Tag Archives: Robert Louis Stevenson

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.329

I knew one man who was arrested as a runaway lunatic, because, although a full grown person with a red beard, he skipped as he went like a child.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Walking Tours’

If only it were that easy. I own a large rubber crow mask which I bought with the vague idea that I might wear it at the office and so compel the company to lay me off. Then, finally, I could begin to live. But I tried it the other day and only narrowly escaped promotion.

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Sickness & Health

I had to forgive myself this past weekend for not finishing a Henry James novel. Earlier this year I’d read maybe a dozen of his shorter fictions, all of them with relish. The Middle Years, The Pupil, The Liar, The Real Thing, and The Altar of the Dead were personal favorites. Time again, I thought, to try one of his later “masterpieces.” Having failed before with The Ambassadors, I turned instead to The Wings of the Dove. I was defeated, however, after only two hundred pages. The psychological minutiae and circumlocutions of James’s portraiture, which I could bear lightly enough in short form, began to feel like one of those leaden bibs donned for x-rays at the dentist’s office. Life, I decided, was simply too short to voluntarily endure suffocation like this for another four hundred pages.

It’s not entirely up to me, of course, but I do hope to continue as a viable organism for a long time yet. Unfortunately, my doctor tells me that my cholesterol is a bit of a problem. Not that it’s so very high, but it’s a little high for a regular Joe, and higher still for a forty-year-old man like myself whose father had a heart attack at age forty-nine. My grandfather too had his first heart attack about fifty, and his father – an Iowa farmer – died of cardiac arrest in the fields near the same age. Accompanied by no extravagant risk factors which might explain it or give prevention an easy target, heart disease with us is a family tradition. With regard to this particular tradition, however, I aim for apostasy.

To that end, my new doctor, a talkative British Indian man my own age, would like to see me on statins. The wife and I have opted first to see what could be done by an aggressive change of diet. As such, though I’m still allowed minor indulgences (a glass of wine, a small square of dark chocolate), the foods I generally prefer to eat are now out of the question. Goodbye therefore to beef. Goodbye to sausage and bacon and cooking with lots of butter. There will be no more French bread and cheese just for the hell of it. I’m learning to feel a little hungry all the time and not to expect much of lunch or dinner.

You grow older and you notice that people tend rather easily to die. Not that death itself is easy, but the routes by which one may arrive at it are surprisingly numerous and convenient. The expressway to the grave is always near at hand. I assume that I will die one day of heart disease, but I might just as easily die of cancer, or an automobile accident, or by fire, or by drowning at sea, or by being crushed in a subterranean parking garage during an earthquake. It must be especially horrible to know that you are right now suffering from a disease that will, in all likelihood, put you into the flowerbed before long. Persons I know and care about are facing that prospect as I write. But living itself is a terminal condition and no one is finally spared the hard prognosis. In the cosmic scheme all human lives are brief. Some are only slightly briefer than others.

One thing I have so far avoided in my grudging play for healthfulness is initiation into the modern cult of exercise. Walking or bicycle riding for pleasure I will gladly engage in, but programmatic exercise regimens of the sort that my neighbors and coworkers apparently enjoy seem to me more than a little absurd. What would our forebears three or four generations ago have made this habit of unnecessary exertion, of middle-age denialists signing up in droves for spinning classes, or CrossFit, or (God forbid) parkour? Though rooted, it seems, in the denial of decay and mortality, there’s nonetheless an element of the hypocritically ascetic in it. If our employment is no longer honest enough that we break a sweat in earning our bread (only white-collar workers exercise), then we will force the sweat of virtue from our pores as an act of penance. Immediately afterwards, of course, we trumpet our accomplishments through social media.

On setting aside The Wings of the Dove I began thumbing again through a small volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s non-fiction. After the rather tedious company that I’m afraid James had become, RLS was all charm and good humor. In his essay on Thoreau, Stevenson warns against the delicate, fearful, self-obsessed pursuit of healthfulness. “True health,” he says, “is to be able to do without it.” He knew personally of what he spoke, but one shouldn’t press the aphorism too far. Eventually we all, in fact, do without it, but this state in its final form is known as death and not health. Nonetheless, to learn to accept with a good grace the inevitability of one’s own decrepitude, with the restrictions on liberty and pleasure which it necessarily imposes – well, that seems a health goal worthy of pursuit.

