Category Archives: my reading; observations on reading

re “Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within”

 

The following are emails of mine to Joel F. Harrington, author of Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), a book I recently read.

The second email contains my reflections on the book. Realizing that I am praising myself, I think the email shows an earnest attempt on my part to not only show appreciation for the book, but to learn as much as I can from it — in other words, it shows how a book should be read, how I customarily do read; that is, with close attention and a critical eye, and extracting every scrap of meaning and knowledge I can.

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020

 

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June 20, 2020

Dear Professor Harrington,

I was in the Strand Bookstore in New York City a year or two ago and asked if they had any books on Meister Eckhart.

The clerk said no.

I browsed the shelves in the religion section and found several, including your biography.

A long time ago, when I was new to New York, a coworker who became a lifelong friend [Bill Dalzell] introduced me to Meister Eckhart. My friend, a deep and earnest thinker, was not scholarly per se … he was interested in mysticism along with many other things in art, philosophy, and aesthetics that he introduced me, a recent college graduate, to.

I am an independent scholar and writer. I know good writing when I see it.

I have read only a few pages of your biography so far, but I can tell how well written it is and how worth reading.

I will be in touch with you again when I have finished.

Sincerely,

Roger W. Smith

 

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August 19, 2020

Dear Professor Harrington,

This is a follow-up (as I had promised) to a previous email of mine two months ago about your biography of Meister Eckhart, which I finished a few weeks ago. I am finally getting around to writing you.

It is very well written, in my opinion, and combines impressive scholarship with readability. Although I am probably more acquainted with the Middle Ages and medieval thought than most readers, having majored in history and taken excellent courses in medieval history with professors Norman Cantor and Joshua Prawer at Brandeis University, I am no expert — and yet, I would say that you have done a very good job of getting your hands around the subtleties in Eckhart’s thought. They (the subtleties and nuances of his theology) require much effort at explanation, and yet, I believe you would concur, they also have to be intuited.

It is my belief that, in the best writing, the writer has done the homework, so to speak, for the reader. Your Eckhart biography, in my opinion, provides a much needed synthesis for the reader familiar with but not deeply read in or that well acquainted with Eckhart or his writing.

I thought that Chapter 13 was a brilliant synthesis of writings about Eckhart and his influence over time, and in modern times, and, in general, the book does an admirable job of showing how views and interpretations of Eckhart have shaped and have been shaped by trends and fashions in religions and mysticism. You have shown how Eckhart continues to be influential — indeed, how his influence has grown, yet you avoid the trap of presentism: of trying to give him a “makeover” for later generations. You have made a strenuous effort to understand his writings, theology, and life in the context of and with reference to the actuality of his own life and times.

The analysis of Eckhart’s neologisms on pages 216-217 was very interesting and stimulating for this reader with a rudimentary (very limited) knowledge of German.

Among the many thoughts that occurred to me while reading the book were latter-day concepts such as transcendentalism; specifically, the idea that God is all around us. Are there any similarities to Eckhart here? Ralph Waldo Emerson talks of becoming nothing and seeing all. “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

On page 239, you speak of a “power … variously named by Eckhart as the divine light of the soul, the head of the soul, the husband of the soul, the guardian of the spirit, the light of the spirit, the imprint of divine nature, a citadel, a tiny drop of intellect, a twig, and, … a little spark.” And, on page 319, you write, “The divine spark within each person, the master teaches, is what links us to one another and to all creation. …” Is Eckhart’s divine light of the soul anything like the Quaker inner light?

I found the following passage on pages 92-93 to be very enlightening:

For the sake of his youthful and inexperienced audience, raised with conventional notions of piety, Eckhart made his point explicit: [God] is little concerned with our works, but only with our state of mind in all our works, that we love Him in all things. The prior’s apparent diminishment of conventional acts of piety should not be misunderstood; it was their perception as bargaining tools with God that he explicitly rejected, not their value as spiritual aids:

Many people think they are performing great works by outward things such as fasting, going barefoot, or other such things which are called penance. But the true and best penance is that whereby one improves greatly and in the highest degree …. This penance is truly a state of mind lifted into God away from all things, and in whatever works you find you can have it most, and have it from those works, do them the more freely; and then, if any outward work should hinder you, whether it be fasting, watching, reading, or whatever else, you can safely leave that alone without worrying about failing in any penance. …

Acts of penitence undertaken without this shift in attitude could in fact have a deleterious effect, drag[ging] down into ever greater sorrow and plung[ing] a man into such distress that he is ready to despair, and then the repentance remains painful and he gets no farther: nothing comes of this.

On page 218, you wrote:

Even with a new and colorful vocabulary, the master’s translation of scholastic thinking into the common idiom was not always successful. What, for instance, would a modestly educated listener have made of this attempt to describe the timeless melding of divine union?

You should wholly sink from your youness and dissolve into his Hisness and your “yours” and his “His” should become so completely one “mine” that with him you understand His uncreated self-identity and His nameless nothingness, …

Viewed in the context of Meister Eckhart’s general teaching and as words on the page, the passage appears somewhat comprehensible; heard in a sermon, the spoken concepts of “youness” and “Hisness” must have been baffling.”

I found the last sentence (“Viewed in the context …”) to be very perceptive, showing a real attempt to place oneself in the context of Eckhart’s place and times.

On page 11, you write:

The spectacular rise and fall of this prescient spiritual teacher carries important ramifications for the perennial debate over religious authority, even today. Church leaders’ concerns during Eckhart’s lifetime that simple people might misunderstand the master’s words and reject all religion may appear at first as mere self-justification for their own authoritarian agenda. Yet as the later Protestant Reformation and subsequent schisms have made clear, the appeal to individual conscience as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth invariably leads to ever more interpretations, ever more denominations, ever more religious conflicts.

I could relate to this passage in terms of my own thoughts, experience, and religious upbringing. I was raised a Protestant. I have attained a deep appreciation of Roman Catholicism as well through experiences with Catholics from childhood; my wife and sons are Catholic. Having a knowledge of various Protestant denominations and having had relatives and ancestors belonging to different ones (and having studied history), I have often thought to myself, once the cat was let out of the bag and Protestantism emerged, there was no end to the splintering among different denominations — often over matters of church policy or governance and both large and small doctrinal issues.

On page 209, there is a quote from Eckhart:

[T]here is not one of you who is so coarse-grained, so feeble of understanding, or so remote but he may find this joy within himself, in truth, as it is, with joy and understanding, before you leave this church today, indeed before I have finished preaching: he can find this as truly within him, live it, and possess it, as that God is God and I am a man.

These are, in my opinion, truly remarkable words; and, I am sure you would agree, quite remarkable for a thirteenth or fourteenth century preacher.

On page 220 you wrote: “As always, Eckhart was aggressive in his interpretations of scriptural passages, convinced that any reading conveying an essential truth was a valid reading. This exegetical approach, common among contemporary scholars, gave him considerable thematic flexibility.” I liked the way you put this: “thematic flexibility.”

On page 221 you wrote:

… indisputably Meister Eckhart’s favorite authority–other than Augustine–was Meister Eckhart. Dozens of times he prefaced a remark with I have also said before (and it is a certain and true saying), or sometimes I have said, as I said the day before yesterday in my last sermon, or I said in Paris. Only a preacher of such an elevated scholarly status could get away with such frequent self-invocation. Yet in Eckhart’s defense, his strategy was as much to establish an ongoing dialogue with his individual listeners as to proclaim his own superior knowledge-building on his own authority but also drawing each person in the room into a more intimate relationship. ‘I’ appears several hundred times in Eckhart’s surviving vernacular sermons, but almost always in the explicit or implicit sense of a conversation. Often that dialogue is with the listener, created by Eckhart’s rhetorical use of you. You often ask, for instance, how you ought to live. Now pay close attention. Describing the utter stillness preceding a personal experience of God, Eckhart anticipated his listener’s question: But sir, you ask, where is the silence, and where is the place where the Word is spoken? Again and again, he answered his own questions–not unlike in a scholastic summa–but with the justification that I was once asked, I was recently asked, people say, or similar formulations.

