The Bibliothecary
May 16 - 30, 2005
The Omnigatherum

The Bibliothecary

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Monday, May 30, 2005
Another (deservedly) laudatory piece on Richard Wilbur's poems, this one by Stephen Metcalf in the NY Times:

In addition to being filled with light, music and wit, and a generous and very native aplomb, these poems form
an argument, about how one goal of the well-lived life might be composure, rather than the mad flowering of a
personal signature.

But Metcalf doesn't inspire one to read Wilbur (and a reviewer should do only one of two things: either inspire or
discourage), making too much of the poet's "dedication to urbanity and metrical poise," as if his poems are some kind of
gilded pieces, inspiring to look at, but you wouldn't dare take them down from their museum shelves.  Indeed, Metcalf's
closing hope, "that readers . . . might rediscover [Wilbur's] poems written in the spirit of generosity and care," rings hollow to
Generosity and care are words you use to describe something boring but good for you, like a sermon by an 18th
century preacher, a guide for the morally wayward.  I don't read Wilbur like this.  I am excited when I read his poems,
intellectually in awe of his craftmanship, but more importantly, emotionally thrilled or dismayed by his words:
Advice to a Prophet"
The Writer"
Hamlen Brook"     

Three Dead Writers for today:
In a rented room in Deptford on the evening of May 30, 1593 Ingram Frizer plunged a knife two inches deep into the eye
socket of Christopher Marlowe, killing him.  According to the coroner's
inquest, the two had fought over the "recknynge," or
reckoning, the "sum of pence owed" for the food and drink consumed by Marlowe, Frizer and two others.  Many historians
have long believed that Marlowe's murder was a
reckoning of other sorts, for Marlowe was also a spy for Queen Elizabeth's

In 1744, four and a half foot tall (but gigantic of talent) poet Alexander Pope died, "so placidly that the attendants did not
discern the exact time of his expiration."  (
Samuel Johnson)

In 1778,
Voltaire died in Paris after overseeing production of his
last play,
Irene.  On his deathbed Voltaire is asked to renounce
Satan and replies, "This is no time for making new enemies."   

And Chambers' Book of Days,
1869 edition, lists May 30, 542
as the death day of
King Arthur.  The year is derived from
Geoffrey of Monmouth's great
History of Britain, but how this
date was picked is beyond my knowledge, especially when you
consider Arthur is still convalescing at Avalon, awaiting his mighty

"The Death of King Arthur," James Archer, 19th century

The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Friday, May 27, 2005
An interview with Umberto Eco whose new book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I wrote about in Tuesday's
blog.  After reading (and loving) his first two novels, I never got around to his last two.  I liked it better when he took ten
years to write each one.  But this new one sounds fantastic.  And I really like Eco:

'If some people are so weak that they buy my books because they are piled high in bookshops, and then do
not understand them, that is not my fault. If people buy my books for vanity, I consider it a tax on idiocy.'

I've always loved listening to audiobooks.  For centuries, literature was meant to be heard and not read silently.  And I love
the experience of hearing words, especially poetry.  When I listen at home, I curl up in a chair and do nothing except listen
(and smoke).  I do play lots of books and lectures while I drive.  I find it easy to listen because most driving is just
"automatic" behavior (but I rewind often if I feel I've missed a line or two).  But I could never join the yahoos in this NY
piece who seem to hear books without really listening to them, as if literature is some kind of soundtrack for their
calisthenics or dog-walking:

A book about string theory by the physicist Brian Greene proved entirely unable to hold Mr. Cohen's auditory
attention, as did "Hamlet." With "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," however, he had the multitasking
satisfaction of digesting a book he had always been curious about but did not want to devote the time to actually

Why even listen if you don't want to "devote the time to acutally reading?"

Or how about those who want an education, but just don't want to take the time to go to all of those tedious classes.  Now
Trump University:

On Monday Trump unveiled his own “university,” which will sell CD-ROMs and offer online courses in real
estate and business. No credit or degrees will be offered, although baseball caps and shirts with the university
logo may be purchased ($21.95 for a cap, $39.95 for a golf shirt).

