February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
Just finished: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.
Reading next: Tales of the Unexpected, by Roald Dahl.
Some alternate titles that popped into my head while reading To the Lighthouse:
Ulysses Takes a Holiday.
Art Is Hard.
The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.
None quite right to summarize the entire book, though. It’s a demonstrably great work of literature; a work great enough to title its tour de force middle section covering the years of World War I “Time Passes,” the ultimate boring title. As it happens, time passing is one of the main areas of inquiry for Woolf, one of the central mysteries of life as a human.
“Time Passes” is beautiful, full of gorgeous allusion and lyricism, in fifteen or so artful pages documenting the death and misery of the Ramsay family as World War I approaches and ends, and the decay in their vacation home, which sits abandoned for ten years. Nature’s operations on the island form a kind of expressionist depiction of the war. Deaths occur in subordinate clauses, in passing.
This short section comes between two much longer sections which each document less than a day each, slowing time to a crawl, skipping from one mind’s workings to another, as not much of anything happens. As incredible as “Time Passes” is, it’s much easier for me to understand how it was written, and to see myself writing something similar to it, than to understand how Virginia Woolf could possibly have had the patience to write out the excruciating details of interpersonal minutiae which, to be honest and more than a little ashamed, drive me crazy about so much of the English high modernists. I simply cannot imagine myself sitting down and facing the blank page day after day and continuing to write about nothing happening, continuing to parse every single motion and interaction for its sexual, socioeconomic, political, and/or generational significance. To build up a collage of impressions of the eminent Victorians, the Ramsays, and the doubtful artist, Lily Briscoe, from symbols, and flights of mental fancy, and memory and dream, as time stands still for pages on end. It would drive me to despair.
As an example, there are the long, comma-larded sentences like this:
Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.
Sentences like this provoke in me equal parts exasperation and awe, a mixture that seems unique in my experience to reading modernists such as Woolf, Forster, and Beckett, though oddly hardly ever Joyce (with whom I hardly ever feel exasperated — well, maybe the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Ulysses). The transition into and out of “Time Passes,” with its wonderful and elegiac movement, lyricism, is so beautiful and poignant as to justify the investment in such sentences, the investment in the fine web of allusion and symbol that Woolf creates. The way in which time passes only very slowly in the rest of the book is precisely the point: the capturing in amber of the days in which art is created, insights discovered, people remain alive, learning how to live and understand each other.
December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.
After my latest long hiatus from posting, I’ve decided to try to get back to what I wanted to do with this in the first place: help myself think through, and better remember, the literature I read. This should mean shorter, more informal posts. More like an online commonplace book than the essay collection it had become.
What inspired me to start it back up? Dickens, of course. Specifically, this passage, right at the beginning of “Book the Second — Reaping” (aside: I love the purposefully archaic, Biblical book titles here, fascinating in a book about industrialization, labor, education, “progress”). This passage: I am tempted to hire a billboard on which to post it.
The wonder was, it [Coketown, the industrial city in which the book is set] was there at all. It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.
In the parlance of our times: THIS. THIS THIS THIS. I’m only halfway through, but Hard Times strikes me as a perfect book for a One Book, One City program. There are passages here and elsewhere directly applicable to controversies about government regulation and employers who hate them (ahem, Obamacare); to the labor movement, its complexities, and its dark side; to methods and outcomes of education; to capital-N Nature and the environment, and industrial pollution. Plus, it is short, unlike all other Dickens novels. And the circus is involved.
I mentioned the environment. The chapter following the passage copied above describes an extremely hot day in Coketown. It reads as a premonition (or, perhaps, intuition) of man-made climate change.
But the sun itself, however beneficent, generally, was less kind to Coketown than hard frost, and rarely looked intently into any of its closer regions without engendering more death than life. So does the eye of Heaven itself become an evil eye, when incapable or sordid hands are interposed between it and the things it looks upon to bless.
It’s hard to avoid thinking that we all live in Coketown now.
