The Bibliothecary
April 1 - April 15, 2005
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Friday, April 15, 2005
Here’s a piece from last October, printed in an online boxing journal, about Hemingway’s boxing prowess (or lack thereof)
and his friendship (or lack thereof) with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And two pieces on Fitzgerald himself: the author's connection with Long Island and the 80th anniversary of the publication of
The Great Gatsby (April, 1925).

Today is the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary.  Here's a
very well written
review of the new Henry Hitchings' book on The Great Cham:

Language is boundless, disorderly, perplexed, uncertain and, above all, “variable by the
caprice of every one that speaks it”. No feature of language can be rendered marmoreal,
and in this sense even the most extensive and rigorous effort of lexicography can get no
further than heroic defeat – a perception beautifully crystallized when Johnson writes
(reworking his verse account, from The Vanity of Human Wishes, of the helpless rage of
Xerxes at the Hellespont) that “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the
undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strengths”. The lexicographer
reverts to poetry here, for the most part with grim insistence on corruption and decadence,
but not without a counterstrain of relish, a sense that instability can equally be imagined as
cornucopian energy and teeming life. When he adds that “no dictionary of a living tongue
ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away”, the sense of rising
sap is no less important than the autumnal decay. Amidst the unflinching gloom, one of Johnson’s favourite terms for language and
meaning is “exuberant”: “growing with super-fluous shoots; overabundant; superfluously plenteous; luxuriant”.

Dan W writes:
In response to the
Guinness article. First, I have to mention that I love that photo. The harp, the smoke, the beer!! It makes
me want to book a flight to Old Erin tomorree! Of course that's not going to happen.  It's a sad state of affairs when I have a
better chance of actually going to Ireland then smoking a butt in a pub there.
Also, it's amazing to me that places like Northern Ireland would even consider following suit with the rest of the country. Why
don't they just cave in all together and sport the Union Jack. Sinn Fein! Slainte!
Is it possible I am being unreasonable? I don't know.  I would love for a smoking ban to sweep over the world and be the
unifying force to a lasting peace. I might even quit for that. But I don't think we smokers have to worry about that. I'll start
worrying when the paper headline reads: Tali-Smoking-Ban.
Lastly, what is the deal with the Diageo corporation?  Did you see the brand names they own? Smirnoff.  Guinness. Jose
Cuervo. Captain Morgan. Looks like they've cornered the market on international tipplership. Anyway...a yo ho ho and a
bottle of rum, prosit, salud, slainte and a smoke to you.

Dan, "I would love for a smoking ban to sweep over the world and be the unifying force to a lasting peace."  Yeah, right.  
The last Western government to outlaw smoking was called . . . what was that name?  Oh, I remember— The Nazis. (And
remember, the Allied forces distributed cigarettes to their troops)
Thanks for writing.  Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Sean Scottwell responds to my question, "If you watch a poorly played game, will your prose suffer as well?"

Only in the sense that I would then be more or less distracted.  A shortstop flubbing a routine ground ball is easy to ignore,
but a ball bouncing off Jose Conseco's head for a home run might get my attention.  In either case, it would influence how I
write, not what I write.  I was unnecessarily flip when I asked if listening to a second-rate song would lead to second-rate
prose.  In fact, I don't think there is any consequence.  What we're talking about is the writing process.  I object to the
notion--certainly not Norfolk's--that writing in a café or subway stop or any other "real life" setting is anything other than a
managed distraction.  If it works, fine, but one shouldn't assume that the finished product will be any more "realistic."  BTW,
I'm listening right now to Johnny Cash's concert in San Quentin prison.  I dare you to find any influence!

Sean, The prison influence would be your pun, Jose CONseco.  Good try.  I only realized it when I went to correct it.
Thanks for writing.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Thursday, April 14, 2005
Yesterday was Seamus Heaney’s birthday.  I don’t usually note birthdays of still living authors, but as Heaney seems to
channel the dead in his verse, I’ll salute him:

Peter Ackroyd reviews Bella Bathurst’s The Wreckers, about those who salvaged shipwrecks, a sort of land-based piracy
of the doomed:

There is a true story of the ocean, written in a book of family memoirs by Robert Louis Stevenson.
It concerns a ship about to founder in an overwhelming sea; the stricken vessel is close to an island
hamlet in the north of Scotland, and the unfortunate captain sends out a signal of distress. At that moment
the doors and windows of the little village are opened, and the inhabitants come out. But they do not rush
to their boats, or offer any assistance at all. They stand, with folded arms, and watch the destruction of
the vessel; they wait silently for the ship to sink, since then their work can begin. Once the crew and
passengers are drowned, they can sail out and claim the cargo as their own. They are known as “wreckers”,
and this exciting book represents their history.

