Tag Archives: Reading

Reading Col. James Smith, Christian Wiman, and an Anonymous Icelander


Remarkable Occurrences in the Life of Colonel James Smith, James Smith

James Smith was a young American colonial soldier captured by a band of French-allied Iroquois at the beginning of the French and Indian War, about 1755. After being made to run the gauntlet and recovering from his wounds at Fort Duquesne, he was adopted by a native family in place of a deceased relative. (The initiation ceremony involved a sort of baptism as well as having nose and ears pierced and most of his hair pulled out.) He lived with them for four years, hunting and traveling from the shore of Lake Erie south to the Ohio River and as far west as Detroit. Smith’s captivity narrative, recommended by Francis Parkman in Montcalm and Wolfe, is a fascinating document not only for the unexpected view it provides of the war or for Smith’s tales of winter endurance, but also for its description of native life and Smith’s growing sympathy for his new “family.” Over the course of a couple years he develops a remarkable relationship with a much older adopted brother, Tecaughretanego, who was almost a sort of Native American Socrates. Smith’s remembered conversations with him are the best part of the book. This title is long out of print but you can read it online here.


My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman

In case you overlooked it in every review written for this book – or missed it when Wiman himself mentions it in his first paragraph – the author is a poet. He’s also the former editor of Poetry magazine. If, like me, you believe that no decent poetry is being written these days, this book is not likely to change your mind. On the other hand, the author (who is suffering from a rare form of cancer and has all my sympathy) is a thoughtful person, and well-read, and writes prose that is sometimes lovely. And frankly it’s a pleasure to see questions of religion and faith addressed at all intelligently. Nonetheless, I have to admit that when the author quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “there are things more important than self-knowledge,” I can’t help wondering if Wiman has really taken this lesson to heart. (To be fair, I’m not sure I have either, but I don’t go around quoting Bonhoeffer). This book, after all, is to a degree an exercise in Wiman’s own striving for self-knowledge after receiving a grave medical diagnosis in early midlife. It stumbles, I think, in certain passages which unwittingly reveal a sensibility too preciously jealous of any faint shudder that passes through the soul of its author.


Njal’s Saga

In the modern era most generations of most families tend to pass their time in unremarkable ways. We’re born. We go to school. We work. We marry and maybe have children or even grandchildren. Then we die. Along the way we move house two or three times and take up a hobby. You are likely to be disappointed in reviewing the list of your known ancestors if you want to discover evidence of blood feuds, rapine, piracy, and superior skills in hand-to-hand combat involving axes and halberds. If we’re to believe the sagas, however, life was almost entirely composed of these activities for the early Icelanders. I’ve read only two of the sagas so far, the Laxdaela Saga and now Njal’s Saga. The former is brief and fairly tight. The latter is richer and better, but sprawling and exhausting. How many decapitations are too many? How many severed limbs or spines? How many curses and oaths? How many impromptu versifyings from the ghostly dead? It’s all very exciting but it’s also enough to make you grateful for an unremarkable life of peace and quiet.

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The Woods

Sunol Wilderness landscape, California

It seems natural to me that someone who likes to be outdoors walking under the trees will also like to be indoors reading. Both are woodsy activities, the first self-evidently so and the second for the reason that paper has been made primarily of wood pulp for the past two hundred years. There is a special relationship between books and trees, and the reader and the hiker are not rarely the same person. Anyway, reading and hiking together make up 95% of what I would rather be doing at any given moment. I’ve never felt there was any disagreement between the two activities. Our library at home I consider a little forest, and any little forest makes an excellent library.

It’s one of the better parts of living where we do in coastal Northern California that we’re able to hike comfortably year-round. It never snows at sea-level (at least not since I was a child), the rain in winter is infrequent enough, and the heat in summer is rarely severe. In addition to the numerous state and county parks where you might go exploring there are dozens of undeveloped open space areas that have been purchased and set aside by altruistic civic groups. In fact, there are so many of these public open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’ve never managed to visit even half of them. All told, they must contain thousands of miles of hiking trails.

This past weekend, hiking in the Sunol Wilderness area (my photo above), I unintentionally terrified my daughter by reminding her to look out for mountain lions when passing under oak boughs. Hiking in the woods here isn’t entirely safe. In addition to the mountain lions there are also rattlesnakes, and no end of poison oak. I’m lucky in that both my children like to hike almost as much as they like to read. But the little forest of books at home has its dangers too. Physically or intellectually, certain books are still out of reach. Perhaps it’s wise to anticipate threats. A little preparation can make the unexpected discovery of wild eyes staring at you from the branch above less frightening, and more thrilling.

