Sunday, February 26, 2017
Saturday, February 25, 2017
I've pre-ordered the latest book by Sarah Bakewell and can't wait for it to drop through the letter box.
Here is a snippet from a review in the FT:
Bakewell’s exegetical skill is also well exemplified in her discussion of a key difference between Sartre and Camus. The latter believed that when we look at the world truthfully, we see it as empty and meaningless. Sartre insisted that to view it this way is not to see it properly at all, since seeing properly is inextricably bound up with meaning. “If I watch a football match,” Bakewell writes, “I see it as a football match, not as a meaningless scene in which a number of people run around taking turns to apply their lower limbs to a spherical object.”
.... Perhaps the aphorism that best captures the book is one of Bakewell’s own: “Thinking should be generous and have a good appetite.” Her hunger is infectious. I was left wanting to read more Sartre, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas and de Beauvoir, a plan I suspect won’t survive first contact. Bakewell is fond of Heidegger’s image of a mind as a clearing in a forest, and her book is a clearing in a dense philosophical thicket few of us have the ability or inclination to navigate alone.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Complete Prose is a compendium of Woody Allen's three popular books, Without Feathers, Getting Even and Side Effects. Without Feathers and Getting Even were read and reviewed in 2014 but it was worth giving them a second read.
Woody Allen's absurd writing sings when he's hitting all the notes, but half the time it feels like he slips into excessive absurdity as a means of getting a cheap laugh, a bit like how some stand-up comedians get cheap laugh by dropping the f-bomb. This quibble aside, Woody Allen does occupy a pretty unique space in the comedy landscape and I'm pretty sure I'll be returning to my favourite pieces whenever I feel the need for an asburdist lift-me-up.
The pieces I rate between 4 and 5 stars are worthy of revisiting are:
From Without Feathers
Selections from the Allen Notebooks
Examining Psychic Phenomena
Match Wits With Inspector Ford
The Whore of Mensa
If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists
From Getting Even
The Metterling Lists
The Schmeed Memoirs
Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This (p177-181)
A Twenties Memory
From Side Effects
The Kuglemass Episode
My Speech to the Graduates
Quotes From Without Feathers
Quotes From Getting Even
- Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.
- Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you're dressed for it.
- The universe is merely a fleeting idea in God's mind - a particularly uncomfortable thought, particularly if you've just made a down payment on a house.
- As a teenager he was punished by his father for varnishing his brother's head, although his father, who was a painter by trade, was more upset by the fact that he gave the boy only one coat.
- July 10 - Today was generally a good day, despite the fact that we were ambushed by Arryo's men and badly decimated.
- when it came time to see the Minister the appointment was postponed....an assistant said 'Certain vague notions have arisen and he is not seeing anyone.'
- Brooklyn: Tree-lined streets. The Bridge. Churches and cemeteries everywhere. And candy stores…. Stifling heat and humidity descend on the borough. Residents bring folding chairs out onto the street after dinner to sit and talk. Suddenly it begins to snow. Confusion sets in. A vender wends his way down the street selling hot pretzels. He is set upon by dogs and chased up a tree. Unfortunately for him, there are more dogs at the top of the tree.
- where was the celery? Was the omission deliberate? At Jacobelli's, the antipasto consists solely of celery. But Jacobelli is an extremist. He wants to call our attention to the absurdity of life. Who can forget his scampi: four garlic-drenched shrimp arranged in a way that says more about our involvement in Vietnman than countless books on the subject.
- The sentence clearly cannot be stated as 'The fettuccine was delicious'. It must be stated as 'The fettuccine and the linguine are not the rigatoni.' As Godel declared over and over, 'Everything must be translated into logical calculus before being eaten.'
On literature (preserved insights from the great Helmholtz): "All literature is a footnote to Faust. I have no idea what I mean by that."
