A. Robert Lee
Preface to Herman Melville, Moby- Dick
Everyman’s Library edition
London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1975
Lee has great insight into what makes Moby-Dick unique and great.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
A. Robert Lee
Preface to Herman Melville, Moby- Dick
Everyman’s Library edition
London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1975
Lee has great insight into what makes Moby-Dick unique and great.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Posted here (PDF files above):
review of Herman Melville
Moby Dick; Or, the Whale
The Literary World
November 15, 1851
review of Herman Melville
Moby Dick; Or, the Whale
The Literary World
November 22, 1851
Evert Duyckinck (1816-1878) was editor of The Literary World, a weekly review of books published in New York. He helped launch Herman Melville’s career and became a close friend.
–– posted by Roger W. Smith
Posted here (PDF file above):
A. Robert Lee. “Moby-Dick: The Tale and the Telling”
New Perspectives on Melville
edited by Faith Pullin
Edinburgh University Press, 1978
This is a brilliant essay which shows an appreciation for and provides insight into Melville’s genius while at the same time providing an analysis of what makes Moby-Dick a difficult book to categorize and to assess as part of the literary canon,
— posted by Roger W. Smith
As an addendum to my post
the Great American Novel
I got to thinking today about what I wrote there.
As my friend Charles Pierre told me one evening when we both working the night shift in a Boston warehouse and he was reading Moby-Dick (at around the time when I myself read the novel), it is such an American book — could have only been written here. The famous first line, “Call me Ishmael,” is so American, informal. It greets the reader (and sets the tone of the book) in a way that we and only we address and relate to one another — did in those days.
And the subject matter — whaling and everything else — the characters, the dialogue the political undertones with a war between the states a threat and possibility — Moby-Dick is immediately identifiable as an American book in the way that War and Peace could only be Russian.
Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. …
Upon entering the place I found a number of young seamen gathered about a table, examining by a dim light divers specimens of skrimshander. I sought the landlord, and telling him I desired to be accommodated with a room, received for answer that his house was full—not a bed unoccupied. “But avast,” he added, tapping his forehead, “you haint no objections to sharing a harpooneer’s blanket, have ye? I s’pose you are goin’ a-whalin’, so you’d better get used to that sort of thing.”
I told him that I never liked to sleep two in a bed; that if I should ever do so, it would depend upon who the harpooneer might be, and that if he (the landlord) really had no other place for me, and the harpooneer was not decidedly objectionable, why rather than wander further about a strange town on so bitter a night, I would put up with the half of any decent man’s blanket.
“I thought so. All right; take a seat. Supper?—you want supper? Supper’ll be ready directly.” …
Supper over, the company went back to the bar-room, when, knowing not what else to do with myself, I resolved to spend the rest of the evening as a looker on.
Presently a rioting noise was heard without. Starting up, the landlord cried, “That’s the Grampus’s crew. I seed her reported in the offing this morning; a three years’ voyage, and a full ship. Hurrah, boys; now we’ll have the latest news from the Feegees.”
A tramping of sea boots was heard in the entry; the door was flung open, and in rolled a wild set of mariners enough. …
No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. …
“Landlord! I’ve changed my mind about that harpooneer.—I shan’t sleep with him. I’ll try the bench here.”
“Just as you please; I’m sorry I can’t spare ye a tablecloth for a mattress, and it’s a plaguy rough board here”—feeling of the knots and notches. “But wait a bit, Skrimshander; I’ve got a carpenter’s plane there in the bar—wait, I say, and I’ll make ye snug enough.” So saying he procured the plane; and with his old silk handkerchief first dusting the bench, vigorously set to planing away at my bed, the while grinning like an ape. The shavings flew right and left; till at last the plane-iron came bump against an indestructible knot. The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven’s sake to quit—the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank. So gathering up the shavings with another grin, and throwing them into the great stove in the middle of the room, he went about his business, and left me in a brown study.
I now took the measure of the bench, and found that it was a foot too short; but that could be mended with a chair. But it was a foot too narrow, and the other bench in the room was about four inches higher than the planed one—so there was no yoking them. I then placed the first bench lengthwise along the only clear space against the wall, leaving a little interval between, for my back to settle down in. But I soon found that there came such a draught of cold air over me from under the sill of the window, that this plan would never do at all, especially as another current from the rickety door met the one from the window, and both together formed a series of small whirlwinds in the immediate vicinity of the spot where I had thought to spend the night.