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My Year in Books: 2013

I began the year with the laughable idea that I would read less and spend more time walking around and looking at the world and thinking, and maybe (allowing for human weakness) re-reading books that I hadn’t read in a long time. I managed at least to do some of the latter. In 2013 I paid second or third visits to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Twelfth Night, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I also revisited various favorite authors to pick off works which I’d never got around to before. These included three P.G. Wodehouse novels (Leave it to Psmith, Joy in the Morning, and Bachelors Anonymous) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Inland Voyage and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as Tove Jansson’s Moominpapa’s Memoirs, Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice, and Chesterton’s superb and superbly digressive biography of Thomas Aquinas.

Works of fiction that were new to me last year (though most of them hardly new in themselves) included two collections of short stories by Saki (Chronicles of Clovis was the best), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, two Anthony Trollope novels (The Warden and Barchester Towers), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. I finally managed to read some Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine), some Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding), and a Georges Simenon novel (Monsieur Monde Vanishes). The Simenon was good enough. The McCullers was mesmerizing. The Baker was terrifically funny but not, perhaps, very deeply satisfying. The Jules Verne title I found almost unbearable. Overall, fiction itself made up a smaller portion of my reading last year than I might have predicted.

Many of the best books I read last year were histories. These included the first four volumes of Francis Parkman’s seven-volume history of French colonialism in North America (The Jesuits in North America and La Salle and the Discovery of Great West were especially good). Richard Holmes’s latest, Falling Upwards (a history of manned ballooning from 1783-1903), was the best new title I read all year, a real joy. F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s A Short History of Medicine, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions (about Athanasius Kircher), and Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner (a biography of a 16th-century Nuremberg executioner) were all wonderful surprises which I’m constantly recommending to friends. Washington Irving’s charming and hilarious A History of New York became an instant personal favorite (though it blends, perhaps, into fiction). Other worthy titles read last year include Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners, and Gilbert Seldes’s The Stammering Century, about nineteenth-century American religious fads and cult spiritualities. Primary historical texts I read last year included the autobiography of the Sac war chief Black Hawk, memoirs of the American west from the late seventeenth-century by Cadillac and Liette, and the diary of my tenth great-grandfather Thomas Minor, an early settler of New England. E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World was a page turner, the work of an afternoon or two. James McPherson’s Civil War epic Battle Cry of Freedom was more of a trudge. So was Henry Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (despite its occasional glories). Generally less impressive were Andrea Wulf’s Chasing Venus, Peter Gay’s Mozart: A Life, and Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas. Peter Hansen’s The Summits of Modern Man (about the birth of modern mountaineering in the Enlightenment and beyond) was a prime example of how a winning topic can be bludgeoned to death with unmusical, academic prose.

Among those books more difficult to categorize (though generally non-fiction of one species or another), I especially enjoyed reading the lectures collected in Professor Borges, F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s Carrying the Heart (essays on the cultural symbolism of human anatomy), and the Sir Roger de Coverly Essays of Addison and Steele. Rose Macaulay’s The Minor Pleasures of Life – a commonplace book of quotations mostly from the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries – was itself no minor pleasure. M.A. Screech’s Montaigne and Melancholy and Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism were both worth the time. Less so, in my opinion, were George Saunders’s The Braindead Megaphone, John Gray’s Straw Dogs, or Bergen Evans’s A Natural History of Nonsense. Books I wanted to like more than I actually did include James Schall’s On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs and Joseph Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life was so-so. Henry Beston’s The Outermost House was a poor imitation of Thoreau. But Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast was a great yarn, and Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal was a nice piece of instructional comic diversion.

I have not made any reading resolutions for 2014, though I’ve already set aside for later delectation some additional titles by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chesterton, and Rose Macaulay. I intend to read some more philosophy (Hobbes, finally, and perhaps some more Hume). Montaigne is sure to show up, as usual. Shakespeare too. I also hope to read Francis Parkman’s magnum opus Montcalm and Wolfe, and the posthumous Patrick Leigh Fermor title The Broken Road, which appears in its American edition soon. I have some more F. Gonzalez-Crussi on order, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. I want to re-read Don Quixote this year, and possibly Moby Dick. I just picked up John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor from the library and want to finally read Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. We’ll see.

