Friday, September 30, 2011

Emerson, Since You Asked

Noted by James Russell Ament and Frank Wilson, Aphorisms by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson in his aphorisms reminds me of a woman I knew who had spent her early 20s teaching kindergarten. This had led her, it seemed to me, to believe that every situation taught something, but to be vague about what it taught. (Let me add that on the one hand, I'm sure that many kindergarten teacher think much more precisely, and on the other that the children probably thrived under her attention.)

I think that I read Emerson with prejudices inherited from Henry Adams, Santayana (more from The Last Puritan than from The Genteel Tradition), and from Yvor Winters. Yet I'm not sure that's wrong. Emerson seems to me very strong as journalist (say on England) or as controversialist, on emancipation in the West Indies or on the Fugitive Slave Law. In his more general essays--"The American Scholar", "Nature"--he seems to me to lose himself in exclaiming on analogies that are not thought out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


From The New York Times Sunday Magazine of September 25, an interview with the creators of "South Park":

A decade ago, Trey, you said that you couldn’t point to anyone who sustained their creativity into their 30s or 40s. You’re about to turn 42.
Parker: I totally still think that. We’ve been writing “Book of Mormon” for seven years, and the best work on it was when we were still in our 30s.
Indeed. Tolstoy published War and Peace in his late 30s, Anna Karenina nearer 50, and began Hadji Murad when he was nearing 70. Yeats published  Responsibilities and Other Poems when he was nearly 50, The Tower in his 60s. I could go on, but why bother? They probably couldn't draw as well as the South Park lads.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Written, But Read?

The latest book for the neighborhood book club, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, gives the impression that the author did not bother to read over manuscript or proofs before publication. I find in the second paragraph of Chapter 11, "New Worlds"
[Neptune] was only the second planet ever discovered...
Yes, I know what she means. And in
elegiacs, a classical form of funereal verse famously employed by Ovid in the seventh century BCE
(second-last paragraph, same chapter) I can see where the mis-assembled bits come from. But should I be stopped to puzzle over that or its like?

Were Ovid the only such slip, I'd write it off as a simple lapse. But passing items in the book lead one to wonder whether the author knows customs from excise; remembers the Jane Austen she cites; knows what Kant was getting at; can distinguish the tendencies of French Revolution of 1789 and on from those of 1848; has considered the implications of Deism.

The author also stretches inference. In one paragraph of Chapter 10, "Angels and Fairies", I find "may have made a suggestion", "had not apparently occurred to him", and "perhaps the idea had not been compelling.", all this to explain why William Whewell proposed marriage to Cordelia Marshall in 1841 rather than at their first meeting in 1838 or so. The second paragraph following begins "Once the idea was put to him, ..." Was it?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Specialty of the House

Over the last couple of decades we have shopped now and then at the West Shore Farmers Market in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, about a hundred miles mostly north of here. During about the last dozen I have tried to make time to look in at The Bookworm, a used bookstore on the upper level. Over the years I have bought various books there: Santayana's Persons and Places, Trollope's Autobiography, Chambers's biography of Thomas More, a couple of volumes of Isak Dinesen, and a volume of Novalis come to mind. The proprietor is a retired professor, which may help account for the quality of the selection.

At some point, The Bookworm bought up the library of someone with an interest in Norman Mailer. Had the seller's interest extended only to Mailer's native language, I suppose that the books would be sold or inconspicuous. However, this person bought Mailer in a variety of languages--The Armies of the Night in German and Barbary Coast in Greek come to mind, but by no means exhaust the list; I think that at least one Scandinavian language is represented.Yesterday I found myself reassured by about six inches of Die Heere der Nacht; some things don't change, or change very slowly.

