Quote of The Week

“Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity.”

Tacitus


Archives

Too Many Books?

We were staying in a village close to the English town of Rye, which is famous for its sellers of used and antique books. Half a dozen such establishments are scattered along the picturesque high street. One rainy day I decided to hit every used bookstore in town.

I started at the east end, the forbidding Land Gate, constructed in 1369 as part of the town’s defenses against the wicked French invaders. The defenses failed. Nowadays the French come pouring through the Channel Tunnel, and the streets of Rye are full of French tourists. Napoleon would have been delighted. Right beside this ancient monument was the Land Gate Book Shop, its door firmly closed but its window displaying an eclectic selection of Audubon prints, nineteenth century romantic poetry, and modern thrillers.

Just up the hill was ‘The Book Worm,’ where I could have picked up a rare first edition of Trilby by Daphne du Maurier, or a leather bound set of the complete works of Edward Bulwer Lytton – a great but almost forgotten Victorian writer – at a knock-down price. I was almost seduced by a long out-of-print biography of the French composer César Franck. But self-control is built into an expedition like this. The modern economy-class air traveler can’t afford to accumulate books. They’re just too heavy.

Books are solid things. They don’t grow old. It’s the subject matter that ages. Today’s ephemeral celebrity biography or instant Iraq war analysis will be outdated and forgotten before Labor Day. Used book stores preserve the good stuff – books that really tell us something about human nature, life and love – universal books. In these stores the literary connoisseur can discover half-forgotten authors, biographers and poets – whose works are no less good to read for being in faded bindings without colored pictures – and they cost next to nothing.
There are so many tens of thousands, even millions of important and wonderful old books that I should have read, but I haven’t read yet, and that I never will read. And it’s not only books by forgotten writers that make me feel guilty; it’s the sight of shelves and shelves of books by very famous authors whose works are almost never read outside university literature departments, and sometimes not even there. Who has read all the works of Dickens for example, or Twain, or Poe? Who has read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – two of the best adventure tales ever written? They sit on the shelves, waiting for readers who never come.

My tour took me into the dusty recesses of half a dozen old bookstores, including one called ‘Chapter and Verse’ that had a Latin motto engraved on its glass door: Cave Librum Unum Habentem – which I render in my schoolboy Latin as “Beware of a house with only one book.” I leafed through a well-worn 1802 edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in three volumes, but decided that it’s message was too contemporary for my taste. The first volume alone contains enough material on the collapse of democracy, Caesarism and the illusions of empire to keep us thinking for quite a while. After a couple of hundred pages we might realize that we’ve been there, done that – and we don’t want to do it again.
It’s daunting to learn that 140,000 new titles were published last year alone. So even if we ever catch up with the good books of the past, we will never in a dozen lifetimes catch up with the good books of the present.

It was the great Dr. Samuel Johnson who remarked that “Of the making of many books there is no end,” and I was struck by the thought – a horribly subversive and even wicked thought for a writer – that there are indeed enough books already. We could spend the next hundred years reading our way through the used bookshops of the world, or even just the bookshops of Rye, and never exhaust this literary treasure house. To save the drowning readers of the world I’m almost tempted to suggest a ten year moratorium on all new books; or most new books; or at least other people’s new books.

The nuclear family

I’ve been re-reading a memoir by that fine dramatist Alan Bennett. The book is called Untold Stories, but a better title might be Unspoken Stories. Bennett has a gift for unfolding the small dramas of everyday life on stage or in film. Here he turns that talent inward, towards himself and his own very ordinary family. What makes this memoir so gripping is that the author writes what is never said about families — what is never said, and seldom even thought, and he does it in such a poignant and sensitive way that the reader can empathize with every character. It’s not just Alan Bennett’s family you learn about, but every family. Every page brings a pang of recognition like a mild jolt from a stun gun. It’s a gentle, loving portrait, but nobody could call it sweet.

