The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the fantastic number of books that I sincerely intend to read right away. Not books that I ought to read eventually, or am embarrassed to admit not having read — did I mention that I just started Emma? — but books that sit in my modest, bedside pile. This pile doesn’t quite reach the ceiling, but it’s certainly a safety hazard.

I sought advice from Michael Dirda’s volume, billed as an extraordinary one-volume literary education. Thanks a lot, Dirda: I’ve just had to add three our four additional volumes that I must read immediately. (Make that five: see below,. It gets worse and worse.)

The first is a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson (“one of those exciting books that flash bolts of lightning across an entire intellectual era and up and down modern history”). What was I thinking? I suppose I anticipated a lively, slender essay on this lively, slender man. When I get to chapter 100 (yes, dear reader, it does come in pints and there is a chapter 100), I’ll let you know.

Dirda is a graceful and attentive writer, and he’s not embarrassed to invite science fiction, light fiction, renaissance art, 19th-century correspondence, and poetry to the same party. He’s got a terrific eye for a quote. Here’s Perelman:

Our meal finished, we sauntered into the rumpus room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her.

Do you know, I’ve managed to miss Perelman entirely? This passage is such a hoot, I really want to dial up Amazon and get The Most of S. J. Perelman . Yes, this would aggravate the original problem. It would be another book on the stack. But what’s another book? Then there are delicious reviews of biographies and memoirs and collections that shouldn’t be put off: Trollope and Houseman and Avram Davidson, K. C. Constantine Kenneth Tynan and The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh. And the Landmark Herodotus.

As you see, this is a lovely book, and reading it has been a disaster.

December 3, 2008 (permalink)

Jan Morris

In 1985, Jan Morris imagined a great place about which to write, and wrote about it. Last Letters from Hav describes a six month trip to a wonderful, strange little city somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean where people wear djellabas and straw hats, where a lone Armenian trumpeter plays a mournful Provencal tune at sunrise every morning to commemorate a victory of Saladin, where the railroad arrives through a once-legendary tunnel and djows are anchored in the harbor, and where on very special mornings in February the local country-dwellers (who live in caves) bring to market the local delicacy, Snow Raspberries, which sell for extraordinary sums.

A further fantastic element, recalling bygone days as vividly as the accounts of elderly, impoverished white Russian ladies recalling their youthful flirtations with Nijinsky at the Hav Casino: the travel writer spends six months, first in a hotel and then in a comfortable apartment, researching and writing.

She departs prematurely, as a market-place rumor becomes a flap, and that escalates into a tourist exodus:

Before me, over the tussocky moorland, the train stood at the frontier station, a thin plume of smoke rising vertically from its funnel, a clutter of cars and people all around. Once again I was reminded of Africa, where you sometimes see the big stream-trains standing all alone, inexplicably waiting, in the immense and empty veldt. I looked begind me then, back over the peninsula: and like grey imperfections on the souther horizon, I saw the warships coming.

I saw the warships coming. Nicely done, for at this edge of the fields we know (and Hav, often strange, is never very frightening) we see the ship — the black freighter — sail into the harbor. The horns of elfland are blowing.

Twenty years later, Morris returns to the execise in Hav of the Myrmidons. The revolution has happened, history has swept over Hav. And though much has been lost, a surprising amount remains, and we meet many of the characters we once knew. They are older now, chastened, careful of what they say. They do not love the new regime, but Hav is prosperous and orderly and everything has been rebuilt. The new tourist island — rebuilt on what was once the prison — has every convenience (and every surveillance device) the wealthy could require, and if you have a Blue Pass you can even go to the mainland to see the sights with a member of the Office Of Ideology and Ethnic Authority.

November 25, 2008 (permalink)

The Emerging Demcratic Majority
John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira

This readable and intelligent appeared in 2002, when prospects for any sort of progressive victory seemed dim and distant. In the wake of Obama’s victory, Judis and Teixeira seem prescient, for not only have the Democrats forged a winning coalition, but the outlines of that coalition seem to adhere closely to their vision of an alliance among women, minorities, and professionals. The role of professionals, broadly considered, is central: the repudiation of Bushism can be seem, most of all, in the repudiation of the belief that our leader’s personal character (and perhaps his blessing by the almighty) can substitute for actually knowing much about problems or their solution.

