Monthly Archives: January 2010

Marginalia, no.102

The Turkish Emperour odious for other crueltie was herin a remarkable master of mercy; killing his favourite in his sleepe, and sending him from the shade into the house of darkness.  He that had been destroyed, would hardly have bled at the presence of his destroyer, where men are already dead by metaphor, and passe but from one sleepe unto another.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, from the Notebooks

“Dead by metaphor” is very nice.  Nice too is the whimsical spelling.  Why do we always correct Shakespeare and Milton but never Browne?  The folkloric notion that murdered corpses bleed in the presence of their murderer is echoed in Lady Anne’s words to Gloucester in Richard III: “See, see dead Henry’s wounds / Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh / For ‘tis thy presence that exhales this blood / From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells.”  Criminal forensics must have been a simpler science when the killer could be identified by wheeling the victim round town for a game of Hotter/Colder.


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J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

How many thousands of American adolescents at one time or another felt that way about J.D. Salinger?  A college professor of mine was actually expelled from his high school for bringing a copy of Catcher in the Rye to class, if you can believe it.  Too bad Salinger never answered the phone.


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Book Porn, no.4

John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, first American edition, published by John W. Luce & Company, Boston (1911).  A beautiful little book of under 100 pages, printed in large type on thick acid-free paper with a soft, quilted texture.  Early performances of the play in both Ireland and the U.S. ended in rioting. 

A week ago my son asked to see something “a hundred years old” and I handed him this.  The Latin grammarian Terentianus Maurus wrote that books have their own destinies.  I’ve owned this one for nearly twenty years but never guessed its destiny would include serving as an example of antiquity for a six-year-old boy.


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Marginalia, no.101

Being constantly devoured by cranes, they have to live in caves in order to escape.

~ Matteo Ricci, from the Impossible Black Tulip map

We prefer to believe outrageous things when possible.  A Jesuit missionary to China, Ricci made his annotated map of the world for the Wanli Emperor in 1602.  Here he describes a race of dwarfs supposed to live in northern Russia.  He tells how, after a season of oppression, they charge from their caves on the backs of goats to destroy the nests of their enemies.  Thanks to things like the rise of international trade and satellite imagery, geography as a form of popular fiction has been exiled to distant planets and parallel universes.


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Marginalia, no.100

Who can say?  Who of us so complexly entangled in our common human blah blah blah can plumb the innermost recesses of another’s and so forth and so on?

~ Peter De Vries, Slouching Towards Kalamazoo

What a strange relief it was the first time I read that sentence.  My God, I thought, I’m free.  George Santayana had claimed that ‘between the laughing and the weeping philosopher there is no opposition,’ but De Vries proves it in a sentence.


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The Rain It Raineth Every Day

It often occurs to me that I am a fool.  It happened again yesterday morning.  I was wading across a flooded intersection in San Francisco’s SoMa district.  My umbrella was tattered, my luggage soaked through but floating nearby.  If I can keep a grip on the bag, I thought, then at least I won’t drown.

The rain had beat at the windows all night.  Inside my tenth-floor hotel room I heard a loud treble moaning begin about 11pm.  A female guest in the grip of carnal enthusiasm, I thought.  But just as I began to feel embarrassed for her, I realized it was the wind.  In the morning the concierge asked if I wanted a cab.  “Don’t be silly – just a little rain,” I said.  A defiant whim: I would walk it, like Lear on the heath.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks, and all that. 

From Geary to King: thirty minutes on foot which I’d timed to perfectly coincide with the fiercest blast of the storm.  I pass it over without further comment, the trauma still being fresh.  I splashed into the office like a sea lion from the surf, out of breath, shedding rainwater in broad, cool puddles over polished wooden floors. 

“You didn’t walk all the way from the hotel?” my boss asked, incredulous.  “Was it not raining when you left?”

“No,” I said, “I was a fool from the start.”


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Book Porn, no.3

In the final track of the classic Smiths’ album, The Queen is Dead, Morrissey croons his tardy discovery that “some girls are bigger than others.”  The same is true of paperbacks.  And size, as they say, matters.  There’s a power of attraction in gratuitous endowment.  By force of its own mass, and regardless of subject matter, a large paperback generates a kind of gravitational pull.  Do laws of physics place any ultimate constraints on size?  At what point will glue binding simply fail?  And is that fail-point determined by the total number of pages or the total weight of pages?  Such are the mysteries of love.  But while oversized hardbounds revolve in our eyes like solemn Jupiters of desire, absurdly thick paperbacks draw us in like insatiable black holes, concentrating acquisitional lust in objects deliciously balanced between virginal modesty and button-bursting extravagance.

Note how careful I am not to crease their spines in the act of love.  Clarel, Herman Melville (Northwestern University Press): 893 pages; The Bible with Apocrypha (Oxford World’s Classics): 1824 pages; Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (New York Review of Books): 1382 pages; Tales and Sketches, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Library of America): 1200 pages.


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Marginalia, no.99

Martinis, antagonistic effect on literary skill of, 186

~ Kingsley Amis, Index entry from Everyday Drinking

Turn to the page indicated for this admission: ‘I personally find that after half a dozen large Dry Martinis my customary skill with the commas and semicolons becomes a little eroded.’  There are no like entries for straight gin, whisky or vodka.  That receptivity to the Muses is helped by lubrication is a point insisted on by many, by example if not by recommendation.  Balzac, I think, had the better idea when he substituted coffee for alcohol, but he still drank himself to death.


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Marginalia, no.98

I have always kept ducks, he said, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.

~ W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

According to that old parable of Bede’s, we pass like birds through the open doors of the mead hall, from darkness to light and then to darkness again.  The light is the life of sense and memory, the hands and words and sights that shepherd our mortal days.  The darkness is our ignorance of what comes before and what follows – prior to birth, after death.  We make trouble for ourselves when we abstract our minds from the light of the mead hall to peer in from outside, as if darkness shed a light of its own.

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Marginalia, no.97

[A]nd while Mrs. Saunders declaimed over her onion bed such portions of the slang dictionary as are permitted by the Nonconformist conscience to be said or sung, the Vasco da Gama fowl was waking the echoes of Toad-Water with crescendo bursts of throat music which compelled attention to her griefs.

~ Saki (H.H. Munro), ‘The Blood Feud of Toad-Water’

Some pencil-brandishing would-be editor of a patron crossed out the above sentence (the best in the story) from my local library’s copy of Saki’s Complete Works.  He apparently thought it superfluous.  The villain further improved the original by substituting (in a childish scrawl) ‘tired,’ ‘poor’ and ‘birds’ for ‘wearied,’ ‘contemptible inadequacy of’ and ‘chaffinches,’ respectively.  The strange compulsion that must have seized him is probably explained by a too-strict adoption of that grim creed of high school composition teachers according to which one should always get to the point immediately, and use bland, general terms whenever more colorful ones suggest themselves.  It’s an abuse of the democratic spirit, really.  The best is always unnecessary.

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