When you read the memoirs of a fearless writer like Alan Bennett you realize how many layers of unspoken truth lie under the surface of every family’s public story. It reminds me of the days when I sometimes taught workshops on memoir writing. Everyone wanted to write about their family, either to memorialize it as an ideal, or to get their revenge. I encouraged them to dig deep for the truth, but not many were willing to do that. Instead they tended to write rather superficially – either family horror stories of unbelievable nastiness, or Norman Rockwell portraits of perfection. It’s hard to take a cool, objective view of your nearest and dearest.

So as Thanksgiving approaches – a time when families get together and rediscover their imperfections – I wonder whether one should ever encourage young writers to dig for the truth in their own family histories. It seems perilously close to masochism, and it may not be worth the pain. Alan Bennett does it for you, and so much better.

It’s All Too Much

When we visit a country for the first time it’s tempting to describe it as “paradoxical.” It sounds better than admitting that we don’t understand anything about it. But Sweden isn’t paradoxical. Even though Stockholm is a big, high-tech city, it made me think of Garrison Keilor’s Lake Wobegone, where the inhabitants chose as their motto: “We are what we are.”

Swedes seem to live up to their reputation as a calm, phlegmatic, unexcitable people. For example, Stockholm’s amusement park, The Tivoli, has the highest free fall tower in Europe. Now most people, on being dropped a vertical 240 feet at an accelerating speed of twenty-eight feet per second per second, will scream. The Swedes just say “Oop.” They are made of superior stuff.

Swedish, tourist brochures contain little or no hype. Public transportation costs are described as “Very modest,” a restaurant is recommended for its “Quite nice views” (in fact they are spectacular), another is praised for “Very adequate food” (another understatement). Our hotel had four stars, but the four star sign outside was six inches across instead of six feet.

This was all very refreshing. In America we live in a hurricane of overstatement, hyperbole, wildly exaggerated claims, plain lies, and what Harry Frankfurt in an engaging book calls “Bull.” Even in the Midwest, where people are so personally modest and polite, hype is still everywhere – the biggest burger, and most effective antacid, and so on. It’s as if nobody feels they can sell any product or any idea without lying about it. In Sweden we got the feeling that you might actually get a good deal on a secondhand car.

The impresario P.T.Barnum started it all back in the last century, with his circus, billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (an outrageous claim when you remember that the Franco-Prussian War was going on at the time). Barnum believed that the only way to sell something was to oversell it, and we are still living with his legacy of empty hyperbole. Everything must be superior, amazing, perfect, great, incredible.

This Barnum-speak has infiltrated our whole language, including the language of news. Every day brings the MOST CATASTROPHIC refugee crisis, the MOST BRUTAL crime, the MOST DESTRUCTIVE forest fire, and so on, as if today is always worse than yesterday.

This thoughtless exaggeration is a silly and dangerous habit, especially when it infiltrates into politics. Instead of saying: “Democracy is a pretty good system on the whole,” or “My religion isn’t so bad, compared to some of the others,” we have to go all out and claim democracy as the best system and our religion as the only true faith.

The Swedes don’t seem to do this, which may be how Sweden stayed out of wars for a hundred and fifty years. They prefer not to go to extremes. Even the Vikings, according to revisionist history, weren’t the piratical murderers of legend but brave explorers with the souls of poets. After the Napoleonic Wars the Swedes lost interest in the whole military business. The War Museum in Stockholm is more of a reflection on the stupidity of war than a glorification of it. It may also be relevant that they spend less time watching TV than any other western nation, which reduces their exposure to mindless violence.

Modesty, moderation, and restraint can’t be bad. We might be happier and more peaceful if we gave up claiming that everything we happen to approve of is the greatest, the biggest, the best, the most virtuous, the truest, when probably it isn’t and, even if it is, we should be far too modest to say so.

The Dark Side

“Comedy is the public version of a private darkness.”
John Cleese.

