The Doodah Man

Here lives half a person.
The other half is visiting relatives
at the half-people’s home
for retired fragments.
If some of them could club together
he’d be pretty good company. After all,
everyone has a few extra bits sticking out.


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Sunday February 11, 2018


Am here.

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The River Derwent

The River Derwent

She’d heard the old mission had been restored
recently, put back into place
so to speak, its grubby old age
wiped off like a fogged mirror Jake would say,
and had come to see for herself.

From the front it was no whiter than before.
Unless you are a mission Indian
your approach is coy. Circling
down from a rise some miles away
where the road falls out of the underside of the city,

you see it off to the right, white
in the morning sun. Plaster, of course.
Not a big building, but as noticeable
as an exposed shoulder among brown suits.
Country roads lead around to the face.

There’s no mission square. Just a dusty
parking lot, and an arched gate with a small bell
under which you pass. A low wall,
whitewashed. Some Indian girls, children that is,
were selling guidebooks there as usual.

You pay what you like. On a Thursday morning,
October, no cars but hers,
she gave a dollar. From the front
the central bell tower, the white wings,
seemed unchanged.

A shop had once been there, fitted under the dark lintels.
Later she found it on the plaza in back
they had made new shop space
more discreet. She sat on a bench in mesquite shade
with their water and their books.

They who had made this place,
the mission Indians who were the people
who owned this place. Whose girls
stood out front with coffee cans
in the dust. They once built it for themselves.

In seventeen fifty something. She drank their water,
warm water under the mesquite and didn’t want
to be more precise. In the mercado
a bodega was serving good bean burros in the hot white air
but she didn’t want any of that either.

A light breeze rattled the tree overhead. It was their church
Some foundation’s money rebuilt this
bought the research and the skills.
But their girls. Their burros and Guatemalan rugs
in the mercado.

The work was good. She saw it was good,
knowing nothing.

Why then had she come? Past times
worry us, worried to make a shrine
but that someone was here before

polishing and tidying up, putting to rights
some stuff. As Jake would say stuff.
Inside, the intricate decorations had been cleaned,
repainted in the original heavy red and green
garish to the protestant eye. Scary

reliquaries, gaunt carvings painted blood and gold
with big dark eyes. Masses of wavering candle flames
and stiffened lace concealing dwarves in glass
coffins, pulpits and dark crooked lintels grow
from the narrow walls. You feel you could reach right across.

She wasn’t much for church architecture.
Didn’t know how the parts were — apse, crossing —
was there a rood screen? Or was that Byzantine.
Best to keep such things screened off.
She was a different kind of historian.

She would want to know how they had lived,
what changes the missionaries had made,
why they needed a church
when there was a perfectly good religion already.
She would want to know about dogs

and ball games, and if they also made rugs
for tourists at train stops without a purpose
the way Gray Line tours do. Rugs
using the new aniline dyes, heavy greens and reds
made from coal tar in factories.

Had the friar kept a pariah dog? Territorial jails
were often built by their prisoners too
because there was no prison all ready
to house them. Who’s complaining?
She hadn’t heard any outcry.

The sort of historian she was
who wants to taste the daily life, maybe
she should go for one of those burros
after all. Beans and chiles
were not the friar’s food alone

but had been here all along. She drank the water
which might have gone for Indian beans and squash.
Maybe the friar thought
he was helping to make the adobe for something more
than just another church, already here.

She didn’t understand these things, really.
She was that kind of historian. A woman
from somewhere in England, presumably —
or time was, given her name:
Derwent. Or time was.

She herself was only from the place where she was
last. The academic life
takes you everywhere. An itinerant life
like the early printers setting up wherever
there was no press, needing only a few tools to build one

as the friar and the people did whose church it was.
Built this one out of their own adobe,
probably the dogs leaving their paw prints
in it, cried off too late. Now restored
and all the clay of generations since wiped off.

They hadn’t neglected a cemetery of course
would leave no one unburied. And a school
which was in the opposite wing. Years
she might have worked to become a teacher,
carrying children from one side to the other.

The River Derwent as the English call it,
always putting the particular last,
is about forty-five miles long.
It comes down from the Howden Moors
in the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield

where they make good steel, to Derby and Burton
whence the little packets of salts, that is
minerals, that home brewers use
who have only bad water.
Rivers drain a lot of particular geography,

carrying the anxieties of people who have
no calculus and who cannot explain
how one thing by imperceptible degree becomes another.
To bear a river’s name as she did bears the name
of a particular passage washing her

from birth to death. The flow, or rather that
infusion, that dispersion which James says
is the meaning of religious experience —
one stands at the confluence, waiting,
and somehow there is always more water coming.


This poem started out as an experiment with the Old English verse form, which is based on counting stresses, with a caesura in the middle of the line and equal stresses either side.

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Mr Ka’s treasure

Mr Ka’s Treasure Map

In an old trunk in his attic Mr Ka found a large piece of heavy with mysterious writing on it.

This must have been left behind by an earlier owner of this house, Mr Ka said to himself. I’ll bet it’s a treasure map. All papers like this with mysterious writing are treasure maps. But what am I supposed to do to find the treasure if I can’t read the instructions?

He turned the map every which way. He used a magnifying glass. He tried some liquid for making invisible ink visible. He still could make nothing of it.

So he put away the map again, closed the lid of the trunk firmly, and went downstairs to eat his dinner.

I would like to have owned that treasure, Mr Ka thought when he woke up the next morning. Think of all the good works I could have done. I suppose I shall have to get along without it. All day Mr Ka racked his brains for something good to do, but finally he had to give up and go about his business.

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13 Minds #2 Enlightenment

Field notes and preliminary remarks by Charles Brownson


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Wallace Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: II

Enlightenment is very rare. Sometimes it can be found growing under the protection of a nomind bush, but ordinarily it is found growing alone in bare areas, as for example after a fire, or in deserts with rainfall above five inches (130mm).
The 10th century traveler Ibn al-Mansoor found specimens of enlightenment growing in the Tibetan mountains at high altitude, where they seemed especially to thrive. When Kilmartin returned to the area in the 19th century, in the course of his expeditions against Russian incursion, he found that many of the valleys which al-Mansoor had identified as most fertile for enlightenment were barren. It was presumed that the cause was a change in the microclimate. We now know from studies by the Buddhist sociobiologist Wen that the importation of non-native cattle is to blame. The animals trample the encrustations of tao moss which provide essential nutrients to the enlightenment. The role of the now endangered tao was previously unsuspected.


Two monks passed by a rock along the roadside.
Oh, how beautiful, said the younger monk.
The older walked on, saying nothing.


It is said that enlightenment and nirvana are the stakes to which donkeys are tied. In Zen tradition there is to be found considerable mockery of the methods and goals of ordinary Buddhism. Partly this stems from the pedantry of so many Buddhist scholars and partly from the desire of ordinary followers for tenets which will lead, with sufficient assiduity, to coveted results, usually release from karma and the Great Wheel of life and death. Of course, the very existence of desire (for leaders, followers, seekers) in itself is worthy of ridicule.