The devil fetch that harpooneer, thought I, but stop, couldn’t I steal a march on him—bolt his door inside, and jump into his bed, not to be wakened by the most violent knockings? It seemed no bad idea; but upon second thoughts I dismissed it. For who could tell but what the next morning, so soon as I popped out of the room, the harpooneer might be standing in the entry, all ready to knock me down!
Still, looking round me again, and seeing no possible chance of spending a sufferable night unless in some other person’s bed, I began to think that after all I might be cherishing unwarrantable prejudices against this unknown harpooneer. … But though the other boarders kept coming in by ones, twos, and threes, and going to bed, yet no sign of my harpooneer.
“Landlord!” said I, “what sort of a chap is he—does he always keep such late hours?” It was now hard upon twelve o’clock.
The landlord chuckled again with his lean chuckle, and seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension. “No,” he answered, “generally he’s an early bird—airley to bed and airley to rise—yes, he’s the bird what catches the worm. But to-night he went out a peddling, you see, and I don’t see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can’t sell his head.”
“Can’t sell his head?—What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?” getting into a towering rage. “Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?” …
This account cleared up the otherwise unaccountable mystery, and showed that the landlord, after all, had had no idea of fooling me—but at the same time what could I think of a harpooneer who stayed out of a Saturday night clean into the holy Sabbath, engaged in such a cannibal business as selling the heads of dead idolators?
“Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.”
“He pays reg’lar,” was the rejoinder.
— CHAPTER 3, “The Spouter-Inn”
It was quite late in the evening when the little Moss came snugly to anchor, and Queequeg and I went ashore; so we could attend to no business that day, at least none but a supper and a bed. The landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured us that Cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders. …
Two enormous wooden pots painted black, and suspended by asses’ ears, swung from the cross-trees of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me. It’s ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen’s chapel; and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?
I was called from these reflections by the sight of a freckled woman with yellow hair and a yellow gown, standing in the porch of the inn, under a dull red lamp swinging there, that looked much like an injured eye, and carrying on a brisk scolding with a man in a purple woollen shirt.
“Get along with ye,” said she to the man, “or I’ll be combing ye!”
“Come on, Queequeg,” said I, “all right. There’s Mrs. Hussey.”
And so it turned out; Mr. Hosea Hussey being from home, but leaving Mrs. Hussey entirely competent to attend to all his affairs. Upon making known our desires for a supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said—“Clam or Cod?”
“What’s that about Cods, ma’am?” said I, with much politeness.
“Clam or Cod?” she repeated.
“A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”
But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple Shirt, who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word “clam,” Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out “clam for two,” disappeared.
“Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?”
However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained.
— CHAPTER 15, “Chowder”
–– posted by Roger W. Smith
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?–Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster–tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand–miles of them–leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues–north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither? … There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries–stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water. … Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Chapter 1 (“Loomings”)
I love skylines, love dense clouds. New York City has wonderful skylines. You can’t really see them from Manhattan, but you can from the waterside and from the outer boroughs, which have lower buildings.
It is wonderful that Manhattan is an island bounded by water: the ocean (New York Harbor), the East River, the Hudson River, the Harlem River.
One thing this does is prevent urban sprawl and the development of a megalopolis ending nowhere.
It also gives the city an almost enchanted quality or aspect. It leads to dreamy speculation and reflection, as Herman Melville noted.
My departed friend Bill Dalzell alerted me to this special aspect of New York City some fifty years ago.
I love the curve of the bay at the bottom of Manhattan Island. Such a beautiful harbor.
