Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Book Thing

Total Number Of Books Owned Ever: Gods, I'm going to guess 10,000. I never was much of a library-user. If I like it, I buy it. My contribution to libraries is leaving the books on their shelves for other people to find and enjoy. And then donating the books to them when I realize I haven't opened them again in two or three years. I've owned so many that at times I feared structural collapse in the houses I inhabited. I've used stacks of books as furniture.

Last Book Bought: Ordered from a club: Endkampf, about the death throes of Nazi Germany as experienced by the U.S. soldiers and the German civilians in one region of Franconia, and Crucible of American Democracy: The Struggle to Fuse Egalitarianism and Capitalism in Jeffersonian Pennsylvania. It's a new book on a topic I try to maintain my expertise on. Two of the books I wrote covered early 19th century Pennsylvania history, and I sometimes still get called by newspapers, magazines, and TV producers to comment about it.

Last Book I Read: France in 1938, a lively picture, artfully painted, of a country that confronted great challenges and walked away from them.

Thanks to this book, I finally understand the unspoken rules of the parliamentary game as the French play it; how and why coalition governments form and fall. I can't say I respect it very much more for knowing this, though. The writing is very tight and brisk for an historical work.

The problem with coming to power because the opposition has failed to solve major problems is then having to solve them.

More people would read history of more historians wrote such clarified prose.

Five Books That Mean A Lot To Me

1. "The Eighth Day," which really stands for "anything by Thornton Wilder." My reading friends mostly have been post-modernists and new historicists, lovers of hard bop and William Burroughs. When I'd mention a weakness for Wilder, they'd get this sad look on their faces and change the subject. I learned to not mention it. Like I learned not to mention that I was moved by "Appalachian Spring" and the "Adagio For Strings." These pieces were modern, but backward-looking, like Wilder's novels and plays. And they were "romantic." The whole 20th century has swerved determinedly away from romanticism, and especially from any whiff of sentimentality.

Wilder, like Wyeth and Copland and Barber -- and John Coltrane -- could distinguish sentiment from sentimentality, and they didn't have to flee from both for fear of not knowing the difference. Sentimentality is a shoddy imitation of a fine human feeling, but in the determined avoidance of mush, many writers have abandoned valid emotions and high human feelings. Wilder was one of the few authors in the last century who attempted that dangerous ground, who walked toward sentiment with open eyes. And he did so with a craft as solid as Ezra Pound or James Joyce, the great writers who led the swerve away from Victorian pap.

In 8th grade, I didn't know any of this. I was a sullen, obnoxious kid who tended to ignore reading assignments. My English teacher, Mrs. Siler, a loud, proud daughter of Dixie, assigned us to read a play, and if we couldn't find a suitable play, she'd pick one for us. If I had been my teacher then, I probably would have assigned myself something by O'Neill. But she told me to read Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." I read it and was amazed. I date my adult interest in reading (and in writing) from that year, which was when I also read "Lord of the Rings." Over the years, I've enjoyed Wilder's novels more than his plays: "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," and then "The Ides of March," which fixed in my mind the persons of Caesar, Catullus and Cleopatra so well that, though I've encountered them in a dozen other fictions and films, if they don't match the Wilder version, I don't quite buy it.

"Heaven's My Destination" is a brilliant comedy centered on the kind of earnest, polite young Christian fundamentalist that grows so thick in this corner of the world you can't toss a Bible without hitting one on the head. But it's all done with genuine affection, and fictional George Brush [!] remains my favorite fundamentalist. But "The Eighth Day" is Wilder's masterpiece, weaving beautiful symphonic music out of the vaudeville of "Skin of Our Teeth." It's as hard-headed as Ayn Rand and as hopeful as a first love.