The botany of Enlightenment is interesting in its dependence on both Nomind and Tao moss. The rarity of both is the primary cause that Enlightenment should be perennially endangered. The relationship with Nomind is straightforward; that with the moss is not. It is thought that the two species share a connection similar to that of trees, carried by aerosols resembling pheromones, but this has not been verified. Nor have the receptors for such been identified.

Enlightenment, like other plants which facilitate awareness and counter the closed mind, is mildly toxic. Its effect is cumulative and will not be experienced for years after a regimen is begun. Given the hostility of both authorities and ordinary unsusceptible people, it is nearly impossible that such a regimen could be followed outside some protected environment such as a monastery.

His reply to Stevens

When food does not nourish
we starve. By such means
we are nourished. 

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13 Minds

No Mind
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Wallace Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I

Nomind can most often be found growing along river beds and at the edges of wooded areas. It prefers mixed sun and shade and moderate temperatures, but is very tolerant and may be found growing in harsher places. Windy environments such as ocean dunes and mountainous regions, deserts, deep forest, or other extremes will almost always harbor a few specimens. It is slow-growing even in the most favorable conditions. Plants found growing in hostile environments may be very old. The nomind’s age is hard to estimate. Authoritative dating is possible only after death.
Nomind has a number of medicinal uses. Like tea and some other plants, it is most effective when steeped in hot water. Taken with proper care it is most useful as a restorative. Nomind promotes alertness and calm vigor. Taken regularly it is conducive to long life. Some instruction, however, is necessary to achieve these benefits. Indiscriminate or unregulated ingestion will rarely be of help and may be fatal.
Nomind is a small inconspicuous plant. It spreads underground by means of rhizomes and produces seeds infrequently. The leaves are small and thick and covered with short hairy fibers that hold rain. Some species have thorns. Adaptation and growing conditions may make it hard to recognize. The foliage is thick, affording protection to many small birds and animals. Flowers are 25mm, five-petaled, and most often white or pale green, In acidic soil they can be more brightly colored. The plant’s odor most resembles mint.

A warrior makes no war. Mushin makes no mind. We watch it grow but are not enlightened.

The horticulturist Wu Xie first described the nomind in 1614. Formerly its varied growth habit and tolerance of environmental conditions had caused it to be classified as several species, a confusion reflected today in the varied way of spelling the colloquial name. In this respect it is also a challenge to the intellect, but deeper understanding reveals this challenge to be superficial, as Wu showed by his unification. Unfortunately, Wu’s work has been shown to be itself unsatisfactory in this respect. (Xiaopin Roshi, 1796)
The Tao of No Mind is to be found only in books. (Wu Li, 1840)
Mushin is the foundation of zen and the mindset of the martial arts. In everyday life the situation is like that of the koan, which has no “solution” but a response which reveals the student’s understanding must be performed, not explained. Popular examples are the one-handed clap and the extinguishing of the candle. The well-known responses are now not zen, as a true response must be spontaneous and not calculated; that is, the product of no mind. (James Peel, 1925)

C’s poem
Nomind grows by my door,
narrowing the way.
But my small hut will hold many guests.

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75 Books Your Book Club Probably Won’t Read

I published this list a few years ago, and as my ideas haven’t changed I thought I’d publish it again.

1. A Coat of Varnish
C.P. Snow
A detective story, but a rather odd one, lacking a detective, or rather what passes for the detective is oddly lethargic. A mystery with, on the one hand, an excess of mystery, and on the other very little. Embedded in this book is a deep critique of how our obsession with facts and knowledge distorts our understanding of what is truly important, ideas not unexpected from the man who started the two cultures argument. Written in Snow’s limpid style, utterly readable. He did write another detective story in the early 30s, Death Under Sail, which is clever, but primitive in comparison to this one.

2. A Dance to the Music of Time
Anthony Powell
Much the best serial novel among such competitors as Snow’s Strangers and Brothers and Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion. With a little thought, however, this initial judgment seems facile. There is Proust, of course. What about Mishima’s four-volume The Sea of Fertility? What about Lord of the Rings? Powell’s massive story is to some extent a roman a clef (see Hilary Spurling’s handbookInvitation to the Dance) It’s chock with interesting characters all through, and with the requisite upstanding colorless fellow at the center of it all, the window which looks out on the ocean shore, the eternal ocean which brings us these bottled messages. The character Kenneth Widmerpool who is woven through the book is a very grating monster of unfeeling who the reader will think impossible to humanize, but the narrator manages this feat. Other feats await a long, placid, satisfying investment.

3 A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf
Advice to writers on what is necessary, Woolf’s manifesto is also a statement of female independence. Actually, it is addressed to all of us, and concerns the fully realized life of the mind. A core statement of the respect which is due everyone.

4 A Year in the Maine Woods
Ravens n Winter
Bernd Heinrich
Here is much of what we know of one of the smartest creatures on earth, coupled with magnificent nature writing. Heinrich is in a right relationship to the spiritual world as well as the material one. A natural hermit, he spends winters alone, entering the lives of these wonderful birds. The books are also narratives of research and discovery (some of his graduate students can be seen in the background) and contain many insights into how this work is conducted. In 1960 Niko Tinbergen published a book on gulls, some of the founding work in modern ecology. Heinrich is a worthy heir to that. Maybe, as Thomas Nagel says, there are some experiences beyond the conscious mind’s ability to comprehend. Heinrich thinks it’s worth a try, anyway.

5 Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
What is there to say? Martin Gardner’s annotations only add to the delight. Ranks with Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Rabelaise’s Gargantua and Pantagruel as examples of the profundity of games.

6 The Ambassadors
Henry James
A bildungsroman. Lambert Strether is a likable naïf, the agent of convention, on whom Europe works as it did James himself. James’s familiar delicate, probing nuances are all here. From the inventor of the modern novel of 20th century realism and the master of The Art of Fiction

7 Ashenden
Somerset Maugham
The first spy novel. Before Ashenden, spying was an adventure, not a job. Maugham the story-teller turned his eye on the melodrama of amateurs and showed us the first professional. Hitchcock made this into silly and ignorant film. Ashenden

8 Bartleby the Scrivener
Herman Melville
Moby Dick was too obvious. Bartleby is the Great Inscrutable, with his mantra “I prefer not to.” rivaled only by Poe’s never more. Bartleby is an open rebuke to us all, whether we prefer to or not. Whatever it is, we’ve got it wrong.