It was no accident that Gary Larson labeled his long serious of hilarious cartoons “From the Dark Side.” That’s where humor comes from.

For ten years I taught (or tried to teach) workshops on writing humor, and this was the hardest message to get across. The funniest people are not those hearty, back-slapping joke-telling characters with rubber noses and a pocket full of tricks. Funny people tend to be gloomy, verging on suicidal. Humor is their survival mechanism.

I don’t want to overstate my case. If you plan to write humor it is useful to be miserable, but not essential. Nor is it absolutely required that you be a depressive, an alcoholic, or drug addict, but it helps – all three if possible. A miserable childhood and a few major life traumas will also give you an excellent start as a humorist.

Consider the biographies of some great humorists: Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, H.L.Mencken, W.C.Fields, Russell Baker, T. Correghesan Boyle, Philip Roth; Danny Kaye; John Cleese; Woody Allen; Peter Ustinov; John Belushi; Chris Farley; Phil Hartman. The list is a long (and gloomy) one. Art Buchwald wrote about his clinical depression. If you want a good time, don’t hang out with humorists.

There’s not much mystery about this. The comic point of view is essentially that of the stranger or alien, who sees things differently. He (usually he) is the stranger, the naïf, the unbeliever, the depressive, misanthrope, the anarchist, or the anti-Christ. He is an outsider by definition, and his viewpoint is always contrary to the conventional wisdom, always contrarian. That’s what makes people laugh, although they may laugh uneasily, recognizing that the common world is being turned upside down.

As a writer there are two things you can do with your grumbles and complaints and dark thoughts about life. You can serve them straight up, in which case you won’t have an audience unless you happen to be a very exceptional writer. Or you can spin them into irony, satire, parody or absurdity so that your readers will smile, and think. Don’t be ashamed of writing humor. As Peter Ustinov said: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

Commonplaces

What already seems like a lifetime ago, in a book called Writer at Work (2005 – see Books and Audio page) I suggested than one sure cure for writers’ block was always to have at least one long term project.

“Having a project can also help a writer to get going and keep going. The project can be a novel or script (although these things can be a quagmire), or simply a theme or a series. It may help to think about the kinds of things you want to write and formulate them as a long-term project – for example “all my family’s stories” or “looking back on the books that changed my life” or “the experiences and opinions of a recovering educator” – you get the idea. The great French essayist Michel de Montaigne gave this as his very best piece of advice to writers: have a project, work on it every day, and never let your mind lie fallow. It sounds more impressive in French.”

Of course I never follow my own advice. These past few weeks I found myself in a sort of existential fog. Nothing seemed worth doing, or writing about. Finally I realized that, since finishing with an essay collection and a memoir, I haven’t had a real project. A memoir, in particular, feels final, like THE END on the last page of a novel.

Plenty of fantasy projects have drifted through my mind: writing a novel, writing some short stories, writing some huge heavy-duty serious essays for the literary magazine market. But none of these ideas had the motivating spark, so I went to the basement.

The basement is my Freudian subconscious, where I keep all the stuff I think I have forgotten. There are several filing drawers full of “ideas” – or at least files with notes and cuttings about things that interest me. One set files is for my short radio essays, a second is for my music program, and the third contains everything else. I pulled all the stuff out of the third drawer.

What I found was a heap of files – some old, some new – a full twenty-seven inches thick. I measured them. These are all ideas that I want to write about “one day.” Perhaps that day has arrived.

It was interesting but daunting to go through these papers. They contain disorganized material on every subject from the teaching of history to the belief in flying saucers, and from tourism to the curious attitudes of Americans towards sex. It is either a treasure trove or a heap of junk.

I decided to treat it as a treasure trove, and set about organizing the tide of paper into topics. But it was clear from the start that this explosion of ideas and prejudices was not material for a conventional book of essays. But it might be the basis for a Commonplace Book.

