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On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Monday, March 19th, 2007

seneca penguin shortness of lifeSpam Madness… No, this is not the title of a book, this is what happens every time I come to my book blog to post. I login and instead of writing about literature, I spend precious, irreplaceable moments of my life wading through hundreds of spam comments.

Why don’t I just erase them all? you ask. Because I’m haunted by the idea that someone who actually likes books might stop by and say hello… and I’ll miss it.

Unfortunately, the most interesting comment I’ve gotten so far was an offer for a laser comb that cures baldness. I should write them and see if they have laser sunglasses that perform corrective surgery for nearsightedness. I imagine you would have to put them on very, very carefully. And NEVER flip them up to rest on top of your head unless you want an impromptu lobotomy.

But I digress.

Ever since I read Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” (Penguin, Great Ideas Series) I’ve been much more aware of how I’m spending my life. I’m getting better at using it wisely, making conscious decisions, not blowing it rashly and so forth, but it’s kind of like herding fluffs — there’s always a breeze blowing…

Sloth, guilt, tiredness, perfectionism all tempt us to fritter our time away like dandelion fluffs in a hurricane. I keep having to remind myself that I only have a finite amount of it. (Time, that is, not the dandelion fluffs.) Why is this so hard to remember? Of course, it’s probably tied to the fact that not having infinite time means that I am going to die one day. This, frankly, is unacceptable. There are far too many fine books to read.

Here are a few quotations to whet your appetite:

On choosing people to hang out with: “But in the current dearth of good men, you must be less particular in your choice. Still, you must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.”

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

“We all sorely complain of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all, or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”

~ Seneca, Roman philosopher (4 BC-65 AD)

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

“If they can’t find a book that uses clean words, they shouldn’t have a book at all.”

- Diana Verm, high school student

Sigh. Where do you begin?

It’s all over the web: Alton Verm, his daughter, the irony. The short version is that during Banned Books Week in the States, a guy who didn’t read Fahrenheit 451 demanded that it be banned from his daughter’s school for a long list of reasons including: “bad language, violence and that the book spends time ‘downgrading Christians’ [they have to use Windows 3.1?] and ‘talking about our firemen.’[?!?]”

“It’s just all kinds of filth,” said Alton Verm, adding that he had not read ‘Fahrenheit 451.’

This begs the question in a screaming kind of way: “Is he psychic?” How does he know there’s filth in there if he hasn’t even peeked? And forgive me, but this is Ray Bradbury we’re talking about here. Perhaps I missed his racy period? My god, what would Alton make of Céline? And if he listened to thirty seconds of pretty much any rap song, he’d probably spontaneously combust.

Ridiculous, yet frightening people and trends aside, it did make me think about the book. Like a lot of people, I read it in high school. Two points in Alton’s complaint made me wonder: I didn’t remember Bradbury laying into Christians and it’s hard to imagine Bradbury cursing like an inner-city sailor — if you can forgive the mixed simile.

I pulled my copy off the shelf, blew the dust off the top edge and sat down to count the “swears” and skim a little.

Two hours later, I was deep into it. I’d forgotten how beautiful and sad a book it is. Save a couple of slightly dated passages, it reads like it was written last week.

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh?”

“The bigger your market…the less you handle controversy…”

Amazing, we’re still fighting exactly the same demons, Alton being a fine example of same. But I’d like to thank him for leading me to reread a good book, and for reminding me how precious the written word is. I don’t want to be patronizing, but I feel bad for Alton. I don’t even want to think about how much poorer my life would be without books.

I’d like to finish with two quotations. The first from Leonard Cohen. When told in a 1960’s recording session for one of his poetry books that when he came to a “dirty word” he should skip over it, Cohen responded with the simple statement: “There are no dirty words.”

And the second quotation is from a blog post that ends with a comment on the school’s proposed solution:

Diana, got to read an alternate book, “Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable”. Which is brilliant, because Alton Verm will stare at a title like that the way a chipmunk stares at an electron microscope.

I laughed until I hurt. What else can you do?

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Absolution by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

Everyone has something that school managed to ruin for them. For me it was football (okay, this one’s a joke), calculus (can’t say I’m too upset) and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Now, the latter is a bit of a mystery. I know I read The Great Gatsby in school and was almost certainly forced to deconstruct it down to the molecular level and then document the carnage.

Strange thing is that I remember none of this, but I’ve had an absolute aversion (think Clockwork Orange) to Mr. Fitzgerald for ages. This puzzles me. Usually, I can explain in great ranting detail why I don’t like something.

For hours if left unchecked.

But I cannot tell you why this aversion to FSF. So last night I pulled an (unread) copy of the Viking Portable collection (edited by Dorthy Parker) and read a short story called Absolution. It was magnificent. (Doubly recommended if you had a Catholic upbringing.)

I absolutely refuse to give a summary, because I can’t stand that kind of review and also because nothing that I can say will give you any idea about it. You just have to read it. But I will give you one sentence:

“There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God.”

Go find a copy and read it.

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Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

Sunday, August 20th, 2006

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

Beware the distractions of the internet! I sat down two hours ago to write this review and promptly discovered Pandora which is an impressive tool from the Music Genome Project. It’s downright eerie how well it guesses what I’ll like. Sadly, they don’t have any classical or “world” music and I was just about to give up when started finding some great old jazz. Hurray! Adding Leonard Cohen and Josh Ritter has produced some interesting results and I’ve actually discovered some great new music. This thing really works!

Then, I happened upon this entertaining article in the Globe called “No books? The terrorists have won” ( Need a password ? )

Then, I started rooting around in one of my favorite sources for fabulous articles: mirabilis. There went another hour spent in wonderfully interesting reads.

Okay, I’m back and I will write this.

I seem to have a bit of a thing for Norwegian writers and now I can add Hamsun to the list. I read this on vacation, which I heartily recommend. It’s not a book I could read dashing between jobs on public transit. And that, to me, is only right: the book draws you into a world so utterly different from ours. There are a lot of differences, but the biggest is how people move through time. This is a slow, thoughtful, eerily beautiful book that you can’t stop reading.

Details of Knut Hamsun’s life are variously reported. The Encyclopædia Britannica claims he began writing “at the age of 19, when he was a shoemaker’s apprentice”. Other sources (i.e.: the Nobel Prize people!) say he was “an apprentice to a ropemaker” which I admit I prefer — talk about a lost art! And of course, the internet has its share of gossip, claiming that “Following a meeting with Joseph Goebbels in 1943, he [Hamsun] sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift.” Britannica is ominously silent on this one and I don’t have access to a library, so I can’t tell you if there’s anything to it. But it’s the old argument of the artist vs. the man. So, on to the artist.

Here’s an excerpt from an article of his:

“Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness. A word can be transformed into a colour, light, a smell. It is the writer’s task to use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored. The writer must be able to revel and roll in the abundance of words. He must know not only the direct but also the secret power of a word. There are overtones and undertones to a word, and lateral echoes, too.”

I wish I could read him in the original, but his writing comes through as utterly unique even in translation. If you want to read more about him, here’s an excellent article from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I’m certainly looking forward to reading more by him.

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