9 I changed my mind about #9

10 Blood on the Dining Room Floor
Gertrude Stein
I can’t imagine any list without Stein on it. This is a charming murder mystery in Stein’s inimitable, intelligent style. Hemingway observed that Stein discovered many things about rhythm and repetition, and so she did. It begins:

They had a country house. A house in the country is not the same as a country house. This was a country house. They had had one servant, a woman. They had changed to two servants, a man and woman that is to say husband and wife.
The first husband and wife were Italian. They had a queer way of walking, she had a queer way of walking and she made noodles with spinach which made them green.

Delicious. This is not Agatha Christie. This is not The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
As to who dunnit I will say nothing.

11 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Dee Brown
Biographies of canonical Indian heroes and an encyclopedia of Native American history. Put it on your bookshelf next to Galloway’s One Vast Winter Count and a few others. What can be found here is knowledge essential to understanding the American West – the Old World, already civilized by the time of the Babylonians. I’m not qualified to comment on this book, other than having grown up a couple of hundred miles from Wounded Knee Creek. My college band played a concert in Pine Ridge one year and we were billeted on the residents for a night. I didn’t see a lot of difference between that place and the town of six hundred or so where my family’s home farm was. Tourists never see anything.

12 The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer
Must read aloud in Middle English to appreciate the poetry. Over-analyzed, as are most such cultural monuments. These are tales, as the title says, a form supposedly inherited from the bards and their ilk but in fact nothing more than the banter around the campfire (fireplace, stove) in the evening when the work is done, or to pass the time while the tribe is on the move to summer quarters (in flight to Hawaii). Some of them are of the killing the mammoth sort, some are what you say to strangers when asked who you are and where you’ve been, some are clever tales to be exchanged in something like a story-slam. And the whole thing is a shaggy dog story intended to go on however it may. Chaucer’s eye was sharp, even sly, but kindly. Therein lays the deep meaning of the pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Also: Derek Pearsall The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography

13 China Men
Maxine Hong Kingston
The lives of Chinese men who immigrated to America, leaving their families behind, in search of money which they would send home from the Gold Mountain. Lives lived for the most part alone, for most never returned. Bachelor lives of toil lived in squats. An upsetting read, with a clinging odor like boiled cabbage. Kingston wrote another book about Chinese women, Woman Warrior, more formally autobiographical.
China Men
The Woman Warrior

14 Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky
A poor student, one Raskolnikov, murders an old woman for a trifling amount of money. Raskolnikov occupies the first half of the book trying to be convicted of his crime. He succeeds, with the help of the policeman Porfiry Petrovitch, in making himself confess. The second half of the book is occupied with Raskolnikov’s efforts to be punished and recover his humanity. Not every writer could bring off the moral earnestness to be found here, nor this lugubrious plot of seeking guilt and punishment. Notable for the character of Porfiry Petrovitch. Lacking evidence, but convinced of Raskonikov’s guilt, he simply wears his victim out and uncovers the need to confess. Inspector Slimane in the 1937 film Pépé le Moko is an exact copy. (Remade in English as Algiers.)

15 The Crying of Lot 49
Thomas Pynchon
Much smaller and more efficient than V or Gravity’s Rainbow, but with all the Pynchon themes: paranoia and conspiracy, period detail, manic sex, done up in Pynchon’s arch, satirical style. Oedipa Maas, wife of small-time disc jockey Mucho Maas (typical Pynchon names) finds herself the executrix of the estate of the wealthy Pierce Inverarity and embarks, with a lawyer who she promptly seduces, on disentangling it. Matters quickly focus on a stamp collection containing stamps of the medieval courier Thurn and Taxis. And what were they up to, and why had Inverarity been interested? Pynchon’s first three novels are worthwhile. Everything else is perfunctory, derivative, and tired.
Also: Slow Learner: Early Stories a new book of self-criticism. What Pynchon thought he was up to.

16 The Death of Virgil
Hermann Broch
The last days of the Roman poet Virgil, evoked in a poetic, interior, lyrical way that does more justice to the poet than a simple narrative. Requires close and thoughtful reading, which it will repay.

17 Death on the Installment Plan
Journey to the End of the Night
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Destouches)
Proletarian doctor confronts depravity and desperation. Appalled .by the human condition, he decides to write about it. A breathless style marked by frequent ellipses to mark unfinished thoughts and incomplete assertions and an infinite and horrible continuation of more or the same. The first-person narrator is very angry. In his personal life Céline was an anti-Semite who was interned for a time after the war as a German sympathizer, but was ultimately freed. These books are worth reading. The rest are not.
Tom Clark. The Exile of Céline

18-20 mysteriously redacted

21 Dog Years
Günter Grass
The postwar continuation of Grass’s path-breaking The Tin Drum. The same political commitments the same incantatory style. Big Money dominates the German reconstruction. This sequel casts its net wider, is more capacious, if that can be believed.

22 moved

23 Erasers
Alain Robbe-Grillet
A murder mystery (incomprehensible) from the author of Jealousy (obsessive) and Last Year at Marienbad (boring). A detective, Wallace, arrives in a bleak de Chirico town in northern France, assigned to investigate a reported murder of which nothing is known, including whether there even was one. What Wallace discovers will amaze you. Robbe-Grillet was a spokesman of a 1950s reform movement which aspired to expunge from contemporary writing all limp description, meaning among other things most adjectives, which infect and detract from the actual facts of what happened.[See the affective fallacy in Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity] Robbe-Grillet’s principles can be found in the book For a New Novel. The method is well suited to stories concerned with what we think we know, but actually do not, such as detective stories. The method is (or is thought to be) forbidding by those who limit their reading to less ambitious, more timid books, and so we have learned little from this intelligent author.

24 Essays
Michel de Montaigne
A much-admired exponent of the situational ethics now despised, a spite which only exposes the confused and specious thinking which Montaigne rejected. A standing rebuke to our pundits of frightened thought control. Montaigne is always lucid and humane, even in the long essay Apology for Raymond Sebond. in which he argues that as we cannot determine the truth of religion we might as well believe – a lucid exposition unlikely to convince anyone not already convinced. The authoritative translation is by Donald Frame.

25 Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
What is astonishing about this book (and others by Borges) is not so much the cleverness of the stories (fables?) themselves but the incredible density of them. In the shortest and possible space Borges fits references and associations which resonate with vast areas of human culture and endeavor. The tardis of literature.

26 The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney
Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindsey Richardson)
Volume one, Australia Felix (1917); volume two, The Way Home (1925); volume three, Ultima Thule (1929). Acquired its collective title 1930. Notable for rich characterizations, and especially more than the eponymous Mahoney, his wife, a young initially self-deprecating woman who finds herself thrust into resourceful competences when her husband is disabled by mental illness. One of the great Australian novels. Check out Wikipedia for a many-page plot summary.