Dickens: his motifs, his metaphors, his idiosyncratic conceits. Time — and specifically mechanical regulation of time — is one of the great motifs in Hard Times. This motif comes to a crescendo in the last chapter of “Book the First,” in one of the lyrical paragraphs that makes Dickens a joy to read:
Meanwhile the marriage was appointed to be solemnized in eight weeks’ time, and Mr. Bounderby went every evening to Stone Lodge, as an accepted wooer. Love was made on these occasions in the form of bracelets; and, on all occasions during the period of betrothal, took a manufacturing aspect. Dresses were made, jewellery was made, cakes and gloves were made, settlements were made, and an extensive assortment of Facts did appropriate honour to the contract. The business was all Fact, from first to last. The Hours did not go through any of those rosy performances, which foolish poets have ascribed to them at such times; neither did the clocks go any faster, or any slower, than at other seasons. The deadly statistical recorder in the Gradgrind observatory knocked every second on the head as it was born, and buried it with his accustomed regularity.
May 2, 2011 § 3 Comments
“In a deceiving way, time is only a dream.” -Matthew Sweet, “Through Your Eyes”
I gave myself the task of ranking my top 20 Matthew Sweet songs for my first playlist of the summer. Sweet, for those of you who haven’t been indoctrinated, is one of the great American songwriters. He is Nebraskan. He writes shimmery pop songs, devastatingly sad songs, songs that are both, folk songs, hard rock songs. Great songs, mostly. Here’s my list, culled from a list of 50 songs I really and truly love: the best of the best. I’d love to hear others’ favorites. This world needs a Matthew Sweet revival.
20. “Back of My Mind,” from Sunshine Lies. Sunshine Lies is one of those albums that sneaks up on you, and you only realize it’s good after four or five listens. This song is the first example on this list of the central theme of Sweet’s oeuvre: inexorable, pliable, hateful, merciful Time, and the vast range of human reactions to the phenomenon.
19-17. “Millennium Blues,” “If Time Permits,” and “Beware My Love,” from In Reverse. This three-song suite opens the album; its bookend, the magisterial nine-minute “Thunderstorm,” was one of the toughest omissions from this list. I love the horns in “Millennium Blues,” and that great transition from the sweetness of “If Time Permits” to the slightly psychedelic menace of “Beware My Love.” This album, just by the way, was criminally overlooked. Criminally. It’s fantastic, and it’s not even one of his best three albums.
16. “Let’s Love,” from Sunshine Lies. In which Mr. Sweet displays his incomparable gifts for the Hook and the Harmony. (Link to a live acoustic version.)
15. “Through Your Eyes,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. A great song about Buddhist cosmology, from Sweet’s album for his Japanese fans which finally got released in the US after word got out how great it was. The Girlfriend lineup is in full force here.
14. “Where You Get Love,” from Blue Sky on Mars. I have no explanation for why this wasn’t a massive hit, back in 1997. I know I was psyched about it. I know it had a really rad video. I know it’s as propulsive as anything he’s written. Seriously, someone tell me: why wasn’t this a hit, and why did this album tank? Were keyboards really that uncool in 1997?
13. “Morning Song,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. Quintessential Sweet: shimmery, sunny, gorgeous, beautiful, but with a touch of darkness in the lyrics. Plus it’s a helluva lotta fun to sing along with.
12. “What Do You Know?,” from Altered Beast. I am tempted to make all sorts of grandiose claims for this album — most underappreciated album in American pop music, one of the top ten albums of the ’90s, most expansive, genre-defying rock record of the decade, etc. — but I’m unqualified for all that. So I’ll just say you really, really need to go listen to it if you haven’t, or even if you haven’t in a while. And if you trash it, I will come after you like a spider monkey.
11. “Untitled,” from In Reverse. I have no words. This song’s just gorgeous. Instead, here’s a question: why haven’t these songs been covered more often? Half of the songs here could be massive hits for a country star. Or anyone, really.
10. “We’re the Same,” from 100% Fun. For me, like probably a lot of people my age, this is the soundtrack of the summer of ’95. It’s a perfect summer song. It sounds fantastic when you’re driving around at night with the windows down. Here’s the thing: Matthew Sweet can write a pure, perfect pop song in his sleep. Like Prince. Like Paul McCartney. There’s only a handful of these people. It starts the top ten, then, but every song that I ranked higher than this takes that gift and does something extra-special with it. At least to these ears.
