Friday, October 19, 2018

Forty Years of Second Story Books

Last month, Second Story Books reached its 40th anniversary of operation at Dupont Circle. It marked the occasion with a contest and with pop-up sales. The latter I missed, because they were announced on social media. The former was framed as
Send us a list of books (at least four books but no more than forty) that you wish everyone might read to make the world a better place. Please tell us (briefly or at length) why the books on your list make a difference. A panel of judges will select the most noteworthy entries in September.
The notion that everyone (however "everyone" is defined)  might read something between four and forty books seems impractical to me, judging by my experience of schools, book clubs, and life in general, where reading is often scanted. The notion that the said books might make the world a better place should everyone read them seems pretty speculative too.

Having said that, I am grateful to Second Story Books. It seems to me to have made Washington a better place by its operation. I am grateful also for the many books it has sold me over the years. I hope it will have another forty years at 20th and P Sts., NW.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Practical Syllogism

There was a kerfluffle some months ago, forgotten by now thanks to new and improved kerfluffles that followed it. At the time it made a bit of noise for a few days. A national publication put out a piece weighing the rights and wrong. The publication concluded that the rights were on the side it favored, the wrongs on the other.

It struck me at the time that this was a straightforward syllogism:
  • We are always right.
  • "Always" comprises "this time".
  • Ergo, This time we are right
The name of the publication does not matter, for many opposed to it on that and other occasions use the same syllogism regularly.

It is a handy one. Perhaps it could be printed on a card, so that one could carry it about in the wallet for reference, as one might the Red Cross cards outlining the steps to take in rendering first aid..

Friday, October 12, 2018

Read Again

In our suburb of Cleveland we were friends with a woman who had emigrated from Bavaria about 1910. She lived in a rowhouse (I think) with (certainly) grape vines trained along the rails of her back porch, a patch of vegetables including kale, and shelves of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I had no opinions then on condensing books, and I got through quite a few of the multi-book volumes.

This past weekend, the used book sale at a local church yielded a copy of The Captain, by Jan de Hartog. I read this in condensed form probably in 1967 or 1968, for it was published in 1966, Reader's Digest published the condensed version in 1967,  and my family left Ohio in the summer of 1969. It had been my impression that Reader's Digest called it Master After God, an expression that occurs in the book; but that is not so. Anyway, I decided that it was worth the $2 asked.

The bulk of the novel concerns the trials of a Dutch tugboat captain: first as relief captain on coastal tows off wartime England; then on a tug outfitted for rescue work on a couple of Murmansk convoys. I found in reading it that I probably remembered70% of the plot. I believe that the prologue and epilogue, set in the 1960s were omitted by the condensers. Some of the matter from the 1930s may have been skipped as well. At least one sex scene made the cut, but I think other such bits certainly didn't.

Curiously, almost the only other book that I have reread at a comparable interval is Two Years Before the Mast; yet I don't know that I have ever been out of sight of land on a boat. De Hartog does not hold up as well as Dana, but he undertook a different task: not a narrative of sea service, but a novel, and a novel with a moral message embedded or tacked on. Would I purchase the book now if it had just been published? I suppose that the decision would depend on reviews, blurbs, and my schedule.  Will I read it again? Probably not.










Sunday, October 7, 2018

Shakespeare's Lives

I admire authors of conspicuous erudition, who seem to have read everything relevant, and to have apposite quotations in easy reach as they write: Barzun, Friedell, Pelikan, and Schopenhauer come to mind. Though I have no possibility of matching their reading, yet I imagine it as involving not only labor but fascination. Reason says that they must have made their way through some awfully dull stretches of history, theology, philosophy, and literature: imagination is happy to remember the Xenophons, Augustines, Platos, and Shakespeares as if they made up a greater proportion of the reading than they must have.

Samuel Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives is another work of astonishing erudition. Yet here the dull comes to the foreground regularly, and one regularly encounters biographers mad or just tedious who had the energy to write thousand-page books. At the the bottom of page 427, one encounters
Similar theories are expounded, in much the same judicial tone, in John H.Stotsenburg's depressingly long An Impartial Survey of the Shakespeare Title (1904).
About two-thirds of down page 427 is
Usually associated with the Baconian stalwarts, Sir George Greenwood (in his dauntingly  voluminous writings) more than once denies membership in the club.
On page 435 is
Canon Gerald H. Rendall, sometime Gladstone Professor of Greek at University College, Liverpool, [who] read Looney and, at the age of eighty, experienced a conversion [to the Oxfordian cause]. He proceeded to advance the cause with a series of volumes: Shakespeare Sonnets and Edward De Vere (1930), Shake-speare: Handwriting and Spelling (1931), Personal Clues in Shakespeare Poems & Sonnets (1934), and Ben Johnson and the First Folio Edition of Shakespeare's Plays (1936). So prodigious was the display of energy that one admirer was prompted to exclaim in 1944 that Canon Rendall  'represents one of the biological reasons why the Germans, despite all their sound and fury, will never overcome the British.'
 Even the sane and level headed wrote at great length. E. K. Chambers, who was not mad, wrong-headed, or, I gather, on the whole tedious, might speak for many:
Contemplating the two volumes, which run to over a thousand pages he confessed, 'I have not found it possible to use quite that brevity of words which the confident surmise of youth anticipated.
If one wishes to learn how our scant information about Shakespeare has been assembled, Shakespeare's Lives has that information. If one wishes to learn about forgers (Ireland, Collier) who have confused the record, or thieves (Halliwell-Phillips, apparently) who have advanced it, the book has that. If one wishes to learn how the unfortunate have sought cryptograms within the plays, and been wildly mislead, these unfortunates get about seventy pages.