Who in the 21st century has heard of a Commonplace Book? They’ve been around since the 16th century, and are still regularly published under some different label. The original Commonplace Books were collections of spiritual thoughts and insights. These were commonplaces by definition. In those days any departure from orthodoxy might have very bad consequences indeed.

But, over the centuries, the term Commonplace Book took on an ironic meaning. It was still a collection of everyday observations and thoughts, but the content became more and more original, quirky, and unorthodox. In other words “commonplace” was turned on its head. The originator of this device may have been Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées (1669) are a fine example of a commonplace book that recorded the casual thoughts of an ordinary prodigy and genius.

In short, a commonplace book is an intellectual scrapbook, a collection of thoughts, opinions, and memories. One of my favorite examples is D.J.Enright’s Play Resumed. Kurt Vonnegut, in his old age, took to publishing such collections of fragments, including Man Without a Country.

There’s no doubt that I have more enough material for such a Commonplace Book, although not such a good one. Watch this space. Don’t hold your breath.

Cassandra

My parents read a London newspaper called the Daily Mirror. This was an embarrassment, because the Mirror was a tabloid and not a quality paper. It was full of bathing beauties, murder stories and sports reports, and featured huge, shouting headlines. As a snobbish teenager I refused to read it, except for one columnist who went under the nom de plume “Cassandra.” His real name, I believe, was William Neil Connor.

Cassandra was an attack columnist. He said all the things that should not be said, and told all the truths that nobody wanted to hear. But he was always on the side of truth and justice, and I took him as a kind of role model. Later in life when I started writing newspaper columns myself the ghost of Cassandra was always in the back of my mind.

Somewhere along the way, but too late, I looked up the name Cassandra. My sketchy classical education had failed to teach me that she was a Trojan princess who was punished by the god Apollo for refusing his advances. He put an unusual curse on the poor woman. She was doomed to become a prophetess whose prophecies would always be true but would never be believed.

So it seems that I myself had been doomed without knowing it. My early fascination with that column in the Daily Mirror must have warped my brain, and I have spent half a century churning out prophecies that are always true but never believed. I can’t decide whether this is funny or tragic.

The Comic Sage of Remsenburg

If you are less than a certain age you may not be familiar with the comic genius of P.G.Wodehouse, pronounced Woodhouse. His novels and stories were the consolation of my teenage years, when schoolwork and examinations seemed to fill the whole horizon. For light relief there were always the books of P.G.Wodehouse.

He was the creator, among many other things, of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, in which an idiotic young man about town is saved from numerous disasters by his suave valet Jeeves. They were splendidly incarnated by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the Masterpiece Theatre series which ran for four seasons in the early 1990s. The running joke in these books, which is as old as Shakespeare, is that the servant is smarter than the master, and not just smarter but also more of a gentleman. The plots are chaotic and complicated, but most of them concern the eternal struggle by Bertie Wooster to avoid marrying a succession of ghastly women, notably the appalling Madeline Bassett.

Here’s a passage from Jeeves and the Ties That Bind that summarizes Bertie’s perpetual dilemma.

“Madeline Bassett, daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett of Totleigh Towers, Gloucestershire, had long been under the impression that I was hopelessly in love with her and had given me to understand that if she ever had the occasion to return her betrothed, Gussie Fink-Nottle, to store, she would marry me. Which wouldn’t have fit with my plans at all, she, though physically in the pin-up class, being as mushy a character as ever broke biscuit, convinced that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born. The last thing, as you can well imagine, one would want about the home.”

Nobody else wrote (or writes) like that.

P.G.Wodehouse, or “Plum” as he is affectionately known by his fans, created a fictional world in which a giant pig called the Empress of Blandings, a passion for newts, or the correct arrangement of a white tie were infinitely more important than death or taxes, or even school examinations. It wasn’t a fantasy world on the lines of Harry Potter, but a wildly exaggerated version of a real world that had existed once upon a time, when Wodehouse was young – a world of idle young gentlemen and flighty women, suave servants and eccentric aunts. As a teenager, I badly wanted to enter that world. In particular, I wanted to be an idle young gentleman with a valet.