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Reading Feynman, Stevenson, Gladwell


Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman

Easy pieces? You don’t expect me to understand any of that math, do you? It seems I’m not as smart as I thought I was, but neither are physicists, which is some consolation. (Anyway, per Socrates, the discovery of our ignorance is true wisdom, right?) In this book Feynman explains how we used to believe that we had discovered certain physical laws which went a long way toward making a kind of sense of the universe. It was a heady time. There seemed no limit to our mastery of the material world. But that was then, before quantum mechanics. These days, you can still trot out the old “physical laws” for some harmless diversion if you like – but don’t call them laws anymore. Because they’re wrong. Call them probabilities instead, but only when applied at a certain scale. They’re not even probabilities at the atomic scale. The truth is that we don’t really understand the relationships and interactions between objects. We don’t know why things do what they do, and we can’t begin to say what they’re going to do next. We don’t even really know what gravity is.


Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson

Reading Travels with a Donkey, which is so far my favorite of Stevenson’s travel books, I remembered a visit my wife and I made a few years ago to the tony Napa Valley town of St Helena. The public library in St Helena shares space with a small museum dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, run on a volunteer basis by enthusiastic retirees. Stevenson and wife Fanny enjoyed their 1880 honeymoon in nearby rustic Silverado, where the site of their cabin and the summit of Mt St Helena are now embraced in California’s Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. I learned while reading the present title that there is a Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in France, which closely follows the route trod by RLS and dear Modestine (the donkey) in 1878. It seems that wherever he went in life, Stevenson’s passage was commemorated. This is remarkable because he is by no means a Shakespeare or Milton, nor even what most people would consider a second-tier Olympian of English letters. Geography bears witness, however, and many of his readers down the years will second the notion, that it’s very easy indeed to enjoy his company and to miss him when he’s gone.


David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve done my best never to join any kind of book club, but now one of my corporate overlords has decided that’s just what we’ll have at the office. We begin with Malcolm Gladwell’s latest – and instructions to draw lessons from it on the challenges facing our business. When I was still a teenager, I remember despairing of adulthood when I saw my Dad reading books on the art of management, books like Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. Now it seems I’ve come to the same grim pass. Not that this is a business book per se. But it stinks of the same cult of “accomplishment” and is not the sort of thing I would voluntarily read. Having done so, I’m convinced that Gladwell (who may be the love-child of Art Garfunkel and Whoopi Goldberg) is a bit of a poseur. I won’t subject you to a detailed review of this book (for a slaying one, see John Gray in The New Republic.) I will only say that Gladwell’s blend of social science and self-help is not my idea of fun. I’m not sure what people see in him. The prose is limp. The preoccupations are mostly shallow. The “insights” are prejudiced. The much-vaunted storytelling is bland. As for the challenges facing our business – well, I hear there’s lots of money to be made in publishing.


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Bill Murray

My wife informs me that she had a romantic dream the other night involving Bill Murray. I asked her whether it was Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray or present-day Bill Murray. She wasn’t sure but said that his hair was definitely gray. It seems that as we age our notion of what’s attractive in members of the opposite sex keeps pace with us. When I was eighteen, I remember thinking it impossible I could ever find a thirty-eight-year-old woman appealing. Now I’m amazed to think that I ever found eighteen-year-olds appealing. When I’m seventy, I suppose that fifty-year-olds will look like pre-adolescents. At any rate, I can hardly blame Mr Murray for taking his chances with my wife.

Meanwhile our cat has died. More precisely, she was euthanized. It turns out that she had cancer in her bowels, which probably explains why she had taken to shitting in the hallway and vomiting over par this last year. She was just shy of twenty. I married into her acquaintance, but my wife had adopted her as a kitten from the Humane Society, back when Bill Murray was notably less gray than he is now. I used to make morbid jokes about the cat, as if I might willingly hasten her departure from this vale of tears. But in fact I miss her getting in the way when I’m reading on the couch. I miss her too-early good-mornings and the patter of her little feet on the wood floors.

Praying at bedtime with the kids, we ask God’s mercy on the soul of our cat. I suppose that cats must have souls as well as people. Why not? We miss them similarly when they’re gone. Reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey the other day, I found this poignant bit on mortal farewells: “The world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again into distant and strange lands; but to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden; and ‘hope, which comes to all,’ outwears the accidents of life, and reaches with tremulous hand beyond the grave and death. Easy to say: yea, but also, by God’s mercy, both easy and grateful to believe.” It’s the kind of passage I might like to have read at my own funeral, by Bill Murray.


