Ernie Seckinger's2002 Reading Notes
Ernie of Daphne
Reasoned Thus With Himself
and judged it to be for the interest of the present and future
generation that they should be made acquainted with his thoughts.
-With apologies to Francis of Verulam
January*** 1/2 Consilience by E. O Wilson. A thought provoking book. I spent a good deal of time thinking about this book and Wilson's statements and their consequences. He has no answers, in my opinion, but he does reframe pathways to travel toward the answers and in that, it becomes an important book. I say more in a separate review.
**** Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, Edited with an Introduction by Helen Darbishire. Oxford University Press. 1958. This is her Alfoxden Journal of 1798 and the Grasmere Journal of 1800-1803. Reading prose seldom is more satisfying than this. She even describes a trip to France to see William's daughter from a short-lived romance. Yet in the more PC than now 1950s, the editor says nothing of this in her introduction. A sample of the entries is to me the definition of a quiet night: March 23, 1802 - The fire flutters, and the watch ticks.
***** The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Office Christmas gift from Katie Budge. How does one read a large book of poems? Each small poem is like a distilled dissertation. It must be carried through the day before the next one can enter. But I try. This entry represents my reading of half her work. I waited until I found this edition (at Books-a-Million) since it is the one that restored Dickinson's actual words and punctuation. Earlier Thomas Wentworth Higgnson edited her works to make it more acceptable to the then current ear. But as Harold Bloom says in his 1985 Emily Dickinson: Modern Critical Views, there is "No single, overwhelming precursor whose existence can lessen her wildness for us." Her love of, if not worship of nature mirrors the Transcendentalists:
130Based on Number 677, I think we can safely say that Emily Dickinson was a Transcendentalist.
Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze-
Permit a child to join.
Thy sacred emblems to partake-
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!
Some keep the Sabaath going to church-
I keep it, staying at Home-
With a Bobolink for a Chorister-
And an Orchard, for a Dome-
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice-
I just wear my Wings-
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton - sings.
God preaches, a noted clergyman-
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last-
I'm going, all along.
To be alive - is Power-
Existence - in itself-
Without a further function-
Omnipotence - Enough-
To be alive - and Will!
'Tis able as a God-
The Maker - of Ourselves - be what-
Such being Finitude!
** The Foundations of Primitive Thought by C.R. Hallpike. 1979. Clarendon Press, Oxford. I came to this book through a reference in Wilson's Consilience. Thinking it might have a great deal of reference to my interest in thinking on the part of non-state level peoples, I dived in. Hallpike chooses to look at the issue through the eyes of developmental psychology rather than anthropology since, to him, the former is more rigorous--Piaget against Sapir-Whorf is what he actually means. In a real way, this is a troubling book, for while he chides relativism, he goes on to say "A wise ordering of human affairs recognizes that differentiation is not divisive; as modern can would have it, but provides the basis by which people can be truly human." In my view, based on at least the way history has played ouyt, the choice is clear: study as Hallpike has suggested has always led to at best a paternalistic perspective while relativism has led to a (more) equal acceptance.
An hour in the Geneva, Alabama Public Library. As I read the first few pages of Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy subtitled American Hunger, I thought back to my childhood and thought of how different it was from his only 30 years earlier. Of course, he was black and I am white. In some ways little had changed in the interim: racial prejudice could hardly have been higher among certain classes of Southern whites (those certain classes comprising most of the population); poverty still was evident in black and white; but mine was more sedate. The occasional swat I received cannot at all be compared to the physical and mental abuse to which Wright was put. Perhaps it was that very struggle he endured that fired his motivation and insight.
I was pleased to find this book in a small town Alabama library. Too bad it has only been checked out once. Well, 40 years ago, this book would not have even been considered nor offered for such a library, nor would the black patrons around me be present. Knowing what I know of Wright, I deeply regret he did not live to see these changes wrought. But we have many miles to go before we sleep.
*** Warmly Inscribed by Laurence and Nancy Goldstone. 2001 Bought at By the Book, Phoenix, AZ. I begin reading the Goldstones' discovery of books at the near end. The first chapter insures I will travel back in time to take in Used and Rare and Slightly Chipped. The dust jacket photo shows this couple as impossibly handsome for this business and with quite obviously more disposable income than me. They are naive about a number of things, really including books to some extent. Perhaps this is their M.O. and why they are so charming (sorry) to read. It is a bit odd and corny to say, but if you love books, you'll like the Goldstones.
FebruaryBack to Thoreau's ***** Journal. Wrapped up Volume VI of that most great of works. If you have ever wondered about man's place in Nature, had thoughts about intellectual significance, wondered what a fat groundhog running looks like, then this is the work for you! Two million wonderous words that will never be equaled. "Why will men so try to impose on one another? Why not be simple, and pass for what they are worth only?"
*** Slightly Chipped*Footnotes in Booklore. Another by the Goldstones. Fine stories about booklore. Bought at the Book Stop in Tuscon, what used bookstores should be about. Books on Books need to have some contempariness to them--the Goldstone's books do. It does me little good to know that 60 years ago two women bought a Bay Psalms book in England for pennies. I want to know what people find now. The Goldstones tell me, in a funny way.
*** Mark It and Strike It: The Autobiography of Steve Allen A cassette recording read by the author from the Daphne Public Library . It is at once a joyous and sad moment to hear Steve Allen's voice again. As he talks, his figure rises before me, as a spectre part human and part early television snow. A deeper part of me always appreciated his humor, his piano, and his quiet intelligence. His self-effacing manner on this tape brings back the realization of how he managed to live in fame, yet remain true to his beliefs. We all must one day go, so I hear, but it is just a shame that the last--or only--truly funny Liberal is gone. Yet through this tape, and those of his many broadcasts--and his many books, he lives on.
