Category Archives: Culture

What I’m Reading Now: April 10, 2018

Vincent Starrett, Born in a Bookshop: Chapters from the Chicago Renascence (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, 325 pp.)

“When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.” So said Vincent Starrett, the author of this memoir. I agree.

I love books about books—that is, authors who write about their love of books, their collections of books, and/or the authors who wrote them.

I have an entire bookcase dedicated to them—familiar classics like The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, overlooked gems like I.A. Richards’s How to Read a Page, and more recent offerings by Nicholas Basbanes like Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word  to Stir the World, and A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. And no book lover’s collection would be complete without all the works of Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. I’ve got books about libraries, books about book clubs, and even one about the history of the book shelf.

Vincent Starrett was the author of the “Books Alive” column for 25 years in the Chicago Tribune. His memoir, which I first learned about, naturally enough, in Dirda’s Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (2015), is a charming account of his lifelong love of the printed word that began with his birth above his grandfather’s bookshop in Toronto. He was part of the second wave of the Chicago Renaissance (1910-1925) that included novelists Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, poets Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay, and reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner.

Above all else, Starrett revered two things that I also love: books and Sherlock Holmes. He was one of the 1934 founders of that most famous and exclusive of all Sherlockian fan clubs, the Baker Street Irregulars, along with fellow literary critic Christopher Morley—himself the author of the one of the greatest books about books ever written, Parnassus on Wheels (1917). Get a copy and read it.

Starrett collected primarily first editions, like most “collectors” as they are classically defined. I don’t share that love, I’m afraid—I care more about the words inside than I do about the edition itself. Only in the last ten years have I become a hopeless hardback-book snob, habitually “upgrading” anything I have in paper when I come across a cloth-bound volume of the same title. Alas, this is why book-collecting is known as the “gentle madness.” As Starrett famously said, “It is possible that the most misunderstood man upon earth is the collector of books.”

A final word about the quality of this particular volume: In this age of disposability, when our electronics are obsolete in one year and many publishers print their books on pulp paper that soon turns yellowish brown, the University of Oklahoma Press in 1965 could refreshingly proclaim that “the paper on which this book is printed has an intended life of at least three hundred years.”

I’m sure my iPhone and Kindle will both last that long too, don’t you?

What I’m Reading Now: April 3, 2018

Van Wyck Brooks, The World of Washington Irving (E.P. Dutton, 1944, 387 pp.)

Van Wyck Brooks is an author whose work was enormously popular in the mid-20th century. How popular? Walk into any used bookstore and you’ll trip over his books. Time magazine, whose cover he graced in 1944, called him “the nation’s most distinguished literary critic.”

He is most famous for five volumes known collectively as “Makers and Finders: A History of the Writer in America, 1800-1915,” the most well-known of which is The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865, published in 1936, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The other volumes are New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915 (1940); The World of Washington Irving (1944); The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947); and The Confident Years: 1885-1915 (1952).

Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) recounts the harrowing years when Brooks was unable to write because of a mental breakdown, and how Perkins helped him climb back out of his psychic abyss to become one of the 20th century’s most prolific, if now forgotten, authors. Brooks himself was the focus of Raymond Nelson’s Van Wyck Brooks: A Writer’s Life (1981), and his long friendship with critic Lewis Mumford was detailed in Robert E. Spiller’s edited volume of their letters, The Record of a Literary Friendship, 1921-1963 (1970).

I am thoroughly enjoying The World of Washington Irving, being a huge fan of Irving, but the book’s canvas stretches far beyond, covering a host of other writers from Edgar Allen Poe to James Fenimore Cooper, John James Audubon, William Gilmore Simms, and lesser luminaries whose stars have long since dimmed. There is a treasury of learning here, and it is a pleasure to read.

Van Wyck (rhymes with bike) Brooks was widely lauded during his own day with awards and honorary degrees, but as Patton so rightly noted, all glory is fleeting. When Brooks died in Bridgewater, Connecticut in 1963 at the age of 77, his town decided to build a library wing in his honor. The effort died after ten years of meager fundraising, only to be revived when a California hermit who admired Brooks’s writing left the library $300,000 in his will. The wing was finally dedicated in 1980.

Eighty years ago, with the Nazis rising in Europe and with the world tottering on the brink of madness, critic Malcolm Cowley reviewed The Flowering of New England. In addition to Brooks’s erudition and scholarship, Cowley lauded Brooks for “turning back to the great past in order to see the real nature of the traditions that we are trying to save, and in order to gain new strength for the struggles ahead.”

Gaining new strengths for the struggles ahead, be they against personal demons or the next global firestorm: still one of the best reasons I’ve ever heard for reading books like this, then or now.

What I’m Reading Now: March 27, 2018

Charles Dickens, by Jane Smiley. Penguin Lives Series (Penguin, 2002, pp. 212)

One of the great joys of my life that I look forward to with keen pleasure is continuing to read everything that Charles Dickens wrote. I was introduced to him about ten years ago, the way that anyone should properly be: through Great Expectations and then David Copperfield. I was hooked.

The two words that best describe Dickens are genius and energy. Anyone feeling that they’ve over-achieved in life will consider that Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers when he was 25. Before he was 30 he had added Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. How is that even possible?