9. “Sunlight,” from Living Things. A really cool song, aurally, with an epic feel, and a lot of layers. There’s a lot of interesting nature and animal imagery in this album’s lyrics, as there is in much of Sweet’s work.
8. “Evangeline,” from Girlfriend. Girlfriend. Where to start here? Like a lot of people, this is where I started with Sweet. And on first listen, when I was 14, this was my favorite song. I’ve had at least five different favorite songs on this album (always a trademark of a classic album when it keeps up with your changing tastes). In those pre-www days, I was really keen to find the Evangeline comics, and could not for the life of me, in small-town Nebraska. Now I work at a library that owns them, and I’ve shown them to undergraduate students studying visual art, comics, and the like — mostly because it just makes me happy to be able to do so. (Link to a live version.)
7. “I Don’t Want to Know,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. Love the kitty at the start. And the tambourines — or are they sleigh bells? And the chorus, one of his best.
6. “Smog Moon,” from 100% Fun. It sort of kills me to leave this out of the top five. I cannot be in the same room with you if you do not appreciate this song. One of my favorite final tracks ever. “There’s a smog moon/ In the amber sky/ Wavering and burning like a golden lie.” Also, “We both know that staying young can take its toll.” (Link to hilarious Vampire Diaries fan video scored to this song.)
5. “Time Capsule,” from Altered Beast. Another song with a fantastic (and creepy!) video. While I love the songs I ranked above this a tad more, I think this is probably the song I’d pick if I had to introduce someone to Matthew Sweet with only one song. My second-favorite Sweet chorus, especially that last line, toe-tripping down the stairs.
4. “Winona,” from Girlfriend. The go-to song for wallowing in melancholic self-pity, as a teenager. Because of that, and because it’s a song that just really sounds good as a duet, it is incredibly satisfying to sing along with a loved one, holding hands, having gotten past all that. (Link to creepy Winona Ryder slideshow, but hey, it’s the only source on YouTube for the original song.)
3. “Sick of Myself,” from 100% Fun. I know, I know: Nirvana. But this was as close as I ever got to claiming an anthem. Hell, realistically, the generation was never as idealistic nor as hopelessly fucked up as Nirvana would lead you to believe. This song reflects that.
2. “Girlfriend,” from Girlfriend. I would appreciate the opportunity to love somebody. Oh, are you looking for someone whom you could love?
Seriously though: I suppose the key to this song, beyond one of the best riffs in history, is the Chorus of Angelic Matthew Sweets. They’ve never sounded better. That and the interplay of electric, steel, and acoustic guitars.
1. “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” from Altered Beast. But this, right here, is the best Matthew Sweet song. Stone cold perfect. “I need someone to pull the trigger/ ‘Cause there’s a hole in my heart getting bigger/ And everything I’ll ever be I’ve been/ And I need someone to pull the trigger/ So if you’re what I think you’ll be,/ If you’re who I think I see,/ shoot.” That, my friends, is as great a chorus as any of us will ever hear.
By the way, this needs to be available in a karaoke version. (Kellyn, I’m looking at you. Make it happen.) You could really get a room full of drunks sobbing with this one.
December 12, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.
Dombey and Son was Dickens’ comeback book: H.W. Garrod tells me in the introduction to my Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition that 70,000 people read the weekly serial parts of The Old Curiosity Shop, while “not a third of that number” bought the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, the book prior to this one. The first few parts of D&S (full title Dealings with the Firm Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, in case you were wondering) brought Dickens’s readership back in full force.