One thing I learned this past year: I’m a more productive (and happier) reader than a writer. The best thing I wrote off the blog last year was a 70-page chapter book for my daughter, which I’m quite proud of. The novel which I beat out my brains for these past five or so years exists in a completed draft now. It’s still a mess, however, and last year I was given some helpful perspective on its faults and what might be done to correct them. I hope to take it up again at some point in 2014. It’s been a few months since I’ve been able to look it in the face, but I may be ready soon. Writing seriously-intended fiction for adults is no fun at all. It really isn’t. It’s nothing like reading. Reading adds to life and is, unless you’re doing it wrong, a joy and a pleasure. Writing, on the other hand, takes and takes. It drains the soul. Sure, there are moments of elation, but writing gives birth to such moments only to murder them in infancy. If you ask me.


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Marginalia, no.304

The sun rises before I do, but I go to bed after it does: we are even.

~ Jules Renard, Journal

Morning people are content, but we night owls sometimes blame ourselves. I wonder, if I had to give up electric light and strain to read by candle in the dark, would I mend my ways?

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Five Years of The New Psalmanazar

I used to joke that I was a glutton for obscurity, that if no one read what I published here I was pleased as pie. That’s a pose, of course, something to make me feel better. I want readers. But as I mellow toward middle age (seven months till forty) I’m becoming more honestly comfortable with the idea that writing, like reading, is something I can engage in without the need for recognition. Writing a good sentence now and then, like reading one, is a pleasure in its own right. I hope I’ve managed a few. At any rate, the attempt seems necessary for me. Trying to write good sentences has made me a better person, or at least prevented me from being as awful as I might have been otherwise.

By the numbers, I’ve written 526 separate posts for The New Psalmanazar since February 22, 2008. I’ve received 48,700 views. I’ve earned 90 regular ‘followers.’ My busiest year, both in terms of production and in terms of readership, was 2010. The busiest day was November 10th of that year, on which I had 616 visitors (I average maybe 40). The post that’s earned me by far the most visitors is Three Paragraphs of Nature. To judge by incoming search traffic, these are  middle school students hoping to plagiarize something for a class assignment (Write 1-3 paragraphs about nature). For some reason, the other search phrases most likely to bring people here have to do with Edward Gorey and the Italian film star Monica Vitti. I mentioned Monica Vitti twice back in September of 2008.

I have a small band of loyalish readers, but most of the people who come to The New Psalmanazar do so accidentally. It’s not what they were looking for, but something they found on the way to what they were looking for. When they do come, I’m glad to say that they tend to stay a while. Most of them spend a couple minutes clicking around and reading. I’m grateful for that. The things that bring people together often smell of random chance. When the results are favorable, we call it serendipity, or fate. That’s how friendships are made. That’s how people fall in love.

Out of pure narcissism, and to commemorate my anniversary, I’ve pulled a dozen or so posts from each of the past five years (excluding posts from the Marginalia series) and created a Best Of page.

Thank you for reading.


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Three Paragraphs of Influenza

I was sick at home with the flu the other day when my daughter brought me her copy of Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs to read. The story opens with Moominpappa himself sick in bed, acting like a baby, afraid he’s going to die and that all the treasures of his life experience will be lost. So he sits up and begins writing his memoirs while sipping a rum toddy and smoking his pipe. Moominpappa has romantic notions about himself. He was born, he says, under propitious stars. Though an orphan, he suspects he is a child of royalty. He admits to making slight embellishments in recounting his life story, but only for the sake of providing “local color.”

Is there such thing as a Protestant Sick Ethic? I feel like a cheat when I read while sick in bed. If I’m reading and hear my wife (a responsible person) walking down the hall toward the bedroom, I’ll drop my book on the floor or hide it under the covers. Not that my wife would scold me for reading, but I can’t avoid scolding myself if I’m caught. If you’re so sick and miserable, I tell myself, then be sick and miserable all the way. Surely, if you’re well enough to enjoy a book, you can’t be that sick, can you? Probably you’re just lazy. If I were more adventurous, like Moominpappa, I might not care. I might read in bed all day long, every day of my convalescence, and never feel guilty about it at all.