In a new BBC series, Miriam Margolyes travels the route of Charles Dickens’ American visit.  Our fabled land of liberty and
slavery inspired Dickens to note, "I do believe that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty's head will be dealt by this Nation in
the ultimate failure of its example to the earth."  Relief to know that observation hasn’t come true.

Sean Scotwell weighs in on the Norfolk essay from Monday's post and its comments:
Before I begin, I'll state for the record that I'm listening right now to Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club.  Having
said that, I agree with you Ed that I find it difficult to listen to music while writing.  At least some of the time.  For required
writing, any distraction can be welcome.  On the one hand, there are those tasks that should never be faced full bore: you can
be certain that any letter I write to the IRS will be composed at high volume.  On the other hand, there are times when I need
a fair amount of activity around me to reach my stimulus threshold: writing Christmas cards is not an especially unpleasant
task, but one best accomplished with no memory of it having happened.  The first is a case where the world is too much with
us and the second where it is not enough.  When the writing becomes a world of its own, I have to turn the music off.

No doubt some writers are better equipped to concentrate in the middle of chaos--one thinks of Jane Austen dashing off
novels in a busy household--but such an activity is no different from a sharpshooter choosing a target on a battlefield.  The
skill has been learned by necessity.  Writers who make liberal use of their CD changers are choosing to work with a
manageable level of distraction.  I think that's what Norfolk is getting at, though there is a good reason why he doesn't put it
quite that way.  A technique of managed distraction can be useful when a sentence starts to go bad--one can pause to hear
Sam Cooke tell you "It's All Right" rather than dwell on a mostly blank page that is really becoming something of an
embarrassment--but it has to be admitted that multitasking of this sort is a psychological crutch, a trick to overcome the fear
of failure.  It is itself, then, something of an embarrassment.  How many people do you know who display their self-help
books where guests can see them?

Norfolk has done so, and I'm grateful for it.  Most authors are more circumspect and sometimes downright self-
congratulatory about their methods.  That's why a writer will claim to have done a perfectly ridiculous thing like compose a
novel in an outdoor café.  Presumably, the distractions of this environment will help that writer achieve greater verisimilitude: if
not by observation then by osmosis, the very bustle of life will find its way into the work at hand (never mind that the novel is
about Spain and the café is in Paris).  A self-help technique is, thus, transformed into an artistic commitment to telling things
the way they are.  Such a posture can be made to appear heroic: the more distracting the setting, the more the writer has to
filter out while at the same time remaining true to experience.  I'm sure it's just a coincidence that Sam Cooke just started
singing "Somebody Have Mercy."

Norfolk's analysis is more honest, but it does raise questions.  Wouldn't a song that requires our constant attention simply be
better than one that doesn't?  In that case, wouldn't listening to a second-rate song result in second-rate prose?  Finally, has
listening to Jimmy Page really helped anyone finish a novel?  I think Dan W. has a better (and more concise) model for how
most of us looking for periodic distraction work: we listen to what is familiar.  It may well be that Norfolk prefers songs with
a "loose" structure, but it is more important that the structure be predictable.  For instance, I know that Sam Cooke is about
to get to the good part in "Bring It on Home to Me," so I better finish this paragraph!  There, done.

For me, a comparable aid to writing is watching sports, but I'm surely not the only one who thinks so.  A former teacher of
mine composed an entire chapter of a book while watching bullfights on Spanish TV.   The outcome of a sporting event, at
least a good one, is unpredictable, but the structure of the game always follows the same format.  That is, like the activity of
writing, a game promises that anything is possible, but what is possible can only occur at discreet moments.  A gland slam is
possible only after the bases have been loaded (and rarely then if you're a Devil Rays fan).  I know to look up on a fourth-
and-one play, and I know I can get back to business during the two-minute warning.  There is an insistent rhythm to a game
which can make all that blank space on the page a little less noticeable, and there is a sense of possibility that can only open
up the mind to new realities (after all, the Red Sox did win the World Series).

