Commonplace Book

There is a kind of heroic pessimism running through this work, and one is inclined to appropriate for the sort of essay collected in this volume a lament Vidal once delivered for the novel: “Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.”

Early in my writing career, I had an assignment to follow around a mohel–the guy who does ritual circumcisions in the Jewish tradition. My subject learned the trade by watching his dad, a renowned figure in the field. One day, father told son he was ready to handle the tools himself. Why now, the son wanted to know. “Most students ask me how much to take off,” the senior explained. “You asked me how much to leave on.”

Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it - just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at a men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot, black coffee.

Mike Shea:

Audiobooks are my e-books. ... Audiobooks take the content from a novel and turn it into something else - something I can use when I can't read a novel. That’s what these e-book readers seem to miss. I want to search text, transform it, cut and paste it, and listen to it. If I want to sit and read it, I’ll go with the actual book. They’re about fifty times cheaper, more durable (do you think you can read a Kindle if you bury it in the mud for 1000 years?), and far more lovable than some plastic box with a bunch of buttons on it.

On actual Halloween night I didn’t even dress up, me and a group of friends just went to Keagan’s where my sister bartends. … Earlier that night I forgot to buy candy so all these little kids were coming to the door looking for candy. All I had handy were airplane bottles of Captain Morgan and some birth control pills — but hey, at least it’s something. I don’t see you giving back to the community.

(404’d)

"I pretended I did"

What I found out on set on other films is, what makes a crew really roll is when the director makes decisions very quickly and very straight. What confuses a crew and actors is when the director is a little bit like, “I’m not sure what to do there.” The minute you’re confused, you lose everybody. But what’s funny is, I didn’t have to push myself too hard—I was never confused. I was always pretty strong and knowing exactly what I wanted to do, and when I didn't—when I had a moment where I didn’t know exactly what to do, I pretended I did. Which made the crew entirely follow me.

“I was like: Get me out of here.”

As a child, Mr. Newman decided to pursue a career in bio-technology. This vision lasted until he landed a biotech internship the summer before college. “I soon discovered that this was a place where people told jokes with the punch line: ‘And that’s why they call it reverse-transcriptase,’” says Mr. Newman. “I was like: Get me out of here.”

So now listen up. We need to get these boxes the hell out of the warehouse. Meaning, if you are thinking of buying a set of figures, stop thinking, stop thinking immediately, and just do it. Feel, don’t think. Spend, don’t think. Be an American. Spend money you don’t have on something cool you don’t need. It’s only money. You’ll make more. I assure you, you will. But we might not make more of these Chinese-produced plastic hate effigies. Really, now, what would you rather be – safe, sane and sad, or devil-may-carefree and (momentarily) happy? Think about it. No wait, don’t think, stop, just do it!

"Every poem"

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal, dated October 1848:

Every poem must be made up of lines that are poems.

via zhurnaly: Poetic Lines

(originally posted 2007-07-12, updated for micro.blog)

"Callous Complacence"

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter reproduced this fascinating document from WWI war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon, denouncing the conduct of the war at great personal risk. It was originally printed in The Times in 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

Jeanette Winterson - We Need Poetry

From one of Jeanette Winterson’s latest columns, this one on why we need poetry:

And in the way of things, the memory gets used to being fed something more useful than crossword puzzles, and will deliver you the lines you need, when you need them. Poetry, because it has rhythm and because it is made out of breath, is easy to remember. It fits under the tongue like a slowly dissolving pill, but there are no side-effects – well maybe there is one; the next time you open your mouth to speak, something of the poem stays with you, and laces your response. In that way, poetry makes poets out of all of us, enlivening our personal capacity to speak with feeling and with an honesty that comes of being able to find the right words.

Phillips on death

The world without the people who matter to us is not the same world and so not the world at all. Life becomes progressively stranger as we get older - and we become increasingly frantic to keep it familiar, to keep it in order - because people keep changing the world for us by dying out (mourning is better described as orientation, the painful wondering whether it is worth re-placing oneself).