19 Dictée
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Originally published in 1982, I reviewed it in 1987 – fortunately laudatory, since it has acquired a formidable reputation since her death shortly after the book was published. It’s hard to say what this book is. Formally classified as fiction, but just as easily regarded as history, memoir, poetry, manifesto. Dictée was a power word of the Surrealists, associated with Breton’s ideas of automatic writing. There is indeed an air of taking dictation, a semi-controlled passion. Cha was a Korean nationalist. Much of the book is concerned with Korea during the years of Japanese occupation; to give a full précis or even an adequate summary would be impossible. It is divided into nine parts, named for the nine Classical muses; Dictée is stuffed with references of this sort but emphatically not limited by them. A challenging but enlightening book.

20 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
Pierre Bourdieu
If you thought you knew why some things are good and others bad, read on and be exposed as the follower of fashion that you are. Chock with data. One of the key concepts here is that of habitus, a set of linked practices and beliefs which persons of a particular class, economic status, or other group hold in common. These things come in packages. If you believe or prefer this thing, then you are more likely to prefer this other thing. Given this insight, it becomes possible to ask (and answer) questions on matters of cultural capital, tastemakers, the influx of new standards, and so forth. The ideas in this book are explored further in Bourdieu’s The Field of Cutural Production. A book which puts to work the same methods is Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies. Among Collins’s discoveries is that the optimum number of competing systems of thought is three. A monopoly, such as Confucianism had at one time, smothers growth. More than four systems of thought produces a muddle. Philosophies tend to fuse or fission to settle on the optimum three systems.
This way of thinking tends to undermine ideas of fixed truths, aesthetic standards, canonical lists.

21 Pierre Bourdieu
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature
Randall Collins
The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change
27 Hadrian VII
Baron Corvo (Frederick Rolfe)
Rolfe was a frustrated man, desperate to become a Catholic priest, a vocation which he repeatedly failed to be admitted to. So he wrote a book about the first English Pope. By far the best part of the book is the long initial section detailing the Papal election procedures and the machinations which produce the stalemate of the Cardinals.
AJA Symons wrote quite a good biography of Rolfe. The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A.J.A. Symons

28 The Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad
A foundational metaphor for what lies below human civilization, an ineradicable element of humanity itself. Tapping the mythic core of story, Conrad’s tale has been many times borrowed and adapted, but remains definitive. Told impeccably by the unimpeachable Marlow to some friends relaxing on a ship awaiting the tide on the Thames, the story approaches its black and horrifying center with excruciating and methodical stealth, leaving us to imagine until the very end what evil might await. A tense and compact short novel from one who is among the best of writers and a one of the three, with James and Ford, who codified the principles of literary Modernism.

29 Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino
Calvino is possibly best-known for Cosmicomics, but I like this better. It’s a quiet little meditation or poem, a set of little inventions told by Marco Polo to the aging Kublai Khan who senses the end of his empire and himself. Marco describes for him the cities he has seen – fat and thin, hidden, cities and eyes, and names, and the dead, and the sky – but in the end they are all the same city: a temporal succession, “future cities already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.”

30 J.R.
William Gaddis
Impeccably voiced, a claim more than usually apt, as the book consists entirely of dialogue. Gaddis’s skill at capturing the subtleties of the way we speak is uncanny. No he seds and yet we always know who is talking. No it izzes and yet we always know where they are and how situated. No authorial remarks and adjectives and yet we always know what these people want and how they intend to get it. Gaddis’s previous book The Recognitions is also much admired, and with good reason, but it has no hold on this one for acid humor. The subsequent A Frolic of His Own is just as funny but less acid; there is little to prefer among them.
William Gaddis
Frolic of His Own
The Recognitions

31 Japanese Inn
Oliver Statler
Statler recounts the history of a single Japanese inn which stands beside the road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto over the last 400 years. Because of its location and of its high-born guests, a great deal is known about this inn and its generations of innkeepers, and we ourselves learn a lot of Japanese history from this charming book.

32 Jealousy
Alain Robbe-Grillet
Alone on a vast banana plantation, a man whose wife is cheating on him, told in a manner ideally suited to such a subject. The jealous observer goes over and over the facts of his surroundings and the little which happens there, resolutely ignoring, as a jealous man would, his jealousy, thereby reducing it to a thing which can be pushed under the bed with the dust kittens. Resembles the minimalism of Philip Glass or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Riveting.

33 Judge Dee
Robert Van Gulik
Van Gulik was a Dutch Sinologist long resident in China. Dee was a real person, a Confucian public official living around the year 800, about whom tales were told of his acuity and the strange problems with which he was confronted. Van Gulik translated a selection of these (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) which he modernized with respect to style to make them both more readable and self-explanatory. Having done so, he decided to write more of them himself, the first of which, The Chinese Maze Murders, tells of the first assignment of the young magistrate and his family retainer Sargent Hoong. In the course of the following tales the Judge meets and subdues two robbers who become his loyal assistants, and through successive promotions rises in stature and reputation. These are charming and clever detective stories.

34 The King
Donald Barthelme
Barthelme wrote also a version of Snow White which is decorous but not quite virginal. This is a story of King Arthur and his troubles with the unfaithful Guinevere and her philandering paramour, Lancelot. It is marked by a distinctive voice which is part children’s story and part Gertrude Stein – an excellent voice, humorous and elegiac at the same time. Deceptively simple.

35 Life on the Mississippi
Mark Twain
If you like comprehensive books, this is one of them. Twain’s instantly recognizable voice with its undertone of amusement. Facts, experiences, history, tales, sights and sounds, how to steer a riverboat in two feet of water at night when you can’t see where you’re going – what more could you want?

36 Life, A User’s Manual
Georges Perec
Perec is the fellow who undertook to write (in French, of course) a book without the letter e. He was a member of a group of writers organized under the acronym Oulipo, which translates as “workshop of potential literature”. Prominent members have been Raymond Queneau (a founder, in 1960) and Italo Calvino (see this list under “Invisible Cities”. La vie, mode d’emploi concerns the residents of a single apartment house (hôtel) in Paris. Among the numerous subplots in this ensemble piece is one concerning a maker of jigsaw puzzles of the intricate precision-cut wooden sort. As you might guess, this is of wider significance.
Oulipo founder Raymond Queneau’s most popular book Zazie in the Metro has been translated into a bazillion languages plus a movie. Queneau also wrote Exercises de Style, which was a staple of the stage revue Les Freres Jacques (a troupe of four men) at the Rose Rouge for years after WWII. If you can imagine such a book turned into vaudeville. I can’t.

37 Lord Grizzly
Frederick Manfred (Feike Feikema)
The story of Hugh Glass, mauled by a grizzly bear on the northern Great Plains far from any habitation, White or Indian. Glass crawled two hundred miles on his hands and knees. He bound his wounds, found food and water, and survived. A masterpiece of adventure writing, far above anything else Manfred wrote. Unfortunately, he attached the story of Glass’s subsequent quest, which is a piece of ordinary work, but it remains a memorable read in spite of that.