“Sense of a conversation,” Indeed. This is a subtle and rewarding analysis, in my opinion, from which the reader gains insight.

On page 230, I liked your wording in the phrase “his [Eckhart’s] intellectually challenging­-some might say impenetrable–way of speaking.”

Pages 230-231 contain the following passage:

Not that Meister Eckhart was the first preacher of his day to discuss ways into God. In his own sermons he identified two widely acknowledged methods, which he contrasted with his own “third way.” One [way] is to seek God in all creatures with manifold activity and ardent longing. The most famous recent advocate of this via positiva was St. Bonaventure, like Eckhart a learned theologian and admirer of St. Augustine as well as a mendicant administrator. Bonaventure, though, was a Franciscan who embraced the affective piety of his order’s founder, in which one began by loving the created world and other humans and progressed to loving the Creator Himself. In his Soul’s Journey to God, Bonaventure described–in Latin and chiefly for his fellow Franciscans–six successive levels of illumination, beginning with the apprehension and perception of beauty in nature and fellow humans by the physical senses, followed by intellectual and spiritual contemplation up the ladder of creation, and culminating in an encounter with the divine source of all. This approach appealed to many Christians of the day and was expanded upon in such instructional works as David of Augsburg’s Seven Stages of Prayer and Rudolf of Biberach’s Seven Roads of Eternity. Dante Alighieri was its most famous contemporary proponent and his Divine Comedy the most enduring dramatization of the pathway to God through ever-expanding love.

While never impugning Bonaventure or any of his fellow Franciscans by name, Meister Eckhart rejected seeking God through the external world and senses. The Creator was in all things, he agreed, but He could not be directly encountered in this way. Human will, as he had argued against the Franciscan Gonsalvo in Paris, too readily attached itself to images and intermediaries, preventing genuine access to the divine. Even poverty, the supreme virtue of the Franciscans, could become an idol. Preaching on the feast of St. Francis, Eckhart directly challenged his rival mendicants on this score, arguing, I used sometimes to say (and it is quite true) that whoever truly loves poverty is so desirous of it that he grudges anyone having less than he has. And so it is with all things, whether it is purity, or justice, or whatever virtue he loves, he wants to have to the highest degree. Rather than look to the created world, He who would see God must be blind. Rather than seeking God’s voice in the conversation of men, anyone who wishes to hear God speaking must become deaf and inattentive to others.

This is an example of the many passages in the book that are instructive both on “historical grounds” and as providing intellectual fodder/stimulus and insight to the reader in the here and now.

On page 249, you write: “The spiritual perfection resulting from the divine birth in the soul, according to Eckhart, was not a rejection of human nature but a fulfillment of its true potential.” This sentence seems to hit the mark and to contain a “germinal” insight.

On pages 252-253, the analysis of the Mary and Martha story and how Eckhart interpreted it at various times is fascinating — somewhat difficult to get one’s hands around. I am not sure what I myself would say if asked what I thought.

Page 254:

Love itself has become an irresistible force. The just person no longer has any attachments whatsoever, but rather loves all of creation equally and indiscriminately, in conformance with his or her divine nature. You must love all men equally, respect and regard them equally, and whatever happens to another, whether good or bad, must be the same as if it happened to you.

Words to be taken to heart.

I thought the discussion of Stoic apathy on page 255 was excellent:

In some ways, the just person’s state of equanimity is reminiscent of Stoic apathy–the complete eradication of all emotions from the inner self, rob­bing pain and misfortune of their ability to distress us. But Eckhart did not seek to eliminate a powerful emotion such as empathy so much as to universalize it. For the just man, love was an overwhelming and unifying force. Certainly the self-knowledge advocated by Stoics had helped prepare him for the divine birth, but it was the divine essence that now filled him that overcame all suffering. The serenity he displayed might look like that of the accomplished Stoic on the surface, but it sprang from the certainty of unity with all fellow humans, not willful separation from them.

On page 302, you write:

The modern rediscovery of Meister Eckhart began chiefly as a response to Enlightenment rationalism. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, many German intellectuals sought a new philosophy that would approach the great truths of human existence with a combination of reason and feeling, or sensibility. … A mystical quest for life’s fulfillment was still possible in the modem world, Novalis averred, but first one had to overcome the legacy of the Enlightenment, which had “branded as heretical all imagination and feeling, placed man with difficulty at the top of the order of natural being, and turned the infinite creative music of the universe into the monotonous clattering of a gigantic mill.”

The “monotonous clattering of a gigantic mill”: what a great metaphor. (I realize it is Novalis’s, not yours.)

Page 320:

Eckhart’s third valuable insight for current spiritual seekers of all varieties involves the consequences of what he calls human divinization. In essence, Eckhart cracked the active/contemplative conundrum of Christianity for laypeople long before Protestant or other modern attempts. Going deep within oneself and reaching out to the world in service were two sides of the same coin for him, not an either/or choice. Without a profound appreciation of what he called the divine unity of existence, good works easily lend themselves to a transactional, commercial way of thinking about salvation. Without participation in the world, the supposedly enlightened person risks slipping into solipsistic selfishness-a state Eckhart compares to a tree that never bears fruit. The just person who has truly experienced the divine birth, the direct intuitive encounter with the unity of existence, does not withdraw from society, free from any obligation toward other human beings. Instead, experiencing God means becoming one with God and thus acting as God does–by which Eckhart means living an active life of love and service with­out a why, or any thought of justification or compensation. Acts of personal kindness or contributions to social justice are not means to spiritual enlight­enment or salvation but natural effects of the inward experience preached by Meister Eckhart (and many other religious figures). Again, the master describes a holistic approach to the good life, where the perceived divisions between the self and the world, between the individual person and others, dissolve.

In my humble opinion, this paragraph exhibits an ability on the author’s (your) part to explicate, go deeper, make things clear; draw out implications. That’s what a reader wants, but does not often get, in scholarly works/exegeses.

The torments you describe medieval religious women undergoing on page 202. were incredible. I can’t think of a better word — what I mean is that they give one a feeling for the strangeness if not weirdness of the times, the intense piety and practices that seem so strange if not disturbing:

…. extreme practices and dramatic successes inspired both wonder and individualistic competition. Most accounts of famous religious women accordingly emphasized that the awe-inspiring feats described should not be attempted by readers. A century earlier, for instance, Christina of Saint-Trond (aka Christina the Astonishing; 1150-1224) had become famous for whirling like a Sufi dervish when in divine ecstasy, then climbing (some witnesses said levitating) up to church rafters, roofs, and nearby trees. The theologian Jacques de Vitry described how the holy woman tried to replicate the torments of the damned in hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water (and suffering no visible injuries), having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on the gallows, or lying in open graves. In Eckhart’s day, the Premonstratensian nun Christina of Hane died at the age of twenty-three after subjecting her sexual organs to such extreme tortures that even her pious biographer blanched. Another contemporary, Christina of Stommeln (1242-1312), allegedly suffered many years of diabolical torment in response to her own acts of self-mortification, ranging from being physically tom apart at night by demons (and reassembled in the morning by angels) to dodging the flying excrement thrown at her and her visitors by the same evil spirits. …

On page 312, you wrote: “Appropriation of this latest nature is an inherent risk to every public thinker, although Eckhart seems to have endured more than his fair share of diverse interpretations and applications over the years.