Adam Phillips, Side Effects

Orson Welles on art & remembrance

Courtesy Netflix, I saw Orson Welles’ F for Fake, a fascinating document. I saw it, listened to the commentaries, and saw it again. It’s a dense, layered, rich lasagna that uses fakery to talk about fakery. It has some bravura editing for the time (1974 or 1976, sources vary) and includes some very personal Wellesian material.

The Wikipedia page on F for Fake includes the following passage, where Welles muses on the anonymous artists and craftsmen who built Chartres Cathedral.

Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life … we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced - but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

(originally posted in 2006-04-15, updated for micro.blog)

"The most painful coincidence in recorded history"

From NY Times’ William Grimes review of the book Beyond Coincidence:

The award for the most painful coincidence in recorded history must go to the poet Simon Armitage, who chanced upon a used copy of a book of his poems in a trash bin outside a thrift store. On the title page was the following inscription, in his own handwriting: “To Mum and Dad.”


via

The Revenge of the Novelist

From the NY Times obit of John Fowles.

As much as it frustrated some of his readers, Mr. Fowles always believed he had done the right thing by leaving the endings of his most celebrated novels open-ended. But he was not above bending his own rules when the occasion called for it.

He once told an interviewer that he had received a sweet letter from a cancer patient in New York who wanted very much to believe that Nicholas, the protagonist of “The Magus,” was reunited with his girlfriend at the end of the book - a point Mr. Fowles had deliberately left ambiguous. “Yes, of course they were,” Mr. Fowles replied.

By chance, he had received a letter the same day from an irate reader taking issue with the ending of “The Magus.” “Why can’t you say what you mean, and for God’s sake, what happened in the end?” the reader asked. Mr. Fowles said he found the letter “horrid” but had the last laugh, supplying an alternative ending to punish the correspondent: “They never saw each other again.”

"Due to..."

From Melvyn Bragg’s latest In Our Time newsletter:

Monica Grady’s other mission seems to be to stop her students saying “due to” when they ought to say “owing to” or “because of”. She pointed out that in the case of libraries, babies and rent you can use “due to”, everything else is “owing to” or “because of”.

True Work

I had this on my office wall many many years ago, and can’t find the source again. But I think I remember it word-for-word:

True Work is that which occupies the mind and the heart, as well as the hands. It has a beginning and an ending. It is the overcoming of difficulties one thinks important for the sake of results one thinks valuable.

Jacques Barzun

"Those were softer days"

I read to Liz before she goes to bed, and lately, we’ve settled on memoirs. The first was a joyous treat, Milking the Moon.

Tonight, we just finished Barbara Holland’s When All The World Was Young.

These quotes are from the end of the book, where at 18, after being turned out of her family’s house and dwelling in deep depression, she gets a job at Hecht’s department store in Washington, DC, and her life takes a sharp turn to happiness. The time is the early 1950s.

It was an era of lavish employment. Since then, the Personnel Department, with its echo of “personal,” has been replaced by Human Resources, with its echo of iron ore, petroleum, and other profit potentials, but those were softer days…

She describes how companies in that era kept on incompetent employees, provided free access to a doctor, and other perks.

Cynics might say that this corporate kindliness was designed to forestall the unions–which it did–but kindness is kindness and I lapped it up like a stray cat. Starting out in this generous atmosphere shaped my whole working life as a lark: jobs should be fun and bosses gentle, if not this one, then the next; plenty more where this one came from. Nobody nowadays expects to have fun at work. They want to get rich instead, but I could see from the start that the two were probably incompatible; too much pay would mean taking the work seriously. Believing it was important. The less money I needed to make, the more elbow room I’d have for fun. I held firm to this resolve through good times and bum times…

…Virginia Woolf, speaking from a different world, said what we needed, what women needed, was “a room of one’s own” and a modest allowance so we wouldn’t be distracted by money worries. But under what guarantee? What happens when our benefactor whimsically cancels the lease on our room and cuts off our funds? No, Mrs. Woolf. A job, Mrs. Woolf.

(originally posted 2005-05-28, updated for micro.blog)