Rapid Reading: ...This course will increase reading speed a little each day until the end of the term, by which time the student will be required to read The Brothers Karamazov in fifteen minutes. The method is to scan the page and eliminate everything except pronouns from one's field of vision. Soon the pronouns are eliminated. Gradually the student is encouraged to nap. A frog is dissected. Spring comes. People marry and die. Pinkerton does not return.
The bulk part of "Yes, But Can a Steam Engine Do This?":
"The sandwich," it read, "was invented by the Earl of Sandwich." Stunned by the news, I read it again and broke into an involuntary tremble. My mind whirled as it began to conjure with the immense dreams, the hopes and obstacles, that must have gone into the invention of the first sandwich. My eyes became moist as I looked out the window at the shimmering towers of the city, and I experienced a sense of eternity, marvelling at man's ineradicable place in the universe. Man the inventor! Da Vinci's notebooks loomed before me—brave blueprints for the highest aspirations of the human race. I thought of Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare. The First Folio. Newton. Handel's Messiah. Monet. Impressionism. Edison. Cubism. Stravinsky. E=mc2 . . .Holding firmly to a mental picture of the first sandwich lying encased at the British Museum, I spent the ensuing three months working up a brief biography of its great inventor, his nibs the Earl. Though my grasp of history is a bit shaky, and though my capacity for romanticizing easily dwarfs that of the average acidhead, I hope I have captured at least the essence of this unappreciated genius, and that these sparse notes will inspire a true historian to take it from here.
1718: Birth of the Earl of Sandwich to upper-class parents. Father is delighted at being appointed chief farrier to His Majesty the King—a position he will enjoy for several years, until he discovers he is a blacksmith and resigns embittered. Mother is a simple Hausfrau of German extraction, whose uneventful menu consists essentially of lard and gruel, although she does show some flair for culinary imagination in her ability to concoct a passable syllabub.
1725-35: Attends school, where he is taught horseback riding and Latin. At school he comes in contact with cold cuts for the first time and displays an unusual interest in thinly sliced strips of roast beef and ham. By graduation this has become an obsession, and although his paper on "The Analysis and Attendant Phenomena of Snacks" arouses interest among the faculty, his classmates regard him as odd.
1736: Enters Cambridge University, at his parents' behest, to pursue studies in rhetoric and metaphysics, but displays little enthusiasm for either. In constant revolt against everything academic, he is charged with stealing loaves of bread and performing unnatural experiments with them. Accusations of heresy result in his expulsion.
1738: Disowned, he sets out for the Scandinavian countries, where
1741: Living in the country on a small inheritance, he works day and night, often skimping on meals to save money for food. His first completed work—a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a slice of turkey on top of both—fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed, he returns to his studio and begins again.
1745: After four years of frenzied labor, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and encourages him. Heartened by the philosopher's friendship, he returns to work with renewed vigor.
1747: Destitute, he can no longer afford to work in roast beef or turkey and switches to ham, which is cheaper.
1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecutive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest, mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains unmoved. Three slices of bread on top of one another add to his reputation, and while a mature style is not yet evident, he is sent for by Voltaire.
1751: Journeys to France, where the dramatist-philosopher has achieved some interesting results with bread and mayonnaise. The two men become friendly and begin a correspondence that is to end abruptly when Voltaire runs out of stamps.
1758: His growing acceptance by opinion-makers wins him a commission by the Queen to fix "something special" for a luncheon with the Spanish ambassador. He works day and night, tearing up hundreds of blueprints, but finally—at 4:17 A.M., April 27, 1758—he creates a work consisting of several strips of ham enclosed, top and bottom, by two slices of rye bread. In a burst of inspiration, he garnishes the work with mustard. It is an immediate sensation, and he is commissioned to prepare all Saturday luncheons for the remainder of the year.
1760: He follows one success with another, creating "sandwiches," as they are called In his honor, out of roast beef, chicken, tongue, and nearly every conceivable cold cut. Not content to repeat tried formulas, he seeks out new ideas and devises the combination sandwich, for which he receives the Order of the Garter.