In and out-bound to Phoenix, I settled on two volumes of *** The Best American Short Stories. While they helped me forget I was enduring an unnatural act (flying), I was once again reminded that I am a reader of fiction in the form of novels, not short stories. Funny, since I have written a couple of the latter and none of the former! The 1989 volume I bought at Bookman's in Phoenix. It is a poignant reminder of our life in that the date code for its arrival on those shelves is September 11. Our freedom to read and to distribute our thought on that reading is what makes and keeps us different from those who cannot bear the thought of a free life. Their insecurity requires a higher authority telling them what to do, what to think, and who to kill. Lest you think this a ethnocentrically prejudiced tirade, recall the Inquisition, the anti-Civil Rights struggle, right-wing televangelists.
**** How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen. 1998. The Library of Contemporary Thought. The Ballantine Publishing Group. New York. A small--84 pages--book, yet one that comes close to saying it all about the kind of reading importance that I wonder if Harold Bloom could understand. This is not about how great or how bad a book is in someone's idea of a canon, but what that book means to the person who has read it! Oh yes, the rest of saying it all is, well, found in these pages !
*** Flannery O'Connor's three papers on Catholic writers and books. Her works have intrigued me since my first reading of "A Good Man is Hard to Find." It terrified me not because of the story or underlying symbols, but because I have many times traveled the road on which that family meets their fate. I, in essence, came so close to those scenes and that fate!
Later I read all of her fiction. What I could not grasp--having no understanding of what Catholic really means--is how her Catholicism is worked into these stories. Several chapters of Mystery and Manners: Occassional Prose speak to those issues: "The Church and the Fiction Writer," "Catholic Novelists and Their Readers," and "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South."
She--as one might expect--gave no pat answers in these essays. Her stance on the subject though is clearly stated:
When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.
Her writing in these essays, rather speeches as they were, I think reveals she is convince of not only the sentiments expressed above, but that the church's dogma is of assistance to the writer. She says one cannot be an adequate observer unless he (her word) is free from uncertainity about what he sees. Instructors of anthropological field method would certainly disagree with this!
The fiction writer has to make a whole world believable by making every part and aspect of it believable...He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses.
Though these essays, I think I have arrived at two of her truths:
What you may believe does not alter reality
It takes readers as well as writers to make literature.
*** Memoris of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson. Doubleday 1946. Purchased at Book World, Tucson. Five short stories and a novella that I understand are in part autobiographical. I understand then, why he tried to recall the book. That aside, Wilson could be consider the Updike of the previous generation. "The Princess with the Golden Hair" is as mucha about sexuality in the 1920s as Couples is of the early 1960s. Wilson deserves a great cudo of recognition for it was his idea that eventually (two decades later) led to the current standard edition of the major American works, The Library of America.
*** Charles Stearns Wheeler: Friend of Emerson by John Olin Edison. UGA Press, Athens, 1951. Purchased at The Book Lady, Savannah. Wheeler built a cabin on a New England lake where his first year Harvard roommate Henry Thoreau visited. Therein lies a tale. A Transcendentalist with a devotion to theology. He replaced Jones Very as Greek instructor at Harvard after Very's breakdown. He did for Tennyson in America what Emerson did for Carlyle. Interpreter of Hegel and Schelling. Died at 26 in 1845 in Germany.
**** As I Walked Out One Morning by Laurie Lee. An unabridged Recorded Books narrated by John Horton. The book from 1969. From someone I had barely heard of came this fantastic memoir of walks through Spain after leaving his small English village. To me, it is reminescent of Robert Louis Stevenson's travelogues of two generations earlier. Lee finds himself walking into the Spanish Civil War.
For not the first time, heard ***½ The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning. A Recorded Books, Inc. unabridged recording narrated by George Guidall. 1995. Yes, I am aware that this is the second time I have listened to this tape-each time a 13 hour investment. I plead two extenuating circumstances
(1) Both were on the most boring drive from Mobile to Atlanta (and back), and
(2) This is a most wonderful story.
I am not qualified to judge this book as a mystery-only as a book. It is a wonderful read for anyone who is book-obsessed. You know who you are!
***½ The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers by Radcliffe Squires, University of Michigan Press, 1956. By the time this treatment of Jeffers's work was published, his
popularity poll numbers had dramatically fallen. To our benefit though, Jeffers followed the maxim of our fathers and did not shy away from truth as he saw it just to remain popular. Robinson Jeffers's poetry, life, and Tor House all spoke to a religion of lithic permanency and dramatic personal freedom. He bears re-assessment by all who consider themselves personally free.
I began and ended April reading Thoreau's Journal. I tell you–well, I cannot tell you, you will simply have to experience this mastery of thought, life, writing for yourself. As the month closed, I find myself drawing near the end of the first massive Dover Publication volume. Almost halfway through! Only one million more words to go! Then, of course, I will start over.
Atlas Shrugged. A High Bridge Company recording, unabridged. Original book 1957. This recording by Edward Hermann 1995. Dagney Taggart, John Galt, and Hank Rearden. These should be household names. It does not matter if you consider this story an allegory, satire, or manifesto–truth is glimpsed around each corner.
Existentialist? Without a shred of doubt. Overblown? To be sure. Is existentialism really that self-centered and conceited? Well, yes. Is it cruel and heartless? I think not. It is to some extent based on the thought that you cannot help anyone before you help yourself.