Today, I walked along the water’s edge from 14th Street to the Battery. Such a wonderful stiff breeze off the river. Such a wonderful walk at a time of despair,
— Roger W. Smith
May 4, 2020
photographs by Roger W. Smith
“the great American novel hasn’t been written yet”
review of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe
March 11, 1935
The Great American Novel has not yet been written. Herman Melville did several chapters of it, Walt Whitman some chapter headings, Henry James an appendectiform footnote. Mark Twain roughed out the comic bits, Theodore Dreiser made a prehistoric-skeleton outline, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway all contributed suggestions. Last week it began to look as if Thomas Wolfe might also be at work on this hypothetical volume. His first installment (Look Homeward, Angel) appeared five years ago, his second (Of Time and the River) last week. In the interval Author Wolfe had written some 2,000,000 words, now has ready two more volumes of his projected six. Great in conception and scope, Author Wolfe’s big book occasionally falters in execution, but his second volume is written with a surer hand than the first. If installments to come improve at such a rate there will no longer be any question about Wolfe’s great and lasting contribution to U. S. letters.
Scene, as well as subject, of course, is the U. S. Time-scheme will run from 1791 to 1933; the first two volumes cover 1884-1925, the last will go back to an earlier beginning. Readers of Look Homeward, Angel will remember its wildly sensuous account of the Gant family. In Of Time and the River Author Wolfe picks up his story, continues his method: he flays real life until the skin is off it and the blood comes. The skin-narrative can be shortly told. Eugene Gant, youngest of his family, at 19 leaves his Southern home and goes to Harvard. His father, a Jeremiah miscast, is slowly dying. In Cambridge Eugene studies hard at his playwriting course, makes many a queer acquaintance, one good friend: Starwick, a Midwestern esthete. After going home for his father’s funeral, and finishing his Harvard course, Eugene goes to Manhattan, teaches English for a while at a downtown college, then goes abroad. He gets little good out of England, finds Paris more to his taste. There he meets Starwick again, spends hard-living months with him and two U. S. girls, one of whom has left her husband for Starwick. Eugene falls in love with the other, only to find that she, too, loves Starwick. His disappointment, coupled with a suspicion that his friend is not as manly as he might be, leads to a final quarrel. The quartet breaks up, Eugene adventures for a time by himself, finally decides to go home. As he boards the liner at Cherbourg he sees a face, hears a voice, that he knows will haunt him forever. Here the book ends.
But no such bald outline can give even the superficial taste of this big (912-page) book. It contains hundreds of characters, scenes that range from harsh realism through satire and humor to passages of Joycean impressionism, Whitmanesque poetry. In form it is variously a narrative, an epic, a diatribe, a chronicle, a psalm, but in essence it is a U. S. voice. Author Wolfe’s whole theme: “Why is it we have crossed the stormy seas so many times alone, lain in a thousand alien rooms at night hearing the sounds of time, dark time, and thought until heart, brain, flesh and spirit were sick and weary with the thought of it; ‘Where shall I go now? What shall I do?’. . . We are so lost, so lonely, so forsaken in America: immense and savage skies bend over us, and we have no door.”
Of Manhattan and its citizens he writes: “Hard-mouthed, hard-eyed, and strident-tongued, with their million hard gray faces, they streamed past upon the streets forever, like a single animal, with the sinuous and baleful convolutions of an enormous reptile. And the magical and shining air—the strange, subtle and enchanted weather, was above them, and the buried men were strewn through the earth on which they trod, and a bracelet of great tides was flashing round them, and the enfabled rock on which they swarmed swung eastward in the marches of the sun into eternity, and was masted like a ship with its terrific towers, and was flung with a lion’s port between its tides into the very maw of the infinite, all-taking ocean. . . .”
The Author. Thomas Clayton Wolfe’s career closely parallels that of his hero, Eugene Gant. Born in Asheville, N. C. in 1900, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at 19, then took an M.A. at Harvard, where he studied under the late Professor George Pierce Baker in his famed 47 Workshop. After traveling and studying in Europe he got a job as instructor in the English department at New York University. Five years ago he resigned to devote himself to his magnum opus, went to Europe again on a Guggenheim Fellowship. An omnivorous reader, he says of his hero “Within a period of ten years he read at least 20,000 volumes.” After futile searches for “a place to write,” Thomas Wolfe is at present living in Brooklyn. Says Eugene, in autobiographical disgust: ” ‘To write’—to be that most foolish, vain, and impotent of all impostors, a man who sought the whole world over ‘looking for a place to write’, when, he knew now with every naked, brutal penetration of his life ‘the place to write’ was Brooklyn, Boston, Hammersmith, or Kansas—anywhere on earth, so long as the heart, the power, the faith, the desperation, the bitter and unendurable necessity, and the naked courage were there inside him all the time.”