Wilder served in both World Wars; he suffered an ambivalent sexuality in an America that was intolerant of such things. And he wrote not with the grim "cold eye" of the mature Yeats (who never went to war), but with a warm, loving affirmation of the beauty in the big messy world. That's the concept Mrs. Siler, I suspect, was trying to whisper to the sullen big kid who sat in the back row of Ardmore Junior High School.

2. "Selected Poems," William Butler Yeats. My literary first love in my college years was Yeats. I found in him then a romantic intensity that matched my own, but he had wings to soar in words. I find in him now a matchless excellence as a writer. Anyone who wrote poetry in the 20th century, or who read modern poetry seriously, had to confront Yeats. Every serious writer was aware of him, either flowing through channels he cut or else trying to scramble out of them. Yeats was in many ways a bridge for the best of the 19th century to cross into the 20th, and that's a formidable legacy.

Kant knew that philosophy thrived when it was deemed trivial by priests and bankers and social reformers and prime ministers. If those people had thought philosophy important, they would have sought to control it or repress it or buy it or pervert it. The quest for truth can only occur in the autonomy known by the scorned and neglected. Yeats knew the same thing about poetry when he wrote "Adam's Curse." In a modern, commercial society, unless poets and philosophers are deemed dreamers and fools, no human thought will be free.

He is, I admit, a man's poet, with all the folly and foolish nobility that implies. Lately I've been reading the later Yeats: "The Winding Stair and Other Poems." I see these poems that I've known since I was 18 with fresh poignancy and power. I had read then, but never felt till now, his bitterness at leaving youth just when he'd finally mastered its arts. The powers I feel now: to please a young woman's heart, to lead her to the well of her sensual self and clear the rushes and clarify the water so that she may drink deeply and long -- all these attained powers arrive at the same time I begin to find gray hairs and my hip hurts.

3. "De l'Amour," Stendhal. Stendhal is the most amazing observer of human nature I've ever read. In his youth, Marie-Henri Beyle campaigned with Napoleon in Italy, Germany, Russia and Austria, and after the final defeat of the French he retired to Italy, took the name Stendhal, and began to write. He eventually returned to Paris and wrote novels -- first "Le Rouge et le Noir" and then "La Chartreuse de Parme," completed in an astonishing 52 days. For Stendhal, Napoleon and his career were a brilliant meteor that blazed, never forgotten, never fully understood. Balzac appreciated his work, and Byron enjoyed his company, but for the most part Stendhal was ignored by his contemporaries -- a sure mark of genius.

Anyone who has ever been in love should spend some time with "De l'Amour," Stendhal's attempts to sort out his own feelings in the midst of a hopeless passion as he offers "a detailed account of all the phases of that disease of the soul called love." In a tribute to the book, the critic Michael Wood wrote,

"De l'Amour is a notebook, a collection of thoughts, memories, anecdotes, epigrams, patches of analysis. It is almost always delicate, often brilliant, a book to keep quoting from. ... He knew that truth is often fragmentary, that De l'Amour ... may ultimately say more for being less composed, less like a well-rounded essay, for being drastically unfaithful to its stiff intentions."

Modern readers may be delighted by the frank feminism of many of Stendhal's digressions.

I also find Stendhal smiling from the shadows of some of my favorite modern fiction, such as W.G. Sebald's "The Emigrants," which blends fiction, memory, and history in just the way Stendhal does. Critics compared Sebald to Ingmar Bergman, Kafka and Proust. But "The Emigrants' " true antecedent is Stendhal's unfinished autobiographical "Life of Henri Brulard." The evocation of memory throughout the Sebald book recalls Stendhal's image, in trying to recall his own childhood, of ancient frescos in ruins. Here's an arm, precisely and vividly painted on plaster. And next to it is bare brick. Whatever it once attached to is gone beyond recall.

4. "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman. Anyone who's serious about American poetry, or about poetry, or about America, has to read "Leaves of Grass." But be careful what you get. The 1855 original version doesn't have some of the better-known pieces, which were added over a lifetime of revising and expanding, but it crackles with wild lightning as Whitman surveys a new reality like some Blake titan.