1769: Living on a country estate, he is visited by the greatest men of his century; Haydn, Kant, Rousseau, and Ben Franklin stop at his home, some enjoying his remarkable creations at table, others ordering to go.
1778: Though aging physically he still strives for new forms and writes in his diary, "I work long into the cold nights and am toasting everything now in an effort to keep warm." Later that year, his open hot roast-beef sandwich creates a scandal with its frankness.
1783: To celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, he invents the hamburger and tours the great capitals of the world personally, making burgers at concert halls before large and appreciative audiences.
Friday, February 17, 2017
One does not have to live among these things to remember them, and I do. They were and are part of me.
Indeed, I find that distance lends perspective and I often write better of a place when I am some distance from it. One can be so overwhelmed by the forest so as to miss seeing the trees.
There are worlds of which I write are no longer out there. There are here, ever present in my mind. Seated at my typewriter, I can in one moment move to the mountains of Pakistan or India, to vast invading armies with their forests of spears, all bright and golden in the noonday sun. I have read the history; I know the land. I know how it feels to be a fighting man entering combat, so I can ride with those men, fight beside them, fall to the field and lie wounded or die with them.
As I wrote the stories I could sell, I was like a squirrel, gathering the nuts of future stories and storing them for the years when my writing would be better and my market larger.
A thing to remember is that the audience wants you to be good. No matter whether they know you or not, they do not want to be bored, so whether you realise it or not, they are rooting for you.
This is an age of communication. At one time or another, nearly everyone will have to stand up and sell his bill of goods, whatever it may be.
Professor Thomas Davidson: "Associate with the noblest people you can find; read the best books; live with the mighty. But learn to be happy alone;. Rely upon your own energies, and so not wait for, or depend on other people."
Knowledge is like money: To be of value it must circulate, and in circulating it can increase in quantity and, hopefully, in value.
Upon the shelves of our libraries, the world's greatest teachers await our questions.
Yet for those who have not been readers, my advice is to read what entertains you. Reading is fun. Reading is adventure. It is not important what you read at first, only that you read.
Many would advise the great books first, but often readers are not prepared for them.
Often ambitious young men or women write, wanting to work for me or assist me in my research. What they do not understand is that it is a labour of love, and I would relinquish no part of it at any price. I do not need help; I need time.
I want to read books, examine the archives, trace the routes on maps or charts. As I trace the routes, I relive the lives; I walk with the caravans; I handle canvas on the ships; I pull an oar in the galleys. I know the smell of the seas because I was there, and a thousand years ago it would have been no different. I know how it feels to ride a horse or a camel, and I want to live again with the caravans and seafarers.
I am not some mill that grinds our stories simply to make a living.
We writers, of course, stress the dramatic, and often readers forget the long periods of simply hard work that went to build the country. Gunfights were very rare, raids by horse thieves rare, but hard work was every day. Fencing land, plowing land, grubbing roots for firewood, all this was every day.
In Sinkiang and the Pamirs, the Taklamakan and some parts of Tibet, when one party meets another on the way, the greeting is often, 'May there be a road!' It is a land of frequent snow slides, rock slides and cave-ins. Roads are casually made, bridges are usually hanging from ropes, so the saying is apropos: One hopes the way will be clear, the road open. So, as one pilgrim says to another, I leave you with that wish: 'May there be a road!'
Monday, February 13, 2017
Although I had saved a little money during the war, I knew it would not last long. To write was imperative, and not only to write but to sell.
The western pioneers were select people, selected by themselves. They chose to break the mold, to leave all they knew behind and venture into new country, with new problems, new standards. Each one was expected to stand on his own two feet. He was moving of his own volition, on his own support system. Nobody was paying hos way or showing him the way; nobody had told him to go, or where to go. He simply packed what goods he could carry and headed west, looking for what chance might offer.