What lies in the mind of a human that drops in productivity when it feels unfree to amass personal wealth? To fight for his own turf? It would appear that such struggle came about at the very beginning of life that had the ability to move. Then why do we constantly seek to deny this? It is because we cannot accept that we are a part of nature, a stop on the continuum of evolution, headed no one knows where, with the present and the past as the only realities. Yet we insist on creating a mythological past that separates humanity from Nature. Once again, the truth is far more fascinating than the fiction.
Atlas Shrugged is a story of one example of humanity's attempt to create a fiction of successful altruistic socialism. Perhaps by thinking of its often bizarre situations, a better safety net can be constructed in a free, capitalistic society.
Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon (a.k.a. William Trogdon). My second time through this very fine consideration of self and road. That elevates it to the level of On the Road by Jack Kerouac although its pace is not as frenetic and Travels with Charley. Favorite quote: From Alice Venable Middleton of Smith Island, Maryland: "Having the gumption to live different and the sense to let everybody else live different." There you go. A birthday gift from my mother through Amazon.com.
During a trip to Lake Walter F. George, I began the second half of Emily Dickinson's poetry. A few favorite quotes:
Soto! Explore thyself!
Therein thyself shalt find
The "Undiscovered Continent"—
No Settler had the Mind.
Death is colorblind!
These–are Time's Affair–
Death's diviner classifying
Does not know they are–
As in sleep–All Hue forgotten–
Death's large–Democratic fingers
Rub away the brand
From 1071: To observe is to alter
From 1176: We never know how high we are/Till we are asked to rise...
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry–
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll–
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.
From 1549: My Wars are laid away in Books–
From 1627, version II: The Pedigree of Honey/Does not concern the Bee–
From 1639: A Letter is a joy of Earth–/It is denied the Gods– [and perhaps the rest of us by email and the telephone]
We connect with Emily Dickinson the woman and the poet, I think, because she know her genius and patiently awaited the fame she knew would come, but not while she looked upon her garden. Perhaps her spectres were ghostly images of time travelers from the far future informing her of her lasting fame.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. A little of the version in The Grapes of Wrath and other Writings 1936-1941. The Library of America 1996 but mostly the Recorded Books version read by Dylan Baker, both from the Daphne Public Library. From Chapter 4. Tom Joad and Casy under the tree. Casy: I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesis? Maybe, ‘ I figgered, ‘maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinin' it, an' all of a suddent—I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it."
Now, it is hard to be more Transcendentalist than that!
This was my second time through The Grapes of Wrath. The first was quite odd in that I began it in the 8th grade and finished in the 12th!
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Oprah read it, but so can I! If I had to summarize the effect, the moral if you will, of this eminently readable book, I would have to say things like the dangers of thinking complete independence is yours, the dangers of too great a dependence, the mythology of family, the need for each of us to feel needed, independent, and valued simultaneously.
Now to the important part: There is also a story here, which is the original reason we first read and created writing and that should remain the most important reason to read. From the Daphne Public Library.
MayFinished that first Dover volume of Thoreau's Journal. I know that I wax on about this work. Why?
What if we feel a yearning to which no breast answers? I walk alone. My heart is full. Feelings impede the current of my thoughts. I knock on the earth for my friend. I expect to meet him at every turn; but no friend appears, and perhaps none is dreaming of me. I am tired of frivolous society, in which silence is forever the most natural and the best manners. I would fain walk on the deep waters, but my companions will only walk on shallows and puddles. I am naturally silent in the midst of twenty from day to day, from year to year. I am rarely reminded of their presence. Two yard of politeness do not make society for me. One complains that I do not take his jokes. I took them before he had done uttering them, and went my way. One talks to me of his apples and pears, and I depart with my secret untold. His are not the apples that tempt me. (June 11, 1855)
***** A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Carl F. Hovde and Textual Center Staff; William L. Howarth, and Elizabeth Hall Witherell. With an Historical Introduction by Linck C. Johnson. Princeton University Press, 1980. The first time I read this book, I had little to no understanding of Transcendentalism. This time, I read it with a goal of going deeper into HDT's Transcendentalism. I found much more:
Speaking of Jesus--he says Christ--"'Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.' I draw near to him at such a time. Yet he taught mankind but imperfectly how to live; his thoughts were all directed toward another world. There is another kind of success than his. Even here we have a sort of living to get, and must buffet it somewhat longer. There are various tough problems yet to solve, and we must make shift to live, betwixt sprirt and matter, such a human life as we can."
"A man's real faith is never contained in his creed."
In trying to understand his view of Transcendentalism I see him ever looking inward, not retreating into himself as some today do when they are bent on satisfying their financial or sensual wants, but an inwardness that searches for and provides a personal perspective on inputs the world (Nature) sends to our senses. Instinct is a word he often uses. By using it he is talking about looking inward or trying to reconnect with what was originally human. Instead of going to college, he suggests going to the mountains. He says : It is when we do not have to believe, but come into actual contact with Truth, and are related to her in the most direct and intimate way." This reminds me most directly of listening to William Tallbull, the late Northern Cheyenne spiritual leader, as he told the assembled group to go to the top of the mountain and to take off your shoes. The mountain lives.
** Between Lovers by Eric Jerome Dickey. Unabridged book on CD, Recorded Books, LLC, narrated by Dion Graham. 2001.When I got this audiobook, I suppose I thought the author was the son of James Dickey. Not only was I wrong, this turned out to be a genre I had not before read, contempary black fiction. The blurb says something about a "sexy novel." Well, that puts it midly. I must admit though, that the story held my interest far more than I thought it would. Still, I could not bury my sociological and anthropological background. This novel is definitely set in the black, upwardly mobile set. As such, a thousand trendy brand names are mentioned, detracting, in my mind, from the story. But then again, this is not to indict this writer or genre. In many ways it reminds me of that awful yuppiness we had to go through in the early mid 1980s. Do we have to do that again?