22 The Maine Woods
Henry David Thoreau
The best of Thoreau’s less read travel books, an account of a climb of Mt. Katahdin. Astute as always, with nothing stinted of Thoreau’s unique voice. Thoreau was a dedicated armchair traveler. John A Christie’s Thoreau as World Traveler (Columbia, 1965) amounts to a compendium of the best travel books of the first half of the 19th century.

38 The Martin Beck novels
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöö
This husband and wife pair of Swedish writers set out in the 1950s to produce a set of ten novels which, taken in chronological sequence, would form a critique of declining Swedish society along with a portrait of group of detectives, headed up by Martin Beck, as they age. Hardly a new idea, but unusual in the detective genre, similar to the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain but constructed as a set rather than an open-ended series. The crimes and their solutions are competent and interesting but mixed. What carries the series forward is the aging detectives themselves.

39 The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov
I read this book so long ago that I’ve forgotten what it was about. Connoisseurs of tequila? Mustard pizza? Oh, yes.. It was, um – The plot alternates between two venues, 1930s Moscow and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate. Stuffed with historical characters, it concerns of the Devil (a dapper gentleman) and … Well, there is a whole website devoted to this book.‎

40 The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata
A newspaper reporter recounts the passing of mastery from one generation to the next. This elegy contains much knowledgeable discussion of the progress of the game over many days, just as an account of a Western chess tournament would. Sad and uplifting simultaneously.

#41-43 changed my mind

44 The Metamorphosis
Franz Kafka
Who hasn’t heard of poor Gregor Samsa and his life as a beetle? This has to be one of the most frightening and melancholy metaphors for the human condition ever invented.

45 The Mysteries of Paris
Eugène Sue, 1843
With Alexandre Dumas, the originator of the newspaper serial. Sue got rich from this book. Originally a writer of adventure stories copied from Fenimore Cooper, Sue began in the 1840s to write longer and more complex tales. The Mysteries of Paris concerns the efforts of a minor German noble, Baron Gerolstein, to find his daughter, kidnapped and sold into prostitution. He appears in the Paris underworld as Rodolphe, and in this guise pursues his inquiries. Sue discovered a social conscience in the writing of this book, which was immensely popular and read by all classes from the nobility to the servant. A romping good melodrama, undeservedly little known in English since the 1870s. There is no contemporary translation, but used copies are not hard to find. It is available on Kindle for free, and there are a few paperback reprints also. The only biography of Sue is in French, by Jean-Louis Bory: Eugène Sue, le roi du roman populaire.

46 The Nature and Art of Workmanship
David Pye
Pye distinguishes between two major regimes: the workmanship of certainty and the workmanship of risk. The first corresponds to machine processes; the use of machines is intended to achieve incremental progress toward the goal of flawless reproduction. The second corresponds to handmade processes which value the process equally with the product and seek chance and accident rather than control, a set of concepts close to the Japanese idea of wabi sabi. Much flows from this.

If you Google “Pye workmanship” you will see some of the range of activities to which Pye’s ideas have been applied. What about reading? There are the analytically inclined people who survey the possible interpretations, gather the evidence and the expert opinion, crafting what they hope will be a definitive argument. So how would you describe a risky, handmade style of reading?
46 Novel on Yellow Paper
Stevie Smith
My copy of this book actually is printed on yellow paper – the stuff an underemployed secretary might use to write a novel on in idle moments, as is the case here. Smith was a poet, with one of the all-time great book titles to her credit – Me Again – a title which gives the flavor of her poetry and of this book.

47 Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov
Everyone who wants to tone up their list mentions this book.
A novel in footnotes. The pedantic neighbor of the poet John Shade attempts to explicate the 1000-line poem left at Shade’s death. It’s quite a good poem. The explicator goes awry at a number of points – in fact, assumes or concludes quite the opposite of the truth, misreadings and false assertions about false premises which we are expected to disentangle ourselves. Not as hard as it looks, unless you are expecting a firm conclusion. Nabokov had some cogent ideas on how to read a novel which he delivered in a series of classes at Cornell and which the students very presciently recorded. Lectures on Literature

48 The Palliser novels
Anthony Trollope
A set of six novels published between 1864 and 1879, in order: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, The Duke’s Children. They are political novels, but the first is also about the condition of women and the third is a detective story of sorts. During much of the last century Trollope stood in the shadow of Thackeray and was thought rather plodding.

My copy of Phineas Finn is apparently the first American edition (Harper, 1868) which I rescued from the trash. It had lost its covers, the sewing was almost gone, and the paper is very brown. Its one of my favorite books, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it.

49 Parade’s End
Ford Madox Ford
A set of four novels concerning the life of one Christopher Tietjens, something of a sad sack who bungles most of the problems he encounters due to an extreme sense of propriety and what is the right thing to do. Lugubrious. Morbid, almost. These should be sufficient recommendations for the author of some very fine historical novels, that masterpiece of unreliable narrators The Good Soldier and the editor of the Transatlantic Review.

Ford’s style is like a massive low-pressure system which sucks you in and won’t let go, usually accompanied by unrelenting rain. Hemingway complained of his bad breath. He was originally named Ford Hermann Hueffer and was the grandson of Ford Madox Brown, the Pre-Raphaelite painter of moralizing history pictures.

50 Philosophical Investigations
Ludwig Wittgenstein
As was the case with Nabokov’s Cornell lectures, these are class notes. Wittgenstein’s place in contemporary philosophy needs no more discussion than Shakespeare’s in theatre. The book is by turns puzzling as a koan, witty, and epigrammatic, a species of poetry. At random, #326:

We expect this and are surprised at that. But the chain of reasons has an end.

Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein’s Vienna
The World as I Found It
This last is quite a good novel about the relationship of Wittgenstein and Russell in Cambridge.

51 Pnin
Vladimir Nabokov
I’ve decided not to include this book because of Pale Fire above, #47 already discussed. This is a small book, anyway, and not typical of Nabokov. It belongs to the genre of “college novels” which is in turn a sub-genre of the bildungsroman except that in this case Timofey Pnin seems to learn nothing from the shabby treatments and humiliations which are his lot except how to endure them. There are no Nabokovian challenges here. There is little of his famous pyrotechnics. It is, in fact, a simple story so heartbreaking as to be unbearable and so I have chosen to say nothing about it.

52 Poems
Emily Dickenson
Here are three bits for comparison

When Continents expire
The Giants they discarded – are
Promoted to endure –

We expect this and are surprised at that.
But the chain of reasons has an end.

on the philosophy mattress tonight.
My sister is going to attempt to join the morning after
and Aristotle’s Ethics

Which of these is by Dickinson? Is there any important difference between them? They are from very different projects – different enough that we might say contradictory or mutually exclusive – but if you didn’t know that? If you took them all to be enigmatic little stories requiring rather more of the usual exegesis? The Collected Stories of – who? You. For the record, the second is from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations quoted above in item 50. The third is from Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. (Phillips is a book artist who paints or scribbles on the pages of books so as to bring out hidden qualities. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel )
My point is this: that we limit ourselves in our reading in entirely unnecessary ways. Heidegger’s Being and Time is notoriously difficult, but what is not known (except among the cognoscenti) is that it was actually written by James Joyce under a pseudonym. It is also true that many poems thought to be Dickinson’s are actually bits which Gertrude Stein edited out of Tender Buttons. Who says otherwise? Literature is supposed to liberate the mind, isn’t it? Help us to new ways of thinking with the right side of the brain? Why is it supposed to be hard?