One could do worse, on a Saturday in Cumberland County, than to stop by the West Shore Farmers Market. The smoked meats (ham and bolognas) are good at either of the Weavers stands; the pho is good at the stand the right side of the market; and one can almost always find something  worth buying at The Bookworm.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Publishing on the Cheap, II

A few posts ago I said bad things about an OCRed edition of Memories and Milestones. They were all accurate, and I've collected a few since, as for example the rendering of Phi Beta Kappa as 0 B K. However, the essays themselves are worth reading, though to my mind Unbought Mind  collect sthe best of them. Yet how can I resist passages such as
Mrs. Whitman was surrounded by geniuses. I didn't always believe in the rest of them, but I believed that somehow I must be a good one--not so great as she believed, but still something quite considerable in my own way.
I have sometimes thought that the difference between French and German literature is that the Frenchman is always in a parlor; while the German, on the other hand, lives in the mining-camp of his profession. Of course there are German poets and  novelists who deal with social life; but the hewers and diggers of the race are always encroaching; they occupy history, they invade journalism, they set up their barracks around philosophy. They have destroyed the German language; and all this because they work in silence.
Both passages are from the essay "Mrs. Whitman", on a hostess whose fame must otherwise, I imagine, be forgotten even in Boston, and likely had faded when the book came out. Yet the Mrs. Whitmans and Mr. Brimmers afford Chapman a starting point for reflections as worth reading as do those on Charles Eliot Norton or President Eliot.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Context and Learning

The NY Times for Monday, August 19, has an op-ed piece by E.D. Hirsch, which I find plausible. The central point is that
In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach....The Matthew Effect in language can be restated this way: “To those who understand the gist shall be given new word meanings, but to those who do not there shall ensue boredom and frustration.”
For a few years I tried coaching grade-school baseball. I remain vague on the infield fly rule, but did discover why school systems typically cut off passing grades at about 60%; if a child can do something 3/5 or 2/3 of the time, he or she may be engaged and learn to do better; if a child is asked to something he or she can do less often than that, it will seem like punishment.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Readings for the Day

September 11, 2011 being the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time in an "A" year, the Gospel was Matthew 18:21-35, on the need to forgive 70 times 7 times, and the first reading Sirach 27:30 through 28:7, against the thirst for vengeance.  I asked the pastor of the parish whether these were the usual readings; he answered that they were, remarking that they were "challenging."

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pricing on the Cheap

As I said in the previous post, I had been looking for a copy of Unbought Spirit, a selection of essays by John Jay Chapman. Amazon had eight new, some used, one "collectible".The eight new were priced oddly: five from two dealers clustered around $49; two from two dealers were in the upper $50s; the outlier was in the upper $70s.

The clustered dealers suggest computerized pricing. This year comp.risks mentioned a case in which pricing "bots" drove up the offer price of textbook on molecular biology until it exceeded $23 million.

I'd be happy to pay a small premium over the new cost of the book. I could certainly afford, if I wished to, even the outlier price for a new copy. But to pay dealer X $49.48 because dealer Y priced the book at $49.47? That is to reward and encourage sloth and stupidity--and greed, but I don't so much mind greed when it is accompanied by industry.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Publishing on the Cheap

Casting about for a copy of Unbought Spirit to give a friend, I found that a press I hadn't heard of had brought John Jay Chapman's Memories and Milestones back into print. I imagined something like a Dover Publications edition: a bit boxy, covers with a coating that cracks, typography that looks dated. I gave the press too much credit.

 The publishers had used optical character recognition software. There are a number of maddening traces this has left:
  • footnotes embedded in the running text
  • captions for illustrations not included
  • at the foot of each chapter the heading for the next one, like the catchword in older books, but immediately beneath the last paragraph
  • the occasional odd character error
  • occasional bad line breaking
The character errors can be entertaining, as when in chapter that mentions the unfortunate influence of business on education, one reads of the "Board o$ Trustees", or when a personal name almost appears in "Cory bantic". The failures in the line breaks set me to wonder about the algorithms used: in a couple of cases one or the other enclosing quotation mark is on a different line, leading me to suspect that somebody didn't think through a regular expression. In other places, a series of short lines, as if verses, appears inexplicably--maybe an illustration went there?