I was lucky to grow up with Wodehouse. Some critics say that he was the finest English comic writer since Shakespeare. He had splendid timing, just the right amount of erudition, and a marvelous way with words. He was also enormously prolific, producing a hundred and twenty-six books with titles like The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood and A Pelican at Blandings Castle, plus over fifty plays and musical comedies, and hundreds of short stories. He was still busily writing in the year of his death at the age of ninety-four.

Although his stories and settings are so quintessentially English, P.G. made his reputation and his fortune in the United States. He came here in 1946 and lived in New York and Hollywood until 1955, when he and his wife Ethel settled in Remsenburg, Long Island, on a twelve acre estate by the sea. There he lived happily for the last twenty years of his life, surrounded by dogs and cats and still spinning his wonderful stories. He was belatedly knighted and became Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in 1975.

P.G.Wodehouse is worth remembering above all for his humor, which he never lost even when interned in Germany in the Second World War. Wodehouse’s subject was the human comedy, the endlessly entertaining contrast between what we pretend to be and what we are. He helped me to get life in perspective, to see the joke, which isn’t easy when you’re a teenager. The sad and pedestrian books now sold as “Young Adult” novels, full of family and school problems and facile solutions, are a poor substitute for the inspired satire of a writer like P.G. Wodehouse.

I think the evidence for P.G.s quality is that he still has fan clubs all over the world, the biggest in India, Russia and Japan, and of course in England. Millions and millions of people must have laughed out loud at his wonderful comic inventions. Come back Plum, we really need you.

Knowing a Book by its Cover

Writers must sometimes venture into activities for which we have few or no qualifications. Public speaking and salesmanship are two good examples. This past week I have been trying and failing to think intelligently about cover design. A visit to any bookstore will confirm that some book designers have tremendous flair, and others should never be allowed near a graphics program. It seems that I one of the latter type. My visual ideas are rubbish, and my grasp of typography and graphic design is about on a par with my grasp of quantum theory.

Book design is overrated, in my opinion. Books should be about words. Nobody buys a book for its cover, unless we include trashy paperbacks sold in airport bookstores. The French once had the right idea about jacket design. Most serious books in France used to be (and many still are) wrapped in the absolutely plain, graphics-free paper covers that I remember from my student days: title, author, publisher, and nothing else. They looked serious, and they were serious. If you wanted to know what was inside you had to read the book.

Americans have never gone for this simple and cheap solution. Book covers are advertisements, and must be created with the same care as the text – or perhaps more. Professional book designers are employed to do this, although most of us have strong ideas about our own books that the designers are paid to ignore.

A few weeks ago I had to come up with a cover design for my latest book, Dark Matters. This consists of eleven long critical essays calculated to solve all the world’s problems. Bright colors and clever illustrations seemed inappropriate, so I decided on the ultra-simple French style: title, subtitle and author’s name on a blank, almost black background.

I like the way it looks. Time will tell whether this stark design will carry Dark Matters all the way to the New York Times bestseller list. I’m not holding my breath.

Good News

Nobody can deny that we need some good news. Whether we will get any is another matter. My mother didn’t believe in good news. She heard nothing but bad news from the time she was born in 1909. Oddly enough there was chaos and war in the Middle East just after she was born, and the place has continued in much the same state to this very day. Then there was the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and then the Cold War when for more than forty years we were all expecting to be bombed into dust by those wicked communists. Oddly enough, they never got around to it. My guess is that the Soviets never had WMDs in the first place, just big painted models that they paraded through Red Square on May Day.

The odd dull moments were livened up with Korea, Vietnam, Granada, and famines and civil wars all over the place. More recently we’ve had the 9/11 terrorist attack, the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq wars I and II. When human ingenuity fails, nature can always be relied upon to deliver, a tsunami or a hurricane.