What, they're not accredited?  I can't believe it.  I guess the golf shirt can be your diploma.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Thursday, May 26, 2005
A lovely piece by Michael Pennington on the way performing Shakespeare and audience expectations have changed from the
heyday of Olivier and Gielgud:

Such privileged positions are no longer available to the classical actor. The term itself, with its slight ring of
superiority, has even become a shaky compliment. And audiences look more sceptically both on heroic acting
and on the grand characters it portrays. They are more likely to be caught by the sinewy arguments and subversive
ironies of Shakespeare than by the ring of a beautiful line. An instinctive populism means they enjoy seeing the tragic
hero being tripped up by an ordinary person, a player, a grave digger or a fool. Drawn to King Lear to experience the
exceptional suffering of the perplexed old man, they will come out feeling short-changed if they haven't also felt
sympathy for Goneril and Regan, driven to revenge by his paternal bullying.

A piece on the faded reputation of 18th century painer Sir Joshua Reynolds:

Reynolds painted men better than women, powerful men even better, and bastards best of all.

I've always enjoyed Reynolds' work.  I guess because he helps bring to life so many of the 18th century writers and
performers I love so much.  How much more endearing is Samuel Johnson when we have seen him holding a book inches
from his eyes in order to read it (this is the picture that graces the Bibliothecary Archive pages)?  Of course, I also love the
squalid detail of Hogarth's
work, but that doesn't mean I can't also enjoy the affectionate nobility of Reynolds.  

Dead Writer for today:  Samuel Pepys, the great 17th century diarist died on May 26, 1703 at a friend's country house in

And Harper Lee is still
alive?  I had no idea.  Amazing how an artist's silence leads to premature death.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Today is the Feast Day of the Venerable Bede, one of the great minds and writers of the
early middle ages.  He died on the evening of May 25, 735 (May 26 to his fellow monks,
as they reckoned a new day after sunset).  Bede was revered as a historian and theologian
for centuries and his
History of the English Nation was read by many (150 medieval
manuscripts survive of his
Historia).  It is still a highly readable narrative of Britain in the
"Dark Ages," a misnomer when you consider the lucid writings of Bede, evocative of the
heroic age of Anglo Saxons and the learned pursuits of
monks.  We are indebted to Bede
for the first known
poem in the English language, "Caedmon's Hymn." Although Bede
records the poem in Latin, the English translation is noted in the margin of one of the
manuscripts. is not a very good
site, but it does have excellent bibliographies.  But Bede's
World is a
blast, an actual theme park/education center dedicated to an eighth century monk.  
You can't beat that.  
Dickens' World will be a bore compared to this.  One day I'll take my kids (and won't they love me for

And here's Manda Scott, author of three (so far) novels on Boudica's short-lived revolt against the Romans in First Century
Britain.  The world she evokes as she lies in an ancient stone roundhouse makes me want to read her novels:

You can see the stars through the smoke hole in a roundhouse. And the moon if the angle of declension is kind.
Smoke leaks out slowly, drifting across the rafters and carrying the odd fragment of burning ash. If you lie on
your back and let your eyes go soft, the circle of the smoke hole blends eventually with the triangle, then the
square, then the pentangle, then, finally, the hexagon of the supporting beams in a spinning geometry of dreams.
At least it did in the one in which I lay in Wales, in the summer between completing the first of the Boudica novels
and starting the second. This is the value of retrospective research; it's relaxed and fun and it bolsters the thin threads
of imagination on which the whole edifice of a fictional narrative is woven, and adds new things.

But the new age nonsense she utters near the end of this piece make me doubt her sanity:

The dreaming - which is to say, my take on the shamanic traditions of the pre-Roman cultures of this land - is
drawn from my own shamanic dreaming and my increasing understanding of what it is to be dreamer, healer
and, particularly, a psychopomp (one who conducts the souls of the dead from this world to the next).

Psychopomp?  Psychopompous is more like it.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Here's a great review essay by Margaret Drabble on the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, asking some
provocative questions on the nature of biography and nationality.  She also notes some of the fun you can have searching the
online editon for phrases such as ""he did not suffer fools gladly" or "backed the wrong horse."  I really love the new edition (I
have access through a university library) and you can sign up for a daily life sent by

An interview with Umberto Eco's new translator (William Weaver has retired).  The interview is softball (although there are
some interesting bits about the collaborative process of author and translator), but the new Eco
book, The Mysterious
Flame of Queen Loana
, sounds great:

Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer who lives in Milan, has suffered a loss of memory-he can remember the plot
of every book he has ever read, every line of poetry, but he no longer knows his own name, doesn't recognize his
wife or his daughters, and remembers nothing about his parents or his childhood

There is also a Queen Loana Annotation Project which invites readers to annotate the many references in the novel (and in an
Eco book, there are oh so many).