There are a lot of editions of Dickinson. Use the reading edition of the poems edited by RW Franklin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)

53 Pogo: The Jack Acid Society Black Book
Walt Kelly
Cold War humor. A talking opossum bandies metaphysics and political doctrine with a crocodile. Kelly was completely out of the box in his time and he still is.

54 Maus
Art Spiegelman
Not Cold War humor. A talking mouse bandies history and moral wisdom with his father, another talking mouse.

55 The Rabbi’s Cat
Joann Safar
Jewish humor. A talking cat bandies metaphysics and Jewish doctrine with her rabbi. Hilarious drawing, great story lines. Out of a proliferating number of comic strips, one of the best.

56 A Contract with God
Will Eisner
Not Jewish humor. Eisner wrote and drew The Spirit in the 1940s. In his preface to this book his remarks on the early history of graphic story-telling suggest how much needs to be studied and written about this art form.

57 The Smiley trilogy
John le Carré
The definitive spy novel, which invented much of the terminology now used by actual spies.Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People sandwich the rambling and neglected The Honourable Schoolboy. This is hard-edged stuff for the most part, with occasional breaks for one of Smiley’s peeved sermons. The best of his earlier work, such as A Murder of Quality or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is mushy by comparison, and everything since has been whiny and self-involved.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Honourable Schoolboy
Smiley’s People
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
A Murder of Quality

58 The Rings of Saturn
WG Sebald
This appears to be a collection of 91 short pieces on diverse subjects grouped into ten – um, ten what? There is some order hidden here. Sebald’s epigraph reads: The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.

Ten rings, then. The remnants of a destroyed self. An autobiography taken to bits and recast – literally strewn like grain – into this new form. But not fertile seeds. Rather cold crystals and flinty rocks. And what is this planet at their center, the fons et origo, shrouded, immense, too near?
Bits of stuff in orbit will sort themselves in time into an internal order. What order? From the outer ring to the inner, from one edge of each ring to the other, there is a principle at work, a force analogous to gravity which locks these apparently diverse remnants into some reminiscence of their former whole.

Ought there not be 100 of them instead of 91? Perhaps I miscounted. Perhaps
the absence of formal symmetry points to something deeper. Perhaps it’s an explosive accident of lost wholeness. Perhaps it’s a snare, drawing you through the rings in search of truth, of reasons, until you get too close.

59 Rites of Spring
Modris Eksteins
An absolutely lucid exposition of the development of avant-garde Modernism. Who were these people and what did they hope to accomplish? Find out here.

60 That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana
Carlo Emilio Gadda
One of the best detective novels of all time, despised by that curmudgeon Jacques Barzun, itself a recommendation of sorts. Detective Ingravallo of the Roman constabulary investigates the robbery and murder of a cousin, an inquiry which steadily expands to include all of Rome and its people of all classes and origins. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the crime is solved in the end. The solution hinges on a green scarf.

Jacques Barzon and Wendell Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime/Being a Reader’s Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres This is the second edition.

I must say that on a trip to Rome I located the Via Merulana and the building in which the crime occurs. It is exactly as Gadda describes it. even now. Since I almost never visit literary landmarks, this is a measure of my liking for the book. In London I once stayed at the end of the curved street where Jane Austen lived, but this was an accident and doesn’t count. Then, in the mountains where I now live there was a cabin occupied by Zane Grey, which I went to look at. Shortly afterwards it burned down. There is, I assure you, no connection between these events.

61 To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf
A family drama now wrongly overshadowed in the public mind by Mrs Dalloway, which is this novel’s inferior. At a summer home, the residents plan a trip to visit a lighthouse offshore. The plan falls through. In a long center section, time passes as the house stands empty and begins to decay, a tour de force on this subject, in which the house is the only character. In the third part some of the characters of part one return, and the trip is finally completed. As with all of Woolf, to be read for the writing and the character portraits equally. Both are notable for subtlety and nuance. To be savored like a meal in a five-star restaurant.

62 Tropic of Cancer
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
Henry Miller
Here we have two books on the same subject, which is how to live fully. The salacious reputation of the first is of course an artifact of its time and greatly over-rated. Miller arrived in Bohemian Paris after it was over, which did not deter him from writing this book about a poor bohemian living hand to mouth and surviving the joy. Toward the end of his life, Miller arrived at the hippie commune party twenty years early, which did not deter him from writing a charming book about the community of Big Sur, a remote area of California seacoast south of Monterey. I finished both books consumed by envy. On the subject of Miller, the third volume of his Paris trilogy, Black Spring, contains a short piece “The Angel is my Watermark” which is one of the great descriptions of the creative process. If you don’t know it, take a look.

63 Trout Fishing in America
Richard Brautigan
The only worthwhile thing Brautigan ever wrote, but worthwhile it is. Quirkedly poetic, episodic, goes nowhere. “Trout Fishing in America” is an embodied fishing magazine, the main character, who (which?) begins by commenting on the cover of its own book, that being a photograph of Brautigan himself with a companion in a San Francisco park. As a new graduate student at the University of Oregon with hopes of admission to the MFA program, I found a just-published copy of this book in the University bookstore before classes started. It was utterly revolutionary for me then and has remained so.
Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan

64 Under the Volcano
Malcolm Lowry
Drunken diplomat, lots of tequila and some of it dubious, bodegas, Mexican peasants, relationships twisted like ropes of yucca fiber. It’s The Day of the Dead, 1938. This is Lowry’s masterpiece, one of only two novels he completed, neglected but withal one of the formative texts of the last century. A must read.

65 War Music
Christopher Logue
Logue has re-created a piece of the Iliad which will take you by the throat in a way no translation ever could.

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upward of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal fleet.

Now look along the beach, and see
Between the keels hatching its western dunes
A ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black clay
Then through the gate a naked man
Whose beauty’s silent power stops your heart

Logue was one of the expatriate generation in Paris after WWII, and an editor of the little magazineMerlin which first brought Samuel Beckett to wide attention. Around this time he was making a small living publishing pornographic novels with Olympia Press. In this photo of the Merlin people, Logue is at the left of the front row.

66 Memoirs of Hadrian
Marguerite Yourcenar
Published in 1951, twenty-five years after it was first conceived. The Roman emperor Hadrian writes a letter to his cousin and successor Marcus Aurelius, in which he meditates on poetry, music, and philosophy, recalls his military campaigns, and recounts his love of Antinous. A first-rate, fully imagined historical novel.
Memoirs of Hadrian

67 Fantomas
The Fantômas tales were written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre beginning in 1911. Souvestre died in 1914. The series was carried on after that for another eleven volumes by Allain alone.