When did you last hear some good news? It’s a silly question. News doesn’t work lie that.
My time as a newspaper journalist is long past, but I do remember that only bad news sells. We dreaded a slow bad news day. As the most junior person on the reporting staff I was responsible for covering any small gaps that appeared in the news pages, due to the fact that nothing bad had happened. So I routinely wrote little items of imaginary news to fill the spaces. Usually these were traffic accidents or vague disturbances in which no one was arrested. I learned very quickly what was wanted, and it wasn’t a heartwarming story of a little girl finding her lost bunny. It had to be something exciting, alarming, or depressing. Just watch the Fox TV channel. You don’t have to have a PhD in media studies to figure out their game: bad news, fear, mysteries, and ideally all three at once. It’s simple-minded, but it works.

Most of us prefer bad news. Study your family when the TV news is on. Watch when their eyes are fixed on the screen, and when they drift away. Over the decades dozens of people have launched “Good News” newspapers and TV shows, but they all sank without a trace, and quickly. Someone once gave me a link to a web page called Happy News.com. It had stories of survivors, pets rescued, sports victories, health breakthroughs, and so on. It was all good stuff, but even HappyNews.com had an unhappy news button, in case you couldn’t stand it anymore.

Good news just doesn’t grab us. Consider these imaginary headlines: “President Embraces Health Care for All;” “Afghanistan Endorse Democratic Constitution: All Rebel Groups Disarm”; “Massive Federal Effort to Abolish Income Inequality.” If The New York Times had to survive on headlines like that it would be dead in a week.

Here’s an interesting paradox. In the mass media good news is almost always personal (the rescue, the recovery, the survival). Bad news is almost always social (refugees, economic problems, war). If research showed this to be true, it would be a triumphant vindication of American individualism. No matter how bad things get out there, each of us personally is doing just fine. I’ll leave you to spot the logical flaw in this argument, if there is one. The bottom line is that in order to have a small amount of good news worth reporting, you first have to have a very large amount of bad news. Every cloud has a silver lining.

The Intellectual and the Clown

September 18th, is the birth anniversary of that prodigious poet, essayist, lexicographer, critic, philosopher and wit, Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was born on this date in 1709, and dominated the English literary scene for more than half a century. Among many other things Dr. Johnson gave us his famous dictionary, and a whole arsenal of quips and quotations that have passed into the language. Many of them are still carry a sting today.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of a civilization.”

“No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous.”

“Nobody but a blockhead every wrote except for money.”

“The Triumph of hope over experience.” (On second marriages).

But the real reason I want to mention Dr. Johnson’s anniversary is to raise the question: where are the Dr. Johnson’s of today? More specifically, where are the towering intellectuals who also had wit and humor, and could speak to us all in everyday language?

Wit and wisdom, it seems, have been separated into different social compartments. Wit and humor belong to the entertainment industry, while intelligence and thoughtfulness are claimed by the academic industry. (Politics, of course, exists in a separate realm, without either humor or intelligence).

The sharp division between “funny” and “serious” writers is a false dichotomy, and a sad one. Ideas and arguments are much easier to absorb if they come with a touch of humor, and humor is much funnier if it contains a spark of intelligence instead of relying on pratfalls and dumb family jokes.

Writers need to communicate difficult, unwelcome ideas as well as light and amusing ones. My two great heroes from the past age are Mark Twain and H.L.Mencken, both of whom combined the qualities of the intellectual and the clown. These were writers who changed the minds of their many readers by making them laugh, or at least smile grimly in recognition. I would love to be like them, of course, but I’m afraid I come up a bit short on the intellectual front. I know a few real intellectuals, and they are formidable.

But today’s intellectuals generally prefer to avoid the seductive techniques of irony, satire, and parody. They fear they will be dismissed as “not serious.” They seem to care less about the other danger – that they will be not read at all.