Category Archives: my reading; observations on reading

“There is nothing generic about human life.”

 

 

 

I am reading a recently published book by Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Ms. Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School. In 2015, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35.

The book is described as follows on Amazon.com:

Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School with a modest Christian upbringing, but she specializes in the study of the prosperity gospel, a creed that sees fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward “blessing.” She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son.

Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forces Kate to realize that she has been tacitly subscribing to the prosperity gospel, living with the conviction that she can control the shape of her life with “a surge of determination.” Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure. Kate is very sick, and no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors. What does it mean to die, she wonders, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? Kate is stripped of this certainty only to discover that without it, life is hard but beautiful in a way it never has been before. …

Everything Happens for a Reason tells her story, offering up her irreverent, hard-won observations on dying and the ways it has taught her to live.

 

 

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On pages 123-125, I came across the following passage:

 

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

The flow of letters has slowed, but I still get at least one every day. Today I received a book in my campus mailbox about how to guarantee that I will communicate with my loved ones from heaven, and a handwritten card about scriptures I could repeat aloud to become a better conduit of God’s power. A pastor from a prosperity church has mailed me a large manila folder containing an enormous banner that reads: SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU. I can’t help but think it’s a little passive-aggressive, but I appreciate the gesture. Sort of. He is asking me to employ a series of proven techniques that could help me reclaim my own health, if I would only try.

This is the problem, I suppose, with formulas. They are generic. But there is nothing generic about a human life. [italics added]

When I was little, to get to my bus stop, I had to cross a field that had so much snow my parents fitted me with ski pants and knee-high thermal boots that were toasty to forty degrees below zero. I am excellent in the stern of a canoe, but I never got the hang of riding a bike with no hands. I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color. I love the smell of dover and chamomile because my sister and I used to pick both on the way home from swimming lessons. I spent weeks of my childhood riding around on my bike saving drowning worms after a heavy rain. My hair is my favorite feature even though it’s too heavy for most ponytails, and I still can’t parallel park. There is no life in general. Each day has been a collection of trivial details—little intimacies and jokes and screw-ups and realizations. My problems can’t be solved by those formulas-—those clichés-—when my life was never generic to begin with. God may be universal, but I am not. I am Toban’s wife and Zach’s mom and Karen and Gerry’s daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blond boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.

“Who’s my baby?” I ask him.

Zach is running long loops around the room and stopping at every ledge to run his car along it. He turns to me.

‘A boy?” he says hopefully.

“Yes,” I say, scooping him into my arms. He tolerates my tight hug for a few breaths and then squirms his way out, laughing. “Yes.” I say. “But not just any boy. You.”

 

 

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This a marvelous passage. It needs no explication, but it says so much. And, I might add, does so with a minimum of words. And doesn’t just affirm something, but shows it with details that hit the mark and resonate.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

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Addendum: Ms. Bowler grew up in Manitoba, Canada. She writes: “I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color.”

This reminded me of a Christmas Eve in our house in Massachusetts at some indeterminate past time when I was a teenager. My father woke us children up in the middle of the night in great excitement. He wanted us to go to a window in the upstairs hallway and gaze out of it at a bright star. It was like the Star of Bethlehem, he said. I tried to look, but I was so sleepy I was unsteady on my legs and could barely hold my head up. I seem to recall something very bright. I believe there had been something in forecast models about an especially bright North Star during that particular month and year.

 

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew

2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2:2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet,

2:6 And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah:
For out of thee shall come forth a governor,
Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.

2:7 Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. 2:9 And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 2:12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Louisa May Alcott

 

 

I am reading Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (1863) in the 1960 Harvard University Press edition edited by Bessie Z. Jones, which, if you can get your hands on it, is the best available edition, but there are many editions in print.

Read it. It’s around 90 pages long, not counting the introduction.

It is marvelously written. I know a good writer when I see one.

My mother loved Little Women. She read it as a girl, could not put it down, and was tremendously affected by it.

My wife read and loved it.

As have countless other women. It is an enduring classic (which I have never read).

I have always thought, without really knowing, that I would have found Alcott, had I read her, to be old fashioned and dated; her plots perhaps contrived, her novels sentimental, her writing flowery.