However, there comes a time when I do have to choose between the activities, and I have a couple more Sam Cooke
albums stacked in the CD player and the Phillies game is about to start.

Sean,   I understand how certain rhythmic activities aid in concentration or how distraction helps reorder one's thoughts.  
After all, I am a committed smoker and have long benefitted from the rhythms of smoking tobacco, especially in a pipe.  The
breaks to relight or refill or tamp the lit tobacco provide momentary lapses, like blank pages between chapters.  Cigarette
smoking is the same, on a smaller scale (Scott J, where are you in this conversation?).  And I understand how my favorite
writers affect my own writing, not that I slavishly imitate, but vocabulary and style can leave strong imprints.  I feel sure that if
I listened to audio recordings of, say Shakespeare, while I wrote, there would be Shakespearean touches on my own page.  
But I can't concentrate while listening to audio, music or spoken word.  You're right about the rhythms of sport.  I had
forgotten about baseball; it's been so long since I've watched or listened to a game. However, I'll put the same type of
question to you as I did to Dan W:  does watching a baseball game affect your prose style?  Are there Phillian traces in your
compositions?  If you watch a poorly played game, will your prose suffer as well?  
Thanks for writing.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Here’s Michael Dirda’s review of Michael Schmidt’s new The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets.  Schmidt
wrote the very engaging
Lives of the English Poets a few years back.  Dirda quotes from the new book on the
dissimilarities of the
Iliad and the Odyssey:

Any ten people reading the Iliad closely, or hearing it recited, will have a more or less common sense of
the poem is saying and doing. The
Odyssey is different, more 'open' and susceptible to different readings,
at literal, psychological, political, allegorical and other levels. . . . This certainly does not make it a better poem.
Plato in the Hippias declared that the
Iliad excels the Odyssey as much as Achilles excels Odysseus. This has
something to do with the form the poem takes, something to do with the protagonists. Achilles is willing to die;
Odysseus is willing to live, and to live at whatever cost. Achilles dies young, a hero whose fate is woven early;
Odysseus is the hero who survives and suffers. Two types of man, then, and two models of action.

Check out this art installation at Berkeley, where the books seem to fly.  The artist has concocted some other bookish
art pieces that are also engaging, the Babel Library and Alphabet series.

Dan responded to my question from yesterday about the influence music may have on his writing style:
Interesting question. My first reaction was to think that I block everything out so well that it has no effect, but the more I think
about it, that probably is not accurate. I reviewed the timeline of a lot of my work over the years to see if there were major
trends, and while there is no way to pinpoint what I was listening to on any given day, I can say with some certainty that my
work has reflected my taste in music at those times as a whole. I do have a bunch of sarcastic/(hopefully)clever works from
the time I was really into They Might Be Giants for example. And then there are the depressing works of “The Cure Years.”
Of course this could all be discarded and the argument could be more about my mood at those times. These days though, my
tastes have been so much more ecletic that it would seem impossible to be affected too much in that way. Then again, maybe
my work is unbalanced now too...

Dan, I wonder what you think of this passage in
Norfolk’s essay:

Against the sterility of over-focused concentration, music maintains a certain level of attention,
functioning as a sump into which unproductive brain power can be drained off. You switch on,
and you switch off, and you find similarly stable states at all points between these two. You're
fooling yourself, but happily. Music pulls you out of your own dead ends.

My problem is that I have such a hard time switching on and off.  And stable states?  I don’t find anything stable in writing.  
dead ends are just that, dead, and no snappy tune is going to pull me out of them.
Thanks for writing.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader’s comments.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005
How could I not link a book review entitled, “Historic ode to nipple-sucking men of Ireland”?  The book is a travelogue of
Britain and Ireland in 500 AD and we learn that "in Ireland, nipple-sucking between men is a sign of friendship and alliance"
and “entertainment in some of the Irish ‘big houses’ of the period sometimes included a pungent ‘routine’ by a professional
farter.”  Outstanding.