I hate abridged audiobooks! I mean, why would an author agree to having as much as half of their words they struggled so long over to be cut just for the enjoyment of those who cannot expend the attention to deal with the entire work? I know, we would all take the money and run. That said, *** The Coalwood Way: A Memoir by Homer Hickam is not too bad. I picked it up at the library to have a wide range of choices for the last trip. Everybody in the car is not a 15 tape book devotee like me! In Hickam case, as in Pat Conroy's, and I suppose for all of us, it's all about the relationship between father and son.
This was also a good time for *** 1/2 C-SPAN's American Writers II series. I watched the programs on William Faulkner, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernie Pyle. C-SPAN's format can at times underwhelm itself, but I find I can get to the heart of the writer and the heart of the times faster this way than most others available without rather exhaustive research.
What could be better on a road trip to Selma than listening to a little philosophy? In this case, it was *** Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy by Christopher Phillips. Audio Literature recorded book from the Daphne Public Library. Yes, at times a bit odd, but I keep running out of tapes that interest me from the library's collection. Bottom lines: The place for philosophy is among the people, not academia. And, do your own thinking.
June*** Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution by Paula Blanchard. Delacorte Press. 1978. This member of the Transcendentalist Club was an enimatic and controversal figure in her time. We cannot be in touch with her forte, conversation, just as we cannot with Beethoven's piano playing. But we have her words and her life. She and Poe were our first literary critics; she was the first woman foreign correspondent; she contributed much to the feminist movement and to American Romanticism. She forced an unwilling public to accept a woman as a major intellectual figure.
*** An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter. There go those abridged books on tape again! Anyway, this was far better than I anticipated. So much so and so near the life experiences of my father, also a south Georgia native, that I went online and sent him a copy. I understand that he cannot put it down. Carter is more open about his family and his background than many autobiographers.
**** River-Horse:The Logbook of a Boat Across America by William Least Heat-Moon (aka William Trogdon). Houghton Mifflin. 1999. This is a strange book. Not in a bad way for I loved it as I have his other books Blue Highways and PrairyEarth. But strange--and great--because you find that you are not with him on this journey. This inveritate reader of historic travel books, he admits to owning 1,200 of the genre, went on this journey and I, the reader, did not. So, this book tells you a little about his journey--500 pages of it--and asks between the lines, "When will you take your journey?"
*** Henry David Thoreau, Early Essays and Miscellanies. Princeton University Press 1975. Includes "On keeping a private journal," dated January 17, 1835. He was then 18 and at Harvard. It says most of what can be said about keeping a journal and about Transcendentalism. Though this is 1 1/2 years before the first meeting of the Transcendentalist Club, it clearly demonstrated that Thoreau was already an inward thinker. The volume includes "Thomas Carlyle and His Works." A few other thoughts from the volume: "Neglect the beautiful for the true." "However paradoxial it may seem, it appears to me that to reject Religion is the first step towards moral excellence..." "Bodies are cleansed by water; the mind is purified by truth; the vital spirit, by theology and devotion; the understanding, by clear knowledge."
And here is the essence of his Transcendentalism: "Thus the man, who perceives in his own soul the supreme soul present in all creatures, acquired equanimity towards them all, and shall be absorbed at least in the highest essence, event that of the Almighty himself."
Chasing my interest in The Axial Age (800-200 B.C.E) I read *** "The Axial Period," Chapter 5 in Gods and Men: The Origins of Wester Culture by Henry Bamford Parkes. Knopf. 1959. This period marked a decisive intellectual break with the Neolothic and paleolithic past of humanity. The break was so definitive that Parkes likens it to the equivalence of a new species in biological evolution. The notion of the individual began at this time. Although it was an active intellectual period in both the East and the West, their directions diverged. The East sought control of man's inner self while the West sought control of his environment (it has taken us this long to learn we cannot do that!). In Parkes view, this self-awareness was the true expulsion from Eden!
*** Hunting Season by Nevada Barr. Ah yes, it was time for another Anna Pigeon mystery. Such fun reads. Problem is, I read faster than she writes! I have found it a nice experience to watch her writing grow ever so better. she rapidly builds a sizable addition to the niche which once only housed Tony Hillerman.
*** Phase II Archaeological Investigations at the D'Olive Plantation Site in the City of Daphne, Baldwin county, Alabama by Bonnie L. Gums. Center for Archaeological Studies, University of South Alabama, Mobile. 2001. On the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, Fairhope gets all the news, but Daphne is far more interesting. The new city park (as I write, I am impatiently awaiting the completion of the parking lot) not only has several state champion trees but also a rich history beginning with the D'Olive Plantation from 1787. So, in this 300th anniversary of Mobile, Daphne can be said to celebrate its 215th.
July***** Letters to Various Persons by Henry D. Thoreau. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1877 (reprint of the 1865 edition) Edited by R.W.E. (Ralph Waldo Emerson). In this edition names and certain passages of the living have been removed by Emerson. By reading this version, I condem myself to a second reading when the Princeton edition arrives. But that remains a few years off and will be a joy. Though never married, he understood the gist: "Methinks a certain polygamy with its troubles is the fate of almost all men. they are married to two wives: their genius (a celestial muse), and also to some fair daughter of the earth. Unless these two were fast friends before marriage and so are afterward, there will be but little peace in the house." The last letter only a couple of months before his death: "I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing."
**** A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. New Directions. 1958. Pieces of memory, riffs, of jazz, momentary images. Call it Beat, true. But these poems are--for the most part--real. Of reality. Cool. Hot. Man!