November 10, 2008 (permalink)

I was awake. It was three in the morning. Obama was far ahead, but I was worried. Tinderbox 4.5 was working well, but I was worried. My stretchtext research was making progress, but I was worried. I grabbed this off the shelf, one of O'Brian’s best, and sat down to see how O'Brian makes this book move, even though it defies a plot summary and has no climax.

This is one of O'Brian’s particular wonders: the Aubrey-Maturin books are clearly plot-driven, they're filled with memorable incident and tension and excitement, but somehow O'Brian avoids the dull, predictable build-up to the climactic combat scene that mars so many mysteries and thrillers. Throughout the book we have conflicts. We always have things we don’t know, and that worry us. We always have discomforts and annoyances, even when everything is smooth sailing; we always have interest and amiability, even in the midst of the gale. O’Brian lets these issues resolve themselves wherever their resolution naturally falls, and so the book seems to open in the midst of exciting action, and also concludes with Captain Aubrey cheerfully observing that, though everything has worked out splendidly, it’s all been a capital failure. But home will be charming, there is prize money to spend, and no doubt a fresh adventure awaits.

November 2, 2008 (permalink)

When chemists consult a volume about professional chemical technique, or when surgeons reach for the latest update on neuroanatomy, they can usually find a book that isn't couched in terms of silly examples and jokes. So can poets, mathematicians, and geologists. For some reason, though, it has become the accepted practice that language manuals should spend lots of time with silly, self-deprecating jokes, and that their example applications should be breakfast loggers and fantasy football leagues (or, conversely, payroll programs).

This is a fine book. Well written, solid, readable. It’s not fair to blame Mr. DuPont for the general vice.

But let's face it: Prototype is 4,000 lines of Javascript. We don't need to sugar coat it. Besides, these aren’t really libraries that your grandmother is going to need; the audience for this volume (series slogan: books for professionals by professionals®) is composed of motivated people who know something and who have been around the block once or twice.

So, a good book. But take out the jokes, trim back the sample code (or dispatch it to the Web site where it makes more sense), and give us to professional perspective, and everyone is going to be much happier. How does Prototype+Javascript relate to other languages — C++/STL, say, or SELF? What, precisely, are the semantics of the key methods? I don't need the inevitable chapter 1 pitch for the wonderfulness of Javascript and the badness of MSIE, but it might be a good place for a quick summary for the pros. Call by reference • no pointers • primitives are objects • everything has a prototype slot • parens() do this, braces {} do that, brackets [] do something else • single and double quotes are different. Kernighan & Ritchie did this so well in C, and it’s not like we’re not familiar with their example.

October 28, 2008 (permalink)

Of all the many things you might observe about books today, one fact stands out: There are a lot of books. We have more books than anyone can read. I myself own more books than I can read. We have far too many books for our stores. We can’t come close to reviewing every new book, or to reading all the books that get great reviews.

Gabriel Zaid argues that this state of affairs is actually a very good thing.

It costs millions of dollars to make a film or mount an opera, but you can write and publish a book for a few thousand dollars. Zaid shows how this economic fact promotes tremendous diversity in books, and maintains diversity even in the face of publishing and bookselling businesses that would much prefer books to behave like movies. You can publish a book — any book — successfully and profitably if you can find a few thousand readers to whom the book is worth about 6 hours of minimum-wage work. That’s why our book world is rich, diverse, and hopelessly fragmented.

Zaid also considered the reader’s dilemma: we have so many wonderful books from which to choose, and a lifetime of reading might only allow us to read a few thousand. (Zaid suggests a thousand, but that’s too low: even a compensated dyslexic like me can manage about 450 volumes in a seven years.)

Zaid is interested in ebooks and hypertext, and does his best to estimate their impact on reading, writing, and publishing. He’s mistaken: he thinks links are merely a supplement to indexes, and doesn’t see that they’re the first new punctuation in ages and will prove at least as important to writing as the comma. In thinking about new media, Zaid ties himself to the bibliolaters and book collectors, the people who worry about missing the smell of the ink. But it’s an honest error, without malice, and essentially harmless. The discussion of the excess of books, and why this is not a cause for despair or an incentive for mergers, is invaluable.

October 23, 2008 (permalink)

The Boy was, I am sure, a ton of fun and a terrific companion when the grandfather John Quincy walked him to school. A few years later, The Boy became The Private Secretary and he helped save the Union no end of trouble, and his father no end of bother, in England during the War of the Rebellion. The Old Man can still see the Boy clearly, which is remarkable, and he is still seeking an Education. And he still knows what the Boy knew: he's no good at his math lessons.