Fantômas comes from the long tradition of the picaresque and his particular type would have been best known to the English as Raffles. But Fantômas is a more ambiguous and dangerous character than Raffles. He can be seen as a prototype combination of the early, dark Batman, the insouciant James Bond, and the modern-day serial killer. Cover illustrations portray him against a lurid Technicolor background, in evening wear with cane and top hat and an ominous smile. The official detective in the Fantômas tales is one Inspector Juve. Needless to say, Juve makes no headway, and his obsession with catching the arch-criminal draws suspicion onto himself as possibly insane. Might he himself be Fantômas? Juve has a sidekick/partner (Jérôme Fandor, a reporter) and gets occasional indirect help from Fantômas’s mistress Lady Beltham, and Fantômas’s daughter Hélène. The real, iconic Detective is of course Fantômas himself, and one of the central and enduring interests of the tales is how he is able to play both roles, detecting his own crimes, working through surrogates like Juve to see that all the right people (excepting himself) are punished. The basic plot has roots in ancient theater and folklore and is also the parent of, for example, the modern caper flick such as The Thomas Crown Affair. The Fantômas website supplies more infrmation but repositions the character and the series into something for teenaged genre fandom.

Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
The Collected Fantômas

68 The Man Without Qualities
Robert Musil
May be the world’s longest unfinished novel. The ordinary American reader will struggle with the apparent silliness of the satire, which has a Monty Python quality but as with Python requires a lot of history and culture to appreciate – in this case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To be “without qualities” is more or less a state of existential alienation, the condition of “absurdity” later described by Camus, Sartre, and others. This is one of those books where you read a couple of hundred pages and then ask “Why on earth am I reading this?” and then go on reading another couple of hundred pages anyway. While you are poring it, you might look into these associations:

Boredom. Patricia Meyer Spacks
A Brief History of Time
Tristram Shandy (thought to be the world’s longest shaggy dog story)
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
Considered one of the most beautiful books ever published, and an astounding example of bravura typography only half a century after Gutenberg, this anonymously authored and illustrated book was printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. Intended for Quattrocento aristocrats, it also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings. The text is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian full of mysterious invented words based on Latin and Greek roots. The illustrations include Arabic and Hebrew words, and the author invented new languages when the ones available to him were inadequate. The story, set in 1467, consists mostly of precious and elaborate dreams within dreams of courtly love. Helen Barolini has written informatively about it in Aldus and His Dream Book and has herself written an interesting collection of stories entitled More Italian Hours – well, you see what sort of thing goes on with Musil. Your eigenschaftlich mind tends to wander…

Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind
A Brief History of Time
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
More Italian Hours & Other Stories
Aldus & His Dream Book: An Illustrated Essay
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: “The Strife of Love in a Dream”

69 The Arcades Project
Walter Benjamin
A ragbag book. For years, Benjamin acquired quotations, anecdotes, and any sort of thing related to the covered shopping arcades to be found around Paris. As the project continued the connection with the original interest became more tenuous – the most significant part of the book is a long essay on Baudelaire. The entire collection is organized in Benjamin’s own filing system; it is a repository from which he drew the material for many of his published articles. The contents of the (virtual) file drawer itself were published in 1999. The closest literary form would perhaps by the Japanese pillow book; it is something like a dictionary arranged according to an inscrutable logic. So, for example, item T5.2 (modes of lighting) “The cashier; by gaslight, as living image – as allegory of the cash register” (p570) What does this mean? I don’t know. Benjamin was a powerful thinker, a major figure of the inter-war years. The Arcades Project is the material of that creativity. It is a pirate’s treasure, Monte Christo’s bottomless chest of loot. There’s too much of it to spend, so you needn’t be burdened with any pusillanimous warnings to spend it wisely.

70 Cigarettes
Harry Matthews
Here’s a link to the Paris Review interview with Matthews…
Cigarettes is a fairly conventional novel constructed according to rules known only to Matthews himself. The book plays close attention to the subtleties and nuances of relationships – an attention which, it has been observed, is close to that of Jane Austen’s. Matthews wants to show how relationships are based on false perceptions, so that one character’s view leaves its impression on another’s narration, producing endless revisions and versions… This is beginning to make Cigarettes seem a difficult, dry intellectual novel, which it very much is not. It’s small and tart, just right after a heavy meal.

71 Celebrated Cases of Charlie Chan
Earl Derr Biggars
Biggars based Chan on a real detective, Chang Apana. The original novels (there were only five) are much better than the films. Chan is taken seriously there as a working detective, and he may be one of the first appearances of a fully humanized Chinese man in American literature.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History by Yunte Huang

72 Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders
Lawrence Weschler
At the time this book was written (1995) The Museum of Jurassic Technology actually existed. It was the creation of David Wilson, one of the great polymath eccentrics. On one level there is the magnitude, the splendiferous variety of the things which Wilson has collected. On another level is the arrangement of this material by a curatorial logic that opens new sets of ideas and associations. And then there is the cautious, playful hedging of the scientist, the artist – perhaps, it may well be that, consider this alternative …

A marvelous little book which will remind you of the joys of thought and discovery.

73 The Alexandria Quartet
Lawrence Durrell
Four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) providing four perspectives on a single set of events and characters. The first three are set in Alexandria before and during WWII; the fourth takes place in Corfu after the war. In what is for me a unique instance of synesthesia, this book tastes salty-sweet like nachos. Or perhaps it’s Turkish Delight. It certainly is exotic. Combines hothouse love and menace in a compelling story which deepens with every retelling.

74 Rejoyce
Grace Slick
Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing at Baxter’s (1968)
A nice problem in explication, a restatement of Molly Bloom’s final chapter of Ulysses (Penelope), which I consider to be in its turn the best expression of adult love ever written. Jefferson Airplane was the epitome of San Francisco rock along with The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Santana.
Dennis McNally, A Long Strange Trip

75 Da Vinci’s Bicycle (Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier)
Guy Davenport

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on the maddening popularity of Jane Austen novels
or: Whether to Write Your Congressman

Bear with me on this one. We’ll get there.
If you believe that, then this is for you.

A Jane Austen novel is driven by a single narrative strategy. The impetus of the plot is that two people do not understand each other on some important point, i.e. Mr Darcy believes that Elizabeth scorns him, whereas Elizabeth believes that she is the scorned victim. The plot is driven by the inability or unwillingness of people (in general) to resolve the matter — they won’t talk about it — and is resolved when the truth is revealed by some adventitious circumstance.
Jane Austen characters are averse to fact-checking.
So are we all.
The popularity of Jane Austen derives from the hope that, given a chance, the truth will reveal itself, and that there is such a thing as truth. We believe, however, to the contrary. Jane Austen novels are popular because they reinforce the truth, so we believe, that things are to the contrary, and we readers are thereby proved superior beings.
Which we believed to be true before we picked up the book.
Inferior people do not read Jane Austen novels.

