Monthly Archives: June 2014

Zoopraxioscope - Eadweard Muybridge 1893

P.T. Barnum’s preliminary sketches for zero-gravity circus acts were more fanciful than plausible.

Zoopraxiscope of horseback somersault by Eadweard Muybridge, 1893.


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Marginalia, no.335

[T]ell me again that I am not such cold poison to everybody as I am to some.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson in a letter to Frances Sitwell, Sept. 1873

I seem unable to make myself pleasant to certain of my colleagues. One of them, overfond of decorating our cubicles, recently discovered how little I appreciate her efforts. Others have asked me to join them for lunch, but I decline without excuses. Your acquaintance is enough, I want to tell them, I don’t want your friendship.

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Marginalia, no.334

I love what astonishes me and only retain that which would excite but forgetfulness in the mind of a wise man.

~ Paul Valery, The Dialogue of the Tree

If wisdom is retaining only ideas that are somehow useful or relevant, then I must content myself with foolishness. But I don’t really believe in wise men, only in differing capacities for astonishment. We see it in our children and it’s the same for adults. You may commit briefly to memory a whole encyclopedia of facts – two days later you will only retain those things that surprised you.

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The Dabbler published some of my mutterings on sex and death and Woody Allen while I was out last week.

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The Lives of Books

Rose Macaulay's 1923 novel "Told by an idiot"

Certain objects come into our possession by gift or inheritance. Some come to us as chance or fortune puts them in our way. Still others we search out on our own, with more or less determination, more or less patience, and more or less success. Among those objects I’m always looking for are Rose Macaulay novels. The only one in print in the United States, I think, is The Towers of Trebizond. Beyond that, you’ll have to snoop at length through used bookshops – unless, that is, you want to cheat and place an order online, which is something like driving out to the woods with a hunting rifle but stopping instead at the local grocery store for venison steaks.

In addition to The Towers of Trebizond, which was my introduction to Macaulay, I’ve managed over the years to bag copies of Crewe Train (a personal favorite), The World My Wilderness (not a personal favorite) and They Were Defeated, plus a few of her non-fiction titles. Not long ago, however, one of my fellow Rose Macaulay enthusiasts in Northern California must have died (there can’t be many of us left), because a used bookshop I frequent suddenly had maybe a dozen dusty hardbound titles in the stacks.

Imagine my astonishment, my bewildered joy. Among the non-fiction was a pristine copy of Pleasure of Ruins, as well as her travel books The Fabled Shore and They Went to Portugal. Among the novels there was Potterism – in bad decay – and Told by an Idiot, and I Would Be Private. These last two I brought home with me, though I’m sorry to say that the bookseller knew what he had on the shelf (he was also trying to sell them online) and didn’t part with them cheaply.

I read Told by an Idiot a week or two ago. It was great fun, from Macaulay’s strong, comic period of the 1920s. What I want to comment on, however, is not the story but an ex libris mark I discovered on the first page of the book. In fading ink and a nice, calligraphic hand, it reads: “Alec Waugh, Edrington, Berks.”

Inscription: Alec Waugh - Edrington - Berks

Waugh is not a common name. Did Evelyn Waugh have a brother Alec? A few minutes of research confirmed it. Alec Waugh was also a novelist, though not as successful as his younger brother. Alexander Waugh (Evelyn’s grandson) chronicles several generations of Waugh family gossip in Fathers and Sons and reports that Alec’s wife Joan inherited a great deal of money when her father died in the early 1930s. With it she bought an old house near Silchester in Berkshire, which she named Edrington. Alec and Joan had a troubled marriage but he used Edrington as a sort of home base for several years. He liked to keep a strict dividing line between his possessions and her possessions, his money and her money. He insisted on paying a monthly fee for drinking her wine.

The book appears to have belonged to him, but I still have questions. It’s a first edition (W. Collins Sons, London, 1923), with “Review Copy” stamped on the title page. Was Alec Waugh the first owner of the book? Did he write a review of it? Did he own it for some years but only write his name in it when moving to Edrington (ten years after the date of publication), so as to keep his books separate from those of his wife? And how did the book come to the United States? How did the book’s owner prior to myself get hold of it? None of the other Macaulay titles from the bookshop were inscribed by Waugh.

Books, considered as objects, may be as inscrutable as people. The lives of books may be as various and particular as the lives of people. As artifacts of human culture, over time they become strangely humanlike. Their biographies are perhaps hinted at by outward signs, but these never tell more than a fraction of their story, and the tale of their outward lives may have no bearing at all to the plot and the characters they contain. It’s getting to be an old game, playing the Luddite and bemoaning the rise of electronic books. But this is where they fail. In order to be a human object, a book must first of all be an object.

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"Made in Austria" matchbox with a picture of Vishnu playing sitar.

It is a little known fact that the god Vishnu was born in an Alpine village of the Austrian Tyrol.

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Marginalia, no.333

Unfortunately, people are still human.

~ Overheard in a business meeting today

I wish I shared my colleague’s certainty in this regard. Are people still human? So long as they remain human, they will not be precisely the customers we want them to be. That seems the suggestion. And yet, though we sell an intangible product that has no place in nature, we make a decent living, don’t we?


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