Monday, December 31, 2012

Long Lost Books

Andrew Scrimgeour writes in the New York Times Book Review of his work sorting through the libraries of deceased scholars. I have read a bit about this sort of work in Larry McMurtry's memoir Books, but what I most noticed here was
Sometimes I find books belonging to libraries that long ago abandoned hope for their return. The letters of thankful astonishment that I have received from some librarians after they opened the unexpected packages are treasures in themselves. “Could we hire you to visit the homes of a few other delinquent scholars?” one library director asked. “We would be happy to make it worth your while.” Another concluded her note, “This gives new meaning to ‘Death the Grim Reaper.’ ”
I suppose that these were the sort of books that only the distinguished get to remove from the library--would a handful of Loeb Plutarchs or a Modern Library Gibbon be worth more than a polite thanks? I hope that there were no long lost library books in the holdings of  the scholar he names, James White, an historian of Christian worship, a man who had Calvin's Institutes open on his desk at the time of his death.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Heinrich Boll's What's to Become of the Boy: Or, Something to Do With Books is back in print, or at least back on the shelves at stores I frequent. It is worth reading in general, but I was struck by what he said of a brother's tutoring technique:
not long before, my brother Alfred had cured me of this [strange German math] trauma by systematically and patiently "probing back" to my basic knowledge, discovering gaps, closing them, and thus giving me a firm foundation.
There is an American blogger who has said something like this: if your child is not getting math level x, you need to find out whether he has understood levels x - 1 ... 1.

Monday, December 24, 2012


At the going-out-of-business sale at Kultura's Books, I bought three or four books, one of them EIMI by E.E. Cummings. The Greek verb eimi is "I am" if the diphthong takes an acute accent, "I go" if it takes a circumflex. Cummings surely intended the ambiguity, for he goes plenty--to Moscow, to Kiev, to Odessa, to Istanbul, and back to Paris--and throughout emphasizes his is-ness. He made the trip in May and June of 1931.

The book makes rewarding, though slow, reading. Cummings writes with puns, with nested parentheses that eventually had me thinking of the programming language LISP, with colloquialisms now forgotten (or as" he might write "now And How forgotten). He did not like the USSR at all: not the theater, not the beer, not the food, not the management of day to day life, and particularly not the American enthusiasts for the system whom he met there.. He mentions mostly in passing the secret police, the GPU, who appear at times as "phibetas" after an American three-letter society. He speaks well of an American or two met there, and of a few Russians. Among the sites he visited, he writes with enthusiasm of a museum of modern art in Moscow, of a church or two in Kiev, and in general of Istanbul, particularly of Hagia Sophia and a bazaar.

In the essay "Transcendental Satyr", collect in Every Force Evolves a Form, Guy Davenport writes of EIMI
He went to Russia (the trip was subsidized: did the man ever pay for anything in his life?) and wrote EIMI, one of the best travel books of our time.
Davenport does not say who subsidized the trip. If it was the Soviet government, then the Soviets got a very bad bargain.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Long Count

A restaurant emails me to ask, “George, quel sera votre dernier restaurant avant la fin du monde?” Clearly they are thinking of the Mayans, though the answer that first comes to mind is from Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, of course.

It occurred to me last evening that the editor I use most at work will display a calendar, and will give the dates in a variety of formats, including Hebrew, Islamic, French revolutionary, and, yes, Mayan. So, according to emacs, Thursday December 20 in the Mayan calendar is
Mayan date: Long count =; tzolkin = 2 Etznab; haab = 1 Kankin
 Friday the 22nd is
Mayan date: Long count =; tzolkin = 4 Ahau; haab = 3 Kankin
and  Saturday the 23rd is
Mayan date: Long count =; tzolkin = 5 Imix; haab = 4 Kankin
 Emacs is a wonderful editor, indeed.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Perl is 25 Years Old

On December 18, 1987, Larry Wall released version 1.000 of Perl. It would have been about five years later than I encountered it, in the Perl 4 days, back before objects and "my" variables. I didn't know about this object-oriented scripting stuff when Perl 5 came out, and installed it mostly because somebody in the contracting office wanted to run SATAN, an early vulnerability scanner, against the network

Perl 4 amazed me when I discovered that one could

while (<>) {
  if /^\s*(\d+)\s+([a-z].+)\s*$/i) {
    do_something($1, $2);

What? I didn't have to use lex and yacc if I wanted to parse a file? And it also handled binary data efficiently (in terms of my time, not the machine's) with pack and unpack. And then there was DBI, and XML, and Net.