I was wondering, was “latest” a typo? Was latent intended?

On page 288, there is the following sentence: “There is no apparent order to the excerpts, which to the contrary often repeat or return to earlier subjects in the list.” Shouldn’t it be on the contrary?

 

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August 21, 2020

 

Dear Roger (if I may),

Thank you for your very thoughtful (and thorough!) reading, and for all of your generous words.  I can’t tell you how much it means to this author to hear from such a careful and perceptive reader.  Like you, I find Eckhart occasionally perplexing but still a genuine and honest seeker.  I am so grateful that you found my book useful in that respect.  And thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful reflection.

Yours sincerely,

Joel F. Harrington
Centennial Professor of History
Vanderbilt University

an intellectual adventure

 

“My father never judged people by what they wore, how much they earned or what school they attended. He wanted to know if someone was an intellectual. By that, he meant someone who read books and thought about ideas. That was his kind of person.”

— Judith Colp Rubin, eulogy for Ralph Colp Jr., MD, November 2008

 

i In my first two brief therapy sessions with Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. at Columbia University, he asked me some standard questions for a psychiatric interview and I shared with him in general some of the problems and anxieties I was having, such as feelings of frustration in dating and romantic relationships and with my job.

In our third session, I said something which I can’t recall precisely — something along the lines of I am not just a bored, frustrated office worker living a life of quiet desperation; I have a rich intellectual life.

“Tell me about them,” he said. (I seen to recall that I had mentioned books.)

I told Dr. Colp that I was reading Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection and — as has been the case with me through my life; there are books that come along, so to speak, that overwhelm me — about how Resurrection overwhelmed me on so many levels: the story, the writing; the underlying moral and human questions addressed. I think I said something to him about how I had always thought that I would be likely to prefer Dostoevsky (whom I had already read) to Tolstoy, and here I was bowing at the altar of Tolstoy.

As was usual, Dr. Colp did not say all that much. But he was never a passive listener, never cold, bored, or indifferent (He was simply reserved and very thoughtful.) I could tell that this “disclosure” by me had him thoroughly engaged and was giving him a truer picture and appreciation of me. It was another level for us to connect deeply on: the intellectual or “thought” sphere.

A few sessions later, I said something to Dr. Colp that I knew he appreciated very much as feedback. I could see and sense it. I told him, “I can feel the interest [in me, his as a therapist] on your part. That in itself, that alone, is therapeutic.”

 

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Dr. Colp’s whole life was that of an intellectual. I realize now, at this stage of my life, that this is now, and has always been, true of me. It has given my life meaning and purpose, and whatever achievements or value it has involved or amounted to.

At some point, much later, I told Dr. Colp that I had been reading Samuel Johnson’s essays and that they were a revelation for me: the depth of penetrating insight, the practical wisdom that one could take away from them. (Dr. Colp once complimented me with having the gift of “rapid insight.”)

Dr. Colp belonged to a reading group. He told me that my comments about Johnson were illuminating. He said that a man in his reading group had once said, “The only reason that Johnson is of any interest is the book Boswell wrote about him.”

I told Dr. Colp that (I had already read Boswell’s biography, about which I had talked at length with Dr. Colp) Johnson’s own writings assuredly were well worth reading.

“I guess he was wrong,” Dr. Colp said of the past remark. He always welcomed the opportunity to learn something new.

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I told Dr. Colp once, ruefully, that I had bought quite a few expensive books, including multivolume sets of the works of writers such as Whitman and Parkman. (And a multivolume set: The British Empire Before the American Revolution by Lawrence Henry Gipson, which I still have not gotten around to reading. Dr. Colp told me that he had been told that it was a great read). I felt rueful because I had “overbought” and would probably never be getting around to reading most of the books. My appetite was bigger than what I could consume.

“You’ll get around to reading them,” Dr. Colp said emphatically. I wondered if that was true, but I felt better about my indulgences.

 

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Right now, I am having a sort of intellectual adventure. I love to map out such intellectual endeavors for myself, and then try to follow through on them. I am reading Samuel Johnson’s works in the Yale Edition. They are splendid books, superbly edited and annotated, and beautifully produced. There are twenty-three volumes, of which I own all but two.

I probably won’t read them all. I have already read, in their entirety or in part, Johnson’s Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, many of the essays (which are a must), a portion of his Lives of the Poets, and other miscellaneous writings by Johnson.

Johnson is, I would suspect, not in fashion nowadays, and his style is often said to be dated. His political views would probably be regarded as retrograde. He has typically been portrayed as a stodgy Tory conservative, if not an arch-conservative. This is simplistic and amounts to making Johnson a caricature (as Boswell has been accused of having done.) Books such as Donald Greene’s The Politics of Samuel Johnson (which I have read) demonstrate this. I think it is more accurate to say that Johnson was a contrarian who hated political cant and what today might be called liberal smugness.

 

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So why go through this self-appointed intellectual task, this “journey” of plowing through Johnson’s works? Because there is so much to be learned — so much that I am learning as we speak — from him, both from his writings, the excellence of which I can only hope to emulate; and his deep thoughts, which cause me, in the words of Charles Darwin (Dr. Colp’s alter ego), to “think energetically.”

The other books can wait.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

“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.

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

Roger W. Smith, “my treasured books”

 

An acquaintance asked me the other day what were some of my favorite, most treasured books. This spurred me on to make an “inventory,” as it were.

What follows is by no means a complete list, but, for my own sake, as a follow up to my friend’s query, I took a look at my bookshelves.

 

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

 

Alexander Gilchrist, “Life of William Blake”; 2 volumes (1880). My parents bought me a beautiful reprint edition of this work as a birthday present in 1972. It cost $35 then, which seemed expensive.

Adrian Van Sinderen, “Blake: The Mystic Genius” (1949). My friend John Ferris bought this book in a used bookstore in the 1960’s. I had a keen desire to own my own copy, but could never find one. Then, a few years ago, I finally found an inexpensive copy in the Strand Bookstore.

Blake, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” (Orion Press) with Blake’s original illustrations (plates). This is a gorgeous edition; the printing and colors are fantastic. It doesn’t seem to be available anymore. I bought it in 1968, just published, in a bookstore in Copley Square for $18. That seemed expensive then.

Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” A beautiful illustrated edition with introduction and commentary by Sir Geoffrey Keynes, published by Oxford University Press; purchased at the Strand Bookstore for $15.00.

Blake, “Poetical Sketches.” A slender facsimile edition, published in 1927, in good condition. I bought it for $7.50.

“William Blake: Poet, Printer, Prophet” by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Orion Press, 1964); priced at $15.00.

“William Blake’s Illustrations to the Grave.” A fragile oversized paperback which I bought in the 1970’s that I have had trouble finding shelf space for and which I am almost afraid to handle. It was not expensive and has marvelous monochrome illustrations.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., “Innocence and Experience.” Criticism on William Blake, published in the 1960’s; one of the best and most interesting works of criticism I have read. I bought this book in paperback in 1968 when a senior in college. I lost it on a streetcar in Boston. I managed to find a hardcover edition in the Strand Bookstore a little while later. It cost me $3.50.

Horace Traubel, “With Walt Whitman in Camden.” I have eight of the nine volumes that exist; six of these nine volumes were published posthumously. (I have read all nine.) I believe I have one of the most complete sets that any person or institution, including libraries, has. I have been unable to find and purchase Volume 4.