Her style is of its time, she uses many words that have become antiquated, but can she ever write! Richness of vocabulary, sharpness of observation, penetrating insight, a capacity for wit (including self-deprecation) and the sardonic insight, deftness of characterization, sympathy for human suffering without mawkishness, a sharp eye for human failings and stupidity as well as callousness (including that of hospital personnel), felicity with words, and a distinctive style. A gift for imagery: metaphor and simile. So much for the unsuspecting reader to admire and delight in.

The book is a first-person account of her experiences as a nurse in U.S. Army hospitals in Washington, DC during the Civil War.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    April 2018

on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

 

 

 

以下、このエッセイの日本語への翻訳の一部を参照してください。

(Japanese translation of my comments regarding the director Yasujirō Ozu is appended below.)

 

 

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on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

by Roger W. Smith

 

 

I will begin this essay with some comments on what I feel the development of aesthetic sense and critical standards, as they apply both to literature and to the cinema, entails.

To put it as simply as possible: in order to have a deep appreciation of anything cultural, you have to become acquainted with the BEST works. Nothing less.

Let’s consider literature for a moment. Consider the case of someone whose acquaintance with books is limited to reading works such as The Thorn Birds, Jacqueline Susann, The Bridges of Madison County, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and similar works.

I have nothing against such writers and works or their readers per se. It’s enough that people love to read and take pleasure from it. I am not a snob.

But, if that’s all you have read, you will never have

a frame of reference;

a yardstick; or

models of excellence

for purposes of comparison when it comes to appreciating literature in full.

You won’t be able to distinguish between what is perhaps entertaining and/or diverting and what is truly great. You will never know the difference.

The same comments apply to cinema.

Let’s say that in the past you saw films like The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, or Kramer vs. Kramer and regarded them as classics. Perhaps you still do.

I have news for you (I’m sorry if I sound arrogant): THEY AREN’T. For why I feel this way, see my discussion of directors and films below.

Extending this comment broadly (i.e., to both literature and film), I would say that it’s like comparing War and Peace with Ben-Hur or Anna Karenina with Erich Segal’s Love Story. You have to have read or seen classics to know the difference.

 

 

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I only began to understand and appreciate film after moving to New York City in the late 1960’s, just after graduating from college.

I owe my appreciation and acumen about films, such as they are, to a friend I made during my early days in New York: William S. (Bill) Dalzell.

Bill Dalzell was a self-employed printer who did printing for left wing groups such as Women’s Strike for Peace. (An aside: he was apolitical, though he was sympathetic to such groups’ goals.) He was a very cultured person and a lover of film, as well as of New York.

He taught me, single handedly, to appreciate film.

Bill Dalzell had a personal list of his five all time great films:

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

German director Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938)

Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944, with a Part Two released posthumously in 1958; in my opinion, Ivan the Terrible is an even better film than Eisenstein’s better known film The Battleship Potemkin)

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word; 1955)

Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)

(See YouTube links below.)

Thanks to his advice, I saw them all at least once.

Truly classic films such as the above five are in a league of their own. Few people have seen them or even know of them.

What are some of the ingredients of great filmmaking? Not being a film critic, I can’t say really – I am not qualified to. But my friend Bill made an observation to me once that I remember. He said that films work their magic by “sight and sound.”

Consider the great directors. Most use music very effectively, use it sparingly. They don’t overdo it. But music is a key part of the aesthetic experience. And, the great directors don’t use schlocky music. What you get is Prokofiev, Monteverdi, Schubert, and so on, plus awesome original music. How many treacly film scores have we been subjected to by second rate directors?

 

 

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To Bill Dalzell’s list of the greatest films, I would like to add and comment on a few favorite directors of my own.

 

Yasujirō Ozu, a Japanese film director and screenwriter

He is not nearly as well known as he should be, though his critical reputation is very high. He is my personal favorite among directors, perhaps outranking the five listed above.

Of course, it was Bill Dalzell who first alerted me to Ozu’s films. He made a comment that turned out to be true. In Ozu’s films, nothing happens.

They are films about ordinary Japanese people — businessmen, housewives, families — living ordinary lives. One watches them going about their daily lives – there is no melodrama — and, instead of being bored, by some magic which the director, Ozu, achieves – which one can only marvel at – the viewer is never bored. Instead, one is totally engrossed.

It seems like a certainty that you are watching real people go about their lives, a documentary of sorts, as if the director had entered a home or workplace in Tokyo and turned on his camera. It’s hard to believe – one totally forgets – that one is watching actors.

There is wonderful music, simple and enchanting, used sparingly.

It is wonderful to hear Japanese spoken.

