Archive for August, 2005

(It’s the one with the creeping cat on the cover)
I’ve been telling everyone to read “My Bird Problem” by Jonathan Franzen. He cleverly combines bird-watching, his relationship problems and fears of global warming. I like birds and some of my best friends are bird-watchers, but I do think there’s a lot of potential for comedy inherent in the topic. All these somewhat fanatical people creeping about with their special binoculars and life lists; it would make a good set-up for a murder mystery. Anyway, Franzen’s bird problem becomes evident to him when he realizes that he has to care about global warming because now he cares about birds.

I loved his novel, The Corrections. I was sorry about the backlash that was engendered by his comment that he didn’t really want his book chosen as one of Oprah’s book club. As I recall, he wrote a rather funny article about that situation, too.

In the same issue, I really liked Louis Menand’s article on Edmund Wilson, especially at the end when he summarizes Wilson’s career as “devoted to the principle that an educated, intelligent person can take on any subject that seems interesting and important, and, by doing the homework and taking care with the exposition, make it interesting and important to other people.” This reminds me of some of the writers about whom I am reading in “The New, New Journalists.”


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(It’s the one with the yellow cover, two boys playing with a beach ball)

“Lone Star” by Dan Halpern is funny and irreverant, like the subject, a guy named Kinky Friedman who is running for Governor of Texas (one of his slogans is “how hard can it be?”).

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Looking for some truth…

La vérité n’est pas faite pour consoler comme une tartine de confitures qu’on donne aux enfants qui pleurent. Il faut la rechercher, voilà tout, et écarter de soi ce qui n’est pas elle. –Gustave Flaubert

I switched over to Herzog for the weekend. I really like it. It’s so funny, as when he says he has to be Herzog, there was no one else to do the job, or ‘unless you are utterly exploded, there is always something to be grateful for.’ It’s also sad, this attempt to grasp truth and pin down the meaning of life, once and for all. It’s as if he’s trying to hold all the ideas of philosophy and life and death in the palm of his hands, a futile effort, as it runs like water through them, but a valiant effort nonetheless.

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Now I’m reading about the Dreyfus affair, which is the fourth section of The Proud Tower. Of course, I’ve heard of Dreyfus and I know Zola was involved and wrote J’accuse in response and that there was anti-semitism involved, but that was pretty much all I knew about it. The way it polarized the country and the intensity of the debate is amazing. Also, the fact that many justified the injustice of the Dreyfus trial by saying that to reopen the trial would undermine the army and lead to war with Germany.

Many of the Dreyfusards felt that France was betraying the values of 1789 through the injustice of the original trial and the refusal to reopen it. As Clemenceau wrote, “There can be no patriotism without justice….As soon as the right of one individual is violated, the right of everyone is jeapordized.” These words should be heeded today when people bandy about the word patriotism while sanctioning the oppression of others.

Thinking back to the previous section, I am reminded how the American anti-imperialists felt that those who wanted to take over the Phillipines were betraying the original values of liberty on which the country had been founded, thus the title, “The End of the Dream.”

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Reading Tuchman

I can’t believe I never read anything by Barbara Tuchman before this. Coming from a family of history majors who have all read all of her books many times over, it seems strange. I guess I was too busy reading Jane Austen! In any case, I am enjoying The Proud Tower. The first section, entitled “The Patricians”, seemed like an extension of all the Victorian novels that I’ve read. The second section about anarchists set off many bells of recognition. Wasn’t Henry James’ novel, The Princess Casamassima, about anarchists?

“The End of the Dream” about the United States becoming an imperialist power shed a lot of light on the political situation at the end of the 19th century. Since I’m currently listening to Truman, there is some overlap. When Truman was young he heard William Jennings Bryan speak at the democratic convention, and he and his father were fervent Bryan supporters. I always remember my brother quoting Bryan’s famous speech: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Stirring oratory, but who knows what he meant, something to do with silver, I think.

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An interesting website

I googled the Francis Bacon quote in my first post to see if I had the wording right, which as it turned out, I didn’t (I thought it was ‘speaking makes a ready man’ when it turns out to be ‘conference makes a ready man’). Anyway, as so often happens when googling around the Internet, I came across this strange and interesting site.

It seems to be about the craft of writing, written by famous writers and annotated by users of the site, I think. I haven’t had time to read through the site, but I’m intrigued by the idea.

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Why blog?

There are probably a lot of blogs out there about reading, so why add another one? I guess I like the idea of a semi-public forum in which to express my thoughts about what I am reading. While it is probable that no one will read this, there is the off chance that someone will, which adds a certain anxiety to the process. Effective writing can’t occur in vacuum, so anxiety is important, like baking soda or yeast when baking, it adds a certain frisson. That’s one reason to blog. I’m not sure why others blog. Another reason is a favorite quote of mine by Francis Bacon, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man and writing an exact man.” If you think of reading as a vocation, then it seems important to have the discipline to write about what you are reading, to process it, and not just consume one book after another. Life has to be more than appetite.

So, to jump right in, here is what I am currently reading:

The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman
Herzog, by Saul Bellow
The New New Journalism, by Robert S. Boynton
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

Books on list to read next are:

Harry Potter VI, by J. K. Rowling
My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok
The new Nevada Barr mystery (Hard Truth?)

I am listening to a book on tape as well, Truman, by David McCullough

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