Walt Whitman, the complete correspondence; seven volumes. I had a very hard time finding a couple of the earlier volumes to complete my collection, but finally succeeded in obtaining them.

“Walt Whitman’s Blue Book.” A facsimile edition of “Leaves of Grass” with Whitman’s own edits in his handwriting (with tipped in pages, very costly from a book production standpoint). This exquisite two volume book, published in the 1960’s, is very hard to find now. A priceless book with excellent commentary and textual material. On the Internet, there are a couple of editions available priced at around $300. I recently got it at the Strand Bookstore for $90, which I considered a steal.

“The Diary of Samuel Sewall.” A Capricorn Giant paperback priced at $1.95.

Herman Melville. “Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile.” Hardcover published in Boston in 1925; in excellent condition; bought used for $5.

Herman Melville. “Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile.” Paperback published by Sagamore Press in the American Century Series, with an introduction by Lewis Leary; bought used for 75 cents.

Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”; Modern Library edition.

Theodore Dreiser, “An American Tragedy.” A first edition (two volumes) given to me by a friend whom I was visiting in Paris. The gift took me totally by surprise.

“A Sister Carrie Portfolio” by James L. W. West III (University Press of Virginia, 1985).

Floyd Dell, “Moon-Calf.” A Sagamore Press paperback in the American Century Series, published in 1957.

Walter Duranty, “The Curious Lottery and Other Tales of Russian Justice” (1929) in a reprint edition.

Langston Hughes, “The Big Sea” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” Two fine paperback editions published by Hill and Wang; priced at $12.95 and $14.00, respectively.

The complete O’Neill-O’Flaherty novels (five books) by James T Farrell, published by the University of Illinois Press in fine paperback editions.

Djuna Barnes, “Nightwood,” in hardback.

Henry Miller, “The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud”; a New Directions paperback, priced at $1.40, which I bought in the 1960’s.

Henry Miller, “Letters to Emil,” edited by George Wickes. A New Directions paperback priced at $12.95.

Alfred Perles, “My Friend Henry Miller” (1956). A rare book.

The novels of Richard Yates in fine Vintage paperback editions.

Charles Pierre, “Green Vistas” (Northpoint Press, 1981). A book of poems by a former friend who gave me two copies of the book upon publication.

Samuel Johnson, the complete essays, three volumes; published by Yale University Press.

“Johnsonian Gleanings,” 11 volumes. A collection of biographical miscellanies about Samuel Johnson. Hard to come by. I purchased it over the Internet at a very reasonable price.

Samuel Johnson, “The Lives of the Poets”; 3 volumes. I have been intending to read this work, but tried it recently and found it hard going. Still, I am very glad to own it. A new edition was published recently for something like $300. I got this edition, a very good one published in the 1960’s by Octagon Press, from the Strand Bookstore recently for around $60.

Penguin paperbacks of Shakespeare’s plays, published in the 1960’s. They cost 65 cents back then.

Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” in a Folger Library edition (Washington Square Press); priced at 35 cents. I have three or four Folger Library paperbacks of Shakespeare. I treasure them, love the cover art.

Daniel Defoe, “A Journal of the Plague Year.” A Signet Classic paperback from my high school days that was priced at 50 cents.

William Wordsworth, “The Prelude or Growth of a Poet’s Mind” (text of 1805). Bought used in hardback; published by Oxford University Press.

Charles Dickens, “David Copperfield.” A nice edition with big print that was reasonably priced. I bought it in the early 1980’s in a now defunct bookstore on the Upper East Side, where I was living at the time. (I hate small print.)

Edgar Johnson, “Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph.” A two-volume biography that I bought in a Manhattan used bookstore for something like $3, in perfect condition.

Novels of George Gissing. Victorian novelist who should be better known. I have about eight or so of his novels in Harvest Press quality paperback editions which I treasure; they were hard to find and relatively expensive. I bought them one by one via the Internet.

Robert Louis Stevenson, “Treasure Island” (Everyman’s Library paperback); priced at $1.95.

D. H. Lawrence, “Sons and Lovers.” Modern Library edition from my college days.

W. Somerset Maugham, “Cakes and Ale.” A Penguin paperback priced at $9.95.

Malcolm Muggeridge, “Winter in Moscow” (1934).

“Lyrics of the French Renaissance.” A beautiful bilingual edition published by Yale University Press that I purchased recently.

George Orwell, “A Collection of Essays.” A Doubleday Anchor Book priced at $1.45. It was required in my freshman composition course.

Arthurian Legends by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline. From the 12th century. I have all five of the paperback books of Chrétien’s poems in Cline’s magnificent translations.

Marcel Proust, “Jean Santeuil.” A precursor novel to “Remembrance of Things Past.” I got this real nice edition (English translation) in some used bookstore in Manhattan. I haven’t read it in its entirety, but am very glad to own it.

Marcel Proust, “Pleasures and Regrets.” Picked up by me in a used bookstore.

Marcel Proust, “On Reading.”

“Platero and I.” An old battered 1960’s paperback of mine of this prose poem by the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jiménez, translated by William H. and Mary M. Roberts. The best translation, I believe; hard to come by now.

Francisco Garfias, “Juan Ramon Jiménez.” A biography in Spanish. I bought it in a Latin American bookstore in Manhattan in the mid-1970’s for $2.75.

Knut Hamsun, “On Overgrown Paths.” Picked up by me in a used bookstore.

“Poems of The Elder Edda” (University of Pennsylvania Press). Old Norse poetry in splendid translations.

Tolstoy, “War and Peace,” unabridged, 4 volumes, in Russian. I bought it in The Four Continents Bookstore, a Russian bookstore on lower Fifth Avenue. At that time, Soviet books were cheap.

Tolstoy, “Resurrection.” In Russian. One of my all time favorite novels. Also bought at the Four Continents Bookstore.

Tolstoy, “Master and Man and Other Parables and Tales” (Everyman’s Library). A friend borrowed this book from me and carried it around for a few days, ruining the dust jacket, which annoyed me considerably.

“Leo Tolstoy,” introduction by Michel-R. Hofmann. An album published as a slim volume in 1969 in Geneva and reissued in English translation. My younger brother gave me the book as a gift from his personal library.

Dostoyevsky, “Poor Folk and The Gambler” (Everyman’s Library).

Dostoyevsky, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” (Criterion Books, 1955), with a foreword by Saul Bellow. Bought at the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan for $5.00.

“Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary” (1974) by Simon Karlinsky. Bought at a discount at the Columbia University Bookstore. A book which absolutely engrossed me, both Chekhov and the editorial commentary.

Chekhov, “Late Blooming Flowers.” A novella in paperback. Made into a fine Soviet film.

Chekhov’s stories in Russian. Another cheap Soviet edition from the Four Continents Bookstore.

Pushkin, poetry in Russian. Ditto.

Walter Arndt, “Pushkin Threefold.” Published in the UK in 1972. I bought it at the Strand Bookstore for $4.95.

“Fables of Aesop,” edited by Joseph Jacobs (Mayflower Books, 1979). A little book which I bought at Scribner’s Bookstore in Manhattan for $2.98.

Peter Abelard, “The Story of My Misfortunes.” I consider myself lucky to own this fine hardcover book. I can’t recall where I bought it. It was probably at the Strand Bookstore. I first learned about Abelard in a medieval history course with the great Norman F. Cantor.

“The Gospel According to Thomas” (Harper & Row, 1959). I bought this Gnostic gospel in the Harper & Row bookstore on Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street using my employee discount.

Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D. “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible.” A treasured book with color illustrations that Mrs. Shedd, my Sunday School teacher in the sixth grade, introduced me to and which I have owned since boyhood.

“Meister Eckhart.” A collection of his writings in a translation by Raymond B. Blakney in a Harper & Row paperback; sadly, not read by me yet.

“The Journal of George Fox,” edited by Rufus M. Jones. Paperback published by Friends United Press.

Albert Schweitzer, “Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography.” Paperback priced at $12.95.

Dorothy Day, “The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography.” Paperback published by Harper & Row; priced at $7.95.

Aldous Huxley, “The Perennial Philosophy.” An ink stained paperback given to me by my friend Bill Dalzell, a printer. The book, which was sort of a Bible for my friend Bill, is a compendium of excerpts from the works of mystical writers.

Walter Ciszek, S.J. with Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J. “With God in Russia.” A paperback in the Image Books series of Doubleday; priced at $2.45. This book bowled me over; I couldn’t put it down.

Jean Paul Sartre, “Anti-Semite and Jew.” A hardback that I bought at Salter’s book store in the Columbia University neighborhood.

“The Hours of Etienne Chevalier” by Jean Fouquet.” A gorgeous art book. One doesn’t seem to be able to find it anymore. I bought it as a Christmas present for my mother in the early 1970’s for the price of around twelve of thirteen dollars, which seemed expensive to me then.

Halsey Stevens, “The Life and Music of Bela Bartók.” A paperback which I purchased in the 1980’s for $4.50 and enjoyed reading very much.

“Little Pictures of Japan” (1925) and “Nursery Friends From France” (1927). Two treasured children’s books, inherited from my parents’ collection; edited by Olive Beaupré Miller.

Anna Sewall, “Black Beauty.” A nice Grosset & Dunlap edition.

“Medieval History” by my former professor Norman F. Cantor.

“Feudalism” by F. L. Ganshoff. A college history book of mine; priced at $1.65.

“The Making of the Middle Ages” by R. W. Southern; priced at $1.95.

“The Carolingian Empire” by Heinrich Fichtenau; priced at $1.45.

“The Barbarian West” by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill; priced at $1.25.

“The Historian’s Craft” by Marc Bloch. An old paperback of mine, a book I have read several times and underlined profusely.

Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “The Peasants of Languedoc.” An English translation in hardback, purchased by me in the early 1980’s when I was writing an article about the author. I consider myself fortunate to possess this interesting and innovative book.

A. J. P. Taylor, “English History 1914-1945” (Oxford University Press).

Cecil Woodham-Smith, “The Great Hunger.” This book was going out of print in the late 1970’s when I was employed by Harper & Row, its U.S. publisher. An Irish-American friend had recommended it to me. We had an employee discount of fifty percent on books in the Harper & Row bookstore. I was about to buy “The Great Hunger” and went to the register to pay, but the sales lady in charge would not sell it to me. She said this was because they had only three copies left in stock. I was always casing out books in the store during lunch hours, and this woman did not seem to like me. I was very disappointed, but was able to buy the book later when it went back into print.

Francis Parkman, the complete works (13 volumes). The set was published by Little, Brown, and Company in 1903, Beautiful books in splendid condition. I bought this set at Argosy Books on East 59th Street in Manhattan. Marcia at Argosy Books, who knew I loved Parkman, made a point of contacting me about the set when it became available. The price was $200, expensive for me in the 1980’s. She lowered it to $175 because she said she wanted me to have the set.

“The Education of Henry Adams.” A Sentry Edition paperback priced at $2.45.

“The Oxford History of the American People” by Samuel Eliot Morison. Given to me as a Christmas gift by my older brother and his wife. On the inside cover, they wrote an inscription to me: “To the effervescent pedant.”

“Builders of the Bay Colony” by Samuel Eliot Morison. A beautiful paperback edition (Sentry Edition). Mine got ruined, the cover torn. I was able to obtain a replacement edition over the Internet.

Perry Miller, “Errand Into the Wilderness.” Purchased for a colonial history course that I took with David Hackett Fischer; priced at $1.60. A Harper Torchbooks paperback.

Edmund S. Morgan, “Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea.” A paperback from my college days; priced at $1.45.

Edmund S. Morgan,” The Puritan Family.” A Harper Torchbooks paperback; priced at $1.95.

David Hackett Fischer (my former history professor), “Albion’s Seed.”

David Hackett Fischer, “Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.”

Richard C. Wade, “The Urban Frontier: Pioneer Life in Early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and St. Louis” (1959). A Phoenix Books paperback published by the University of Chicago Press which I purchased in college; priced at $2.45.

Lewis Henry Morgan, “League of the Iroquois.” First published in 1851 and republished in paperback in 1962. I consider myself very fortunate to have this book in the paperback edition, which retains the original illustrations. It was priced at $8.95.

E. Douglas Branch, “The Hunting of the Buffalo.” A Bison Book paperback published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Pitirim A. Sorokin, “A Long Journey.” Autobiography of the Russian-born Harvard sociologist who was one of my early heroes.

Pitirim A. Sorokin, “Leaves from a Russian Diary.” About Sorokin’s experiences during the Russian Revolution. A book I couldn’t put down.

Pitirim A. Sorokin, “Social and Cultural Mobility.” A big quality paperback, priced at $2.95; long out of print.

Pitirim A. Sorokin, “Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs.” A posthumously published book that is hard to find. I have never liked Barnes & Noble, but I found this book in the Barnes & Noble store on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, priced at $10. A book I treasure.

Jane Jacobs, “The Life and Death of Great American Cities.” A Vintage Book paperback priced at $8.95.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie, “An African in Greenland” (1983). A cheap paperback edition; priced at $4.95.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, “Greenland: (Doubleday Doran & Company, 1944). Bought used by me in excellent condition for $6.

Farley Mowat, “People of the Deer.” I read this book avidly, then lent it foolishly to a woman I was trying to get to know better; she never returned it. I was able to eventually obtain a replacement copy priced at $13.95. The book is about Mowat’s experiences living with Inuit people in 1946-47.

Paul Bergman with Henry Fitts, “I Begged for Bread in Russia: An Autobiography” (1976). I found this book by serendipity in a barn like used bookstore somewhere in New England. It was priced at $1.95. The book held my interest.

Jeffrey Tayler, “Siberian Dawn: A Journey across the New Russia” (1999). A paperback priced at $16.00. One of the best travel books I have ever read.

Thomas S. Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” A paperback which I purchased in college for $1.50. Kuhn’s theories are said by some critics to have not stood the test of time.

Ralph Colp, Jr., M.D., “To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin.” I think this book is better than the sequel (see below).

Ralph Colp, Jr., M.D., “Darwin’s Illness.”

“The Fireside Book of Baseball” and “The Second Fireside Book of Baseball.” From the 1950’s; gifts from my parents. Books that I devoured in my preadolescent years.

“The Long Season” by Jim Brosnan. A book that Brosnan, a Major League pitcher, actually wrote himself. I have an old battered paperback copy from the 1960’s, which I treasure. It was priced at 50 cents.

Peter Gammons, “Beyond the Sixth Game” (1985). I finally found this book in paperback (price, $5.95) after a long hunt. It had already gone out of print, but a bookstore in Manhattan still had a copy on their shelves. It’s mainly about the Boston Red Sox, but it also provides illuminating coverage of changes that were occurring in the game in the 1980’s.

John Thorn, “Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game” (2011). My younger brother gave me this book as a birthday gift, lifting me out of a temporary state of depression during which I hadn’t been reading at all.