There is a sense of place. The films are shot in Tokyo. One feels that one is there, in the houses with people sitting on mats, in bars where businessmen are drinking copiously, in the narrow streets with their colorful lights and signs and paper lanterns.

Ozu has a great visual sense, but like everything else in his films. his cinematographic technique is not obtrusive. He is not showing off. You are having a wonderful aesthetic experience without quite realizing it.

There is no distance between you and the film, because everything is done simply and with great clarity. There is no bombast, no showing off, no cinematographic techniques being used simply to impress. And, there is no overacting, as is, sadly, the case with most American films.

I do not have a single favorite Ozu film. My favorites include:

Late Spring (1949)

Early Summer (1951)

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Late Autumn (1960)

An Autumn Afternoon (1962; Ozu’s final work)

 

Robert Bresson

My other personal favorite is the French director Robert Bresson. My favorite Bresson film – his films are all of the highest quality — is Au hasard Balthazar (1966).

The Balthazar of the title is a donkey. It is a sort of “Black Beauty” story (the reference here being to the novel by Anna Sewall). The characters are plain people – some of them mean spirited and petty minded, if not downright cruel – in a French village.

The haunting soundtrack features Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major. Bresson uses music sparingly, but extremely effectively.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2016; updated September 2017

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

from the Wikipedia entry on Yasujirō Ozu:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasujir%C5%8D_Ozu

Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most striking in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to Hollywood conventions. Rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene.

Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films. …

He invented the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat … even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground, which necessitated the use of special tripods and raised sets. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.

Ozu eschewed the traditional rules of filmic storytelling, most notably eyelines.

 

 

from the Wikipedia entry on Robert Bresson:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Bresson

 

[Bresson is] known for a spiritual and ascetic style. Bresson contributed notably to the art of cinema; his non-professional actors, ellipses, and sparse use of scoring have led his works to be regarded as preeminent examples of minimalist film. …

Three formative influences in his early life seem to have a mark on his films: Catholicism, art and his experiences as a prisoner of war. …

Bresson made only 13 feature-length films. This reflects his meticulous approach to the filmmaking process and his non-commercial preoccupations. ….

Bresson’s actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of “performance” were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw. This, as well as Bresson’s restraint in musical scoring, would have a significant influence on minimalist cinema. …

Bresson is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. His style can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous “actor-model” methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors.

 

 

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A Comment:

 

What I most like about Ozu’s films is his appreciation of moments of silence or non-action. So much is allowed to happen in those moments! They are almost always missing from American films, which seem to require constant noise and movement. You didn’t list it, so I’ll add another favorite: “Good Morning,” which is a comedy.

Thanks for bringing Ozu’s film to the attention of your readers!

 

— Ella Rutledge

    November 9, 2016

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I would like to clarify one aspect of the above.

I think it is important to be able to tell what is a classic and what is not a classic, which is the point of this essay.

But you can’t be force fed classics – it’s the kiss of death when it comes to developing a love and enthusiasm for them.

Comments along these lines were made by me in the essay Roger W. Smith, “My Early Reading” posted here at

https://rogersgleanings.com/2015/11/05/roger-w-smith-essay-on-early-reading/

As follows:

I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.

Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.

 

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Addendum:

 

Similar thoughts of mine upon reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

On pg. 61, Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.”

YES – waiting, I would be inclined to say, until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

The following five greatest films of all time, according to my friend Bill Dalzell, can be viewed on YouTube at the following links.

 

 

D. W. Griffith

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916)

 

 

 

 

 

Leni Reifenstahl

Olympia

2 parts

 

 

Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible

2 parts

 

 

 

 

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St Matthew, 1964)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Yasujirō Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, and Robert Bressson’s Au hasard Balthazar are available from the Criterion Collection.