John Wesley Harding was a Brit singer-songwriter from the 90s who I really liked.  He had a minor hit in 1990 with “The
Devil In Me,” a snappy tune that I couldn’t get enough of (after reading this I dug out my old cassettes of his albums).  Now
he’s an historical novelist, writing under his real name, Wesley Stace.  In this
interview, he makes this interesting comment:

People don't like fiction in their songs.  They don't want to believe there's any gap between what
the guy is singing about and his actual experience. If there is that gap, you get criticized for being
too clever. Sometimes, in rock criticism, that's called "literate."

Twenty Facts about Winnie the Pooh from The Scotsman.  My favorites are:

11 AA Milne rarely read the Pooh tales to his children, preferring to amuse them with the stories of
PG Wodehouse
15 While writing the Pooh stories, AA Milne and his family lived at Cotchford Farm, in Hartfield. The
house was later owned by Brian Jones, founding member of the Rolling Stones, and will forever be
remembered by rock fans as the place where he drowned in the swimming pool.

A very funny parody of the Petsmart product, here’s Poetsmart:

Just like people, poets can develop unhealthy, adverse, and sometimes dangerous habits. Poets are
cute but, let's face it, they can disrupt a household. Like children, they need guidance and discipline
to live happily and healthily with the "adults" in their lives. From fundamental manners to problem
solving, anything is possible with a good education.
poetsmart's professional Poet Training Instructors can help you teach your poet a variety of skills,
from the basics of good behaviour to complicated tricks and everything in between. Developed by
the world's leading poet trainers and behaviourists, this gentle and effective approach is fun for both
poets and their families. Regardless of your poet's age or skill level, we have a course that will help
him learn new, desired behaviours.

Make sure you read Level 3, Career Poets.

Dan W. comments on the Norfolk post from yesterday about music and writing:
Interesting article for sure. What Norfolk says makes sense. For me though, I have a very picky way of writing with music. I
have to have music on, and it absolutely, 100% has to be music that I know so well that I can forget it's on. It doesn't matter
what music it is: Kinks, They Might Be Giants, Megadeth, Greig, Orff, Diana Krall. The point is, I must know every note and
every lyric or I get totally distracted. I have tried it the other way with no luck. The worst is when I get back from the CD
shop with new stuff, load up the changer, play the new stuff, and sit to start writing. Nothing happens.

Dan, Something Norfolk doesn't touch upon is the influence music might have on one's writing style.  Of course, the subject
of a piece or your mood could decide what you will play, but does the music ever influence your writing?  Especially if the
player switches from Megadeth to Diana Krall.  Will your prose or verse then be Megadethian or Krallian?


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Monday, April 11, 2005
An absolutely fascinating essay by novelist Lawrence Norfolk (Lempriere's Dictionary) on listening to music while writing.  
He weighs the merits of Beethoven or The Beatles, gives a short tutorial on how we hear music, then makes some great
observations on the relationship between rock music and writing.  Norfolk finishes with his personal top ten choices of music
to write to.  I can never write with music playing (nor can I read with it).  I do have a friend who compiled a
soundtrack to
accompany his novel.  Although I liked the idea of this weaving together of two art forms (and it's a great soundtrack), I'd
feel too distracted both reading and listening.  But read this Norfolk essay.  I really loved it.

Here’s another piece on Andrew Motion’s laureate skills, from Craig Raine, former poetry editor of Faber and Faber, and,
as a Briton, one who knows more about this thing than yours truly.

And Ben Macintyre weighs in with his own Charles and Camilla
poem.  Lots of fun Camilla-rhymes.

Our readers continue to comment on the Pinsky post of Wed:
Eudora K. writes:
Actually, Sidney was quite fond of rhyme.  He was an idea man, so any use of language was for him ornamental.  More
accurate would be to say that one of his favorite ornaments was rhyme.  Other Renaissance theorists found rhyme equally
pleasing.  As for Milton, well...Shakespeare had been dead for quite some time before the appearance of Paradise Lost.

Eudora, thanks for writing.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Sunday, April 10, 2005
It's a good day to rest.  