“Official Major League Fact Book, 1998 Edition.” Published by The Sporting News, this book turned out to be very useful. It is crammed with historical facts about teams and players. It was priced at $19.95.

“An Encyclopedia of World History” by William Langer. Given to me as a gift by neighbors in Canton, Massachusetts upon my graduation from high school.

“Words into Type.” The all time greatest style manual by far. Leaves “The Chicago Manual of Style” far in its rear. I bought this book in the mid-1970’s, for about twelve dollars, on the recommendation of a publishing executive, an editor at Doubleday, who was teaching an adult education course on editing which I took at Hunter College. It is an indispensable book.

William Zinsser, “On Writing Well,” Second Edition. I wrote advertising copy for this book while working at Harper & Row, Publishers in the 1970’s.

Bill Walsh, “Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print — and How to Avoid Them.” A very cleverly written style guide by the Copy Desk Chief on the Washington Post Business Desk. My older brother, who was living in a Washington suburb, gave me the book as a gift. Otherwise, I would have never heard of it.

“Webster’s New World Dictionary.” The best, in my opinion. I have used it long (since the late 1960’s) and have purchased several editions, with previous ones becoming worn out from use. With it, one does not need an unabridged dictionary.

“Webster’s Biographical Dictionary.” Given to me as a going away present by my boss, a dean at Columbia University.

“Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary.”

“The Oxford Russian-English Dictionary.”

The Learner’s Russian-English and English-Russian Dictionaries (two volumes in paperback; MIT Press). Purchased at the Columbia University Bookstore.

Amsco’s French Dictionary. An inexpensive paperback dictionary for use in schools that I have found very useful and that has become worn from use. I have found that, for my purposes, it supersedes other French-English, English-French dictionaries that I have owned or consulted in the past.

Mario Pei, “The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages.” Published in 1976.

“Soviet Prison Camp Speech.” A bilingual glossary of Russian words and phrases, many obscene, used in novels such as those of Solzhenitsyn. I purchased this unusual book at the Strand Bookstore. It’s a fun book to browse.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    February 2016

“My Early Reading”

 

My mother always loved to read and had great taste in literature.

She told me that she read avidly as a child. She was a voracious reader.

She loved Little Women, a classic and a real girl’s book. She was very affected by the scene where the girl character Beth dies.

Another book that my mother particularly liked when she was growing up was The Swiss Family Robinson. It’s a story about a shipwrecked family on an island that has to start life all over again. It was first published in German in 1812 and was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.

I believe that my mother also loved Heidi.

 

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My mother’s all time favorite novel, she told me, was All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I have the book but have never gotten around to reading it myself. I did skim a copy which my mother had. There was a striking sex scene a couple of pages long that was not that explicit but which I found interesting at the time when I read it. In it, a woman goes upstairs in a house and initiates sex with a man. She says to him, ‘I came up.” He has trouble getting her dress off, unloosening the hooks.

There was good literature on my mother and father’s bookshelf in the living room, most of it my mother’s. There were also excellent art history books that my mother had.

One of my mother’s books was a paperback anthology entitled New World Writing, a sort of literary magazine in book form. It was a compilation of short pieces representing the best new literature from the previous calendar year. I used to think, what is that book about? It was of interest to my mother.

One book on my parents’ bookshelf was the Modern Library edition of War and Peace in the translation by Constance Garnett. My father told me that he had read it in its entirety during a summer which he and my mother spent at Lake George in the 1940’s.

There was another book I recall on the living room bookshelf, a collection of short stories by Erskine Caldwell, a Southern writer who wrote about plain, simple people. He had a very simple, down to earth style. I read one of the stories, “A Swell Looking Girl.” To put it succinctly, it shocked me (which does not mean that I thought it was necessarily a bad piece of fiction).

It’s a very simple story about a young man in a town somewhere in the South who has just gotten married. He is very proud of his young bride and wants to show her off to his male neighbors. So he has her come out on the porch and then (eventually) lifts up her dress. She is nude underneath and completely exposed. The men all say “that sure is some swell looking girl” and gradually leave. That’s the whole story.

The story seemed remarkable to me because of the thought of complete female nudity in the open. It was kind of understated the way it was written, but very daring.

Another book on my parents’ bookshelf was James Joyce’s Ulysses, in the Modern Library edition. I was intrigued by it without reading it (which would have been quite difficult for me then; it still is now). I asked my mother and father about it once at the dinner table. I doubt they had read much of it, but they did explain to me the use by Joyce of stream of consciousness. This interested, intrigued me very much.

Later, when I was in high school, my church youth group, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), had a conference in which one of the workshops was on sexuality. In the flyer for the conference, in the place where there would be a description of the workshop, instead of a description of the workshop per se, they simply quoted the famous concluding words of Ulysses:

…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

This caused quite a stir. Some adults were alarmed. They already thought that these LRY conferences, with adolescents staying together away from home at a conference site with little or no supervision, were a de facto invitation to licentiousness.

My reaction to the Ulysses quote in the flyer was that this was powerful writing of a high order that impressed me. It did not arouse prurient feelings in me.

 

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There was a book on child development on their (Mom and Dad’s) bookshelf by an eminent child psychologist, I think it was Gesell.

I enjoyed skimming it. I liked to see what was expected of normal development in my age group. In the various chapters, there would be various lists, for example, common activities for a given age group.

When I was age 12, I looked at the appropriate chapter and noted an item: For boys that age, a common activity was playing baseball with oneself. I had been doing precisely that. At that age, I used to go into our front yard with a plastic bat and whiffle ball and hit the ball, tossing it out of my hand. I had made up a fantasy team with a fantasy lineup and I would announce — I can’t recall whether it was out loud or as a silent sort of interior monologue — the progress of the “game” as I took my swings. As noted, I had made up a fantasy team, but I think it included myself as one of the players. But I didn’t want to inflate my “role.” I pretended I was a shortstop with modest but decent power and a fair batting average.

 

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In my late high school years, I read Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts — which I found in my father’s room. I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.

The reason I kept the book in my room is that I liked Henry Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts. There were lots of them; they were quite explicit and erotic. They were well written, amusing, and fun. Soon I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I enjoyed the sex scenes on two levels, for their explicit erotic content and for the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but never finished it.

Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer Tropic of Capricorn. It is a basically autobiographical novel taking you from a point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller, who has become liberated, gives up the conventional life and leaves for Paris. The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum.

I kept reading Miller and spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college, neglecting my studies, and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I read the first two books of the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion, Sexus and  Plexus, and enjoyed them greatly.

Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and  Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But, as I have said, I liked them. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a more healthy appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism plus damned good writing.

I went on to read other works of Miller that did not have sexual content (including nonfiction) and got a real feeling for his range and scope (and an appreciation for his intellect, to an extent).

In the second semester of my senior year, I was shopping around to take some independent study English courses. (I needed some extra courses to graduate.) You had to get a professor to accept you and approve the course. I took Readings in D. H. Lawrence, a horrible course with a Professor Swiggart, and Readings in Henry Miller with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch.

Sacvan Berkovitch was a young, brilliant, up and coming, chain smoking American Studies professor who later migrated to Harvard. I had taken a survey course in American lit with him which I don’t recall much of. I do remember that we read Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. We were assigned The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. It was long and I couldn’t bring myself to read it.

Anyway, to get back to the Readings in Henry Miller course, two of my roommates at Brandeis decided that they wanted to take the course too. We had exactly one meeting with Professor Berkovitch, who was a nice guy, near the end of the semester, and that was the course. He could see from the discussion that we had some knowledge of Miller’s development and were seriously interested in him, and he said we could forgo writing a paper, which, per the norm, was required in independent study courses. He gave all three of us a grade of B.