 

 

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小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家

 

 “On Aesthetic and Cultural Appreciation of Literature and Film, and My Favorite Directors” (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

 

彼は、その作品で評論家から非常に高い評価を得ていたが、彼のことはその評価に見合うほど知られていない。彼は私が個人的に好きな映画監督であり、おそらく上述した5人の監督を上回るだろう。

 

もちろん、小津の映画を最初に教えてくれたのはBill Dalzelld だった。彼はいずれ真実であることが明らかになるコメントをした。小津の映画では、何も起こらない。

 

それらは、ビジネスマン、主婦、家族など、日本の庶民の何気ない日常を描いた映画だ。見ている人は、彼らの日常生活をただ見るのだが、メロドラマのようなたぐいではない。退屈するどころか、小津監督が吹き込む驚嘆すべきマジックにより、観客は決して退屈することがない。むしろ、見ている人は夢中にさせられる。

 

実際の人々の日常生活のありさまを、あたかも監督が東京のある家庭、または職場に潜入し、独自のカメラを回して撮ったドキュメンタリーか何かを見ているような感覚を受ける。役者の演技を見ている、ということを全く忘れさせられるのは、実に信じがたい体験だ。

 

音楽も素晴らしく、シンプルで魅惑的な音楽が控えめにバランスよく使われている。

 

日本語の話し言葉が非常に耳に心地よい。

 

場所の感覚がしっかり存在する。この映画は東京で撮影された。これを観ている人たちは、自分が実際に映画の登場人物の家の座敷や、ビジネスマンがおびただしく酒を飲むバー、カラフルなネオンや看板、紙ちょうちんの並ぶ狭い街路地に居るかのように感じる。

 

小津監督は優れたビジュアルセンスを持つが、映画のその他すべての部分と同様、彼の映画技術には押し付けがましさがない。彼は見せびらかすことをしない。あなたは気づかないうちに、素晴らしい美を体験させられる。

 

すべてがシンプルで、かなり明瞭に作られているため、あなたと映画との間に距離を感じない。印象付けるために、大げさな表現、見せびらかし、映画技術は一切使わない。そして、残念ながら大半のアメリカ映画がそうであるように、大げさな演技はない。

 

私の好きな小津監督の映画を1つだけ選ぶことはできない。私のお気に入りの映画のリストを挙げることにする:

 

晩春 (1949年)

 

麦秋 (1951年)

 

お茶漬けの味 (1952年)

 

東京物語 (1953年)

 

秋日和 (1960年)

 

秋刀魚の味 (1962年、小津の最終作)

 

 

 

 

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ウィキピディアの小津安二郎のページより

 

小津は恐らく、物語の内容と同じくらい、彼の映画の技術的スタイルと革新によって知られている監督であろう。彼の映画のスタイルは、晩年の映画でより顕著になってきており、このスタイルは彼の戦後をテーマにした映画の中で完全に確立された。彼はハリウッド映画のしきたりに従わなかった。それよりは、会話のシーンで典型的な肩越しのショットを使ったり、カメラを役者に直接向け、観客がシーンの中にいるような効果を出した。

 

小津はシーンの間にも典型的なトランジションを使わなかった。シーンの間に彼は、特定の静的オブジェクトをトランジションとして使ったり、フェードやディゾルブなどよりは、ディレクトカットを用いた。静的オブジェクトは、次の屋内シーンが展開される建物を用いることがほとんどだった。音楽はこれらのトランジション中に挿入され、1つのシーンの終わりから始まり、静的オブジェクトによるトランジションを経て、新しいシーンでフェードしていく、といった具合に使用した。彼がトランジション以外で物語の世界に属さない音楽を使用することはほとんどなかった。小津は、キャリアを積むに連れカメラを移動することが少なくなり、カラーフィルムになってからは、トラッキング・ショットの使用を一切止めた。…

 

彼はカメラを低い位置に設置し、日本家屋での座ったときの目線、または、それよりも低い床から30~60cmほどの高さで撮影する「畳ショット」を発明したが、これには特別な三脚を使用し、セットを上げる必要があった。彼は、キャラクターが廊下を歩くときなど、座り芝居のないシーンでもこのロー・ポジションを使用した。

 

小津は、映画によるストーリーテリングの伝統的なルールを避け、これは視点の構図で最も顕著だった。

 

 

 

 

 

an email to the editor, about J. M. Synge’s “The Aran Islands”

 

 

Dear Tim,

Thanks very much for getting back to me. I apologize for the slight delay in responding to you!

To introduce myself. I live in New York City. I have always been deeply immersed in literature. I taught English at the college level for a while as an adjunct professor, although that was not my major profession. I host two web sites/blogs devoted largely to literature (plus personal writings of mine).

A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of my wife, who had seen it with a friend, I went to a play at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan: The Aran Islands. It was a revelation for me. I came home from the play desirous of reading Synge, whom I hadn’t read before. (I also watched the Robert Flaherty film Man of Aran.)