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Book Porn Rises Again (no.10)

It’s been a long time since I last indulged the bibliomaniac prurience of my readers with an installment of the infamous “Book Porn” series. But I trust that our long abstinence has only further inflamed your desire. Let’s skip the preliminaries, then, and get straight to the good stuff. Ripe and fit for bursting, I offer you first of all:

Barchester Towers 1

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, in a choice Oxford World’s Classics pocket edition (hand shown for scale), nearly pristine, dust jacket unbesmirched, printed in 1960. This wee treasure I picked up at a bookshop in San Jose, browsing while my father looked over some unwrapped Egyptian mummies at the museum in nearby Rosicrucian Park. The whole Barsetshire series was available, and I regret not buying them all, but for reading copies I prefer the more recent Oxford edition with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

But what’s this? Undress the book a little (open its cover, I mean), and see what you find:

Barchester Towers 2

First of all, note the sticker at lower left: “W.H. SMITH & SON 248 Rue de Rivoli PARIS.” Printed in the UK, this book was sold across the Channel. Since the days of Reverend Yorick’s sentimental journey, the English have been rushing off to France to forget their virtue. We’d better take a look at that letter.

Barchester Towers 3

Bonne année to you too. A festal occasion, a candlelit interior. Pour the wine already!

Dear Miss Clefstead

The letter appears to have been written by someone with an imperfect command of English, or else we have an illicit communication drafted in some secret lover’s code. The note reads:

Dear Miss Clefstead – Little bet letter all my – best Wiches for 1963 – happyness – and every. thing you like To have – your F Paiy[?]”

Suspicious, I think. On the same day I found these:

Kipling Twins

Two 1960, Printed-in-Great-Britain Macmillan & Co. uniform pocket editions of Kipling’s Plain Tales of the Hills and Kim. The dust jackets are showing some of their fifty-three years, but the paper inside is acid free and white as new snow. The mysterious Miss Clefstead seems to have owned these as well, since, according to the stickers inside, they too were purchased at W.H. SMITH & SON Rue de Rivoli PARIS.

Moving on, however:

Familiar Birds and Western Country

The family and I recently visited The Bone Room in Berkeley (mentioned before), where I almost bought a three-foot-long gemsbok horn for $50 but settled instead for a curious seashell and a swallowtail butterfly encased in Lucite. After brunch at a nearby café, the wife suggested we run to Moe’s Books on Telegraph. That’s where I got my hands on these two: a handsome 1947 Lakeside Press edition of the memoirs of Cadillac and Liette, and Familiar Birds of the Pacific Southwest by Florence Van Vechten Dickey, Stanford University Press (sixth printing, 1958).

Having not long ago finished the third installment of Francis Parkman’s classic history of the French in North America, I’m looking forward to the Lakeside Press book. Florence Van Vechten Dickey’s little volume, however, is especially lovely when you open it:

Familiar Birds 2

The book was originally published in 1935 and the photographs seem to be from that era, with some added hand-coloring.

Familiar Birds 3

F.V.V.D was wife to ornithologist Donald Ryder Dickey and she wrote this book with the same popularizing goal that Roger Tory Peterson had when he published his own field guide the year before. F.V.V.D’s San Diego towhee (Pipilo maculates, which she also calls the “swamp robin”) is what we call the spotted towhee today. I saw one myself once, in the hills not far from here, though F.V.V.D seems to believe its range extends only southward from Santa Barbara.

Finally, look-ee here:

RLS Travels

I bought this at Moe’s too, a Folio Society edition (1967) of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone (which brings this post full circle, I think, since I mentioned him up top). I’m saving it for a rainy day’s pleasure reading sometime this winter.

Ardizzone’s style of illustration, though a bit more domesticated, reminds me of Mervyn Peake’s. The two shared things in common. Both were born overseas to British parents, Ardizzone in Tonkin, Peake in China. Both wrote and illustrated children’s books. In WWII, Ardizzone enlisted as a war artist. Peake applied to do the same but was denied and conscripted into the Army instead. I don’t know if they were personally acquainted with each other.

On the subject of personal acquaintance – The “book porn” idea is a tired joke, I’m afraid (which is why I dropped it a couple years ago), but there is something very personal about a printed-and-bound, honest-to-God book. Personal acquaintance is only possible between things that have their own character, history, and fate – things like people and books. I’m not sure that a similar encounter is possible with an electronic book. You can’t embrace a ghost.


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Marginalia, no.292

A tree would never have spoken to me like this.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage

How disappointing it would be to discover that we were wrong about the trees. A willow, for example, might be the most petty, vindictive creature on the planet.

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