Big, heavyset, wild-eyed, Thomas Wolfe looks the intensely serious writer he is. In Sinclair Lewis’s belligerent speech accepting the Nobel Prize (1930) he said of Wolfe: “He may have a chance to be the greatest American writer. . . . In fact I don’t see why he should not be one of the greatest world writers.” No backscratcher, in Of Time and the River Author Wolfe replies: “A book like Main Street, which made such a stir, is like Main Street.”
This review caught my eye. Because it gives a feeling for how Thomas Wolfe (whom I have been intending to read more of, if I can find the time) was perceived relatively early in his career.
Regarding the anonymous Time reviewer’s comment that “The Great American Novel has not yet been written” yet, I disagree that it hadn’t. Of course, Walt Whitman was not a novelist (though he wrote a couple of novels); and the review is written in the breezy style that Time was known for.
I consider it my own opinion, but come to think of it, I think that it was first expressed to me by a former friend of mine, Charles Pierre: namely, that The Great American Novel had been written long before Wolfe and Hemingway existed — by Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. Charlie and I were both reading Moby-Dick at about the same time. There is no doubt on my part as to the truth of this statement.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”
— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)
“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
— Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England
I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.
— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)
Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …
It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …
I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)
“I have been passing my time very pleasurably here [at his father-in-law’s home in Boston] … chiefly in lounging on a sofa … & reading Shakespeare. It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.”
— Herman Melville, letter to Evert A. Duyckinck, February 24, 1849
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …
It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods
Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]
— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561
“Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay–the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework”
— Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”
— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX
“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”
— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947
“I could literally feel my brain coming to life, as if new pathways were firing up in places that had been dark and barren. Reading was teaching me what it meant to be alive, to be human.”
— Yeonmi Park, With Maryanne Vollers, In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom (Penguin Press, 2015)
And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.
— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018
Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.
I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.
I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.
I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)
I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.
My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.
Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”
Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”
“You’re right,” he said.
This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.
What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?
The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.
The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.
A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.
I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).
I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.
You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.
Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.
I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader. I am very engaged when I read and am anything but a passive reader. I am continually asking myself, what do I think about the thoughts expressed and the writer, and am constantly trying to “extrapolate,” in a sense, ideas and information to ruminate upon.
A book is not merely an inanimate thing waiting to be read. Reading is an experience like any other, say a personal or romantic relationship. What one gets out of a book — the experience of reading it – depends both upon what the book offers and what you, the reader, invest in it, the energy level, enthusiasm, discernment, and attentiveness of the reader.
The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.
Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.
Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.
To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.
Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.
One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.
I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.
As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.
— Roger W. Smith
See also my post:
“my treasured books”
When asked what she would miss about the voyage, Greta [Thunberg] said–much as some harried adults feel about a long trip–the best part was “to just sit, literally sit, staring at the ocean for hours not doing anything.”
“To be in this wilderness, the ocean, and to see the beauty of it,” she added. “That I’m going to miss. Peace and quiet.” She paused for a moment.
— “Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist, Arrives in N.Y. With a Message for Trump; The Swedish 16-year-old sailed across the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht to speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit next month,” by Anne Barnard, The New York Times, August 28, 2019
It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.
Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea. …
Aloft, like a royal czar and king, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom. And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion–most seen here at the equator–denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.
… Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. …
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Chapter 132. “The Symphony”
BEATS AIR TRAVEL
I love her words and thoughts about the sea.
Her yacht docked in Manhattan right below Wall Street. I go there often to walk and enjoy the proximity to the water.
— email to my friend Brad Coady, August 28, 2019
— posted by Roger W. Smith
I took this photo of Sixth Avenue on my way home on Friday afternoon.
It’s been raining a lot in the City this week.
Rain can be a slight inconvenience, like other weather phenomena, but I never really minded it. It can be “nice.”
When I was very young, my mother took me once to my eye doctor, Dr. Johnson, in Boston on a weekday. We went by subway.
The appointment lasted a long time. Going home in the late afternoon, it was dark and rainy. I didn’t mind. I loved having my mother all to myself. When we got home, she put me to bed. She was so kind. She kept saying that I was cold and wet and that I must be very tired: it had been such a long day and we got home late.