In each subsequent reprinting, he trimmed his vision to the unmoved world. In altering his poems to fit the (mostly negative) critical reception, Whitman marred their original angelic stride. He became a poet of causes, rather than a poet who contained causes. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but fortunately the 1855 original is still printed, and often sold more cheaply that the revised anthology of Whitman's work.

The more I think about it, the more impressed I am that I grew up beside a city that actually has a "Walt Whitman Bridge" as a major artery -- given that name only after an end-run around the blinder sort of Christians and patriots who despised his morals, but named that nonetheless. America surprises you in unexpected places.

5. "Selected Poems," Robinson Jeffers. I've long been a champion of Jeffers. Though he's not the most popular American poet, he seems to have gained ground in recent years. He is probably the best heir of Whitman's long-line style. He's also an embodiment of whatever California used to be in the '20s and '30s: the magical, wild place before half of America moved there and trampled it to fragments. California when California was a refuge from America's vulgarities rather than their factory. Trawlers coasting slowly through the fog, heron-cries, wild horses, hawks on the headland and cruel, cruel fires.

His father was a professor of Old Testament studies. He began learning Greek at age 5. Unlike many poets of his generation (Pound, Williams, Eliot), Jeffers turned his back on the cosmopolitan culture and sought the primeval, which he found on the (then) desolate California coast around Carmel. There, he felt, "for the first time in my life I could see people living -- amid magnificent unspoiled scenery -- essentially as they did in the Sagas or in Homer's Ithaca. ... Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life."

Five Books You've Given to Someone

1. "ABC of Reading" by Ezra Pound. I've written about Pound here. This book is his short, irrascible introduction to good poetry, and good criticism, and how to tell them apart from what is merely popular in any time and place. He uses the comparative method, and does the necessary weed-clearing that allows you to think about poetry fresh.

2. "Their Ancient Glittering Eyes," by Donald Hall. Hall, himself a poet of some repute (I confess, I never got into his work) is a wonderful interviewer. As a young man, he did "Paris Review" style interviews with the grand old men of American poetry: Frost, Eliot, and Pound, along with the melifluous train wreck that was Dylan Thomas. What's published here are more than just interviews, however. What makes the book resound are the anecdotes about what it took to get into the presence of these men and what it felt like to be there.

The book also includes Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore, and Archibald MacLeish, though they feel like something of an afterthought beside the big four. Hall writes eloquently of the down-home poet Robert Frost that the real Robert Frost wore for much of his career. Readers who only know the "Best-Loved Poems" Frost can read Hall's stories of him and better understand the nihilism of "Acquainted With the Night," the suicide musings of "Come In," or the sensuality of "Putting In the Seed."

He was vain, he could be cruel, he was rivalrous with all other men; but he could also be generous and warm -- when he could satisfy himself that his motives were dubious. He was a man possessed by guilt, by knowledge that he was bad, by the craving for love and the necessity to reject love offered.

Hall also writes of the anguish of the elder Pound, who saw his whole world go to hell, twice.

3.-4. "Da Vinci's Bicycle," and "Seven Greeks," both by Guy Davenport. I've written about Davenport here, and here, and here.

5. "Like Life," by Lorrie Moore. An astonishing short-story collection. She's word-smart, and her radar is so fine-tuned it can pick up the agony that echoes faintly in the emptiest of small-talk. She lays her wit and humor directly onto the most grisly cannibalisms of modern life. It's painful, and painfully good.

Here I am supposed to tap five successors to carry the book meme torch. But I fear I've come so late to this task that most of the people I would like to hear from already have written their answers and I'll look foolish for not realizing that. But I'll take a chance:

Amritas, Amy, TmjUtah, Marc Schulman, and I'd say Michael Yon, but what he is doing right now is just so damn good I wouldn't want to distract him from it for even as long as it takes to answer the questions.

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