian, with one Wallenstein after another rising in the ranks: Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, Mao or Khrushchev, Fidel and Che. From 1918 to 1989, this bloodletting had been an endless seventy years, more than twice the length of the key Reformation conflict, but a hundred times more deadly if mere lives are counted. Mere human lives, you understand, unlived. But then again, there are those who believe the Reformation never ended. And I see all of that in the troubled eyes of some students today.

Why do I carry this book, or that one, they ask? read more…

In an age of enlightenment,

the illuminated manuscripts burn brightest.

(A potable portion from a chapter of A Republic of Books, the ‘novel in progress’ to be found elsewhere on this site.)

I believe that enlightenment tends to come upon societies in much the same manner as it occurs to an individual. One day you are repeating your mistakes with all the industry of an ant in a side-walk crack and the next you awaken to the fresh bliss of a new path of truth, and the thrill of your own brilliance, and begin setting your course apart. It is not unfair to credit ourselves with this renaissance of thought, because we have usually suffered for it. But it is incorrect to assume the cause was some specific discovery of knowledge that was unleashed by our own effort alone. Typically it involves such a morass of thought, so difficult to interpret, that in order to come up with an excuse for our heroism, we are liable to invent a new philosophy. That is how religions are often born, as well as sophism, pragmatism, objectivism, empiricism, and a hundred other isms born of a sudden morn. read more…