David Grayson’s Under My Elm

elm 1#1162 in Life’s Little Instruction Book says: “Try to find a copy of the book Under My Elm by David Grayson (Doubleday, 1942). You might have to order it.

I did have to order it.  Here are the passages I marked:

 
I don’t know what it is, but there is something about steady manual labor like this, alone in the fields, that gives one a curious deep satisfaction. I like the sense of doing hard work that is also useful work. One’s mind at first drops asleep, except for the narrow margin relating to this or that repetitive process. One lets go, calms down. For hours, sometimes, while at such work, I came near the point of complete mental vacuity. The mind sets itself the minute task it has to do and goes off somewhere to its own high pastures, serene uplands, to rest and play. The hours pass magically: the sun that was low when the work began rides high in the heavens—and suddenly the mind comes home again. It comes home refreshed stimulated, happy. I always know the exact moment of its arrival. Yesterday it did not return until I had nearly finished my work in the field. It seemed to cry out: “What, asleep! Listen to the bobolinks.”
I straightened up quickly and realized that I had been working for several hours without hearing or seeing much of anything—this literally. The whole world now became flooded with delightful sounds, not only the bobolinks, but a hundred other voices both of nature and human nature, so that I had a deep and indescribably friendly feeling towards all things. I thought it good and beautiful to be there and to be alive. Even the grass clinging wetly to my legs as I walked seemed consciously holding me close to the earth; and the shovel held warmly, even painfully in my blistered hands, was proof that I had at last become part of a universal process. These sensations, even as I set them down, seem difficult to express, but they were there, and they were true and sound. (11-12)

 

elm 2Steve had been working all day, harrowing and fertilizing his tobacco land, and should, I suppose, be properly tired. But the weeds in the onions are growing! Down on his knees he went and began weeding. A moment later his wife was at his side. The children cried a little, for they were tired and hungry and wanted to go home, but soon whimpered down. I wondered what an American family I know of, which keeps a nurse for each of their weakling children and a second girl to help the nurses, would say to this way of “raising” children! These two little Poles are magnificent physical specimens, and the boy, when clean, is really beautiful. At eight-thirty when it was too dark to see, the family trailed homeward, Steve carrying the little boy in his arms. Can these people be beaten? (86-87)

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Three Great Writers Have Died Recently, and I Miss Them

Early this week, I heard of the passing of British novelist P.D. James.

Here are my thoughts from reading Death in Holy Orders in 2009.

Here is Mark Steyn reflecting on her dystopian masterpiece The Children of Men.

I’m currently reading The Murder Room, and you should, too.

*****

Just a day later, I heard of the death of Kent Haruf.

This is what I wrote nearly two years ago, when his book Benediction was about to come out.

Now I’m re-reading Plainsong, his magnum opus.  You really should read it, also.  I even liked the Hallmark movie version.

*****

The other great writer who died in the past week is the poet Mark Strand, but I actually didn’t like his work very much–I found it too narrow and self-consciously obscure for my taste.  Still, a great talent who made a major contribution to letters.

No, the third writer who I loved and who we recently lost is the critic D.G. Myers, who died in September.  I found his work A Commonplace Blog years ago, and long treasured his thoughts about writers, especially his fellow Jewish writers–I learned a lot about Saul Bellow and I.S. Singer from him.

Peruse his final months of posts–those from 2014–and you’ll be treated to two posts about his battle with cancer, posts about the best debut novels and the bets novels of the 1940s, and two posts about the degradation of the humanities in the American university.  A 21st century Allan Bloom, he was.  Though his link sat in my sidebar for as long as this blog has existed, I never mentioned him here explicitly, and for that I am sorry.

Here are some thoughts about him from some other prominent thinkers and writers.

*****

The work of all three of these writers were essentially conservative.  James was celebrated in some circles; Haruf and Myers were under-appreciated.  All three are worthy of your time.

57 Perfect Tens

I just read these two great posts about rereading favorite books.  I very rarely do that–I’m one of those who have so many new things I want to read that it’s hard to justify making time to go back to books I’ve already finished.

Still, this made me review the notes I’ve kept on my reading–a list of every book I’ve read since 2001.  From that record, I see that I’ve given exactly 57 books a perfect 10, not suggesting that they’re all masterpieces, but that reading them was pure, supreme joy for me.  If I were stranded on a desert island, this would be my library.

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
  2. As You Like It, William Shakespeare
  3. A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe
  4. The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
  5. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary vol.1-3, Bruce R. McConkie
  6. Raising Up A Family to the Lord, Gene R. Cook
  7. Charles Kuralt’s America, Charles Kuralt
  8. The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
  9. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  10. Beowulf, Seamus Heaney, trans.
  11. The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
  12. Heroes of History, Will Durant
  13. The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
  14. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
  15. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  16. How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton
  17. The Stranger, Albert Camus
  18. Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
  19. America Alone, Mark Steyn
  20. The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Mark Leyner
  21. On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
  22. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  23. Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse
  24. A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  25. Reading the OED, Ammon Shea
  26. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
  27. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  28. The Westing Game, Ellen Rankin
  29. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  30. Rise To Rebellion, Jeff Shaara
  31. Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, Wendy Beckett
  32. The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
  33. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
  34. The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
  35. Dune, Frank Herbert
  36. No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  37. World War Z, Max Brooks
  38. Richard II, William Shakespeare
  39. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  40. Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
  41. Henry IV, Part I, William Shakespeare
  42. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
  43. Carry On, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
  44. The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet
  45. Noble House, James Clavell
  46. Flatland, Edwin Abbott
  47. Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
  48. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  49. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
  50. Paradise Lost, John Milton
  51. Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock
  52. One For the Books, Joe Queenan
  53. Dubliners, James Joyce
  54. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  55. Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
  56. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  57. His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis

 

“Baned” Books

A “Baned” book would be in much worse shape than a banned book.