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Monday, May 23, 2005
Here's a very well-reviewed production of Hamlet.  But it's not your ordinary show.  The entire cast is made up of little
plastic toy ninjas moved and voiced by the director, Dov Weinstein, while the audience watches closeups of the show on
video screens:

Each image is met, at first, with laughter, though Weinstein is hardly playing this for easy yuks. If it seems a
bit coy and clever—and, yes, funny—to drop poor Ophelia into a glass of water, the subsequent moment of
the glass tipped sideways, with Ophelia floating languidly across the screen, is a scene of beautiful melancholy.

And check out the Tiny Ninja Theatre website.  There have already been productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and

Although the content reads like a parody, I think it's sincere: Rosie O'Donnell has a poetry blog, in which she includes her
own poems about the television shows she is watching, music she's listening to, etc.  This is so horrifyingly bad, I do NOT
recommend you click on the link.  

And here's an article on scientists using an x-ray beam to read the Archimedes Palimpsest, a thousand year-old text written
on goatskin parchment.  That humans would go to so much trouble—

Synchrotron light is created when electrons traveling the speed of light take a curved path around a storage ring—
emitting electromagnetic light in X-ray through infrared wavelengths. The resulting light beam has characteristics
that make it ideal for revealing the intricate architecture and utility of many kinds of matter—in this case, the
previously hidden work of one of the founding fathers of all science.

— in order to recover a text completely thrills me.  It is good to be reminded that people still revere and still learn from
words written thousands of years ago.  Bodes well for human endeavour.  Then I read the Rosie blog and am disheartened


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Friday, May 20, 2005
Dan sent me a link to an article, "Why Coffee Works," explaining the chemical happenings in the bodies of coffee drinkers.  
Appropriately, today is also the birthday of literature's most famous coffee drinker, Honore de Balzac, born this day in
1799.  Balzac's prolific output (more than one hundred novels) could be attributed to his coffee consumption, 30 cups a day.  
Here's an
excerpt from his essay, "The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee."  And here's a link to the entire essay, published in the
Michigan Quarterly Review.

And Darth Vader, a coffee drinker?  I love how the cup floats to his hand in the first panel, a trail of steam in its wake.

Back to my cup,

The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Thursday, May 19, 2005
I discovered a new essay on a Philadelphia Noir writer, David Goodis, who wrote pulp paperbacks in the 1950s:

 The parcel of Philly real estate known as Goodisville is permanently blighted. The writer heightens the nightmare
 dangers of the industrial neighborhoods he describes: menacing gangs, derelicts, thieves, rapists, tenement buildings,
 row houses, wooden "shacks," bars, ratty warehouses, dank alleys, rubbish-strewn vacant lots, and cobbled streets.
 It’s an archetypal asphalt jungle . . . He saw what he saw in himself, and what those who rank him among the best
 noir crime writers see in his work: compulsions which people of all classes keep circling around as moth to flames,
 and which they must find a way to endure, if they are not fated to fall into the fire.

The online journal, Noir Originals, looks very interesting, as well.  Lots of essays to explore.  

A.N. Wilson with a piece on Philip Larkin's "beautiful visions of hell."

May 19 is a big day for Dead Writers:
James Boswell died on this day in 1795.  Nathaniel Hawthorne died on this day in 1864.  Emily Dickinson's funeral was held
on this day in 1886.  Oscar Wilde was released from
Reading Gaol in 1897.  And T.E Lawrence, better known to the world
as Lawrence of Arabia, died in a
motorcycle accident on May 19, 1935.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
A beautifully written (too short) piece on the London Library, the "talismanic quality" of its volumes and the specters of long
dead readers:

In an obscure, forgotten volume, The Book of Seven Seals by Agnes Doulton, the author recalls walking down
Jermyn Street as a child in the 1870s with her friend Molly to change their books at the London Library. They
were rewarded with a glimpse of the venerable Carlyle, "absorbed in the books he has called into being". The
librarian led them to a back window from which they saw workmen digging out old foundations in Duke Street,
where a plague pit had been uncovered, disgorging ancient skulls, bones, necklaces and rings. Today, the library
is a place of literary archaeology where unexpected traces of the past spring momentarily to life.

