Interesting Readings

July 4 Ramblings

I’m a day late here, but some observations about the Fourth of July are in order, especially since this one ended in a zero (240, for those of you keeping score at home). One of the surprising coincidences of the date is that two of the early heroes of the republic, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died not only on Independence Day but on the same one, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary. You really couldn’t make this stuff up. As it happens, they died on the 22nd birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who really is an outstanding candidate to be born on the Fourth of July.

And under the heading of no coincidences here, Walt Whitman published first edition of his great hymn of liberty, Leaves of Grass, on the great day in 1855. If, long after we vanish, someone wants to know about the American character, the American voice (what he called his “barbaric yawp”), they could do no better than to ignore everything else and read that poem. Like the poet, it is vast; it contains multitudes. Whitman’s maneuverings to publish his poem on the holiday equal those of James Joyce to publish Ulysses on his fortieth birthday. And why not? It’s the perfect date for such an appearance.

Finally, twenty-eight years ago, National Public Radio began its own tradition of presenting the entire Declaration of Independence read by the anchors, reporters, and commentators. Those early years had great voices–Red Barber, John Ciardi, Kim Williams, along with Susan Stamberg and Bob Edwards, among others. Of those, only Stamberg appears on this year’s installment. The result is always incredibly moving; at least, it is to me. Here’s a link to the current model: At the end of those early readings, co-host Bob Edwards always noted that King George wrote in his diary that “Nothing of any importance happened today.” Feel free to insert your own response noises.

Italian Cover

Italian cover - NovelsThe gorgeous Italian edition of How to Read Novels Like a Professor is just out. Clearly, this is the classiest cover I’m ever going to get. The book also sounds better in Italian, even if I can’t understand it and, in any case, they couldn’t do anything about the content.

On Limestone

On these warm days of late spring and summer, I’m sometimes reminded of the dump trucks that rumbled down our road from the local aggregates quarry. Many operations are sand and gravel; ours was crushed limestone, and those trucks were delivering, among other things, stone and dust mixed for rough paving of driveways and dog kennels, including ours. My dad favored, if memory serves, “stone-dust 20,” the number indicating the size of the stone in the mix. Lime was also a major component in the makeup of some of the richest farmland anywhere. Corn and wheat shot out of the ground as if launched Imagine my delight, then, at discovering a poem by W. H. Auden called “In Praise of Limestone.” Sure, it’s a critique of Romanticism and a justification for his own doubting, questioning sensibility, but beyond that Auden clearly understands something about human nature and about landscapes that are fit places for us to inhabit:

In Praise Of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us…
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. `Come!’ cried the granite wastes,
`How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’ (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) `Come!’ purred the clays and gravels,
`On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.’ (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature’s
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.


Today is the birthday of quite possibly the greatest novelist of my lifetime, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, born in 1927. If you have not read One Hundred Years of Solitude, you simply must. And if you need further reason, here’s the opening line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Who can resist that? Of course, he also wrote many other wonderful novels and stories, but if you’re only reading one, this is it. 100 Years

Random Thoughts from the Oscars

I don’t usually watch the Oscars–or any such ceremonies–but this year’s installment promised such fireworks that like most people I had to tune in. Here are some things that occurred to me:

  • Chris Rock is really funny. As if you didn’t know, right? And he handled the race issue with more wit than taste. Guess you knew that, too.
  • Great to see Ennio Morricone finally get his Oscar. He’s only deserved one since 1966. Not that anyone was ready for the soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which sounded like an import from an alien world–and not one you’d necessarily find welcoming.
  • They needed another acting award for Tom Hardy. Seriously, who else had four spectacular performances in just three movies: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and Legend. Playing both halves of the sociopath Kray twins may be a stunt for the ages, even if the movie turns out not to be.
  • Men are so lucky that, as Chris Rock put it, they all wear the same outfit. Some of the women’s outfits were spectacular, while others were, um, spectacular, all right. Your results may vary.
  • The old adage that everyone’s a winner may just be true. Think about it: Fury Road won just about all the technical categories, Revenant won for Director and Lead Actor, and Spotlight won for Best Film. Can’t share the love much more than that.

The Buried Giant

Like a lot of folks, I fell under the spell of Kazuo Ishiguro with The Remains of the Day. As any number of folks can attest, I subIshiguro giantsequently inflicted it on a couple of generations of students, who mostly enjoyed it, too. His latest, The Buried Giant, is nothing like it. Except that as always, by the second page I was thinking, “This guy can really write.” Ishiguro has travelled into the 1950s, the dystopian near-future, even the world of music in Nocturnes, his collection of stories “about music and nightfall.” This time he goes into the way-back machine, setting the story in England just after the Arthurian period. In fact, Sir Gawain (yes, the Green Knight one) is one of the traveling companions of the elderly couple Beatrice and Axl. There is also a Saxon warrior and an orphan with a dragon bite. It’s that kind of place: dragons, ogres, pixies (nasty little blighters), plagues, mists of forgetfulness. It’s a little surprising and entirely wonderful to read a novel of medieval life that lies outside the bounds of conventional sword-and-sorcery genres. As we follow this elderly couple on a journey to the west–even knowing where such quests must end–we find ourselves delighted, dismayed, surprised and amazed. Ishiguro is always worth reading. In this tale of failed and recovered memory, tribalism, love, guilt, secrets, and betrayal, he proves that an apparent fable can be so much more than it seems.