Last week I saw a student open a paperback in that painful way that so many people do; the pages he’d already read were folded all the way around so that the front cover touched the back cover.

As he started reading, I said, “Dude, that book’s Batman and you’re pulling a Bane on him!”  The student immediately got the reference and let the book go from this contorted death grip.

Scroll down for an explanation of the joke!

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Grace, Thanksgiving, and Joy

download (1)I’ve started this year reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.  The style is poetic, sometimes intrusively so, but the thesis is wonderful, and wonderfully elaborated.  We all need this.

This bit of analysis from chapter 2 summarizes it:

 

“And he took bread, gave thanks and brake it, and gave it to them…” (Luke 22:19 NIV).

….I thumb, run my finger across the pages of the heavy and thick books bound.  I read it slowly.  In the original language, “he gave thanks” reads “eucharisteo.”

I underline it on the page.  Can it lay a sure foundation under a life?  Offer the fullest life?

The root word of eucharisteo is charis, meaning “grace.”  Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks.  He took the bread and knew it to be gift and gave thanks.

But there is more, and I read it.  Eucharisteo, thanksgiving, envelopes the Greek word for grace, charis.  But it also holds its derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning “joy.”  Joy…..

Deep chara joy is found only at the table of the euCHARisteo–the table of thanksgiving.  I sit there long…wondering…is it that simple?

Is the height of my chara joy dependent on the depths of my eucharisteo thanks?

So then as long as thanks is possible…I think this through.  As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible.  Joy is always possible.  Whenever, meaning–now; wherever, meaning–here.  The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountain peak experience.  The joy wonder could be here!  Here, in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be–unbelievably–possible!  The only place we need to see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.

Notes on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End 

childhood'sIn June I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  It was excellent; clearly a precursor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey script.

Some stray thoughts as I was reading:

“There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.”  ch. 10.  After superior alien saviors come to Earth and create a paradise, humanity uses its free time to get awesome at everything, thus the changed economy.  Are we seeing something similar now with blog reporting and YouTube videos?  I think we are.

I love prescient science fiction predictions, but Clarke says that humanity’s vastly increased leisure has the dystopian result of us starting to watch TV for up to…wait for it…3 hours a day!  This was written in the 50’s.  Isn’t that cute?

“In this galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns.  Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space.  In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the desserts of the world.”  ch. 14.  This is why I love good sci-fi.  It intelligently inculcates a healthy, humble reverence for the universe.

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time.  In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.  ch. 19.  Alas, Clarke’s generation never could have imagined that civilization would voluntarily extinguish itself through epidemic demographic decline, and would celebrate it all the way to the collective nursing home.  Like his naive TV watching warning, reality turned out far scarier than he prophesied.  It’s always sad when tragic speculation turns out to be, if anything, too optimistic.

Rare Book Paradise

Last weekend, I attended the national convention of AP teachers at the Venetian here in Las Vegas.  It should tell you something about the quality of most of the sessions that the best part of the weekend by far was finding a rare book seller.

During lunch, I wandered upstairs to the Venetian’s famous Grand Canal Shops, where my wife and I rode the gondolas and were serenaded the day we got married.  It’s a pretty upscale mall, and great for window shopping.

But a new place caught my eye.  Signs around the mall advertised a collection of Revolutionary War documents on display.  Couldn’t pass that up!

Bauman Rare Books did indeed have about a dozen such items in a glass case: a copy of Common Sense from 1776, a 1st and a 2nd edition of The Federalist Papers, and some personal and official correspondence from the likes of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin.  The store also features a fascinating copy of the Declaration of Independence from the mid-19th century.

I was in love before I even walked in the store, though: in a window by the door was a collection of several Hemingway first editions, loving labeled and priced at what turned out to be average for the store, several thousand dollars.  I should have picked up a few spare copies.  Want me to grab a few for you, too?

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Back to Blood

9781619698154_p0_v2_s260x420I spent most of January listening to the audio book version of Tom Wolfe’s newest novel, Back to Blood, during my commute to and from work.  It was 22 hours of pure joy.

Wolfe is our modern Mark Twain, our finest satirist and journalistic chronicler of our society as it really is.  As such, it’s only fitting that my comments here take the form of an interview with myself:

Q: What did you think of the narration by Lou Diamond Phillips?