Re this photo of Sixth Avenue, this street scene, it reminds me of Herman Melville’s words (in Moby-Dick): “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”
Thanks to the Good Lord that it came upon me once when I was first living in NYC to read Moby-Dick, in a library copy. What a book!
THE Great American Novel.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; CHAPTER 1. “Loomings.”
— Roger W. Smith
December 2, 2018
On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York which included a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364.
A sinfonia concertante (also called symphonie concertante) is an orchestral work, normally in several movements, in which there are parts of solo instruments, generally two or more, contrasting a group of soloists with the full orchestra.
Prior to attending the concert, I received an email from my brother. He wrote, “The second movement [of the Sinfonia concertante], with the soloists playing off against each other with marvelous lyricism and wit, is one of the most beautiful compositions I’ve ever heard.”
While listening to Mozart, and during the concert in general, several thoughts crossed my mind.
I don’t quite know how to express this thought. But, as is well known, there is something ethereal, otherworldly, about Mozart’s music. This is almost a truism.
It encourages, stimulates deep concentration. It seems to take one into another realm of contemplation. This reflects where it was coming from, the “musical subconscious” of a genius.
I know these may be platitudes. But, I was thinking about when this happens. When you are listening not just to notes, or admiring specifically the musical structure or form, but are in a realm of pure aesthetic delight and feel like you’re entering into another’s consciousness, which is to say, sort of like being ushered into a new sphere for the privileged (that is, us listeners). And, that the composer is “speaking” from his subconscious, or supra-consciousness, to yours. A sort of mystical fusion?
I don’t quite know why, but I was reminded — when listening to the second movement of the Sinfonia concertante — of Mozart’s Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music; K. 477; K. 479a), in which the listener has the same experience.
I was also thinking about how and when this can or does occur also with literature. Suddenly, you are not just reading sentences, following a plot, etc. You are in synch with the author’s subconscious, which is to say that his genius has transported you to a new level as a reader. This happened to me when reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It’s not just a good yarn or a book about whaling — it’s a book about the mystical qualities of the sea, nature, cetology, and what underlies them; the wonder and terror of the physical world conjoined with the deep truths that can be found; human existence and the ironies of daily life. Melville was writing at such a deep level — he was truly inspired. His genius is what strikes you and unmans one, so to speak. The same thing is true of other literary works of genius such as Paradise Lost and Tolstoy’s novels.
Thought number 2 of your faithful correspondent. This occurred to me mostly while listening to other pieces on the program.
It’s okay if the mind wanders during a concert. If fact, it’s by no means a bad thing if it does. Great art stimulates the mind. (Another truism.) To appreciate, enjoy, and savor it. But also, to think deeply, energetically. Even if the work doesn’t seem to be ABOUT anything.
For instance, in my post
“Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble”
I explained how at a concert I attended in November, listening to one of Mozart’s greatest quartets led me by a train of associations to think about Pushkin and, by the same “inner logic,” about a Russian course I once took.
What I find happening is that my mind wanders sort of back and forth, from the music being performed to all sorts of thoughts and musings inspired by it. These range from thoughts about the music itself (including the sort of thoughts that might be classified under the rubric “music appreciation”) to thoughts somewhat related to the music (such as listening to a requiem and musing about death) to thoughts that suddenly arise having little or nothing to do with the music. However, this is tricky. Music from classical to popular comes laden with associations. A piece may evoke a train of thoughts or memories that only you can explain, arising perhaps because the music reminds you of when you first heard the piece, of similar music you have heard, of other works by the same composer, and so forth. It’s kind of like what happens with dreams: seemingly bizarre associations, but one can often relate them to “facts” buried within one’s subconscious and known only to oneself.
I find that I come home from a concert mentally refreshed and stimulated, with the stimulation producing creativity and earnest thinking.
— Roger W. Smith
Mozart, Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 364; 2nd movement, Andante
Mozart, Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music) in C minor, K. 477 (K. 479a)
The Masonic Funeral Music is an orchestral work that was composed by Mozart in 1785 in his capacity as a member of the Freemasons. It was performed during a Masonic funeral service held on in memory of two of Mozart’s Masonic brethren.