None of this really makes much sense to me. If I had to bet, based on the first 100 or so pages, I would’ve bet that Chuzzlewit was the success and D&S the flop. Chuzzlewit at least has some action, some forward momentum. The first seven chapters of D&S are full of light comedy, characters intentionally defined by their lack of personality, and a central plot focused on a baby. (Not a talking baby or a dancing baby or a baby genius, either: just a baby. Little Paul Dombey.) It’s not really gripping stuff. But the Victorians did love their comedic busybodies, their precocious tiny tots, their colorful servant-folk, and their little bits of scenery and sketches of personality. (This stuff is what Dickens cut his teeth on, after all.) I have to admit that I, too, am loving Major Joe Bagstock, who is constantly referring to himself in the third person as “Joey B.,” “Old Joe,” “J. Bagstock,” etc. — maybe the earliest example of this now-omnipresent phenomenon.
Then comes the eighth chapter, “Paul’s further Progress, Growth, and Character,” and the book comes to life. Dickens is never a waste of time, even when he’s merely trying to entertain or lecturing. But he can sometimes seem much flatter, even disinterested in his own work. That’s how the first seven chapters felt, in part because Paul Dombey Sr. is an intentionally flat, cold, mostly uninteresting character: Scrooge without Scrooge’s fire. We hate him for ignoring little Florence, his unwanted daughter, but even there Dickens’ narration distances us from our fury. In chapter eight, however, Dickens is fully engaged, and personally invested, and seems to know he’s working on something great. And it is personal: this chapter is grounded in autobiography. In a letter to his biographer, John Forster, Dickens said that “It is from the life, and I was there — I don’t suppose I was eight years old…”
The “there” there is Mrs. Pipchin’s, near the sea, where “nearly five years old” Paul is sent in hopes of improving his health in the fresher air. Pipchin is a typical Dickens grotesque, an ancient widow known for her expertise on “infancy” who lives in a strange, dank house. Little Paul really becomes the center of the show here, but I think I will reserve my thoughts on him for my next post. The foreshadowing in this chapter is deep and dark.
There are any number of fascinating aspects to this chapter, but I’m interested in how it got me thinking about time, and about the arc of a life. The first paragraph is the beginning of one of Dickens’ smart, compact, and lyrical fast-forwards:
Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time — so far another Major — Paul’s slumbers gradually changed. More and more light broke in upon them; distincter and distincter dreams disturbed them; an accumulating crowd of objects and impressions swarmed about his rest; and so he passed from babyhood to childhood, and became a talking, walking, wondering Dombey.
Dickens is one of the best at this: knowing when it’s time to pull back, take out the wide view, and switch from incident to exposition. He knows his pace; he knows how to stretch minutes (the agony of Jonas Chuzzlewit comes to mind) or speed years. In this chapter, he manages to balance his summaries with his scenes, and somehow gives the texture of lived life and the experience of a sick young boy.
As Paul’s innocent questions about money and death endear him throughout the chapter — and really, I suppose dear little dying Paul is the reason the book was so popular — time crystallizes as a major theme. Paul Dombey Sr. wants time to fast-forward to his son’s adulthood in a way that Dickens will not permit (at least not yet); and his dissatisfaction with day-to-day life is one of the sad subtexts which Dickens has handled beautifully, without explicit moralizing (again, at least not yet). This is one of the best ways that Dickens uses his typically protean and ambiguous narrator: often seeming to chronicle events in a way consistent with the book’s full title, as a kind of business/family history, and therefore often facetiously arguing from Dombey’s perspective, he lets the reader’s own sense of morality and humanity work against the grain of the words. This usually only lasts so long before Dickens can no longer resist laying into his villain.
Little Paul and Florence want their mother back; Mrs. Pipchin feels better about her age by sucking the childhood out of children; even Solomon Gills, in the primary subplot, longs for the days when his nautical instruments were in demand. Future perfect, past perfect: who’s living today, here? When is a life’s living overtaken by a life’s waiting?
September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Dangerous Laughter.
Reading next: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki and The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.
Libraries and their ilk play a surprising large role in this collection, starting with “The Room in the Attic,” maybe my favorite story in the book (either that or “A Precursor of the Cinema,” which is just rad).
