Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fact and Fiction

About 10 years ago, I borrowed a co-worker's copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I read it with some interest, but about halfway or two-thirds of the way through, I encountered about the third scene full of remarkable, telling coincidences that the narrator had witnessed. I went back, re-read the first five or ten pages, and then continued. For the rest of the book, I read with diminished interest, confident enough that characters said to have died were in fact dead and that any matters relating to legal cases were probably correctly described, but with no interest in whether reported conversations and meetings took place, and with diminished interest in general.

What brings this to mind, of course, is the fuss over an essay by John D'Agata, who considered it pedestrian to be held to the accuracy of number, names, and places in an essay purporting to be nonfiction. I had heard of this on-line over the last week or so, but I find myself astonished. The effect is one I remember from the 1960s and 1970s, when lone Japanese soldiers occasionally walked out of the jungle on Pacific islands--how had they not heard that the war was over?

Long ago, I read some of Ford Madox Ford's essays on certain writers he had known, probably collected in Portraits From Life. I was troubled a little later to read that Ford was not particularly careful of the truth of what he related. A little after that, I encountered in the Goncourt journals an account the meeting between De Maupassant and Swinburne that entirely contradicted Ford's. At that point, I lost interest in whether Steven Crane had smashed flies with the sight of his revolver, or what clever things Hudson, Belloc, and others might have said.

In extreme cases, the habit of offering fiction as fact can affect the author beyond his reputation. I find in an essay of Malcolm Muggeridge's, "Public Thoughts on a Secret Service", collected in The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge
The real danger of trafficking in lies, which Intelligence work necessarily involves, is that it develops a propensity for believing them. In the same sort of way newspaper proprietors, unless they watch out, are liable to reach a point when they actually believe what is put in their newspapers at their own behest. A skeptical turn of mind like Dr Johnson's is induced only by holding fast to the truth.
 This seems to have happened to Ford, then known as Ford Madox Hueffer. He let his publishers fall into a libel case brought by his estranged wife Elsie Hueffer when they described Violet Hunt as "Mrs. Ford Madox Hueffer". Elsie Hueffer won easily; the publishers lost a couple of hundred pounds, as I recall, and no doubt came to have doubts about their author.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


When an editor prepares an edition of somebody else's book, he may provide notes, whether on his own initiative or at the publisher's request. Some are helpful, some not, some provide a handy measurement of what has dropped out of common knowledge since the book first appeared. The work calls for a constant exercise of judgment, and gives casual readers (myself, for example) many chances to cock an eyebrow at the decisions of the hard working scholar. For example, the NYRB edition of Lichtenberg's The Waste Books footnotes Winckelmann, Bohme,  Klopstock, and Herrnhut, none of them that I know household names here; yet also Franklin, Wilkes, and Jena.

The choice of what to note came to mind this afternoon when I flipped to the back of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding for note 4 to Chapter XXVII of Book II, and found
4. Fleming: inhabitant of Flanders
True enough, but it brought to mind a note previously seen, note 13 to Chapter XIV of Book II
13. νυχθήμερα:nuchthemera

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Also Finally Seen

Almost 30 years ago, I read The Hunt for Red October. It was well enough in its way, but a bit of the dialogue--not intentionally funny, that I could see--caused me snort coffee up my nose. After that I gave up on Tom Clancy as too dangerous for home consumption. I did read a paragraph or two of a subsequent work over somebody's shoulder in the Metro, where after all eating and drinking are forbidden.

Then perhaps a dozen years ago I picked up another submarine novel, Run Silent, Run Deep, at a book sale. I had read the book in junior high school, and was interested to see how it stood up. It stood up quite well, I thought, not a great novel, but a good novel of an aspect of WW II. It also showed me something I thought missing in The Hunt for Red October, namely Americans making mistakes and doing unsavory things. A careless trainee nearly gets a submarine sunk; the Japanese are craftier in the game of cat and mouse that follows a sinking; American torpedoes fail to explode on Japanese ships, and now and then circle back and nearly get the American submarine; an American submarine sinks lifeboats full of torpedoed Japanese (navy) sailors.

This came to mind this past weekend. Having seen "The Godfather" a couple of weeks ago, we decided to see Part II on Saturday. I must have seen most of it about 30 years ago on TV. It is of course very well done, but how few and trivial are the setbacks that Michael Corleone encounters! A wife is discarded, a henchmen or two killed off, but the operation is not hindered. He finishes off part 1 with a round of assassinations that would have challenged Michael Collins, and makes another clean sweep at the end of part 2. He could quote the Duke of Alva, asked on his deathbed whether he forgave his enemies: I have no enemies, I have hanged them all. And he is a very slick article. I don't remember John Gotti, a fairly advanced example of the boss, as at all that smooth.

Apparently the Sunday New York Times identified "The Godfather" as President Obama's favorite movie. Is this escapism, a longing for a world where the executive functions perfectly, and nobody would dare post the family secrets to Wikileaks?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Coffee and Courage

A review in today's New York Times of Honor in the Dust, a history of what Americans then called the Philippine Insurrection, says in passing that
[President] McKinley, who had been commended for his bravery during the battle of Antietam, wanted to be re-­elected, but he wanted nothing to do with [Spanish-American] war.
McKinley served with distinction in the Civil War, enlisting as a private and mustering out as a major. At Antietam, though, he was commissary sergeant: a monument on the battlefield marks the place where he served hot coffee and warm food to the men of his regiment while under fire. It is my impression that there is some notice of this on South Mountain also, where the 23rd Ohio had fought a few days before, but I could be wrong.