A: Amazing.  I’ll never be able to read this book without hearing his voice now.  It was perfect.  Not only did he have to do characters of both genders and all ages, but several ethnicities, and even speaking fragments of four other languages!  If there’s some kind of industry award for audio book performance, he should get the highest honor.  Listening to him work was bliss from beginning to end.

Q: Didn’t all the sex scenes bother you?  Didn’t you think they were poorly written?

A: Wolfe catches a lot of flak for these two almost contradictory criticisms, but I think they work together.   Continue reading

2012: My Year in Books

2012 was by far the worst year of my adult life for total number of books read: I only finished 17 books the whole year; my next worst year was 2001, when I finished 19.  Clearly, I need to tackle my problem with distraction.

Or, in terms of quality over quantity, it wasn’t bad at all: I gave five books a perfect ten for enjoyment; my worst year for that was 2008, which only had 2 perfect tens.

Below is the list, with dates finished, my 1-10 score for much I liked reading it, and either a brief comment or link to my review.

 

1. Comstock Lode, Louis L’amour (1/18, Western)–7.  Good, but no different from others of his I’ve read.

2. Cloak, James Goff (2/7, fantasy, young adult)–8.

3.  Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (4/6, literature)–10.  I can’t believe I never finished my review of this!  I made some notes: I jotted down my two favorite quotes:

“I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

I also wrote down that I loved her usage of Numbers 6:24-26.

4.  Mozart: His Life and Music, Jeremy Siepmann (4/14, biography)–9.  Innovative biography mixed life story with music appreciation to the benefit of both.

5.  Maphead, Ken Jennings (5/11, memoir, humor)–9.

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Elric the Existential Emperor

Elric_of_MelniboneThe Elric saga is a masterpiece of dark fantasy, a sword and sorcery epic that aches in existential angst, more indebted to Lovecraft than to Tolkien.

The first volume in the cycle, Elric of Melniboné, introduces us to the melancholy emperor Elric, a skeletal albino whose keen mind makes him a poor fit for the ancient kingdom of superhuman savages he rules.

We follow him on a quest to thwart a usurpation of his throne and rescue a blood-relative damsel in distress (an influence on George R.R. Martin, perhaps), while growing in power so much that an expanding epic is practically demanded by the denouement.

Even more audacious than the stark story itself is the pervasively dour prose, an exercise in contorted anguish, a French philosopher scribbling in the gloom after watching Reservoir Dogs:

And Elric stepped into a shadow and found himself in a world of shadows.  He turned, but the shadow through which he had entered now faded and was gone.  Old Aubec’s sword was in Elric’s hand, the black helm and the black armour were upon his body and only these were familiar, for the land was dark and gloomy as if contained in a vast cave whose walls, though invisible, were oppressive and tangible.  And Elric regretted the hysteria, the weariness of brain, which had given him the impulse to obey his patron demon Arioch and plunge through the Shade Gate.  But regret was useless now, so he forgot it.

Michael Chabon on Finnegans Wake

Last month I found this issue of The New York Review of Books (courtesy of my awesome department chair), featuring an article by hipster wunderkind Michael Chabon about the year he spent reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

While not exactly a gloss, it is a piece where Chabon creates a clever framework for viewing the text.  To wit:

Other than its simple unreadability (indeed its apparent hostility to being read), the principal knock against the Wake—what Seamus Deane in his introduction to the Penguin edition calls “the gravamen of the charge against Joyce”—is that, in Deane’s paraphrase, Joyce “surrendered the ‘ordinary’ world, the world as represented in the great tradition of the realistic novel, for a world of capricious fantasy and inexhaustible word-play.” Eliot, Pound, Stanislaus Joyce, Frank Budgen, and other early champions of Ulysses found disappointment in this apparent surrender, and the truth is that, for all the real, nutritious, and hard-won pleasure that can be wrested from the Wake—as from a bucket of lobsters, by a determined reader with a pick and a cracker—anyone who has first loved or admired Ulysses must, as Joyce himself anticipated, find disappointment in Finnegans Wake.

Seventeen years of tireless labor by a mind blessed with a profound understanding of human vanity, with unparalleled gifts of sensory perception and the figuration thereof, and with one of the greatest prose styles in the English language produced a work that all too often, and for long stretches, can remind the reader (when not recalling Yertle the Turtle) of the Spike-Milligan- meets-Edward-Lear prose tossed off by the Writing Beatle in five minutes between tokes and takes of “Norwegian Wood.” But to find disappointment in the Wake’s, and Joyce’s, supposed turn away from approved modernist procedure, derived from Flaubert, which subjects shifting states of consciousness to the same rigorous accounting as the bibelots furnishing a provincial lady’s sitting room, is to miss the point.

I also appreciate that he compares the Wake to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.  I did the same thing in my article on the Wake several years ago.  =)

How to Prune a Library

For years, I’ve subscribed to a pretty Spartan philosophy about buying books.  A few weeks ago, as part of a larger effort to declutter, I decided to apply these rules to my existing library retrospectively.

Thus, I showed up to work one morning with a few cardboard boxes filled with about 150 books, which I gave away to my students.  (God bless the little bookworms where I work; every last book was gone by the end of the day.)

I only buy a book if it meets one of these conditions: Continue reading