*** 1/2 The Making of Walden with the text of the First Version by J. Lyndon Shanley. University of Chicago Press. 1957. Looking up Shanley for more information, I find that he died in 1996, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern. According to the news release of his death, it was this book that changed the way scholars viewed Walden. He meticulously goes through the surviving sections of 8 drafts, showing in detail how Thoreau created a masterpeice from a good book. Reading this took me back to one of Thoreau's letters in which he suggested a theme: "to state to yourself precisely and completely what that walk over the mountains amounted to for you,--returning to this essay again and again, until you are satisfied that all that was important in your experience is in it...Don't suppose that you can tell it precisely the first dozen times you try, but at 'em again, especially when, after a sufficient pause, you suspect that you are touching the heart of the matter, reiterate your blows there, and account for the mountain to yourself. Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long time to make it short."
I read over my marginala from my 1991 reading of ***** Walden. From those I abstracted a number of principles I believe he was try to get us to see: Live your life the way you see fit. Read good, not easy, books. Read them as delibrately as they were written. Preserve nature. Love wilderness. Do not kill. See Nature as it is, not from the sight of a gun or the end of a fishing pole. Be a vegetarian. Be celibate. There is more to day than dawn.
Well, I didn't say I agreed with them all!
**** Ballad of the Bones and other Poems by Byron Herbert Reece. Original E.P. Dutton 1955, Cherokee Publishing Company reprint 1985. Bought at DeFoor Center Mall in Atlanta. A very fine collection of books from sale items to rare and antiquarian. Website: defoorcentre.com. These poems speak of death--violent death at the hand of love. The stages of the day and place set the stage for death--or in The Ballad of the Bones--life from death.
Whose eye is on the sparrow
Shifted, and it fell.
Alone with cloud and rock and tree.
I am the dust made animate
Earth's singer given syllables
As Homer of an elder date,
For sorrow, joy and love and hate
And greetings and farewells.
Too soon I too shall be as quiet
As they who know not how the night
Is dark nor how the day is clear,
But for a fleeting moment yet
I traffic with the alphabet
Before I am anonymous
And scattered everywhere.
**** My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger. 2001. Emily Dickinson. One whom about so much is written and about whom so little is known. Habegger, writing even more about her, does so directly when possible, obliquely when necessary. Here the biographer's art is well expressed; he uses every source at hand: her letters to others (most letters to her burned by her sister after the poet's death), the history of Amherst and the family-connected Amherst College, journals and antedoctes by those who knew her, as well as their attempts at hagiography, and the poet's own poetry to allow us a glimpse into a mind gone now these 116 years.
What made that mind great is her use of her doubts, her fraility, her rigid sense of place within a male dominated, Puritan descendant family, in making her art. In finding her voice, she gave us one.
Certainly only a fine line exists between those called simply of the American Romanticism School and the Transcendentalists. Habegger never labels her the latter but says she shifted "from Calvinist depravity and discipline to the emmanent dignity of life and the validity of human intitution." This with her love of Nature, its use for symbols, her love of Emerson's poetry, and Thoreau in general, must beg the question of her status as a late Transcendentalist.
About her greatness, there is no doubt. We want to know more, but as Habegger says, "it doesn't look as if we are going to find out."
As to the assessment of this book--it was a pleasure to read of the poet and her time in such detail. I have no reason to disagree with anything Habegger says, but I do wonder about some things unsaid. One more chapter would have squarely placed this book into the genre of literary biography--one that squarely placed her in the context of 19th century literature, American Romanticism, the American Renaissance, and literary Transcendentalism. These are hinted about but never squarely faced.
I am curious why the text does not discuss the hagiography of her lately spawned. Unless it lies in the footnotes, I saw no mention of Harold Bloom or of the forgery that led to the recent book The Poet and the Murderer.
But, as always, one must leave room for the next biographer.
** 1/2 The Twenties by Edmund Wilson. A book for those who still think sex was invented in the 1960s! I picked this up as parts and fragments of a writer's journal. This it gloriously is. Much of the background--I presume the real-life background--of "The Girl with the Golden Hair" from Memoirs of Hecate County is here.His quote or a fragment from his reading? -- Literature as the result of continue stress and strain in the universal organism--when the whole organism has, as it were, been reimagined and re-created so as to eliminate stress and strain; then art will have become unnecessary, because the whole universe will be a work of art and the "creative" energies of humanity will be merely occupied in its advancement (this last situation is inconceivable as, as I have stated it, nonsensical). *** Used and Rare by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone I finally made it around to the first volume of their book collecting trilogy. I too have felt some of this exhilaration over books--as Henry David Thoreau's letter telling of his excitment over Cholmondeley's gift suggests he did too. Sure, it's the content that truly matters, but ah the physicality of the book!
** 1/2 The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht. Original 1955. A kind gift from my German friend, Kurt Seckinger. During my 2001 visit to Germany, he promised to send me this play. He did some time later and now finally I have read it. It is a play within a play. The prologue is decidedly communist, granting the land in dispute to those who would put it to its "best use" rather than its prewar occupants. Once the decision is made, the party sits in audience for a play.
The play within the play is an odd story that alludes to the sacraments of the Catholic church, but in a strongly anti-religious way. It ends with the chalk circle (Caucasian refers to the mountains of the Republic of Georgia, then in the Soviet Union, to differentiate it from the ancient Chinese fable), a recreation of the wisdom of Solomon but also a decision once again for the side that will put the prize to the best use.
Sure, this is a communist message, but is unfettered capitalism any different? Money and political connections mean it is the "haves" that define the best use, rather than the state. What a shame George Wallace learned this too late to salvage Alabama from the "haves" that still oppress the "have nots."