A short review of a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope an Englishwoman of the late 18th/early 19th century who
travelled East to become the

saviour of the persecuted Druse of Mount Lebanon and the first European woman to enter Palmyra in Syria.
With the ease and insouciance of one raised to believe in her own significance, she traded a life of calling-cards,
corsets and tea with the Duchess of Devonshire for the friendship of pashas and the company of the Bedouin.

I first read about her in A.W. Kinglake's Eothen, a fervid, romantic travel narrative in long, meandering 19th century
sentences evocative of the author's journey through the Middle East.  Like many English travellers, he
meets the by then
mythic Lady Hester at her crumbling fortress in the hills of Lebanon:

There sat the Lady Prophetess.  She arose from her seat very formally— spoke to me a few words of welcome,
pointed to a chair— one already placed exactly opposite to her sofa at a couple of yards' distance— and remained
standing up to the full of her majestic height, perfectly still and motionless, until I had taken my appointed place . . .
The woman before me had exactly the person of a prophetess— not, indeed, of the divine sybil imagined by
Domenichino, so sweetly distracted betwixt love and mystery, but of a good, business-like, practical prophetess,
long used to the exercise of her calling.

Lady Hester and Kinglake then smoke Eastern pipes, tchibouques, and drink coffee while she regales him with tales of the
East.  Ah, the life.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.

Monday, May 16, 2005
I was dismissive of the last Library of America release (see April 20).  I don't care how you cut it, H.P. Lovcraft is not only a
bad writer, but undeserving of recognition as an "important" American writer.  Maybe he's an important Horror writer
(although still a crappy one), but the series isn't the Library of Lousy Horror.  And I'm not saying that genre fiction does not
deserve a place in American Letters.  I certainly think many of the mystery/noir writers are worthwhile to read and there are
several LoA volumes featuring them.  The latest release from the Library of America is an interesting collection,
The Poets of
the Civil War
.  Interesting because many of the poems are not very good.  I've read several reviews to this effect and can
believe it.  When your first qualification for inclusion is a subject matter, you will inevitably come across many poems whose
historical value may trump aestethic value (not the case with the Lovecraft volume which contains neither).  And the editor, J.
D. McClatchy, has included poems from all sides, supporters of the North
and South, supporters of slavery and abolition.  
Robert Pinsky's
review quotes from a bad Confederate poem, which leads me to ask, what if I thought it was a good poem?  
More specifically, how would I feel if I read a poem that supported slavery and I thought it was a good poem to boot?  Of
course, this question could lead me down some very awkward moral lines— what if I read a good Nazi poem or a good
Khmer Rouge poem?  Does anyone know of any poems that are worthwhile to read, but repugnant in subject matter?  

Dead Writer anniversary for today: on May 16, 1763, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson met for the first time about seven
in the evening in Tom Davies' bookshop.  From Boswell's journal entry that day:

Mr Davies introduced me to him.  As I knew his mortal antipathy at the Scotch,
I cried to Davies, "Don't tell where I come from." However, he said, "From
Scotland."  "Mr.Johnson," said I, "indeed I do come from Scotland, but I cannot
help it."  "Sir," replied he, "that, I find, is what a very great many of your
countrymen cannot help."  Mr. Johnson is a man of most dreadful appearance.  
He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king's evil.  
He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice.  Yet his
great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render
him very excellent company.  He has great humour and is a worthy man.  But his
dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable.  I shall mark what I remember
of his conversation.

Boswell's desire to "mark what I remember of his conversation" becomes one
of the great understatements in literary history.  But it is the honesty of
Boswell's description that arrests my attention.  

Also today, in 1836, Edgar Allan Poe married his 13 year old cousin, Virginia Clemm.  She would die of tuberculosis in
1847, and Poe just two years later.  


The Bibliothecary always welcomes reader's comments.