Quote of The Week

“When you have seen the Hitler-Jugend in action you become very wary of team spirit.”

Edsger W. Dijkstra

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I Have Issues

The English language is constantly changing, but not necessarily improving. In
theory every new word or usage enriches the language in some way. How could
we communicate today without verbs like “to Google” or “to outsource,” or
adjectives like “supersize”? But many new terms simply push out the old without
raising the quality of our English at all.

The fad for political correctness in the late twentieth century turned a lot of
our language into mush. Old people vanished and reappeared as “senior citizens,”
stupid kids metamorphosed into the “educationally challenged,” drug addicts
mysteriously turned into “substance abusers,” and so on. You’ve heard this all
before, but it really matters because language matters. If we talk like phonies we
will inevitably begin to think like phonies. “The great enemy of clear language is
insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, nailing the problem with his usual precision.
Euphemistic, misleading, evasive, and just plain silly language now comes at us
from every part of the political spectrum, and from business too. When we had to
buy some curtains for our house I was amazed to discover that simple curtains
were no longer available. We had to purchase “window treatments,” although
they looked exactly like curtains to me.

The weasel word of the moment is “issues.” Whenever somebody is being difficult,
or unreliable, or neurotic, their behavior is excused with the phrase: “Oh,
he (or she) has a lot of issues.” This slippery term can also be used self-referetially,
as in: “I have issues with that,” or even diagnostically, as in: “He can’t move
ahead until he deals with his issues.”

Now “issue” in old English meant a number of things: the act of coming out,
or an exit, or the label for a child in relation to its parents, or the act of publishing
or distributing something, or a position taken in a legal case or a political dispute.
I imagine that it is this last meaning that has been seized upon and made into
nonsense by people who talk about “having issues.”

Issues are big problems or conflicts. Israel and Palestine have issues, President
Trump and Nancy Pelosi have issues, Serbs and Bosnians have issues. Most of us
don’t have issues worthy of the name; we have complaints. I have numerous complaints
and grumbles about modern life, but none of them qualifies as an “issue.”

Nobody likes to admit: “I’m a miserable, negative sort of person who is never
satisfied.” But it sounds rather grand to say: “I have issues.” When I floated this
topic in conversation I was earnestly told that “issues” are much more significant
than mere complaints. “Issues” are the psychic scars left by a lifetime of pain and
struggle: divorce, illness, death, failure and all the predictable traumas of modern
life. Some people seem to nurture and treasure their unhappy experiences forever.
Like the old Bourbon kings of France, they have learned nothing and forgotten
nothing. So, they have issues.

In the course of writing this I inevitably examined my own character. I have
been accused of having curmudgeonly tendencies, so perhaps I too have unresolved
issues in my life. This would be rather fun, because I could join in the
whining chorus about “issues” and feel that I am, once again, on the cutting edge
of the English language.

I don’t buy it. Let’s call things by their proper names. We all have complaints,
pet peeves, discontents, irritations, disappointments, resentments, bad memories,
gripes, grievances, grouches, grudges, and grumbles. We all enjoy being petulant,
peevish, whining curmudgeonly, and querulous from time to time. The English
language is rich enough to express every good or bad thing that ever happened to
anybody. We don’t need “issues.”

Tell me a Story

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
Hannah Arendt

The human voice telling a story is one of the most soothing sounds in the world. The hearers are drawn in by the story itself, and by the experience of hearing it together. I remember seeing traditional storytellers in Morocco thirty years ago, and they created that magic even in a busy public square. It didn’t matter that the same stories had been told a million times. My long-suffering parents read stories to me every single night to help me get to sleep. Even now I can’t get to sleep without a book, although I would prefer someone to sit beside the bed and read the book to me out loud. I can scarcely bear to drive without listening to stories on tape.

If this is an addiction, at least it has a long and honorable history. Storytelling is one of the most ancient of all the arts. Long before the invention of writing it was a way of remembering the history of a tribe or community. Sagas like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are based on an older oral tradition, and storytellers still exist in a few pre-literate communities.

Storytelling has an unflattering image today. It’s associated with teachers and librarians, who like to perform for a captive audience of children who are too young to fight back – or at least too young to be armed. But storytelling for adults is making a comeback. There’s a national storytelling organization based in Tennessee, with events, awards, and all the paraphernalia of a living tradition. You can find storytelling events in most big cities in America – and many more if you happen to be in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. When we were living in a small French village there were twice-monthly story tellings that were always well attended.