On a recent trip to Oakland, I found myself having to travel often down the main business street of Alameda. There I found the Silva Book Company. A most wonderful shop. Too small to have anything on my want list (this is good since it is quite odd), I took a few moments to look around their holdings. As I looked at a volume of Thomas Merton's photographs (Christmas present hint!), he ran to the back and retrieved his copy of a first edition Seven Story Mountain. It had about 2 zeroes in the price more than I could pay that day, but I appreciated the confidence he had in showing me that wonderful book. We had great talk about Merton's journals, the boom, boom, boom he complained of from Ft. Knox artillery practice nearby, and the search for broad-minded Catholics.I did though find a copy of **** Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End within my price range (2 zeroes less than the Merton). Perhaps dustjackets do matter because the cover art of El Capitan caught my eye. Reading that this final form of the poem was 40 years in the making led me to buy a book of poetry not Robinson Jeffers, Emily Dicksinson, or Henry David Thoreau--a rare event nearly completely limited to the Beat poets, of which Snyder one of the last great living member along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This poem is nothing short of magical and wonderful.
Clearing the mind and sliding in to that created space,
a web of waters streaming over rocks,
air misty but not raining,
This the beginning goes in a travel narrative--both literal and spiritual--of the West Coast and Japan. If you are ready to read of the road and can move at a pace glacial compared to Kerouac, then Mountains and Rivers Without End is for you. For me, it is a pull to create in my own way my own journey.
September*** Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry, Frederic Henry Hedge by Ronald Vale Wells. An important book for the modern serious student of Transcendentalism. It takes us back to the religious origin of the philosophy and in the hands of a theologian, puts us in touch with that seldom traversed terrain.
**** Transcendentalism in New England: A History by Octavius Brooks Frothingham My copy a UPenn pb from 1972 with an introduction by Sydney E. Ahlstrom. Original 1876. Frothingham came to Transcendentalism through the pulpit as did most of the previous generation. He is considered the inheritor of Theodore Parker's mantle. I found this history to be detailed, concentrated on the religious side of the movement, and almost completely dismissive of Thoreau. But I found it useful in its introduction to the Germans like Fichte, Schelling, Jacobi, and even Hegel as related to Transcendentalism. He was quick to point out that New England Transcendetalism was influenced more by the German literature of Goethe, Richter, Novalis rather than through the philosophy of Kant, Fichte, or Jacobi. And that German literature was brought to New England by Thomas Carlyle. Coleridge was the prophet of the New Englanders.
Frothingham pointed out what I think are some very important facets of American Transcendentalism that may actually remain with us. He says, "Transcendentalism simply claimed for all men what Protestant Christianity claimed for its own elect." Perhaps a major reason why Transcendentalism does not exist above the surface of present-day American philosophical thought is the rejection of dogma or a system of philosophy on which a creed could be built. They were open inquirers. Their characteristic faith was the absolute freedom of the human mind. The pure (his word) Transcendentalist believed the seeds of truth were contained in the soul itself.In a sort of bizarre statement, Frothingham attributes the rise of a healthy diet, if not even vegetarianism to Transcendentalism.
**1/2 The Painted House by John Grisham. My sister-in-law's mass-market paperback experienced its third reading here. I once knew a man who said only black people picked cotton. A loud humpf was all I could say in response--his bigotry beyond my comprehension. No, I never picked, but I knew many who did. Several of my friends would disappear from Metter Elementary School in the early fall. These were excused abscenes in the early 1960s.
I am amazed by the descriptions of the men in this book picking 500 pounds of cotton; I was once with my minister father visiting a man who lay flat on his back after picking 200 pounds. Than God all this misery has been eliminated by a machine that can pick tons in a day. Yet the adoption of the cotton-picker, not even mentioned in this book, caused immense changes in the South (not to mention Detroit, Chicago, and New York). The book's ending does hint at those changes.
***** Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. 1952. Illustrated by Garth Williams. I knew magic existed in books when I sat transfixed as my teacher read this book aloud to the class. She read a chapter a day--I was impatient to hear the next. Charlotte's Web was one of the first books I thought of for my own children as they moved out of the picture book and beyond Snow White. Even the lowest has great value: a pig, a rat, and a spider. Wilbur says of Charlotte, "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."
*** The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Unabridged Recorded Books read by Elliott Gould from the Daphne Public Library. A familiar refrain--So different from the movie--although it is a fine Film Noir with William Faulkner on the screenwriting team and Bogart and Bacall as the actors. The book has a much harder edge and is darker than the movie. As I listened to the prose, I began to understand the recent rediscovery of Chandler. This is a good story, well told. Certainly a forerunner of the kind of book Elmore Leonard now writes.
*** 1/2 Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman: Confessions of a Common Reader. A new generation of Fadiman takes up the mantle of reading. A fine addition to my shelf of books on books. So many people have critized her father's reading program. But I say we have to remember that he read more than his critics by several if not many factors. As evidenced by this book, his children and grandchildren have his legacy of reading. His death since the publication of his daughter's book give me an opportunity to give him another chance. Now, on which shelf did I shelve the elder Fadiman?
*** 1/2 Forrest Gump by Winston Groom. On unabridged tape. Good movie but too cute to think too much about (here or elsewhere). This book though, while it certianly has a few poignant moments, is a screamer. Only a fool--or a far better reviewer than me--would try to convey the sense of this book. It is one to be experienced. I will say that while playing the first tape, I nearly ran off the road laughing so hard, so be careful!