I have a whole collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle, but find it hard now to get back into him. I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of his early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages.

Another erotic book that I eventually became acquainted with was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I knew of the book but hadn’t read it until my senior year in high school. That year I attended a Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) conference in some nearby town in Massachusetts and was staying over the weekend in someone’s house. There was a paperback copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover in my room and, during downtime on a Sunday morning, I read some of it.

I grew to like and admire D. H. Lawrence, but I like several of his other novels a lot more than Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Nevertheless, when I first read it (parts of it, that is, the “good parts”), I was favorably impressed. It was my first exposure to Lawrence. And, some of the sexual language and sexual descriptions were new to me. It gave me a desire for sex and got me thinking about it in more explicit terms. Yet, I knew it was not just a “dirty book.”

 

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Some comments about children’s and young adult literature, from my experience.

My exposure to such literature was through my mother. She had such good taste and read to me a lot. She chose splendid books for us. It was such a pleasure to be read to (in bed) by her because she enjoyed it so much herself, and, of course, my Mom was so warm and nurturing anyway.

How did she find the time to read to me? (It was always to me alone.)

One of our first books was Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. When The House at Pooh Corner, a sequel, came out, my mom was delighted and read that to me too. How I loved the nonsense rhymes of Pooh, the idiosyncracies of characters like Piglet and Eyore, and funny touches like the character who had a sign on his door, “knock if an answer is required, ring if an answer is not required.” My mother and I used to laugh out loud. I had such a warm and fuzzy feeling when she was reading to me.

 

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We had several wonderful books compiled by the children’s book editor Olive Beaupré Miller. These included a multi volume set, My Book House, and the book Nursery Friends from France. I especially liked the latter book, which my mother took great pleasure in reading to us from. It had wonderful color illustrations. It was a compilation of songs, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales.

 

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“Nursery Friends from France”

 

We had The Arabian Nights in a nice edition (which I still have). I particularly liked the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp.

In the second or third grade, I decided I wanted to read a real book. My parents had one on their bookshelf: The Flying Carpet by Richard Haliburton. It was a popular book by an aviator who flew around the world in the 1930’s. I “read” the whole book through, every page, but I did not (was incapable) understand it. But I was very proud to say that I had “read” a book.

There was a novel about gypsies that I read at that time. All throughout, I didn’t know what the word “gypsies” meant and couldn’t pronounce it.

The Book of Knowledge was an excellent encyclopedia for children. My father and mother bought a complete set from an encyclopedia salesman in around 1953. They were excited when the books arrived and I recall them opening the boxes. The encyclopedia had the usual articles and also literature. There was a story in it, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, that I loved. It made such an impression on me. It was so touching.

When I was around eight years old, I asked my father to explain baseball to me. He said, well, we have this new encyclopedia, that’s what we bought it for, so let’s do it the proper way. He turned to the article on baseball in The Book of Knowledge and began to explain the game to me. I recall that were diagrams showing the layout of the field and the positions. He might have explained the principle behind a force play, to give an example.

It was in the Agassiz School in Cambridge that I really began to read for myself, a lot. I loved being able to do it.

We were encouraged to read. In the front of the room, there was some kind of display on the top of the wall in colored paper which involved Indian headdresses and feathers. Kids’ names were on each headdress and you got another feather each time you completed a book. I was the leader. Most of the books I read, as I recall, were in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. They were popular biographies written especially for children that focused on the formative childhood years of the subjects. I loved those books. I recall reading the ones about Davy Crockett, Meriwether Lewis, Johnny Wanamaker, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth, among others. I remember anecdotes about Lou Gehrig growing up in Yorkville in Manhattan and fighting a neighborhood bully and about Babe Ruth (called George as a youth) attending the Christian Brothers school where Brother Matthias encouraged him in baseball; I seem to recall that Ruth as a a schoolboy had the difficult task of playing catcher as a lefthander for a spell.

At a fairly early age, I read the classic Black Beauty (originally published in 1877) by Anna Sewell. This book made a very strong impression me. Not long ago, as an adult, I purchased it as an audiobook and “read” it again. It is very well written.

The story is told in the first person by the horse, Black Beauty, who is the narrator. The novel recounts the story of Black Beauty’s life as it is experienced under a succession of different owners, or “masters.” Some of the owners are cruel.

All I recall from reading the book as a child, the impression the book made on me then was that Black Beauty’s life was one of unremitting misery: an unending progression from one cruel master to another, with the course of the horse’s life leading to an inevitable decline. This characterization is true of a lot of the plot, but not all of it, as it turns out. When I first read the book, though I was greatly impressed by it, it seemed to me unbearably sad and gloomy. That it undeniably is, in places, in the sections where the horse is overworked and mistreated. But why did this impression predominate with me? I think because that view of Black Beauty’s life jibed with my view of own life as a sad one in which I was often mistreated. The scenes in the book of this nature were the ones that stuck in my mind.

Much to my surprise, I discovered, when I listened to the audiobook later, as an adult, that the novel actually ends happily, with Black Beauty in good circumstances, and that in other sections of the book, Black Beauty does have good masters (in contrast to many sections of the book in which the horse is cruelly mistreated).

I started visiting the Cambridge Public Library children’s room when I was very young. My mother and father were very liberal about giving us independence and let me walk there myself after a certain age. It was sort of a long walk. I loved being able to find and take out my own books.

At the library at around this time (fifth grade), I borrowed a science fiction book the title of which I do not remember. The story was about people who were involved in time travel. There were two main parts to the book. In the first, the main character or characters traveled back in time to the Stone Age. They encountered two hostile groups, the Cro-Magnons and the Neandertals. The time traveler(s) were befriended by the wise Cro-Magnons, who helped them to escape perils. In the second part of the book, the time traveler(s) went forward in time, in a rocket ship, overcoming things like aging with the aid of Einsteinian physics. I was totally engrossed in this young adult novel.

I also read a Tarzan book by Edgar Rice Burroughs (probably Tarzan and the City of Gold) — I think it was in the sixth grade. It involved a tribe of African warrior women who took men (or threatened to) as prisoners in their fortress. There was something titillating about this to me. Imagine being in the hands and under the power of an exotic woman!

There was a popular, respected series of history books for young readers, the Landmark Books. In the sixth grade, I read the one on Benjamin Franklin and loved it. Around that time, the animated Disney film Ben and Me, which I liked, was popular.

In the sixth grade, I read my first classic work of fiction, Oliver Twist. I can date this because I recall we were still living in Cambridge at the time. I don’t believe I finished it.

There is a key section in the novel where Oliver Twist, who had been forced to join the arch villain Fagin and his gang of boy pickpockets, escapes. He is taken in in a house where he is comfortable and protected. But then he looks out the window one day and there is Fagin peering in at him. Fagin has found out where Oliver is and gets him back. This scene really scared me.

Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks with a Circus, is a wonderful novel by James Otis. I read it when I was around 11 or 12. Toby runs away to join the circus. At the end of the book, his pet monkey, Mr. Stubbs, dies. It was such an incredibly sad scene. How it moved me!

Around this time (sixth grade), I had thoughts about becoming a forest ranger. I was a fan of Smokey the Bear. I think, in retrospect, that I may have been attracted to the career of forest ranger because I was a bit of a loner and the idea of a career with a lot of solitude appealed to me. Anyway, my parents gave me as a gift a young adult book about forest ranger careers.