What is storytelling? As usual, everyone has a different idea, but they all agree that it must be a live face-to-face performance, and that the stories must be told from memory and never read from a script. Stories can be traditional or modern. Most of them are based on the lives of the storytellers and their communities. A storyteller doesn’t offer commentary or analysis – s/he just tells it. A story is about something that happened. It has characters, action, drama, tension, plot and dénoument.

Storytelling is a fundamental writing skill. We prefer to call it by the fancier name of “narrative,” but it’s much the same thing. Fiction writers who can’t tell a story are doomed to failure before they even switch on the computer. Successful non-fiction is more and more based on storytelling skills – just check out the bestseller lists. Stories were abandoned as old fashioned by the “modernist” school of writers, which is why nobody reads them anymore. Everybody loves a story.

My own storytelling skills are mediocre. This is unfair because two of my uncles, Jack and Bill (one from each side of the family) were great storytellers, and so was my father. But one day I met Ken Corsbie at a party. He was the only interesting person in a room full of boring academics and ex-academics who were all talking about tenure, promotion and committee meetings. Ken was telling stories about mangoes.

He knew me through my radio programs. “You’re a storyteller like me,” he said. I disagreed, citing the arguments and definitions above. “That’s all rubbish, man,” he said, “you’re a storyteller but you don’t know it yet.”

I soon discovered that I was talking to an expert. Ken Corsbie describes himself like this.

“My Father is 1/2 Chinese 1/2 Venezuelan Amerindian 1/2 Welch 1/2 African 1/2 Trinidadian and 1/2 Guyanese. My Mother, from Tobago (the Robinson Crusoe island), is 1/2 Scottish 1/2 Toboganian and 1/2 Guyanese. My grandchildren toss in Portuguese, East Indian, Barbadian and Brazilian. I therefore can and do tick off all the boxes in the U.S. census form”

More to the point, Ken is a noted Caribbean storyteller with a lifetime of experience. He came to America in 1996, and has been telling his stories here ever since.

As time passed, Ken and I became better acquainted. I listened to his CDs and heard him perform at an outdoor event on Long Island. One day, he suggested that we should appear and tell stories together at a club in New York.

This proposal made me nervous. I know my limitations. But I had a big birthday coming up, and I aim to to try something completely new in every new year of my life, so I don’t become a boring old man before my time. (Actually I quite look forward to becoming a boring old man, but that’s another story).

So I said yes and one Tuesday evening, Ken and I were on the train to New York – each of us with his own worries. I worried that I had taken on something for which I was utterly unqualified, and he was naturally worried about going on stage with a complete amateur. We hadn’t rehearsed at all, but having only agreed on a few themes.

The venue was the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, and I must say it gave me a frisson to see my name posted outside such a place. We suburbanites are easily impressed. The café features a storytelling event on the second Tuesday of every month. Many storytellers are immigrants or minorities who have things to tell that are not part of the standard American narrative.

The basement of the Cornelia Street Café was a long, narrow room set up cabaret style, with tables and a small stage at one end. We scarcely had time to inhale a glass of wine before our “act” was introduced and we were on stage, peering through the bright lights at a modest audience of a few dozen people.

Ken put on a bright Caribbean shirt and started talking, and we were off. We told about being aliens, I told a story about American wedding rituals, he told one about American medicine, I told one about lawnmowers, he told another about lawnmowers – and so it went until our forty five minutes were up. It seemed to be over in a moment.

What astonished me about this performance was how effortless it was. The stories were lurking in my mind all along – I just had to squeeze them out of my essays. For example, I used an essay that had been built around the contrast between wedding rituals and modern culture (especially sexual culture). But the story that came out was about one young man’s encounter with the terrifying Wedding Machine, and his decision whether to run away or face up to his fate. In other words my essays had story-like elements that could be extracted and told separately.

This may be old news to you, but it was a revelation to me. I learned more about storytelling in those forty-five minutes on stage than I learned in decades of trying to write stories. Perhaps it helps to have a responsive audience and an overdose of adrenalin. Perhaps it helps to be liberated from the mechanical task of putting words on paper. Perhaps, au fond, even the most committed essayist is a closet storyteller.