**** Here is New York by E.B. White With a new introduction by Roger Angell (his stepson). Given me by The Thoreau Reader Richard Lenat during my recent trip to New York. This has to be the all-time perfect gift for someone going to New York for the first, or the 100th, time. It is truly about the city then, and now, though written in 1949. It ends with:
The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everyone's mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irrestible charm.
It used to be that the Statue of liberty was the signpost that proclaimed New York and translated it for all the world. Today Liberty shares the role with Death.
October*** Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton. A thin but overflowing book. Much about the similiarity and difference of Buddhist and Christian mysticism. He strongly points out that Zen is independent of Buddhism or any other religion. By the time one makes a passage through this book, which includes his dialogues with D.T. Suzuki, one is either enlightened by a modicum toward an understanding of Zen or completely confused. I think I am both. But as the book points out, to "understand" Zen would be a problem since Zen requires being, not study.
On a side topic, Merton does all he can to avoid reference to Transcendentalism, be it German, French, or New England. When the connection is made with the whatever--in Transcendentalism some have called it the oversoul-- he refers to it as the mind of Christ. Immanence must, in Christian tradition, be from without, not from within. I think this difference is important relative to the structure of the human mind and to the evolution of human intelligence. To culturally blast all else out of the water is to miss the point of the importance of this phenomenon that seems, in variously expressed forms, to occur cross-culturally whether you call it the Holy Ghost, spirit, oversoul, or Prajna.
*** The Same River Twice by Chris Offutt. Penguin 1993. A memoir of a modern Applachian man finding himself. This book a candidate for the Natalie Goldberg Honesty in Writing Award were there one. He--and we--are lucky Offutt survived the process.
** Flesh by Brigid Brophy. She also wrote Black Ship to Hell, a defense of agnosticism. This book is a British Goodbye, Columbus.
*** 1/2 A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold. Original 1949, this the Oxford University Press trade pb 1968. His life and writing were rife with contradiction. He wrote of the artificiality and harm of wildlife management yet he helped create that profession. He decried the loss of predators when he himself shot a wolf and was in the USDA in its wolf-extermination days. He understood succession yet died battling a grass fire. In short, his life was real, had meaning, and his words bear listening to given the validity of his experience. While his use of the language is not the smoothest on record, he utters many valuable and wise thoughts here: "Artificialized management has...paid dividends to one citizen out of capital stock belonging to all. The weeds in a city lot convey the same message as the redwoods. Is this sportsman absorbing cultural value? Or is he just feeding minks?" Still, I believe the book can be appreciated by avid hunters and rabid environmentalists.
* 1/2 Gold Coast by Elmore Leonard. I just do not know how these keep creeping into my reading list. As books on tape, I guess it is due to having encountered most everything else on tape I would choose to listen to on a long trip--or even the daily commute. In this book, the best of the lot seem to be persons with elusive morality. The worst of the lot? Well, they go down. Because the tapes were out of order in the case, we missed the next to last tape--but did not notice a break!
*** Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. In Novels 1955-1962, The Library of America from the Daphne Public Library. Provided by the Millennium Project for Public Libraries. Harold Bloom says literature should be about--and only about--aesthetic pleasure. Pale Fire rings true on that note.
***** To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Audio Editions unabridged tape. What can one say about this book? Literature. To see what others have said, see the most well-known Mockingbird website.
**** The Natures of John and William Bartram by Thomas P. Slaughter. Knopf. 1996. There is so much here to show how John and William were precursors to the Romantic movement of the following century and even Transcendentalism. William's contemplation of an inner truth rather than external facts reflects this as well as providing an explanation for the exergerations seen in his Travels. It also speaks to Slaughter's purpose in writing the book. More a personal journey into these two men and their concept of nature and what they meant to the writer than a precise biography. I find that a powerful reason to write a book. I appreciated learning more about the appreciation of William Bartram by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau.
*** Another Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover for the Years 1739-1741. Some time ago I read another volume of his private journal--one from his younger years. This one--still in shorthand--reveals certainly an older man--it ends near his death at 65--yet he still confesses to "playing the fool." The diary recounts the everyday life of a Virginia planter at the time my ancestors were struggling to survive along the Savannah River banks.
*** Fire by Sebastian Junger. Recorded Books. The essays on fire I greatly enjoyed. They are evocative of Norman Maclean. The essays on Yugoslavia and Cyprus are deeply important. They provide a side to the conflicts we do not hear in the usual media. But in the period of the Washington area snipers, I simply could not listen to those expositions of mans' inhumanity to man.
November***** Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I could not shrink my thoughts about Walden to fit here. So, click here to read my full diatribe.
*** The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking Unabridged Random House recording read by Simon Prebble. Hawking has an amazine sense of humor. When discussing Isaac Newton, he mentions that Newton held the same chair at Cambridge that he now holds, though Newton's chair was not motorized. This book is said to be a more lay-accessible examination of current theories of everything and an update to A Brief History of Time. The language certainly is clear but my understanding still lags behind that of Archimedes.
** Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver It is not often that you can buy a book at a bookstore the first day that is is open. I did that by buying this at Bienville Books in downtown Mobile, Alabama on that store's first day. The book is a series of character sketches stuck (I did not say woven) together. They ultimately converge more or less successfully. This Appalachia is a bit more genteel than the one I know. I did like this quote:
"Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen."
*** A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar A 5 CD abridged audio CD from the back of a cereal box! The ultimate prize toy! I did not realize until the last track that this is an abridged version--for which I was disappointed. How can I now compare the book and the movie? How do I know what was changed in the movie, missing parts of the book--which parts? I do not know and I do dislike abridged books. I mean, what is the point?