This phenomenon is ubiquitous.

There is a Taoist cautionary tale of a man with a horse. A neighbor is scandalized when the owner of the horse lets it run free.
It doesn’t matter, says the man with the horse.
The horse returns with a mate, and the man’s wealth is doubled by not wishing for it, and so keeping his horse confined.

The world is composed of two sorts of people. The Taoist believes that it illustrates a valuable truth. The non-Taoist believes that the other is a fool.
Likewise, the depressed person preserves his comfortable and familiar way of life by the certain knowledge that those who think otherwise are deluded.

This is not a profound insight.
What is overlooked is that Jane Austen novels encourage bullies and the practice of writing your Congressman.

Let’s explore a familiar case, the collapse of sexual relations following the birth of children.
One partner (the man, in this case) believes that the other has switched loyalties, and that the other (the new mother) now cares for the child rather than for him. This is proved by the mother’s new disinterest in sex, and furthers the belief that women choose their mates primarily in order to get children. The man feels used. Our present feminized culture condemns this as sexist.

The other partner (the woman) believes that the cause of the collapse of sexual relations (her partner’s disinterest in sex) is that he cares more for sex than for her. This is proved by his unwillingness to partner enthusiastically in the care of their child, which he persists in regarding as hers, and she feels accordingly used. Our present insistently unreformed culture condemns this as sexist.

Each set of beliefs is self-reinforcing. The way to break the impasse is to behave as the Taoist in the story about the horse. Both partners should pursue the strategy of allowing the other to do as they please indifferent to the outcome. Our present culture of authenticity disparages this as hypocritical. Not being Taoists (as most of us are not) this will be done not out of true indifference but out of the hope of each that they are wrong and the belief that they are right and the other will be proved a fool.

Thus the popularity of Jane Austen novels.

Thus the belief in the efficacy in writing your Congressman — you hope that it is efficacious but believe that it is not because to so believe proves your superiority and the Congressman a fool. Our present political culture regards this as foregone.

Thus also the legacy media practice of seeking out two views on any matter of contention. Our present rationalist culture regards this as fair. And so it would be, if what we were given were actually two views. What we get is each party’s (usually bombastic) recitation of his or her positions without explanation or conversation. Thus it is in a Jane Austen novel. We all hope that the matter will be resolved expediently without taking any part in it, each thereby proving himself to be the superior and his opponent as mendacious, stupid, hypocritical, and deluded.

The media reinforces its false belief that it is promoting the public’s ability to discover the truth when it is not, thereby reinforcing the belief that the public are fools which the media’s services will ameliorate.
The solution to this impasse is indifference to Jane Austen novels, sex after childbirth, and the behavior of Congress. If you don’t care about these matters they may come to pass. If they don’t that is a matter of indifference, but you will have stepped onto the Way of the Tao, which is the true way to the enlightenment of us all.

If you believe that the Way has no end, then this is for you.
If you don’t, then you are on your way to being a bully.


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Rebirth of The Arrow

On the demise of the Ocotillo Arts Press its blog, The Arrow, is undergoing a remake. (The Press backlog will remain in print — follow the link in the sidebar.) I’ve archived most of the old posts, kept my favorites, and loaded the rest into the categories you see in the bar under the blog title. From now I’ll post when I have something to say, which at times may be infrequently, mostly on on of those topics.

Bon appetit.


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Old, eccentric, tuo zio

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The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
is thought to be by Franceso Colonna, is considered one of the most beautiful books ever published, and also the most bizarre and inscrutable. It is an astounding example of bravura typography only half a century after Gutenberg, the work of Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. (Manutius is also the inventor of Italic type.) Intended for Quattrocento aristocrats, it also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings. The text is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian full of mysterious invented words based on Latin and Greek roots. The illustrations include Arabic and Hebrew words, and the author invented new languages when the ones available to him were inadequate. The story, set in 1467, consists mostly of precious and elaborate dreams within dreams of courtly love.

Helen Barolini has written informatively about it in Aldus and His Dream Book (Italica Press, 2011) and has herself written an interesting collection of stories entitled More Italian Hours (Bordighera, 2001), poetry, essays, and a book on courtly love.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: “The Strife of Love in a Dream”
More Italian Hours & Other Stories


This is, I will suggest, the first artists book. Of course, virtually every manuscript book before it might count — books of hours, the Lindisfarne Bible — and perhaps Gutenberg’s own Bible. But I ask you to notice the difference, indeed the chasm, between the work of Aldus and Colonna and what we now call by the name of artist’s book. I ask you to notice the ambition of this book and compare it to the nakedly capitalist livre d’artiste.



I ask you notice the little art of our times — the starved and etiolated writing of Raymond Carver (compare that other minimalist Hemingway), the meager efforts of new MFAs constrained by foolish and timid injunctions to “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” as if we were all in kindergarten and had been on summer vacation to the next village. I ask you to notice the imitative and derivative bricolage of our theatre and ask you to compare it to O’Neill or Ionesco. I ask you —
Nertz. Get thee to a monastery, and meditate on these things.
But wait. Without attempting to make a special case for Aldus’s book, what is the status now of the values it embodies? I’ve been re-reading Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! What strikes me is how much my own writing owes to Faulkner, and how often my writing has been disapproved of for that very reason. This is not your Elmore Leonard “Ten Rules for Writing” stuff. This a taste for elaborate expression, words and wordplay, for their own sake. This is not Walter Gropius, this is Antoni Gaudi. This is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
There’s another issue. So many people want to write these days — well, perhaps they always have, but with the advent of e-books and self-publishing, now they do. And they do it before they have learned anything of the basic craft of writing. Yet they all want to begin with a novel, the hardest and most complex fictional medium. It’s as if someone who did know how to hammer a nail were t set out to build a mansion. As if someone were to pick up a book of Dickenson’s poetry and say “Heck, this doesn’t look so hard.” Or, as so many people did say in the early days of Abstract Expressionism — “My kid could do that.”
And perhaps those are more common ideas than we might think. The underlying and controlling assumption in so many wannabe authors is that writing is easy. Anyone can do it. And they expect to teach themselves how to write in their spare time. I have to ask, what did they do to do the job by which they get their living? Some years getting an education and then an MBA, perhaps? An apprentice period, and then time working their way up the employment ladder in order to have enough free time to even consider writing something? And — and here we get to the mud — what have they read? Elmore Leonard? Maybe a little Hemingway (who is way harder and more complex than he looks). Fifty Shades of Gray? The da Vinci Code?
Faulkner? I don’t think so. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili I don’t think so.
Come aaahn. I’ll save the jeremiad for later. Live a little.

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