This, it seems to me, is the tragedy of The Education; Adams was seeking a mathematical or physical model of psychology and, indeed, of history — and he is trying to do this without actually learning mathematics or physics. I don’t think this can be done, and I’m not sure it should be attempted. Adams, I think, intuitively sensed that there were good ideas in calculus and (perhaps) in linear algebra, and so he’s constantly looking for physical anthologies — manifestations of force, expressions of work (or energy, or momentum: it seems any will do pretty much interchangeably ) — in the affairs of men.

He was wrong, just as he was wrong when as a youth he mistook the real positions of Russell, Palmerston and Gladstone. He was always happy, it seems, to realize that he had got everything wrong and that he should need to start his education afresh. Perhaps not entirely happy; Adams does return often to the contrast of his 18th-century temperament and 20th-century circumstances. And, if he expected the end of history to occur around 1950, what is 39 years in the sweep of annals?

Most of all, Adams was likable, and that fine sociability survives in his prose.

October 18, 2008 (permalink)

Jo Walton’s third book about an England that capitulated to Germany in 1940, this fascinating book is even better than Farthing and Ha'penny. It's 1960, and our time is divided between Jack Carmichael, the reluctant commander of the British Gestapo (and leader of the Underground), and his ward, Elvira Royston, who is preparing to be presented to the young Queen. This world is a wonderfully-refracted mirror of what came to pass, in which Londoners still go to work every day and are only mildly disturbed by the construction of concentration camps for British Jews but deplore modern pop music (It's a long way to Hitlerhavn!). Two atom bombs were dropped (on Moscow and Miami), and now the world is conclusively at peace. Society and class have retreated to the Edwardian era, Churchill is a forgotten back-bencher. But London is beginning to swing, there are gay pubs now, and in one of them we meet a Foreign Office man named Guy who is soldiering on, years after his masters in Moscow became radioactive dust.

October 14, 2008 (permalink)

Thompson, an old hand at the travel-writing racket and also a former travel editor, sets out to explain why travel writing is so bad. The answer, of course, is that the purpose of contemporary travel writing is simply to sell stuff, to provide a frame for advertisements and to reinforce their message. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again covered this territory with plenty of style and with, on the whole, more generosity of spirit, though without claiming to cover the whole of the travel and hospitality press.

A good deal of this book concerns sex tourism, either explicitly (in chaste stories of bargirls in Thailand and the Phillipines) or obliquely (in sneers about Americans in Mexican border towns, cruise-ship shore parties, and rural Japanese English-teaching, and in a range of metaphor inspired by Hunter Thompson). You’d think that our author simply disapproves of sex — at least when you're a tourist or a traveller — except that his list of travel tips asserts that the best way to learn a language is in bed. We’re left to wonder if the writer is a hypocrite, or his editor a prude, or whether he’s a sinner who has climbed upon the wagon. Since Thompson is otherwise intelligent and insightful on the economics of tourism — arguing, for example, that his own distaste for the Caribbean is rooted in his discomfort at the contrast of extreme luxury and poverty, and that this has the effect of punishing Caribbeans for being so poor that it makes him uncomfortable — his weird delicacy on sex tourism (which he talks about at length but about which he doesn’t like to think) is a missed opportunity.

October 10, 2008 (permalink)

These essays pose as a series of letters of advice from the accomplished actress/playwright to an imagined high school student who has “won” Ms. Smith as a mentor in a charity auction. “This is new for me,” she explains in the introduction, “ I’ve never been auctioned before. (My ancestors were.)”

It is interesting to see how this one-sided correspondence sketches the character of the invisible and silent recipient. Smith — who has crafted a series of highly-regarded one-woman shows in which she portrays a series of people she has interviewed while only their own words — perversely chooses a rather dull and dense young person as her notional correspondent. This lets spares her any inconvenient detours, but it also reduces the book to a series of sermons couched in a falsely informal voice.

Because the “young artist” is very young indeed, Smith indulges in generalities about topics that are not, I think, best considered generally. It’s interesting to talk about whether artists really must suffer for their art, I suppose, but the real question is always concrete. Will you sleep with someone for your art, if that’s what it takes? Will you abandon your beloved for your art, if your art demands it? What will you compromise? Suffering is abstract, and easy; staying or leaving is hard.