**** Fifty Days of Solitude by Doris Grumback A second wonderful pass through this most wonderful book. It helped me avoid the though that I was in a metal contraption winging its way at 37,000 feet from Portland to Atlanta! The views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Ranier, and Mt. Adams were quite wonderful, Mt. Hood being on the opposite side of the plane. Montana hard rock mountains with frozen tarns along the glacier's route before a precipitous dive into the larger also glacial valley. After that the quite lame movie began along with flight attendant harrassment to close my window screen so the glare would not be on the movie screen. The movie I was interested in was the American landscape unfolding below. But in a plane full of apparently mindless people....
*** 1/2 The Spirit of the Haunted Book Shop: A History Celebrating the 50th Anniversary by Jack Pendarvis. HB Publications, Mobile, AL, 1991. Wow! What memories this tiny volume exposes. Memories not necessarily all idyllic nor ones I am necessarily enthralled by to this day.
My first visit to the Haunted Book Shop came during my first tour of downtown Mobile. I had just arrived as a new archeologist at the US Army Corps of Engineers. By reference to that, I know the year was 1977. I thought I knew book then but in reality was in a state of knowledge just adequate to know just how much I did not know.
Later after the ship moved to St. Frances Street, I visited many times browsing. I really never found much to my liking--within my price range. Miz Plummer, certainly an icon behind her desk near the letter from Christopher Morley giving his permission for use of the name, nevertheless could be intimidating to the naive likes of me.
Then came Jack & Blake! Suddenly, books began showing up on the shelves I had not seen and many were "sale priced." My kind of place. A bound copy of six months of Harpers Magazine from the 1850s including a long article on the Springfield Armory, Macualay's History of England, The 19th Century: A History dated 1899, these were a few of my favorite things. New books too--Carl Rodgers, Mary Chestnut.
*** Walter Cronkite Remembers. Moving and memorable since I was there at some of those moments: JFK, the moon landing. His opinion of Oliver Stone: Junk given to an unsuspecting generation.
** 1/2 The Last Dive by Bernie Chowdhury. Abridged Harper Audio. 2000. Nominally recounts the search for and identification of the U Who, a German U-boat. It more tragically recounts the death of the father and son Rouses. Many references to my late cousin Sheck Exley, a champion cave diver who, when his body was pulled out of his last cave had a depth meter that read 906 feet. I apparently have none of the sense of adventure he had. Chowdhury notes that it was Exley that came up with the Rule of Thirds: breathe 1/3 going in, 1/3 out, 1/3 reserve.
December**** The Path to Power by Robert Caro. The first volume of his projected four volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. For years I have avoided reading this book and the now two to follow. Yet Bob Caro keeps showing up on book talk TV talking about the books and the reason he wrote them. I became fascinated as I heard him say how this and even his previous book, The Power Brokers (about Robert Moses) were not about the man per se, but about the acquisition, use and abuse of power, and how it affects people. I am quite interested in that aspect of modern political life.
What was so shocking to me reading this expositon of the character of LBJ was his utmost shallowness. To my naive mind, he defines the concept surpassing all politicians by a Texas mile. He was, according to Caro, unemcumbered by philosophy or idealogy, completely amoral, nakedly seeking only to fulfil his hunger for power. In the whole discussion of the effect money has had on American politics, a debate now ongoing for several years, I have yet to hear the name of Lyndon Johnson. Yet, it would appear he invented the concept. Reading this book, it is hard not to revert to the old concept that the American electorate is composed of sheep. Do we think or do we listen to the money?
Caverns Measureless to Man by Sheck Exley. Sheck took that line from Coleridge to portray his fascination with caves. He died in an attempt to set a cave depth diving record, his depth gauge read 906 feet. His brother died 20 years before in a Florida spring. These fellows, my second cousins, once removed, sons of a childhood hero of mine, were driven to these caverns. What is it that drives us, some of us that is, to live on the edge? I do not know and perhaps am even wary of posing the question. For one like me whose life is primarly lived between my ears, I cannot understand this. Do I need to?
*** 1/2 Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro The second volume of his Johnson biography. In an introductory essay, Caro reached back for support of the idea of process through biography. He cites Emerson as saying explore a single individual deeply enough and truths about all individuals emerge. This is a book about the relationship between the means and the ends.
As I alluded to in my comments on the first volume, Caro here states his philosophy of biography: "I never conceived of my biographies as merely telling the lives of famous men but rather as a means of illuminating their times and the great forces that shaped their times--particularly political power, since in a democracy political power has so great a role in shaping the lives of the citizens of that democracy."
**7/8 Flashback by Nevada Barr. 2003, Uncorrected Proof. As in Cold Mountain, we have first person narrative from the Civil War era. As in Cold Mountain, too modern a sensibility is expressed. I speak mainly of phrasing and idioms, but a clear example is the direct quote from Dr. Mudd (the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth's leg), "The pain takes the strength that could otherwise be used for healing." Both in medical and in popular speech, this is a 90s phrase--the 1990s. But as in all the other Anna Pigeon mysteries, a fun read.
Want some cool books? The Friends of the Daphne Public Library prepares for the next booksale in March 2003 in the Daphne Recreation Department. Details plus a page of the more unusual books for sale online can be seen at our webpage .
I have dropped the use of counters this year because the only reader of this page I care about is you. Please drop me a note at ernieseckinger (at sign) yahoo.com and let me know what you think. Thank you for reading!
Ernest W. Seckinger Jr
There are only 5 stars: * Could have avoided. ** OK. *** Very fine. **** I predict a lasting piece of literature. ***** A world classic
Created January 21, 2002
Links updated: June 29, 2008
©2002 Ernest W. Seckinger Jr
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