I purchased the Penguin paperback of The Aran Islands. I loved it and got a lot out of it. Per my usual habit, I read the work slowly and deliberately, often reading certain paragraphs and passages several times, savoring the language and descriptions; the impressions and gleanings one gets from the place and the people; plus, the beautiful descriptions of sea, storms, and sky. It was like taking a trip and getting a taste of a strange, remote place.

 

Some examples:

“There has been a storm for the last twenty-four hours, and I have been wandering on the cliffs till my hair is stiff with salt. Immense masses of spray were flying up from the base of the cliff, and were caught at times by the wind and whirled away to fall at some distance from the shore. When one of these happened to fall on me, I had to crouch down for an instant, wrapped and blinded by a white hail of foam.

“The waves were so enormous that when I saw one more than usually large coming towards me, I turned instinctively to hide myself, as one blinks when struck upon the eyes.

“After a few hours the mind grows bewildered with the endless change and struggle of the sea, and an utter despondency replaces the first moment of exhilaration. …

“About the sunset the clouds broke and the storm turned to a hurricane. Bars of purple cloud stretched across the sound where immense waves were rolling from the west, wreathed with snowy phantasies of spray. Then there was the bay full of green delirium, and the Twelve Pins touches the mauve and scarlet in the east.

“The suggestion from this world of inarticulate power was immense, and now at midnight, when the wind is abating, I am still trembling and flushed with exultation.” (pp. 62-63)

 

“My intercourse with these people has made me realize that miracles must abound whenever the new conception of law in not understood. On these islands alone miracles enough happen every year to equip a divine emissary. Rye is turned into oats, storms are raised to keep evictors from the shore, cows that are isolated on lonely rocks bring forth calves, and other things of the same kind are common.” (pg. 81)

 

“It is likely that much of the intelligence and charm of these people is due to the absence of any division of labour, and to the correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied knowledge and skill necessitate a considerable activity of mind. Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman, and can manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity. He can farm simply, burh kelp, cut out pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a house, and make a cradle or a coffin. His work changes with the seasons in a way that keeps him free from the dullness that comes to people who have always the same occupation. the danger of his life on the sea gives him the alertness of a primitive hunter, and the long nights he spends fishing in his curagh bring him some of the emotions that are thought peculiar to men who have lived with the arts.” (pg. 84)

 

And, a quote Synge heard indirectly from the inhabitants: “Would anyone kill his father if he was able to help it?”

 

A reviewer of The Aran Islands on Amazon.com, it seems, put well what I think:

People have often said to me that they find Synge’s account of his time spent honing his Irish and collecting folklore on the Aran Islands to be one of the slowest and most boring reads they’ve ever encountered. I must heartily disagree.

While the work doesn’t exactly swing like a pendulum, the rhythms of his narration are very much like that of the changing tide and the rolling of the waves to which the islanders have grown accustomed. Synge’s narration — like time on Inishmaan — moves slowly and steadily, washing over the reader if one will let it.

Yes, “washing over the reader.” This is what happened to me as I proceeded slowly, a page or two at a time, through the book.

 

Regarding my compliments on your introduction and the edition as edited by you, I should note that I rarely read introductions prior to reading a book. I don’t want my impressions to be “muddied” beforehand. But, as I was reading, I found your footnotes extremely informative and well done. I could see the prodigious amount of work you had done in explaining difficult passages and allusions to local history and folklore and to specific locales as well as (crucially) Irish words and phrases. Then, there was much bibliographic information derived from rare books about Synge and the islands that could be easily overlooked. How do you manage to find such books (such as rare works in Irish)? How many editors of reissued literary works go to such lengths?

When I got to your introduction, I was fully absorbed in it and learned a great deal. It was not your routine introduction to a paperback reissue. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth. The introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. It makes one want to know more about Synge.

I am aware of your two books about the islands, having become so only recently. I hope to be able to find the time to read them.

 

 

Sincerely,

Roger Smith

July 30, 2017

 

 

 

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J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands, edited with an introduction by Tim Robinson (Penguin, 1992)

Tim Robinson is a writer and cartographer. Born in Yorkshire, he lives on the Aran Islands, off the coast of County Galway in Ireland.

in which I take stock of myself considered as a reader

 

 

The following is the text of an email of mine from today to an academic with whom I have had contact periodically regarding literary scholarship. Her research interests are in the area of early twentieth century American literature.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     December 3, 2016

 

 

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Thanks for the reply, ______.

I am an independent scholar.