Perl has been saving me time these many years, and saving time for many people that I work with. I got home Friday night at a reasonable hour largely because of a Perl script written Thursday and modified in a hurry Friday when the input was not as expected. I am grateful to Larry Wall and all the CPAN contributors who have made the lives of many thousands of programmers so much more productive.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sleeping On the Wing

It seems to me that many who say that they read instead  run their eyes across the page while attending to a private revery. They will reach the end, but with vague impressions. They will not have weighed the author's evidence if the book is a work of history. They will not have have measured the story against what they know of life or history if the book is a novel.

Now and then, an author is tempted to play tricks on such readers. In A Double-Barreled Detective Story, Mark Twain began a chapter with the following paragraph:
It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.
In the notes of the volume in which I first read this story, Twain printed excerpts from some puzzled readers, one of whom remarked that his esophagus was wingless, and as far as he knew never slept. Twain concluded that he would have got away with the paragraph, lilacs, laburnums, larch, pomegranate and all, but for overreaching and including the esophagus.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pasta and Poetry

Last week we looked into Cowgirl Creamery on F St., where most of the food looks wonderful but a bit richer than we should be eating. I noticed a bag or two of a noodle I hadn't heard of before, "orecchiette del prete", or "the priest's little ears."  They do look like little ears, though why of a priest I can't say. The name brought to mind Yeats's poem "John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore":
And O! but she had stories,
    Though not for the priest's ear,
To keep the soul of man alive,
    Banish age and care, . . .

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Customer's Not Always Right

Today's Washington Post carries the obituary of Jacques Morgan, owner of the Idle Time Bookshop in Adams-Morgan. I had remarked that I did not recognize the picture of him as someone that I had dealt with at the cash register, and the obituary tells why:
Mr. Morgan reserved a special dose of disdain for his customers — not the bibliophiles who might share his appreciation for a first-edition cover illustrated by the macabre-minded Edward Gorey, but those who pestered him with what he considered inane requests for bestsellers such as “Eat, Pray, Love.”
In fact, Mr. Morgan’s antipathy for many of his patrons was so pronounced that he and his wife long ago agreed that their business’s survival depended on him never working the cash register. Instead, he largely remained behind the scenes . . .
I don't know that I'd care to have my taste in reading judged out loud by a bookstore owner. I don't believe that snubbing a customer over Elizabeth Gilbert is the way to bring her to M.F.K. Fisher or Jill Ker Conway, or whichever author you'd rather sell. But I do admire the man's independence. His bookstore has had a 31-year run so far.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

In Lieu of Flowers

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan was closed because of the death of its owner, Jacques Rene Morgan. In looking at the picture then in the window, or the one in the Post's death notice, I can't say for sure that I ever met him. Certainly he ran a good bookstore.

The death notice concludes
In lieu of flowers, come buy a book. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
No doubt I shortly shall go buy a book. What better way to remember a bookman?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Reading for Wisdom

Today's Washington Post carries an article on the new Common Core State Standards, and their effect on the teaching of high school English. I am not sure why the students are not getting their "informational texts" in the history classes or other humanities, though the requirement that non-fiction constitute 70% of 12th-grade reading does suggest that some of the material will need to be covered in English classes. What I most noticed in the story, though, was the reaction of a teacher:
English teacher J.D. Wilson agrees with much of what the standards aim to accomplish. But he is disturbed by the subtle shift the new standards are already causing in his classroom at Wareham High School in Wareham, Mass.
“Reading for information makes you knowledgeable — you learn stuff,” Wilson said. “But reading literature makes you wise.”
Perhaps I have not read enough literature, then. But my long-ago observation of those who read and taught literature for a living--professors and graduate students--makes me wonder how strong the correlation is between the reading of literature and wisdom. And I wonder whether high school seniors have the experience against which they might test what they find in books, and so perhaps gather some wisdom. I don't think I did at that age.