The title of this post is taken from “The Room in the Attic,” and spoken by Wolf, Dave the narrator’s super-cool, iconoclastic, book-addicted friend. Here’s the full passage:
“A book,” he [Wolf] declared, “is a dream-machine.” He said this one day when we were sitting on the steps of the town library, leaning back against the pillars. “Its purpose,” he said, ” is to take you out of the world.” He jerked his thumb toward the doors of the library, where I worked for two hours a day after school, three days a week. “Welcome to the dream-factory.”
Of course, this is not an orthodox argument for the American public library system, or for research libraries, for that matter. Library administrators, organizations like ALA, and well wishers are forced to base arguments for the importance of libraries on things like early literacy and young adult after-school programs, continuing education, provision of internet access for the poor, and arts programming. Mostly libraries are getting away from promoting themselves as places that hold books, which seems hopelessly retrograde and static. (Instead they, especially those that deal with “youth,” are all about ridiculous promotions like hosting gaming nights and making sure they have a presence on Second Life.) Books? God, how embarrassing!
And yet, there it is: “Welcome to the dream-factory.” This plays out in a rather literal sense in many libraries: college kids, preschoolers, the homeless napping and (one would think) dreaming. We in libraries, for whatever reason, resist the idea that we are places to dream. We have been singularly bad about instilling a sense of wonder in our patrons about what libraries make available to them. This is perhaps a self-defeating argument: libraries as public resources are an American concept, and Americans insisted on them because they were efficient means of equalizing availability to information and creating an informed citizenry.
Something in me has always bristled at the idea of libraries as merely information repositories, and, indeed, at the naming of my own chosen field as “Library Science.” Wolf goes on to make clear that he sees books as his way out of the world he finds boring and worthy of contempt; and yes, there is something subversive embedded in the idea of the library, as it now exists in America. It is where you can learn whatever you want to learn — not what anyone tells you you must read. It is where you go to make your own world. It is where you go for dreams, fantasies, utopias; knowledge and wisdom, not (just) data and information. Libraries are some of the few places left in America that create and cultivate idiosyncrasy, free thinking, and, yes, dreams and visions. They deal with the crackpots and the geniuses that will not be dismissed as crackpots for long. These are valuable services.
At the other end of the collection is “Here at the Historical Society.” This is one of a handful of rather Borgesian stories here. Its unnamed narrator explains the recent changes in his Historical Society’s curatorial and exhibition policies: because “the present is the past made visible,” the staff now “go out each day to observe and classify a world that is already a part of the historical record.” In other words, everything belongs in the Historical Society; and candy-bar wrappers and other bits of trash are equally worthy of curation and exhibition as historical artifacts as are arrowheads and other more traditionally “historical” materials. This is rather the opposite of Wolf’s “dream-factory.” (Or is it that idea’s logical conclusion?)
The story is the archival equivalent of the headache-inducing idea of the universal library — Borges’s “Library of Babel.” And frankly, Millhauser is not far off: there has certainly been a shift toward collecting more of the materials of daily life in special collections and archives. Where everyone once wanted the papers of world leaders, they now crave the diaries of frustrated housewives and the letters of the few literate slaves. Where the mission was once seen as documenting history, it is now seen as documenting life.
As someone who tries to make these kinds of decisions — what’s worth keeping? How much more valuable is a 400-year-old document than a 4-year-old document? Will anyone care about a current organization in 10, 100, 1000 years? — this is a profoundly frustrating thought. Millhauser’s narrator talks about the Historical Society’s initiative as a way of seeing the world in full, of being enthralled by the world as its own museum, everything a priceless connection to the past and future; but of course, the story is also a satire, and this is closer to the reaction that many people have to this kind of work: Why in the world would you want to save my papers?
For me, at least, the story comes off as satirical at first, but somehow gets more sincere but also more troubling the more I think about it. Do archives, museums, libraries help people better understand their world? Do they function well either as a dream-factory or as a knowledge generator? Or do they merely present a distorted view of the world — an inevitably and unavoidably incomplete picture of an instantly bygone world? As a librarian, I’ve obviously made my decisions on these questions, at least at a practical level; they nevertheless need to be kept in mind. It is always important to remember that we are much closer to knowing (and to preserving) nothing rather than everything. (See also: Rumsfeld’s immortal “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”)