He went on to write a total of 15 novels, among the best in the English language, 10 of which are more than 800 pages long. This is on top of his other novels, stories, plays, travel writing, essays, and letters. He edited magazines, gave dramatic performances, speeches, and readings all over the world, walked 10-20 miles a day, while being an insensitive husband and problematic father to ten children. He lived, wrote, and worked at an indefatigable pace before it all suddenly ended with his early death at age 58. A national treasure, he was buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

There are many gateways into Dickens’s fascinating life, and those who want to dive deep can plunge into Edgar Johnson’s 2-volume Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1953) or Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1991), which clocks in at 1,195 pages. For those who prefer biographies that don’t double as doorstops, pick up this slim little volume in the Penguin Lives series.

Author Jane Smiley is no slouch herself, having won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1991 novel, A Thousand Acres. She clearly admires Dickens, and for her readers who are also aspiring writers, this book doubles as a graduate seminar on what novels are and what great novelists aim to achieve. She critically analyzes all of Dickens’s writings and stays close by his desk as he struggles to please his growing audience and feed his growing brood. Along the way, he found a powerful voice that combined, in Smiley’s words, artistic vision with social action and brought that vision to life in some of the most memorable literary characters ever created.

Smiley argues that his only peer among English writers is William Shakespeare, while Claire Tomalin in Charles Dickens: A Life (2011) wrote that only The Bard created more memorable characters than Dickens.

Do yourself a favor and find out if they are right. Make the acquaintance of the Pickwickians, the Artful Dodger, Samuel Weller, and all the rest. The remaining years of your life will thank you for it.

What I’m Reading Now: March 20, 2018

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, 1961; 50th Anniversary Edition, 2011, 544 pp.)

Two legendary book editors spanned the length of the 20th century: Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s (1910-1947) and Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster and Knopf (1955-present).

A. Scott Berg’s award-winning Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) led me to some of Perkins’s most famous authors such as Thomas Wolfe. I’m currently listening to Robert Gottlieb’s memoir Avid Reader: A Life (2016) narrated by Gottlieb himself. He arrived at Simon and Schuster in 1955, is still editing today, and turns 87 in April. He has famously edited the work of Robert Caro, Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Nora Ephron, Bill Clinton, Bob Dylan, and perhaps his most famous discovery, Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22.

Gottlieb tells the story of how the novel was originally titled Catch-18 but was changed (at Gottlieb’s suggestion) to the more familiar title because of Leon Uris’s recently published Mila 18. The book appeared in 1961 and is considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. Never having read it, I picked up a copy and dove right in.

The anti-hero is Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier who believes the real enemy is his own military, which keeps increasing the number of missions he must fly over Italy before he can go home. Heller knew of what he wrote, having flown 60 bomber missions during World War II, an ordeal that haunted him the rest of his life. By turns hilariously funny and very dark, Catch-22 explores the tragic absurdities of war, a subject as old as The Iliad. Heller, by his own account, owes much to Jaroslav Hasek’s absurdist war novel The Good Soldier Svejk: And His Fortunes in the World War (1921-23).

Critics were mixed, but readers raved, and it created a cult following, complete with “Yossarian Lives!” bumper stickers. Harper Lee called it “the only war novel I’ve ever read that made any sense.”  Nominated for the National Book Award, it lost to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I’ve avoided Mike Nichols 1970 movie adaptation till I finish the book, and am looking forward to the forthcoming 6-part Hulu miniseries produced and directed by and starring George Clooney.

Catch-22 was quintessentially 1960s before anybody knew what the 60s would be, and the book’s prescience still staggers, written as it was before Vietnam, Oliver North, WMDs, and Donald Trump. Heller in 1961: “Mankind is resilient: the atrocities that horrified us a week ago become acceptable tomorrow.”

Stoicism in the face of absurdity, as necessary now as then. Yossarian still lives.

What I’m Reading Now

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur S. Herman (Crown Publishing, 2001, 472 pp.).

The Enlightenment is one of my favorite periods in history, as writers and thinkers like Voltaire pushed back hard against the orthodox boundaries that had shackled human minds for centuries. That didn’t start or end with the Enlightenment of course, but it certainly reached its apogee then, in my uninformed opinion. While reading Dennis Rasmussen’s new book, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017) I came across the title of this book about the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment would have been better chosen as a title for this book, by the way. The existing title is a little too hyperbolic, as many reviewers have pointed out. Why does nearly every non-fiction book published these days by a commercial press have a subtitle that makes such ludicrous claims? You’ve  seen them: The Flatulent Toad: How One Peasant’s Quest for Flavored Ice Cream Led to the Invention of Pepto-Bismol, The Atomic Bomb, and Everything Else You Could Possibly Imagine. Enough already. Title aside, this book covers 200 years of history and makes a very compelling case for the importance of Scots and their descendants in nearly every major undertaking of modern society, from education to technology to law, government, and religion. I’m not totally convinced by a long shot, but it’s a thought-provoking book with an endlessly fascinating cast of characters, from John Knox to David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Telford, and Walter Scott, to Andrew Jackson and Andrew Carnegie, all of whom you’re left wanting to know more about through further reading and exploration. Luckily for us there’s a wealth of riches to choose from: Nicholas Phillipson’s recent biography Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale, 2012); Ernest Mossner’s The Life of David Hume (Clarendon, 2001), Julian Glover’s Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain (Bloomsbury, 2017) and John Prebble’s highly partisan but classic Fire and Sword trilogy about the Highland Scots: Culloden (1961), The Highland Clearances (1963), and Glencoe (1966). More books to buy!