Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Books by the Numbers

In the essay "The Malice of Witlings", collected in The Leafless American, Edward Dahlberg writes
To come closer to our times ten copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra and seventeen of Stendhal's De l'Amour were sold when they first issued.
Since the second paragraph above that ends
Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack is our meal just as much as lentils and potatoes.
Dahlberg might have remarked that A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was no commercial success on its publication in 1849. In an entry of October 28, 1853, Thoreau records getting back
706 copies of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have ever since been paying for, and have not quite paid yet.... Of the remaining two hundred and ninety odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold.
In "Writers and Money", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys quotes Jacques Chardonne and Chardonne's sometime boss:
His old boss, who was a notorious gambler, formulated an original philosophy of the trade: "on every book you publish, you are bound to lose money; therefore, the secret of a good publisher is to publish as few books as possible--ideally, none at all." From his own experiences, Chardonne himself concluded: "Any truly good book will always find 3,000 readers, no more, no less..."
which figure Leys says "does not seem to have varied significantly over the last 400 years.

In "The Traffic in Words", a review of Gilbert Sorrentino's novel Mulligan Stew, collected in Historical Fictions, Hugh Kenner writes
Apart from [the Joyces, Eliot, Becketts], avant-garde writing is almost exactly as perishable as is Reading Public writing, from which it differs chiefly in soliciting the approval of a smaller group, ranging in size from a group of one, the writer, up to a group of perhaps 1,100, say five per million of the U.S. population. (I derive this figure from the normal circulation of literary quarterlies, the typical press runs of small houses like Jargon and Black Sparrow, the confidences of itinerant publisher-editors, and the observation of the moss on the north sides of trees.)
How many such partially overlapping groups of up to 1,100 there may be is anybody's guess....


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Our Game Was Last Night

Two of the ushers are runners, one younger, one much younger than me. Making conversation, I asked the younger if he had been running lately, and the older remarked that today was the day of this year's Marine Corps Marathon. I asked whether the numbers of marathon runners had fallen off since the 1980s. He thought that the number had not, but that the distribution of times had shifted. A time that I, as a decent recreational runner, might have run in 1981 would be much closer to the front now. I remembered a story in Herbert Simon's memoirs, Models of My Life, and managed to recount it more or less accurately:
One evening I played [Arpad] Elo and lost as usual, playing White in the Giuco Piano. When I got home, I analyzed the game and found that I could have beaten him easily if I had made the correct aggressive move with my Bishop--on the seventh move, I believe. The next evening I pointed this out to him. "Oh," he said, "but our game was last night."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seen Today

At Behnke's Nursery on Route 1, I noticed a novel use for a filing cabinet


Mostly, though, what I did was to push the cart or wander about and look at plants. I discovered that there is market for chrysanthemums in NFL team colors--good luck if you are a fan of the Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders--and also pansies. The latter I saw only in Redskins burgundy and gold and Ravens purple. I did notice that a certain hellebore is called a "lenten rose", and so later in the afternoon was able to appear much more knowledgeable than I am when my wife and I were talking to a couple of devoted gardeners.

We were then heading to the park to run. My route took me back across Lanier Street NW, where I saw crowds gathered on the sidewalks. They were there, I found, for Porch Fest, an event during which local musicians play from porches here and there in Adams Morgan. In the three blocks of  Lanier St., I saw a man playing a guitar and singing; two bands fronted by women, one woman having an electric piano, the other a tambourine; and a quartet of African American men not much younger than I am: I arrived just as they finished, and believe that they were singing a capella. I regret to say that I have no pictures; but I seldom run with my phone.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Another One Gone

News World, which operated for many years at the northeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW, is closed. The windows are papered over from the inside. I don't know that I am surprised, but I am disappointed.

It was a handy place to buy The Washington Post or The New York Times when the home delivery didn't happen, and to buy out-of-town and foreign newspapers; lately, the latter seemed to have gone to print on demand. I can't say that I did much to keep the shop solvent, for the last purchase I recall--not necessarily the last I made--would have been about the time of the papal conclave of 2013. Yet I must have been stopping in, else why would I know that the shelves had been getting emptier?

It is a shame. Once one could stop by the drugstore and find a dozen or twenty feet of varied magazines on sale. There stores dedicated to newspapers and magazines at Farragut West Metro and at Connecticut and Florida. Now at CVS the pickings are thin. Kramerbooks does carry magazines of more or less literary interest, including the New Yorker, which is what I stopped by for in the first place.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stories Too Good to Check