 

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Also at this time, when we were still living in Cambridge, my parents gave me as a gift The Fireside Book of Baseball, an anthology, and later they gave me The Second Fireside Book of Baseball. I still have these books and treasure them.

These two anthologies were full of great baseball writing, from journalism to fiction. There was work by outstanding sportswriters, like W. C. Heinz’s “The Strange Career of Pistol Pete,” about Dodger outfielder Pete Reiser whose brilliant career ended abruptly due to injuries. There was a spellbinding story by Zane Grey, “The Redheaded Outfield,” which is lyrical and poetic.

There were wonderful photographs. One, for example, showed second basemen Bobby Avila and Red Schoendienst completing  double plays. Scheondienst is leaping over the runner at second base and leaning on the runner’s shoulders, draped over him, as he makes the throw to first. The photo made such an impression on me that I tried to reenact the play with a friend.

 

 

Bobby Avila doubleplay

 

 

 

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There were great editorial cartoons. One, for example, by Willard Mullin of the New York World-Telegram, was about the “phantom double play.” There was a depiction of an infielder pirouetting around second base like a ballet dancer while making the throw to first and neglecting to put his foot on the bag. The caption read, “The double play is a thing of real beauty. …  Let’s not cheapen it with the phantom phonies.” See my post at

the phantom double play

I spent hours with the Fireside books and derived great pleasure from them.

When I was about 11, I started reading young adult sports fiction, mostly about baseball, though I do remember reading one about sandlot football players. The books would frequently have a moral. For example, I read one which concludes with the protagonist, in a key game, admitting to the umpire, who had called him safe, that he was really out. The protagonist gains in moral stature.

Around this time, I read a series of baseball books for young adults by Duane Decker, the Blue Sox series, about a fictional professional baseball team.

 

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I also read the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley and enjoyed them very much.

When I was around 12, we had a dog, Missy, a shepherd collie who had puppies and who died suddenly and tragically, devastating me; I was so devoted to her.

 

Missy ca. 1958

Missy

There was an excellent series of factual, how to books for young adults published by Random House, the All-About Books. I read the one on dogs, avidly and studiously. The different sections (topics) would always have a subsection: if you have a dog in the city. I wondered what that would be like.

There was a lot of material, as would be expected, on how to care for your dog. There was also a lot of information about the different breeds. I became expert at identifying them.

 

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Some additional items from my childhood and young adult reading.

“Little Black Sambo.” This is story which we took delight in that my Mom would read to us:

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, and first published by Grant Richards [who, by the way, was an editor for Theodore Dreiser] in October 1899 as one in a series of small-format books called The Dumpy Books for Children. The story was a children’s favorite for more than half a century though criticism began as early as 1932. The word sambo was deemed a racial slur in some countries and the illustrations considered reminiscent of “darky iconography.” Both text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision since. (Wikipedia)

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a simple, illustrated children’s story about a young Indian boy who outsmarts four tigers that threaten to eat him. After Sambo saves himself by giving each tiger an article of his gaudy outfit, the tigers argue among themselves over which of them is the grandest. Eventually, the tigers chase each other around a tree so fast that they simply blur into butter, which Sambo takes home and uses on 169 pancakes that his mother, Black Mumbo, makes for him. (from a plot summary on another website)

I recall there was something about pancakes. My mother liked pancakes. She often made them for us.

Uncle Wiggily was a series of children’s books by Howard R. Garris. My mom introduced us to them. I loved them.

Uncle Wiggily is an elderly, avuncular rabbit who wears spectacles, and there are a lot of other animal characters. The books are lighthearted and fun. The color illustrations were superb.

Make Way for Ducklings is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It was my  mother (you guessed it) who introduced us to the book. The story is about a duck family led by a mother duck that walks around Boston. They wind up at the Boston Common and ride on the swan boats. The plot is simple and charming; the black and white illustrations are superb (very realistic but simple and just right for children). The book won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for McCloskey’s illustrations.

The book was excellent in every respect, but what made it particularly enjoyable was that it was set in Boston and ends with the ducklings on the Boston Common. I used to love to go to the Boston Common and loved the swan boats.

Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff. My mother purchased Babar and read it to me numerous times. I was absolutely charmed by it. The color illustrations were wonderful. My Mom loved Babar too, naturally.

Dr. Seuss. These books were a kind of late discovery in my elementary school years. My mother introduced me to them, I believe. The ones I liked were The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Scrambled Eggs Super! Many of his most famous classics hadn’t come out yet.

 

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Some of my other favorite boyhood reading.

The short story “Alibi Ike” by Ring Lardner. It was in the Fireside Book of Baseball, which I have discussed above.

“Alibi Ike” is a gem of a story. I believe it is one of the best short stories ever written. It is told in the first person by an illiterate baseball player, one of Alibi Ike’s teammates. (Ring Lardner was a sports columnist.) The tone of the story is pitch perfect, and it has an irresistible narrative flow. It ends with the memorable words (spoken by Alibi Ike) “they claim it helps a cold.” (One has to read the story to know why this is a perfect ending.)

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote a short story that I modeled closely on “Alibi Ike,” writing in the same run-on narrative style. It was about a one armed pitcher. Our teacher let me read part of it to the class. They liked it.

Also in the anthology The Fireside Book of Baseball there was an excerpt from Mark Harris’s novel The Southpaw. It’s a baseball novel, written, as is “Alibi Ike,” in the first person. The narrator, Henry Wiggen, is a star rookie pitcher for the New York Mammoths, a team modeled on the Yankees. The narrative style, the prose, the rhythm and pacing are, again, infectious. Harris invents a whole team, and in an appendix there is a roster. There is a lot of humor. The first baseman on the fictional team, the Mammoths, is Sid Goldman (modeled on Hank Greenberg?), who is Jewish. The main character, Henry Wiggen, gets invited to the Goldman family home in the Bronx for dinner. He eats strange (for him) Jewish food such as what he calls “filter fish.”

There are two or three sequels that Harris wrote to The Southpaw. Recently, I tried to read one or two, but didn’t find them nearly as good.

 

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A final comment about reading. It goes without saying how pleasurable and profitable it can be. How you can do it anytime, anywhere at little expense. (I think that books at current prices are still a great bargain.) How great it is to curl up with a book and how it is something you can always resort to when you are lonely or can’t sleep.

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.

I am very appreciative that my parents established a sound foundation for enjoyment of reading. They communicated it naturally, like one might convey to one’s offspring an enthusiasm for sports. Reading was seldom a chore for me, and only then, infrequently, from assignments in school. Good literature was something I came to appreciate naturally, while at the same time feeling I could read whatever I liked. I was able to develop my own interests this way, like reading baseball books, for example. I developed highbrow tastes gradually, without being aware that I was doing so.

 

— Roger W. Smith,

   August 2015

 

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addendum

Not that I’m a literary snob, mind you. I also read all of Harold Robbins’s trashy novels in junior high, much to the furrowed brow of my mother. One night, while I was reading “The Carpetbaggers” by flashlight under my covers, I overheard her say to my father: “Should we be letting her read those books?”

To my everlasting gratitude, he replied: “I don’t care what she reads as long as she’s reading.” Hurrah! Quite a concession from a man whose own father was an English professor who recited Beowulf (though surely not all 3,182 alliterative lines) in Old English on Christmas Eve. Mind you I wasn’t reading Robbins for school, nor did my extracurricular reading habits preclude my teacher-assigned readings. But we all drift toward what we like.

— “Don’t cancel Shakespeare,” By Kathleen Parker, The Washington Post, February 16, 2021