Being ordered to read by my daughter simplifies things. I’m only humoring her, putting on a good show of fatherly indulgence despite the fact that I’m suffering. But I wonder if reading while sick in bed may actually be therapeutic. A good book expands our scope of life, and even a minor illness like seasonal flu can feel restrictive. Reading is a form of experience, and if the world as we experience it in a book isn’t quite the same thing as the world at large, sometimes it’s close enough. Facing a storm at sea, Moominpappa asks his friend Hodgkins if he’s ever been in a gale before. “Certainly,” Hodgkins says. “In the picture book A Voyage over the Ocean. No waves can be bigger than those.”

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Reading Notes: Diderot

There’s a lot of name-dropping in Rameau’s Nephew, which may be why Diderot never published the book in his lifetime. It recounts a long, probably fictitious conversation between Diderot himself and the brilliant but unsavory person named in the title, the real-life down-at-heels nephew of the French baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.

When not performing intricate pantomimes and discoursing on musical theory, Rameau’s nephew (who does most of the talking) explains how he makes his living as a sponge and buffoon in the homes of the rich, as a procurer of young women for randy aristocrats, and as a teacher of music who never really teaches anything. There’s a bit of Falstaff in him, but he’s more sophisticated, more craven.

“For long ages,” says Rameau, “there was an official King’s Jester, but at no time has there been an official King’s Wise Man.” He plays the jester therefore. Like some of Shakespeare’s jesters, he’s venomous as well as diverting:

“People laud virtue, but they hate and avoid it, for it freezes you to death, and in this world you need to keep your feet warm… Virtue commands respect, and respect is a liability. Virtue commands admiration, and admiration is not funny.”

“If it is important to be sublime in anything, it is especially so in evil. You spit on a petty thief, but you can’t withhold a sort of respect from a great criminal. His courage bowls you over. His brutality makes you shudder. What you value in everything is consistency of character.”

What exactly is Diderot about in Rameau’s Nephew? It’s hard to say. He’s giving the devil his due, perhaps, or purging himself, through the puppet of Rameau, of all the uncharitable thoughts he’s harbored about his fellow men. Or maybe he’s trying to inoculate himself (and us) against the allurements of cynicism and easy hypocrisy:

“One swallows the lie that flatters, but sips the bitter truth drop by drop.”

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New Year’s Notes

I took some time off work and tried not to look at screens. I looked, instead, at people, at books, at the rather impressive rain, at various animals, plants and things, and at the moon through my son’s new telescope, which was a Christmas gift. How sad it would be if we suddenly had no moon.

In the eighteenth-century, William Herschel thought the moon’s craters might be ring-shaped cities. In The First Men in the Moon (1901), H.G. Wells imagined the craters were huge mechanical doors to an oxygen-rich interior where Selenites lived safe from the absolute zero of night on the surface. It’s been cold on the surface here too. There was ice in the grass this morning.

My daughter has assigned names to all the neighborhood cats. She’s made a field guide with pictures of each. There’s Sam and Jenny, Orange Soda and Orange Cream, White William and Cinnamon, others too. The neighborhood cat she admires most is called Alice Featherlegs. Alice is a short hair, dirty blonde, a bit chubby, eager to roll on her back for a belly scratch.

In old Rome a soothsayer that read omens by the behavior of birds was called an auspex (a haruspex read the livers of sacrificed animals). Today when we say that a moment is ‘ausipicious,’ we mean, without quite meaning it, that the bird-sign is favorable. My daughter reads omens by cat-sign. If she gets a “cattish feeling” and then Alice Featherlegs appears, it’s a very special day and wonderful things might happen. She might get a letter in the mail, or a gift, or dessert after dinner.

Assuming I don’t surprise myself by dying before September, this is the year I will turn forty. I’ve started it with a head cold. This put a damper on any New Year’s Eve plans we might have cooked up, but the wife and I kept vigil until the required hour and I sipped a bit of medicinal scotch to bury the old year and bless the new. I’m feeling a bit better now.

I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’ve resolved to read less. According to my notes, I read more than seventy books in 2012. Some people read more than that, but it sounds like a lot to me and, frankly, not all the books that I read were worth it. If I read a little less this year I might have time to think a little more. I might also have more time for re-reading, which I’ve decided doesn’t technically count.