I didn’t even major in English.

Nevertheless, I did teach world literature and English composition as an adjunct professor for a while.

People, including academics, seem to be impressed with the depth and breadth of my reading.

I have always been a reader, most it and by far the best and most rewarding reading, was done independently.

Yet, I have never regarded myself as an omnivorous reader. I tend to consume books slowly and deliberately.

I have had friends who left me in the dust, so to speak, in terms of the depth and breadth of their reading and the level of difficulty of the works they have read.

In my haphazard, indiscriminate way, I do seem to have read a lot. A plus factor seems to be that I don’t waste my time on junk.

So, someone will mention a writer such as  Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, or Sherwood Anderson to me. I can claim to have read either a fair amount or a smattering, out of sheer interest. In the case of a writer such as Lewis, a lot.

I do continue to do indiscriminate reading, but it’s reading with a purpose. I seem to be developing a métier as an essayist. This has motivated me lately to want to read or reread the works of great essayists such as Milton, Samuel Johnson, Emerson, and Thoreau. I am just getting around to doing this, or trying to.

I am also trying to read writers who influenced Theodore Dreiser, such as Balzac, whom I know and love already but always wanted to read more of.

 

Sincerely,

Roger

On Reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

 

 rws-comments-on-how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people

 

I have just finished reading Dale Carnegie’s bestselling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, which was originally published in 1936. I took notes as I was reading and got a lot out of it.

The attached Word document (above) summarizes the things that I got from the book– namely, what struck me most, plus some experiences and observations of my own.

 

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My parents had a paperback copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People on our living room bookshelf in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I recall for some reason that the paperback was laminated (I think that is the right word) – it had a sort of plastic tissue overlay.

I made a stab at reading it when I was in the sixth grade. How to Win Friends and Influence People, I thought. I’d certainly like to know how to do that!

I remember reading a chapter which advised the reader not to talk about themselves all the time, but to show an interest in the other person. I decided to try this out on my mother.

We were gathered in the living room of an evening. I said to my mother, “So, how are you today, Mom?”

“I’m fine,” she answered.

“Tell me,” I said (or words to that effect), “How are you?”

She was nonplussed, but answered again that she was fine.

“Well, tell me about yourself,” I said.

The conversation had begun to seem a little odd to her. It went on very briefly, awkwardly, then ceased. My mother couldn’t quite figure what I was up to.

 

********************************************

 

Picking up the book now, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was reminded of an experience my hero Samuel Johnson once had as a reader.

Johnson once read a book offering spiritual guidance: A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life by William Law. Johnson told James Boswell that he “began to read it expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion, after I became capable of rational inquiry.”

Well, I wasn’t sure that I should take Dale Carnegie’s book seriously either. I am suspicious of books that are so popular, and of self-help books. Which it is. And, the precepts laid down by Carnegie could be considered simplistic – they sound good, but can they really be followed? It reminds me of another book that is somewhat similar: Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.

When I read Fromm – as is the case with Carnegie now – I had a similar experience. I found myself saying over and over again to myself, “Yes, so true.” I guess what one might say is that the books are a lot more right than they are wrong, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the many good things the authors have to say.

I do not know anything about Fromm’s background, and not that much about Carnegie’s either, but Carnegie’s precepts were grounded in experience, which perhaps accounts for their impact. And, he writes simply and clearly, a great virtue not usually observed.

 

—Roger W. Smith

    October 2016

 

 

how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-cover

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On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”

 

 

I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading and I feel I have excellent taste.

I also happen to be Dreseirian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).

When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman …

and Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.

Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long —  was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.

I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.

Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said about this:

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)

His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)

Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature. … Smooth prose composition eluded him forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)

Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller. (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002)

To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)

[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

An American Tragedy has stock characters (like Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper) who are unbelievable.

The prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case.

Admitted, thricely.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (on which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel, Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).

The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

The crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative, the story.

I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Page 505 (Book Two, Chapter XLV) contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):

And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.

Is this the prose of a James Joyce?

Decidedly not.

It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book.

Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.

There is a sort of Joycean technique (yes!) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact.

We almost BECOME Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.

The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.

To read the book is to become one with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style – to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.

Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary.

He wrote – I repeat – a classic.

An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend.

It is sui generis, autochthonous.

As was the case with its author, the book has “muscled” its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.

Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.

 

– Roger W. Smith

September 2016

 

 

 

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1925).jpg

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1926).jpg