Saturday, April 9, 2005
Ed’s Reading Table:
Weird stuff on my table this week.  First up is Patrick McGrath’s Blood and Water, his collection of stories from 1988.  I
haven’t read them all yet, but what a great beginning. An angel decays in twentieth century New York.  A little girl finds a
Victorian explorer camped in the back garden of her London home.  A prim Victorian woman is seduced by “The Black
Hand of the Raj” in British India.  McGrath’s prose is visceral, literally, his vocabulary strewn with flesh and fluids and vivid
images.  No halycon days here: “high summer in Manhattan, when liquid heat settles on the body of the city like an incubus.”  
And it’s great fun, too: the depraved, guilt-wracked priest lives at Ravengloom, built on the moors of Blackburn’s Bog.  
There are thirteen stories in 192 pages.  I am on fire to read the rest of these noir-laced gothic fantasies.     

I also just finished
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, a graphic novel (actually a comic book title that ran for
twelve issues in the mid-1980s).  What if costumed superheroes really did exist?  Who will watch the watchmen?  Very well
written.  Last year I read Moore’s
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which was made into a really bad movie)
and liked it.  
Watchmen is grim and relentless, like King Lear meets Batman and Superman.  There’s even a Lear fool-
figure, named the Comedian, whose jokes only the reader truly understands (though the characters learn to).

Some more reader’s comments:

Bob Z writes about my comment in yesterday’s post, “Could you imagine if American poets wrote the same kind of drivel
we hear on American Idol?”:
Pardon me for taking your question literally, but I think the only answer is we would be better off.  I should disclose that I've
never seen American Idol, but that's only because I'd rather hear the original songs by the original artists.  If our modern
American poets had the craft and skill of  (say) Smokey Robinson, there might be a bigger market for poetry!

Bob, I recoil at the idea of a “bigger market for poetry.”  

Ryan Karp responds to yesterday’s
reader’s comments:
Just a quick note for Scott J.  Perhaps
Pinsky was referring to Sidney who described rhyme as an "ornament" or maybe
Milton who was far more dismissive of rhyme in his preface to
Paradise Lost.  Perhaps this Scott J should have read up a bit
on the subject before "correcting" Professor Pinsky.

Ryan’s talking to you, Scott, not your humble blogger.  But I will refer Ryan to my response to Scott’s comments: Pinsky
made a generalized statement for the reader of a generalist magazine (Slate).  Pity the learned Professor wasn't more specific
about his claims.

And Sean Scotwell writes about yesterday’s
ditty from the Poet Laureate of England:
It's hard to pick a favorite bad couplet from the Motion "poem," but this one would be difficult to top (or bottom): "It's a
childhood gone,/A step towards the crown."  You would think a poet of Motion's renoun--and I don't mean to put him
down--might come up with an adjective or noun that actually rhymes with "crown"?

Sean, Motion's
renoun? Is this some sort of return-declension of his being?  Did you mean renown?  Of course, the Middle
English form of the word was
renoun. Perhaps you've been reading Chaucer lately.  And, hey, renown would be a better
rhyme with
crown.  (And I for one did intend to put down Motion.)

Thanks for writing.

The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Friday, April 8, 2005
How can the British poet laureate not be a toady as well as a tory?  An article from the NYTimes about Andrew Motion’s
daunting task of writing a wedding poem for Charles and Camilla.  The article quotes a bit of a dreadful poem Motion wrote
Prince William’s 21st birthday, but fails to mention that this poem was written in “rap” style (whenever old white guys say,
“rap,” you can just hear the quotation marks surrounding their pronunciation).  The rap itself has to rank with the worst
poems ever written by a Brit poet laureate.  Each stanza gets worse than the one before.  For fun, read it aloud while
someone else makes beatbox noises with their mouth:

 Better stand back
 Here's an age attack,
 But the second in line
 Is dealing with it fine.

 It's a threshold, a gateway,
 A landmark birthday;
 It's a turning of the page,
 A coming of age.

It's a day to celebrate,
 A destiny, a fate;
 It's a taking to the wing,
 A future thing.

 Better stand back
 Here's an age attack,
 But the second in line
 Is dealing with it fine.

 It's a sign of what's to come,
 A start, and then some;
 It's a difference growing,
 A younger sort of knowing.