Schoenbaum did not contract prolixity from his mad or long-winded subjects. What he writes is to the point and lucid. Yet he required almost six hundred pages for the book. Near the end I thought I detected signs of weariness: references to books not previously named or named in passing, perhaps more typographical errors left to stand. If I projected the weariness I felt onto the energetic author, his shade has my apologies.

It is a remarkable book, one that I am glad to have read. I don't know that I need to read it again. Perhaps Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life would contain much of what I wish to know, and take up less space on the shelves.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Banknotes and Cheques

In On The Fourfold Root of Sufficient Reason, after rejecting Aristotle's view that all thinking requires a "mental image", Schopenhauer goes on to say that
Only this much can be maintained: that any true and original knowledge, even any genuine philosopheme, at its innermost core, or at its root, must have some kind of intuitive apprehension. .... If the explanation has such a core, it is like a banknote payable in cash; in contrast, any other explanation arising out of a mere combination of concepts is like a banknote which is itself again secured only by the backing of other promissory notes.
The first paragraph of Section 2 of Chapter 1 of ABC of Reading runs
Any general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it. If Mr. Rockefeller draws a cheque for a million dollars it is good. If I draw one for a million it is a joke, a hoax, it has no value. If it is taken seriously, the writing of it becomes a criminal act.
Did Ezra Pound read Schopenhauer? Schopenhauer gets no entry in the index to Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era. And I believe that in Guide to Kulchur Pound names Leibniz as the last real philosopher, though I haven't a copy handy to check..

(The OED defines"philosopheme" as "A philosophic conclusion or demonstration ; a philosophic statement, theorem, or axiom".)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Do, Will, Hereby

Do and Will: In J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words, the very first example of a "performative", i.e. a sentence that does not describe an act but itself acts is
'I do (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)'--as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony.
At the bottom of the page is the note
[Austin realized that the expression 'I do' is not used in the marriage ceremony too late to correct his mistake. We have let it remain in the text as it is philosophically unimportant that it is a mistake...]
Indeed, in The Book of Common Prayer (printed 1945) and a Tridentine Missal (copyright 1953), the operative words are "I will."  In the current Roman Missal, "I do" is permissible in one form of The Consent, though that form is prefaced with
If, however, it seems preferable for pastoral reasons, the Priest may obtain the consent of the contracting parties through questioning.
I don't blame Austin for the mistake, for though I have been to quite a few weddings, I did not remember the form.

Hereby: Early in James Jones's novel The Thin Red Line, a private counted as unsatisfactory in peacetime service has distinguished himself in the company's first engagement. The company commander, in need of such enlisted leadership, promotes him to acting sergeant. The private is not sure about the form of this and asks
Don't you have to say hereby? You know, to make it official.
The reader is likely to sympathize with the company commander, a reservist faced with Japanese machine gun nests in front and with an impatient batallion commander, of course a West Pointer, to the rear. Yet in Austin one finds (Lecture V) that
'Hereby' is a useful criterion that the utterance is performative.
Acting Sergeant Dale's instincts were not entirely wrong.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Square Root of Three

Whole years have passed without my thinking about the square root of three. The square root of two has occurred to me more, perhaps because of the ancient scandal of its irrationality. I have not felt the absence of these thoughts of the square root of three as a loss. For what it's worth, the number is around 1.73.

Then recently a household member noticed in a design magazine the picture of a handsome round table. The top was supported on a structure that had rods rising up from an equilateral triangle, the latter supported by feet at the angles. The table was out of our price range; the question was whether we could get something like it built. Perhaps so, but it might be useful to reckon the specifications.

The first question was the size of the equilateral triangle at the top. That size depends on the size of the circle around it. It turns out that the length of such a side is equal to the square root of three times the radius of the circle. So for a circle with diameter 20", radius 10", one can fit in it an equilateral triangle with sides 17.33"

The next question was the size of the triangle at the bottom. An equilateral triangle with sides of length n will have its angles resting on the midpoints of the sides of an equilateral triangle with sides of length 2n. However, the picture shows the rods leaning out: the triangle twice the size of the top triangle is therefore larger than the actual supporting triangle. Well and good: how do we calculate the difference in length of sides, supposing that the sides of the larger triangle are at distance m from the sides of the smaller triangle?

I arrived at the answer by drawing a couple of right triangles with a side of length m opposite a sixty degree angle. The calculations necessarily involved the sine of sixty degrees, which is the square root of three, divided by two. The number I came up with was 6m divided by the square root of three, or roughly 3.46m. I will leave the derivation as an exercise for the reader, unless somebody asks me to show my work.

I found myself thinking of a paragraph from Kipling's story "The Impressionists":
“There's great virtue in that 'we,'” said little Hartopp. “You know I take them for trig. McTurk may have some conception of the meaning of it; but Beetle is as the brutes that perish about sines and cosines. He copies serenely from Stalky, who positively rejoices in mathematics.”
I don't know that I ever positively rejoiced in mathematics, but I can say that I wasn't as the brute beasts that perish even about trigonometric functions. I can also say that nothing I have read since my last math class, about 45 years ago,  has made me think as much about sines and cosines as the picture in a design magazine has.