The underlying premise is that painters, actors, writers, and dancers all share something that biologists, doctors, and bankers do not. I understand why some people want to believe this, I understand why Smith sees evidence of this in her audiences, but I think the premise is wrong. Plenty of biologists and doctors are artists — literally, not metaphorically — and plenty of artists can be found on any given Sunday in a relaxed, inattentive, and banker-like mood. Smith sees the biologists in her audience, sitting complacently behind the actors and writers,. But in the theater, the biologists are not at work. The actors and writers are. Smith doesn’t see the difference.

Is there, today, much advice that applies equally to an aspiring painter, an actress-playwright, a mezzo-soprano, and a dancer? Conflating all these pursuits as “art” obscures a host of distinctions. Even in youth, the dancer’s candle is burning fast; the painter and the playwright have plenty of time, though never enough. Time’s winged fucking chariot is hardly mentioned, but what subject is more apt for advice to the young artist? Nor is there much space here to address the realization that, sooner or later, comes to so many young artists: we have limits, and the art we want to make sometimes lies beyond what our bodies or the laws of nature permit. Smith talks intelligently about The Man, about learning to deal with an appease the powers that be, and this is all very well. But sometimes the limits are not the man: you grew up and you’re 5'2, or you tore your Achilles tendon, or you caught leukemia, or you’d be the finest mind of most generation but this year there’s this kid from New York. Henry Adams calls stoicism “a stupid resource, though the only one”; I'd have like to have heard how Smith might have fortified her high-school artist against that day.

October 9, 2008 (permalink)

Overy explores in detail why the United Nations ultimately won the Second World War, and argues that their victory was not in fact inevitable. The first chapters provide a succinct and solid summary of the war, focussing on critical issues on the broad stage and weighing them with care and intelligence. Ovey is especially good in studying the air war, which he argues was far more important in defeating Germany than contemporary historians have generally acknowledged. He is willing, too, to explore the importance of the moral dimension: in the end, Germany’s defeat was good, and that fact helped ensure that Germany would be defeated. Ovey is not blind to Soviet ills, and sensibly explores that necessary alliance and its impact. The chapter on morality starts, peculiarly, by comparing religious attitudes in the combatant countries. Yes, FDR was a believer, and yes, Americans are more openly concerned with religion than most Europeans. These superficial attitudes seem unrelated to actual behavior, much less the outcome of the war.

October 5, 2008 (permalink)

At ReaderCon, I wandered into a masterful lecture by John Clute:

“The Cossacks are Coming!”: Defining the Fantastic by Coherence of Story.
John Clute.

We normally define the fantastic by the presence of non-mimetic content. In this talk, Clute proposes that the “undue coherence” of Story, when wrought past a certain point, becomes inherently fantastical, regardless of content. The talk takes its title from the climaxes of John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916) and The Lord of the Rings; Clute argues that the shout of the beleaguered heroes of the first tale as their saviors come from the north and fall upon their foes — “The Cossacks! The Cossacks!!” — is not just superficially similar to Gandalf’s cry — “The Eagles are coming!” — but that both cries have the same function, a function inherent to the experience of reading the fantastic. In other words, any story sufficiently advanced to have become entirely visible is indistinguishable from magic.

This is quite wonderful, of course, but so is Buchan’s book — of which I had never heard. Buchan, once a household name, has been forgotten, but here in 1916 we have the roots of the great travel books of the 20's and 30's and the birth of the thriller. Scene after scene seems at once fresh and shockingly familiar: the border crossing into hostile Germany prefigures “Julia”, the arrival at the dark German schloss inhabited by a shabby, untrustworthy servants and a frightening host, prefigures Bond and Indiana Jones and much else. A few false notes are inserted as propaganda, and the horror of the trenches is played down; this was 1916, there were still some fields in Flanders that were not forever England and we wouldn’t want to hurt recruiting. The exotic American sidekick is a hoot, and the Honorable Arbuthnot is everything you could want in a colonial old hand. There’s even a memorable female villain.

September 27, 2008 (permalink)

A fascinating double-feature with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which is to say, with the greatest spy story ever), this fine novel begins in WWII Lisbon with a young and totally inexperienced British math student pressed into service as a novice field operative. Her operation is blown within a week, but not before she falls hopelessly in love with a Nazi double-agent she hardly knows. The ramifications of this week-long affair echo down decades and across continents, all the way to Burgess and Philby and the fall of the Wall. Wilson’s great interest (and affection) for Portugal, where fascism made its last stand, informs a taut and clever book.

September 23, 2008 (permalink)