 It's a childhood gone,
 A step towards the crown;
 It's a trigger of change,
 A stretching of the range.

 Better stand back
 Here's an age attack,
 But the second in line
 Is dealing with it fine.

Thank God American culture devalues poetry.  It’s bad enough we have to listen to inane pop/rap songs.  Could you imagine
if American poets wrote the same kind of drivel we hear on American Idol?

Scott J. writes regarding the Pinsky article from Slate posted Wed Apr 6:
Pinsky's a bright fellow, so this sentence is bizarre: "You could argue that the most serious writers of Shakespeare's time
considered rhyme a bit low or less than serious-- a folk-art technique."  It was blank verse that was considered the "folk-art"
technique!  Very strange.  I wonder what he's talking about??

Scott, The "most serious writers of Shakespeare's time" was the red flag for me.  Arguing anything about most writers of
anybody's time is highly suspect, especially when your argument is as broad as the reputation of rhyme.  And there is a
helluva lot of rhyme in late 16th and early 17th century poetry:  Spenser, Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, and especially
Jonson.  I think perhaps rhyme does not dominate verse drama, but poetry in general from the time contains lots of rhyme.  
Jonson was having fun with a convention.  And any poet will tell you that sometimes they get sick of rhyme (or at least, most
serious poets of our time).  But, mainly, I really liked the Jonson poem, especially the rhymes, "together/did wither" and
"grow unsounder/was the founder."  Love that last one.

Scott J, also writes regarding the
Hillbilly covers posted Thu Apr 7:
I've said it before, where do you find this stuff?  My favorite hillbilly cover is Hot Dam where the woods are wild with
"salacious Scots and kidnappers in kilts"!

Scott, Hot Dam is a good one.  I also like Backhill Sinners (the crazed comic look on everyone's faces and the one old coot
firing a blunderbuss), A Bullet for Cinderella (just for the title), Harbin's Ridge (the look on that guy's face and the jug of
moonshine is priceless) and Men Working (for the look on the old guy's face while he fans himself because this girl is just too

Thanks for writing.

The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Thursday, April 7, 2005
Some bookish links today:         

Check out these beautiful
Hand Bookbindings from Princeton University’s library.

And these (just as beautiful?)
Hillbilly covers collected from pulp fiction paperbacks.

Or how about
Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls.

But if “
Mathematical fiction” is your cup of tea, here is a site that has compiled and categorized novels and stories that feature
mathematics in a significant way.  You can browse by genre (childrens, espionage),  topic (algebra, physics) or, my favorite,
motif (evil mathematicians, aliens, female mathematicians).


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005
In honor of  Poetry month, Slate magazine will publish weekly a poem that disparages poetry.  Robert Pinsky leads off with a
poem by
Ben Jonson bemoaning the use of rhyme, “Rime, the rack of finest wits,” a line which would make a great title for a
poetry collection.  

The London Times on Sunday published several pieces in conjunction with their Oxford Literary Festival.  There is some
good stuff here on the
modern biography, on euphemism, and on poetry read aloud.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005
You know what I wish there were more of?  Literature theme parks.  With rides like The Trojan Horse Whip-It, the Grecian
Urn Bumper Cars, or the Moby Dick Roller Coaster (actually, a Moby Dick ride probably exists).  Because nothing makes
me wanna read more than amusement park rides, or perhaps, an “ice fantasia.”  Well, we won’t have to wait long:  It’s
Dickens World!

Each Christmas the building will be transformed into a Dickensian winter Wonderland, complete with
snow and a magnificent water feature which will provide a spectacular 'ice fantasia' featuring some of
Dickens' best-loved characters over the festive season.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s Scrooge on Ice!  I won’t even need the gravity-defying rides.  I can just puke on entering.

Of course, I did spend a lot of summers attending The PA Renaissance Faire.  And I still like Shakespeare.  Here’s Frank
Kermode on
Julius Caesar and the murder of power.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Monday, April 4, 2005
An interesting piece on Hans Christian Andersen from The Independent, featuring such bizarre biographical tidbits as these:

He was afraid of dogs, would not eat pork for fear of contracting trichinae and, when he travelled,
he carried a nine-metre rope for fear of finding himself trapped by fire. He positioned a note beside
his bed every time he slept which read: "I only appear to be sleeping", in case anyone thought he was
dead and buried him alive.