Man seeks a means to exist; then he strives to improve that situation. At first he wants something to eat; then he tries to store food against times of famine. He tries to find warmer furs, a better cave, a more secure life. He creates better weapons with which to defend himself, to form alliances that will assist in his protection. It is a normal, natural thing and has existed forever.
Success often means security, safety in your home, safety in your possessions. To me success has meant just two things: a good life for my family, and the money to buy books and continue the education of this wondering man, who has ceased to wander except in his memory, his thoughts, and the books he writes.
Books are precious things, bit more than that, they are the strong backbone of a civilization. They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost.
He opened a door for me that has never closed.
It was never part of my nature to focus on one area to the detriment of others. I wished to understand it all, and to have a clear picture in my mind of what was happening in all parts of the world. And wherever I could, I listened to all the stories of along the caravan trails, in bars, in coffee-or tea-houses, and wherever they might be heard.
Much of my life has been spent in deserts and mountains; much of what I have seen I remember. Sitting here now, I can close my eyes and see the desert in all its many aspects. There is no need to see it again, although I often shall, nor is there any need to go to the mountains, for the mountains are always with me. I have walked the high country; I have breathed its air, bedded down under its trees, watched the white clouds drift and the storm clouds gather. Far away, I have seen dust-devils do their weird dance and I have heard the pelting rain on the trees above me.
Thursday, February 09, 2017
Start writing, no matter about what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. You can sit and look at a page for a long time and nothing will happen. Start writing and it will.
I have delved deep into the literatures of the world, yet what is available is scarcely a dusting of what must have been. Great libraries have been destroyed, and books or manuscripts are vulnerable.
A book can be carried and read at leisure. It needs nothing but an eye, and the ability to read.
'A book is a friend that will do what no friend does - be silent when we wish to think' - Will Durant
Shaw was a many-sided man, not easily understood and not wishing to be understood - as a person.
Writing as craft varies much from individual to individual. Probably no two writers write in the same way in any respect. Some write slowly, like Gustave Flaubert, who needed seven years to complete Madame Bovary. On the other hand, William Shakespeare, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope (to name a few) wrote with considerable speed. ...It has nothing to do with the quality of their work; the speed or frequency of their writing is a matter of personal inclination or temperament.
(on Shakespeare) His writing was done backstage, in taverns, in the homes of friends, or in his own quarters.
People are always interested in how a writer works, as if that made a difference. Some imagine a writer must have complete quiet, or some special atmosphere. The fact is, a professional writer can write anywhere, although some environments are undoubtedly more favourable than others. Some excellent writing is done these days by newspaper people working in a bustling, busy newsroom.
Personally, I prefer my study or bedroom at the ranch. In the first place, I am surrounded by my library, where I can check any fact that requires it. At the ranch I have a view of the timbered mountain ridge at the back of my property, or I can look up a valley in the hills where the elk and deer come down to feed in the evening. Forty of fifty can be there at once, as we do not allow hunting, and they are beautiful to watch.
Gustave Flaubert once said that 'Talent is nothing but long patience'.
The key to understanding any people is in its art: its writing, painting and sculpture.
Due to the narrow vision in many of our schools, few people have any knowledge or appreciation for the culture of Asiatic nations.
As much time as I have spent walking in cities and working among people of all kinds, I liked the wild country the best. Again and again I returned to the desert or mountains, seeking out the lonely water holes, studying the wildlife, learning to exist on the margins.
Given paper with which to write and a typewriter, I can be happy anywhere.
The frontier is that line beyond which man has not been, or where he is only beginning to go. I am, for example, concerned now (as I have been since I was twelve) about the frontiers of outer space...There are endless frontiers out there, each one is difficult, each one offering fresh discoveries, unexpected challenges, and rewards beyond belief.
There was no time for writing during the war but one could always think, and one could observe and remember.