A Little Modesty Please

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 28 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 on the screen.

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 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. 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 – and it’s a joke 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 quote from Jeeves and the Ties That Bind that summarizes Bertie Wooster’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) quite like that.

P.G.Wodehouse, or “Plum” as he was affectionately known by his friends, 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’s books. 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 126 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 94.

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 just down the road from us 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.

He never lost his sense of humor. even when he was 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.

Copyright: David Bouchier

What’s Funny?

In a couple of weeks I will be giving a talk on the impossible subject of “The Seriousness of Humor.” I chose this subject months ago, when it seemed quite reasonable. At the time I was perfectly sober.

I have taught courses in writing humor, with more or less success, but I don’t do it anymore. Either I am losing my own sense of humor because of age and cynicism, or the context of humor has somehow changed
.
My guess is the latter. The news is all bad: stupid and dangerous politics, terrorism, unending wars, global warming, and a whole list of lesser threats have created a poisonous atmosphere. “Atmosphere” is the right word, because we can’t avoid breathing it. The cumulative effect is daunting.

The media in general (if such a thing exists) has responded with cynicism and absurdity. Everything is so serious that we don’t dare to take anything seriously. Now there’s an interesting thought. The implication is that wit and satire have become a kind of defense mechanism against despair – but at the same time devices for avoiding reality and thereby avoiding the responsibility for changing it. We are the sophisticated spectators at a circus. What the clowns do may be amusing, but it’s not serious.

Where to writers stand in this? Should we abandon humor for radical engagement, or will humor be our only salvation in the end?

I’m still processing this question. Irony and satire have been the writer’s best weapons against a crazy world ever since Aristophanes perfected them around 400BC. On the other hand nobody takes humor seriously. I expect to have this all sorted out by the time I give my talk. I’ll let you know.

Literature for Dummies

The pleasures of winter are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But I must confess that there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

From time top time I am encouraged or instructed to pick up all the books that I have piled beside the bed. This has something to do with a profoundly un-literary ritual called vacuuming, of which I disapprove on of principle. But it is interesting to see what books are there, some read, some half-read and abandoned, some glanced at and tossed down.

For example, I enjoy a good historical novel. My favorite author is Patrick O’Brian, in case you’re interested. But I’m struggling with a book by the Booker Prize winning writer A.S.Byatt, called The Biographer’s Tale. It is about a young man who abandons literary theory (a nice little in-joke) in order to write a biography of a biographer. It’s an ingenious idea, and the writing is as clever and as graceful as one could wish. But the reader needs a notebook, a PhD and a photographic memory to keep track of the plot. Who needs this kind of intellectual workout at bedtime?

I prefer fiction at bedtime, a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a
graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe. These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping. The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.

So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction: biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.

The Solitary Writer

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words.

But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability during the last three months. I have met and talked to a lot of people. Tried to talk would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my verbal (i.e. conversational) skills. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of complete silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of words.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, talking, and talking.

A Good Read

The pleasures of winter are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But I must confess that there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

I prefer fiction at bedtime – a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe. These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping. The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.

So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction – biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.

Proverbial Wisdom

We have all been victims of proverbial wisdom, particularly when we were young. A large part of the job of parenting is to bombard one’s offspring with warnings and advice in the form of easily remembered clichés posing as absolute truths. They come from everywhere although, in this country, a lot of them are the work of Ben Franklin and Dale Carnegie, and have an economic flavor: early to bed, early to rise; a penny saved is a penny earned; nothing succeeds like success; When fate hands you a lemon, make lemonade; Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves. Well, yes, you feel like saying. Wait a minute, let’s think about this. But it’s too late. Once a proverb has been uttered it has done its deadly work. Thinking is no longer possible, or allowed.

Proverbs are thought by some to contain the essence of wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from making mistakes. So proverbs are the record of numerous past mistakes, distilled to a single phrase, and turned into an example for posterity. Faint heart never won fair lady, good fences make good neighbors. But wisdom condensed usually means commonsense lost. Faint heart quite often wins fair ladies, they like a modest approach, and neighbors fight over fences like street gangs defending their turf.