Had the publishers simply found an old copy, photographed the plates and created image files to print from, they'd have produced a much better volume. There would have been the occasional smudge, but "Pa-gliacci" and his friends would not have intruded. But a high-quality image file can be pretty fat compared to plain text--were they economizing on storage?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sounds of a Swing

The family across the alley from us has three energetic children. They are not, or not all, too young to play on their swing set. When they do, the sound of metal rubbing on metal as they swing mimics a range of voices. Saturday I thought that I heard pigeons on our roof, then realized that it was the swing. Other times it has sounded like human sobbing, or like crows or seagulls.

I spent time enough on swings in my childhood--we, too, had a swing set in the back yard. I believe I remember the sound, but back then I didn't compare it to any others.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Clergy, Tennis, and the New York Times

It had never occurred to me to associate the clergy with tennis, but The New York Times has done so twice in two days: in Friday's sports section, a piece on Father Paul Arinze, director of vocations for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, and umpire at the U.S. Open; in Saturday's "Beliefs", a piece on Christianity and competitive sports, featuring the Episcopalian seminarian Sam Owen.

The Roman Catholic priesthood here has often had athletic tendencies--in one of J.F. Powers's short stories, the unathletic Father Burner says, "scratch a prelate and you'll find a second baseman." Commonly, as the remark implies, their sports, when young, have been the mainstay American team sports, baseball, football, and basketball. Edward Malloy, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame from 1986 to 2005, started on a very good high school basketball team. Grown older, they seem to have inclined to golf. Tennis, though, I hadn't heard of among them.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

O Tempora, Oh Forget It

The Cambridge History of the American Novel, helped by a review by Joseph Epstein, has confirmed a number of persons in their opinion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. I suppose there is much to be said for this view. Yet why do people regard this as a novelty? According to quite a few writers who put themselves forward as authorities--Dante and Calvin to mention just two--it has always been heading there.

I would not read this history, unless paid and closely supervised, for life is short enough as it is.  Yet the praise of the past seems doubtful to me, and the indictment of the present has holes.

The past:
  1. "Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer." Barbarian that I am, I recognize of these names only Miller and Trilling. Miller was attracted to Harvard's faculty 80 years ago, Trilling to Columbia's about the same time. And though I live among reasonably literate (and graying) folk, I bet I could quiz quite a few before I met any who could give me a solid account of any two names in the list.
  2. "Yet, through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to 'The Cambridge History of the American Novel' have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite." Doesn't this imply that things were better once? Epstein quotes Randall Jarrell in passing, but does not mention all the savage things he and others (Marvin Mudrick, Edmund Wilson) said about the criticism of their day, notably the criticism published in The Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. Anyone suffering from the impression that the good old days were evenly good should look up Frederick Crews's The Pooh Perplex or Yvor Winters's essay "What Are We to Think About Professor X?".
The present
  1. "A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination..." Need I hide my volumes of Faulkner when Mr. Epstein comes to visit? Need I hide Homer, Herodotus, Plato, and Xenophon, lest he think that I place too much emphasis on prejudice against barbarians, helots, and the mob? Or The Life of Johnson, since after all Johnson wrote "I do not much wish well to discoveries, for I am always afraid they will end in conquest and robbery."  and  "I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Common-wealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another."
  2. "and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism." Right, I'll hide The Overcoat, Oblomov, and Mme. Bovary.
Perhaps this is the stuff to feed the readership of The Wall Street Journal. It does not strike me as saying anything especially new or worth one's attention. Academics are time-servers, apt to repeat what they hear around them? They are not alone. If Mr. Epstein or his readers were looking for comfort, which I doubt, I would tell them, "Look, don't worry. I was an English major. The majority of English majors are studying English as the simplest way to get through college and on to law school. They detest literary criticism only less than poetry, and had almost rather read The Golden Bowl than The Sacred Grove. The rest of those caught in their classes would rather be anywhere than where they are. The resentment of those who have to buy this back-breaker will feed the next revolution in critical taste. A book of 1200 pages, costing $200 is not the tool with which to corrupt the public."