Reading in Friedell's Cultural History of Modernity, I was surprised to see him give Racine as an example of those who declined and died on the withdrawal of Louis XIV's favor. The story was spread by Saint-Simon in his m emoirs:
It happened one evening that, talking with Racine upon the theatre, the King asked why comedy was so much out of fashion. Racine gave several reasons, and concluded by naming the principal,--namely, that for want of new pieces the comedians gave old ones, and, amongst others, those of Scarron, which were worth nothing, and which found no favour with anybody. At this the poor widow blushed, not for the reputation of the cripple attacked, but at hearing his name uttered in presence of his successor! The King was also embarrassed, and the unhappy Racine, by the silence which followed, felt what a slip he had made. He remained the most confounded of the three, without daring to raise his eyes or to open his mouth. This silence did not terminate for several moments, so heavy and profound was the surprise. The end was that the King sent away Racine, saying he was going to work. The poet never afterwards recovered his position. Neither the King nor Madame de Maintenon ever spoke to him again, or even looked at him; and he conceived so much sorrow at this, that he fell into a languor, and died two years afterwards.
It makes for a great story, but is not true. Lucy Norton, who edited and translated the memoirs, remarks in a footnote that it is probably not true. The editors of the Pleiade edition of Saint-Simon say in the end notes that there is no need to demonstrate the falsity, that among other things Racine was invited to Marly a few months before his death, ergo long after his supposed disgrace. One understands Stendahl, who disliked Racine, taking the story at face value.

Tobias Smollett did the Duke of Newcastle an ill turn in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, reporting the conversation of a court hanger-on with the duke:
In the beginning of the war, this poor half-witted creature told me, in a great fright, that thirty thousand French had marched from Acadie to Cape Breton--"Where did they find transports? (said I)" "Transports (cried he) I tell you they marched by land"--"By land to the island of Cape Breton?" "What! is Cape Breton an island?" "Certainly." "Ha! are you sure of that?" When I pointed it out in the map, he examined it earnestly with his spectacles; then, taking me in his arms, "My dear C--! (cried he) you always bring us good news--Egad! I'll go directly, and tell the king that Cape Breton is an island."'
 In the little I have read of Newcastle, he appears as no genius, but also as a man far from the incompetence Smollett depicts. Yet it is a striking picture, and from that must derive some staying power. In an essay reviewing Horace Walpole's letters, Macaulay precedes the story with
Of his ignorance many anecdotes remain, some well authenticated, some probably invented at coffee-houses, but all exquisitely characteristic...

Francis Parkman, in A Half-Century of Conflict is cagey also:
Smollett and Horace Walpole have made his absurdities familiar, in anecdotes which, true or not, do no injustice to his character ... 
Frank McLynn, in his history The Jacobites, quotes it, but with what qualification I cannot say, for the book is no longer on my shelves.

Such stories do last. Saint-Simon's memoirs were first published about 1788, Humphrey Clinker in 1771.  That gives us about a century and a quarter between Saint-Simon and Friedell, about two and quarter between Smollett and McLynn.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

When He Just Won't Pay Attention

Out for a walk at lunchtime yesterday, I noticed a young couple standing on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of Lafayette Square. He was not tall, probably bearded, wearing a white jacket; it was hard to see more of him because he was bent over his phone. She was about 5'2", pretty, with dark hair and fair complexion. She had a dissatisfied look. The only thing much distinguishing them from many other visitors may have been her bare feet. Otherwise she was dressed well within local norms, with a loose red top and brown pants.

She did a sudden twisting jump, carrying her from beside his right shoulder in the street onto the curb facing him, then after a moment hopped down to the pavement. He did not look up from his phone. By now I was watching them. After a moment, she raised her hands over her head. She bent backwards until her hands were flat on the pavement behind her and went smoothly to a handstand and back over to her feet. He did not look up from his phone.

It could be that he was checking with his phone to find the way to the National Gallery of Art, or a place to find lunch, or the way to where they stayed. It could be that she asked him to check, that her dissatisfied look came from half an hour of wandering lost rather than two minutes of concentration on the phone. It could be that he is used to this, that a telephone call from his workplace will send her cartwheeling until he hangs up. But I wonder whether a friend shouldn't suggest the merits of putting the phone down, and keeping his attention on the young woman instead.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Lichtenberg on Good Books

In the course of an email exchange with a friend yesterday evening, a paragraph from Lichtenberg's The Waste Books seemed apposite, but I did not feel like typing it out. Meaning to save the draft message, I sent it, and deferred the typing for this morning. Having typed it out, why not include it here? The paragraph is entry 43 of  Notebook E:
A sure sign of a good book is that the older we grow the more we like it. A youth of 18 who wanted and above all could say what he felt would say of Tacitus something like the following: Tacitus is a difficult writer who knows how to depict character: and sometimes gives excellent descriptions, but he affects obscurity and often introduces into the narration of events remarks that are not very illuminating; you have to know a lot of Latin to understand him. At 25 perhaps, assuming he has in the interim done more than read, he will say: Tacitus is not the obscure writer I once took him for, but I have discovered that Latin is not the only thing you need to know to understand him—you have to bring a great deal with you yourself. And at 40, when he has come to know the world, he may perhaps say: Tacitus is one of the greatest writers who ever lived.