Few proverbs can stand up to rigorous examination. It never rains but it pours; one swallow doesn’t make a summer; all’s well that ends well; still waters run deep; all is fair in love and war. Modern technology and fashionable cynicism have made most proverbs obsolete. Now we have a space program it’s no longer even guaranteed that what goes up must come down. Just occasionally you come upon a piece of proverbial wisdom that, with a bit of adaptation, makes sense. “Let sleeping cats lie.” But we don’t need a proverb to tell us that.

An aphorism is the opposite of proverb. An aphorism is a clever, original remark that makes you think: “Truths are the illusions that we have misunderstood” (Friedrich Neitzsche) or, on the brighter side from Mae West, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” Proverbs, on the other hand, fall on you like a brick, with a stunning rather than an enlightening effect: Seeing is believing; Virtue is its own reward; you can’t have your cake and eat it; ignorance is bliss.

Globalization has exposed us to the proverbial wisdoms of everyone else on the planet.* We can see how peculiar other people’s proverbs are, which should make us think twice about our own. The Chinese, for example, advise: “Add legs to a snake only after you have finished drawing it.” Perhaps something was lost in translation, but I doubt it. In Ireland everyone knows: “Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot” and in Zululand it is equally obvious that “You should never speak to a rhinoceros unless there is a tree nearby.”

Proverbial wisdoms were always colorful and usually entertaining. We’ll miss them when they fade away, those tiny nuggets of certainty that helped us to navigate through a bewildering world. Maybe we’ll have to invent a whole new set of proverbial wisdoms for the twenty-first century, things like: Never leave your Blackberry in the kitchen when grandmother is baking pies. But that’s a thought for another day.

Obviously I could go on about this till the cows come home, but enough is as good as a feast. All good things must come to an end. Silence is golden.

*The proverbs of the world have been collected in an entertaining book by David Crystal As They Say in Zanzibar.

The Book Crusader

There’s a character in the Peanuts cartoon strip called Pigpen – a boy who attracts dirt like a magnet. I am a Pigpen for books. They fly into my life and they stick to me for years and decades.

I’m not complaining. I love my great unwieldy mass of books, although moving them from place to place over the years has left me with a bad back and an allergy to cardboard boxes. But by my count I have made fourteen major house moves in my lifetime so far. This impending move will be the fifteenth. Each time I have sorted out my books and sold or dumped many of them. But now, mysteriously, I have more books than ever before. They fill every bookshelf in the house, and overflow into boxes in the basement.

This time, I said to myself, I will really sort out these books. There are volumes I haven’t looked at since last time we moved seventeen years ago. Obviously they must go this time. There are hundreds of dull academic books from my former professorial life, relics of the past. Then there are all the paperbacks purchased to read on a plane, and never to be opened again.
It sounds much easier than it is. Every book is a slice of the past – personal or professional. Going through one’s books is like conducting an archaeological dig of one’s own life. There are treasures to be found down there in the dirt, and also a lot of plain rubbish.

My immediate goal is to reduce the number of books that will be moved to the new house by about half. The great classics must stay with us, of course, because you never know when you may be struck by the urge to read a great classic. On the other hand a lot of my research work in the past was concerned with radical social movements, so I have hundreds of books about socialism, anarchism feminism, civil rights and the counter culture. They are all dated now – indeed we are all dated now, along with our naïve 1960s optimism. So I threw them into the trunk of the car and took them to the local public library where they will be sold to benefit the friends of the library.

It was as I did this that I began to get a sense of mission – a feeling that my discarded books might still have a role to play in the human comedy. Many of them promote rather radical ideas, like equality and democracy. Spreading such books through the community might, with luck, become a subversive activity.

One subject is the most subversive of all. Back in 1984 I wrote a book about radical feminism, and the books I used for that project were and are dynamite. They have titles like The Coming Matriarchy, The Battle of the Sexes, Women Rule, The Feminine Mystique and The New Feminist Revolution. These poisoned gifts have been cunningly inserted into the monthly book sale at the library, where the majority of the buyers are women.

I rather like the idea of newly-minted socialists, anarchists and radical feminists raging through the streets of Long Island. If the next popular revolution does start here I will naturally disclaim any legal responsibility. But I will hug to myself the secret that I passed those books and those ideas on to a new generation of readers, who will decide for themselves whether and when to change the world. That’s what books are for.