There were place and people to be seen and remembered, there were stories to be heard, and I was hungry for them all. Ours is a rich and wonderful world, and there are stories everywhere. Nobody should ever try to second guess history; the facts are fantastic enough.
Tuesday, February 07, 2017
Hunger I was to experience many times, but it was reassuring to know others had survived, although most written accounts of hunger are by those who never experienced it. Knut Hamsun is the only one I can think offhand who wrote with any knowledge of the experience. In the movies, one always sees a hungry man stuffing himself with food when first he gets a chance. That's ridiculous, of course, for a truly hungry man eats very slowly, savouring every bite, and is almost overcome by having food at last. Moreover, hunger shrinks the stomach and one's capacity is slight. On the second and third day, of course, there is no satisfying him.
A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.
People are forever asking me where I get my ideas, but one has only to listen, to look, and to live with awareness. As I have said in several of my stories, all men look, but so few can see. It is all there, waiting for a passerby.
(on the qualities of those who live the pioneer life). Dignity. They all had dignity, a certain serenity and pride that was theirs completely. They might be poor, they might be eking...a precarious living, but they had dignity.
They knew where they had been and what they had done, and were content. Something was theirs, something within themselves that neither time passing nor man nor hard times could take from them. I have worked beside then, eaten at their tables, sat beside them in sunlight and moonlight and firelight. I never knew one of the old breed who did not have it.
"An idea upon which attention is peculiarly concentrated is an idea which tends to realize itself.' -Charles Baudouin.
(on education) We teach a child to creep when he should be running: education becomes a task rather than an excitement.
We do not at present educate people to have think but, rather, to have opinions, and that is something altogether different.
I studied purely for the love of learning.
A person or a situation can only be understood against the background of its own time.
Writing, however, is a learning process. One never knows enough, and one is never good enough.
Wednesday, February 01, 2017
Here are some quotes from Education of a Wondering Man by Louis L'Amour.
He was a lone reader but somehow never felt alone in the company of a book. (from the introduction)
This is the story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand.
Today you can buy the Dialogues of Plato for less than you would spend on a fifth of whiskey, or Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the price of a cheap shirt. You can buy the fair beginning of an education in any bookstore with a good stock of paperback books for less than you would spend on a week's supply of gasoline.
Often I hear people say that they do not have time to read. That's absolute nonsense. In the one year during which I kept that kind of record, I read twenty-five books while waiting for people. In offices, applying for jobs, waiting to see a dentist, waiting in a restaurant for friends, many such places. I read on buses, trains, and planes. If one really wants to learn, one had to decide what is important. Spending an evening on the town? Attending a ball game? Or leaning something that be with you your life long?
Byron's Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea...Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro.
My life may not be great to others, but to me it has been one steady progression, never dull, often exciting, often hungry, tired and lonely, but always learning.
One thing has always been true: The book or that person who can give me an idea or slant on an old idea is my friend.
If I were asked what education should give, I would say it should offer breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance for others, and a background from which the mind can explore any direction.
Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live well one must live with awareness.
Ours was a family where everybody was constantly reading, and where literature, politics, history, and the events of the prize ring were discussed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
How many books we had in our home I do not remember...All of us had library cards and they were always in use. Reading was as natural to us as breathing.
Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more. Due to such books, and later reading, I found that no matter what country I visited or whom I met, I knew something of the history or romance of the country, or about a person's homeland.
My intention had been to write, and consequently I had made no effort to acquire a trade. Naturally, living such a life one picks up certain knacks and skills but not enough to become an expert at anything. All I had to offer was considerable physical strength and two hands, but for most jobs that was all that was required. I carried a hod, mixed concrete, shoveled sand or gravel, and dug ditches. All the while I read. There was no plan, not at the time could there be. One had to read what was available, and it had been so from the beginning.
There is no reason why one cannot get an education if he or she wants it badly enough and is persistent. ...Books are available on every subject ad there are many very good 'how to' books from which one can learn the basics of a trade.
For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.