I had read elsewhere that he carried the not-dead-yet note in his pocket.  Imagine finding him really dead and reading the
note.  What would you do?

More on the Great Cham of Literature, Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary was published 250 years ago on April 15: From
the Guardian, Beryl Bainbridge on his
life, and Henry Hitchens, a review of whose book I linked on Friday, weighs in on the
Doctor’s contribution to

Johnson's customary method of definition was to move from the most tangible, literal sense of a word
to its most abstract, metaphoric or specialised applications. The result was a genealogy of each word's
meaning. Structured in this way, his definitions charted the role of human needs, enthusiasms and
observations in expanding words' semantic range. Moreover, they illustrated the way a changing world
could alter language, causing meanings to ramify. This logical and historical approach to mapping meaning
was something valuable and new. It has had powerful implications for the way we think about language.

Check out the sampling of Johnson's defintions that  Hitchens provides at the end of his piece.

I have a particular fondness for Johnson.  I  have two identical statues of him in my study, one garishly painted in color, the
other painted a weathered iron.  His large legs are astride on the cobblestones of a London street.  He holds a large book in
one hand and the other grasps a large walking stick.  My two year old daughter loves for me to take “Sam”
(Great Cham of
is too much of mouthful for her) down from atop his perch.  When I  put him on the floor (he’s more than half her
size), she wraps her arms around him, pretends to lift him, grunts and says, “He’s too heavy.”

If you ever want to read an unusual book about Johnson, I highly recommend Richard Holmes’
Dr Johnson and Mr
, a bio of the friendship between the young Johnson, an awkward, ugly, twenty-five year old, long before his
intellectual fame, and the half-crazed, violent, aptly named poet, Richard Savage.  Holmes takes us with the two as they
wander the streets of London until dawn, the elder Savage pontificating on his neglected genius, denied aristocratic
parentage, and schemes to right these wrongs.  The young Johnson loved him and it is refreshing to read an account of his life
far removed from the hagiography (justly so) of Boswell.    


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Sunday, April 3, 2005
In his regular Sunday column, Robert Pinsky introduces an adaptation of the Old English poem "Deor."

An intriguing and well-written
review by Thomas Lynch, the American undertaker/poet/essayist, of John Scanlan’s On
.  Lynch’s short review uses too many long quotations, but check out his beautiful opening:

There is such a fine Montaignesque scope to On Garbage. From the title’s plain chant, unfashionably
and refreshingly void of sub-titular adornments, to the free range, richly sentenced text, one gets a
sense of an endlessly curious intellect rummaging among his references and ponderables like the great
French master, retired to the library, scavenging in the low shelves and high ones, the lens of his inquiry
widening and sharpening to consider, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase “not only the idea of the thing but the
thing itself”. Essaying is a bit like mining or flea marketing: testing for what’s precious among the detritus,
the jewels flashing under mounds of junk.

Makes me wonder if the prose of the book reviewed will be as good as this.

Ben Macintyre of the London Times on “
Tedium, the modern luxury:”

Poets and artists have wrestled with boredom. Some positively revelled in it: Proust in his cork-lined
room, Beckett endlessly waiting for Godot and Baudelaire sprouting
fleurs du mal on “planes of Ennui,
vacant and profound”. It took Romanticism and the corresponding rise in introspection to democratise
boredom; before then, only monks, nobles and writers had the time and leisure to be bored. Boredom
was a status symbol.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Saturday, April 2, 2005
A late post today (cut me a break, I’ve got a lot of kids), but as it's Saturday and most of you probably won’t read this until
you’re at your jobs on Monday, I guess it’s okay to be a little late.  I’ll keep the Saturday and Sunday posts light.  Saturdays
will feature my Reading Table, books that I’ve been reading during the past week.