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Reading Notes: Richard Mabey

  • Weeds, Richard Mabey

Mabey is a charming, erudite guide to the non-celebrity flora. He leads us from the medieval employment of weeds in sympathetic magic and the theological doctrine of ‘Signatures’ to the cutthroat world of 17th-century soldier-herbalists like Nicholas Culpeper; from John Ruskin’s strange disgust at the idea of photosynthesis (reducing flowers to mere “gasometers”) to the surprising botanical marvels of London’s WWII bomb craters. At tour’s end we gasp in dystopian delight at science-fiction futures when human beings and all their works are remorselessly consumed in an avalanche of kudzu.

Mabey treats his readers to a vernacular glossary of delicious variety, plants with names like gallant soldier, love in idleness, henbane, fat-hen, shepherd’s purse, pellitory-of-the-wall, stinking mayweed, giant hogweed, yellow rattle, self-heal, and (my personal favorite) welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk. Mabey introduces us to “species that relish beheading,” an alfalfa seedling that sprouts “in the moist warmth of a patient’s eyelid,” plants with “leaves smelling of beef gravy,” and “the notorious Atheist’s Fig” that sprouted from the coffin of a provincial blasphemer.

A weed, Mabey reminds us, is really nothing more than a plant growing in a place we wish it wasn’t. Anything at all might become one, under the right (or wrong) conditions. “A tendency to weediness in a plant is as much a matter of opportunity as a fixed character trait,” he writes, and we’re reminded of certain people we’ve known – maybe of ourselves. In their metamorphic qualities, their talent for endurance, their rabid opportunism, their capacity for adjusting themselves to the environment, and the environment to themselves, “the species they most resemble,” says Mabey, “is us.”

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“I know I’m getting a little romantic here, but I like to think of them as gardeners.” The National Park Service ranger was giving a lecture on the Clark’s Nutcracker, an ash-gray corvid with striking white and black wing and tail feathers. The birds have a special relationship (a “mutualism,” he said) with the Whitebark Pine which grows near tree-line in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. “You see, every Whitebark Pine in these mountains, every single one of them, was planted once upon a time by a Clark’s Nutcracker.”

The Whitebark’s cones do not open on their own. Its seeds are not spread by wind or fire. Only the Nutcracker can extract them. The bird will store between eighty and 100 seeds in its throat pouch and cache them away three or five or seven at a time in the shallow soil of rocky alpine slopes. A single nutcracker will make over 9,000 caches each year and retrieve the seeds in winter by memory. A fraction of these are forgotten, or intentionally spared, and so the Whitebark grows, wherever it grows, in clumps of between three and seven trees. When they mature, after some sixty or eighty years, they produce cones of their own to tempt the descendents of the Nutcracker that first planted them.

The ranger, a young man with a short beard and long hair and the earnest enthusiasm of a character from a Wes Anderson movie, drew the picture for us: Flying among the granite peaks and glacial valleys, the Clark’s Nutcracker surveys a landscape of very personal significance, not a wilderness but a family garden planted and tended by a thousand generations of his forebears, which he will tend in turn and leave for his children. Within his territory he knows, quite probably, every tree, every root.

From our campsite at Tuolumne Meadows (at an elevation of 8,600 feet), we made a day hike up to Elizabeth Lake (9,600 feet), just below the granite horn of Unicorn Peak. This was no mean feat with two children in tow, considering the gain in elevation and the thin air. But while lunching on salami, apples, and hard-boiled eggs, we saw the Whitebark growing in small patches of krummholz, trunks and branches weather-tortured into grim, Dantean statuary, all knees and elbows and twisted necks. And flapping away across the water we saw what could only have been a nutcracker, a crow-sized bird with flashing white patches visible at the distance of a quarter mile.

Back at camp, reading the old paperback I’d brought along (Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography), it occurred to me that if we can expand the definition of “tree” and consider books – made of wood pulp, after all – a sort of sub-species, then I am deep in an arboreal mutualism of my own. My library at home becomes a tended forest, inherited down a makeshift genealogy from those (readers and writers) who have come before me. The books themselves provide me necessary nourishment and I, in turn, propagate them through lending and recommendation, and by keeping them in fair enough shape to pass on while they still have fruit to bear.

Perhaps there’s a biological basis, then, and I’m not simply being a Luddite, for preferring real books printed on actual paper made of wood pulp over electronic books downloaded as digital files, to be read from a screen. Electronic books break the mutualism, sever the natural relationship, that we reading people have so long enjoyed. Some, I suppose, might see in the advent of the digital library a leap forward in the evolution of reading – another descent from the primordial trees onto the open savannah. I’ve always preferred the forest.


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