William McKinley saw plenty of battles after that, as a company officer during the campaigns of 1863 and 1864. Having seen the battlefields of Antietam and the Shenandoah Valley, he could not regard war with the rather abstract enthusiasm of Roosevelt and Lodge. But he could not restrain the Congress.

Pennsylvania State University has developed an iPhone "app" to help coffee drinkers determine optimal times for drinking coffee. I was not at all surprised to notice that the research was funded through the Office of Naval Research, for coffee has long been a staple and staff of life on US Navy ships.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Trifecta, of Sorts

The other day, I looked into the slots of my checkbook to see if I had any stamps. I did, not but I found items related to three booksellers no longer in business:
  1. A record of sales from Chapters; after a certain amount spent there, one got a discount.
  2. A receipt for store credit at Olsson's.
  3. A Borders gift card.
Chapters and Olsson's were linked in a way: the founders of Chapters worked at Olsson's--before it was officially called that, if I remember correctly, and probably while they were still students at Georgetown.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Would You Ship with Ulysses?

Last week, Jeff Atwood, a founder of the very useful tech site Stack Overflow, signed off from active involvement in it with a post that included the last several lines of Tennyson's "Ulysses". I had not read the poem in years, certainly not since I last read the Odyssey. Reflecting on that made me wonder: How could Odysseus recruit a crew--

... My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me--
 That ever with a frolic welcome took
 The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
 Free hearts, free foreheads; you and I are old;

He is old, but his mariners? He sailed to Troy with twelve ships, and left with twelve. At the second stop, his crews were nearly decimated in a battle. He lost a few men as meals for the Cyclops, then lost eleven of his ships to the Laestrygonians. A few in the remaining boat went as food to Scylla, and all the rest in shipwreck off Sicily. As a bonus, the Phaeacian ship that brought him back to Ithaca was turned to stone, with its crew. Growing old does not seem to have been a problem for Odysseus's mariners.Would you ship with the man?

Tennyson's Ulysses owes something to Dante's; yet Tennyson knows that Odysseus made it home to Ithaca, which Dante seems to have forgotten. Tennyson himself prefers to forget the gentle death, away from the sea, that Tiresias says in store for Odysseus.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Used Book District

Thirty years ago, I suppose that the center of Washington's used book trade must have been Georgetown. Booked Up was near the post office on 30th St. NW, Yesterday's Books was on P just west of Wisconsin, Columbia Books for a while was above a movie theater on Wisconsin, and Georgetown Books was on Dumbarton St. And there were other stores with names I've forgotten--one that looked almost onto Key Bridge from the north side of M St., another downhill of Booked Up across M. For a while after that, Bethesda may have had the lead, with a Second Story Books location on Bethesda Ave. and Georgetown Books relocated to Woodmont..

Now the center may be a a triangle west and north of Dupont Circle. The Second Story Books at 20th and P has been there for all my years in Washington. Books for America has a store on 22nd St. just south of P. Kulturas Books on Connecticut Ave. just down from Florida is worth a look.

I found Books for America as a place to give books away, for the Washington, DC, library system no longer takes contributions of used books, having shut down its own store. But of course it is hard to walk into a book store and not leave with something. My last contribution to Books for America led to my purchasing one book there and three more at Second Story.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Finally Seen

Saturday we watched The Godfather on iTunes. Neither of us had seen it before, though I recall watching a bit of part two on TV. It was quite a movie, but apart from that I found it interesting because
  1. Somehow I knew most of what happened in the movie. The details of the gang wars, no, but the lives of the Corleones, yes. I must have gleaned it from the movie reviews and the conversations of friends. Does this count toward mythic status--is knowing what happens to Sonny without seeing the movie like knowing about Penelope's loom without reading The Odyssey?
  2. I wonder what it would be like to have seen Marlon Brando's Don Vito without having seen 40 years of imitations. But that hardly matters, for I doubt I'd remember by now.
  3. They didn't miss an ethnic stereotype. Well, maybe the Germans, as represented by Tom Hagen, got off easy, but I suppose they couldn't fit everything in.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

CPAN is Your Friend

The past couple of weeks have offered some lessons in the use of Perl to manipulate HTML and use HTTP.
  1. Don't try to tidy up weirdly tagged  HTML with regular expressions: HTML::TreeBuilder is your friend. (But remember the implications if you use $node->replace_content.)
  2. Don't try to replace HTML entities (á and so on) with regular expressions: HTML::Entities is your friend.
  3. Remember that Encode::encode('utf8', $string) does not turn $string into UTF-8 Unicode; it gives you an octet string, which after all is what HTML::Message wants. You do not want Encode::decode here.
  4. If you have multiple parameters of the same name to send to a URL with POST,  call HTML::Request::Common::POST with "Content => [p => 1, p => 2] ". Do not call it with "Content => {p => [1,2]}, for this subroutine regards a list reference as specifying a file to load. You will scratch your head wondering why your script is trying and failing to open a file named "1", and it will take you a moment to check back with the documentation and figure it out.
I can go weeks or months without needing to look at CPAN, but what a wonderful resource it is! A couple of hours getting acquainted with HTML::TreeBuilder made it possible to write a script that saved hours of tedious work.