Ed’s Reading Table this week:
bibliomystery, R.T. Campbell’s Bodies in A Bookshop: a Detective Story, originally published in 1946.  I read the Dover
reprint, published in their great Mystery Classics series.  The characters, a botany professor, John Stubbs, and his reluctant
Watson, Max Boyle, race around the recently bombed streets of post-WWII London with Chief Inspector Reginald Bishop
(“The Bishop”), looking for stolen rare books, including William Blake’s
The Book of Thel and a John Donne book
inscribed by the author to a friend.  Along the way, the cantankerous professor smokes a lot of pipes, drinks a lot of ale and
argues with everyone (except the killer).  Campbell’s style is very droll and a little dark.  The details of 1940s’ London rare
book trade are fascinating and depressing, one of those worlds I would visit had I a time machine.

Also on my table this week is The Faber Book of Smoking, edited by James Walton, a fine tribute to Sublime Tobacco and
a book of essays,
Sherlock Holmes: Victorian Sleuth to Modern Hero, a mix of literary criticism and essays in the spirit of
The Game.

Today in 1836, Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth.  They have ten children, he writes a lot of great novels, then he
dumps her.

Also today, Giovanni Casanova was born in Venice in 1725.  Forget the great lover cliché.  He should be remembered as a
great writer.  Check out his memoirs.   

It’s the 200th birthday of
Hans Christian Andersen and in 1846 Nathaniel Hawthorne was appointed to the Salem Custom
House by President Polk.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Friday April 1, 2005
Inauspicious to begin a new literary blog on April Fool’s Day?  I hope not.  Here it is.  The Bibliothecary.  Every day I’ll be
posting the best writing I find on the net (along with the occasional musings of my own reading experiences).  This won’t be
just the latest literary news (who is publishing what and when).  You can find that sort of info at plenty of other lit weblogs.  
What you’ll find here is a filtered version of the best that’s out there, or at least a version limited by my own  tastes and
frequent, digressive wanderings.  I only post what I think is worthwhile for you to read.  And when you’re done reading.  
Click on the Comments.  Tell me what you think, what you love, what you read.  And I’ll post your comments, as well.  
Happy Reading.  Prosit, Ed.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published on April 1, 1841 in Graham’s Magazine.  Poe, living in
Philadelphia at the time, was also the book review editor of the magazine, but resigned a year later, disgusted with Graham’s
bourgeois sentimentality.  “Murders” is often called the first detective story.  There are many precursors, but it is safe to say
that this first story featuring Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin became the template for English and American detective fiction.
Check out the Hungarian Poe

From the London Times, a review of Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the
by Henry Hitchings.  Who'd have thought that Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman would have
created a market for books on lexicography?

From the Guardian, a
review of new Robert Louis Stevenson biography.

From London Times columnist, Ben Macintyre (author of two of my favorite books,
The Napoleon of Crime, about
Victorian master thief Adam Worth, and
The Man Who Would Be King, about Pennsylvanian Quaker Josiah Harlan playing
Peachy Carnahan in 19th Century Afghanistan), a
piece on Ancient Roman Cookery, featuring such tasty menu items as

Dormouse stuffed with asafoetida and fish purée
Dolphin balls with rue berries
Boiled ostrich on the bone
Jellyfish omelette
Wild boar poached in seawater
Stuffed pig’s womb and crunchy sow’s nipples
Rabbit-flavoured cheese

Michael Dirda's review of James Laughlin's memoir, Byways, written in short-lined, modernist verse.  Normally, I wouldn't
want to read the late night versifying of a publisher, but the fact that Laughlin was a close friend of Ezra Pound, William
Carlos Williams and Thomas Merton, makes the book attractive if only for the anecdotes (and I'll take my anecdotes in
verse, thank you).  Dirda's final couple paragraphs are about a drunken night Laughlin spent with Trappist Monk Merton.

A well-written overview of the reception of comic strips/books in the 20th century, with the wonderful title, "Intellectual

From St. Patrick's Day in Salon, a
piece on Irish writer, Flann O'Brien, whom I had never heard of, but after reading this,
I've got to.  Among the hilarious quotes is this one:

Having considered the matter in -- of course -- all its aspects, I have decided that there is no excuse for poetry.
Poetry gives no adequate return in money, it is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by
its form, and nearly always promulgates illusory concepts of life. But a better case for the banning of all poetry is
the simple fact that most of it is bad. Nobody is going to manufacture a thousand tons of jam in the expectation that
five tons may be eatable.

The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.