Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Demon Doubt

Undoubtedly my obsessive compulsive side has been among the greatest hindrances to my creativity. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for the remainder of my life, I may never write a "major" work. This was actually a liberating thought for once. This was reinforced by an essay I read by Samuel Johnson. It was the first number of the Rambler, in which he addresses the reader and asks that he be patient with him. If he is not pleasing, at least he will not take much of the reader's time or, sentiments to that effect. He is more detailed about the benefits of the short form than I allude to above.
Similar sentiments struck me with joy while reading a piece by Alexander Smith. It will be necessary to give a lengthy extract as it is too good to quote only in part:

"It is frequently said that periodical writing fritters away a man’s intellectual energy; that, instead of concentrating himself on some congenial task, devoting a whole lifetime to it, and leaving it as a permanent possession of the race, a man is tempted to write hastily, and without sufficient meditation; that, in fact, we have articles now, more or less brilliant, whereas, under different circumstances, we might have had books. All this kind of conjecture is exceedingly unprofitable. Doubtless, under different circumstances, the results of a man’s working would have been different more or less; but it does not of necessity follow that the results would have been more valuable. A man’s power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by his accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin. The man who can beat his fellows in a ten-mile race, is likely to maintain his superiority in a race for a shorter distance. It is a mistake to suppose that a man’s largest work, or the work on which he has expended the greatest labour, is on that account his best. Literary history is full of instances to the contrary. When mental powers are equal, that is surest of immortality which occupies the least space; scattered forces are then concentrated, like garden roses gathered into one bouquet, or English beauty in the boxes at the opera. Leisure and life-long devotion to a task have often resulted in tediousness. Large works are often too heavy for posterity to carry. We have too many “Canterbury Tales.” The “Faery Queen” would be more frequently read if it consisted of only one book, and Spenser’s fame would stand quite as high as it does. Milton’s poetical genius is as apparent in “Comus” and “Lycidas” as in his great Epic, which most people have thought too long. Addison’s “Essay in Westminster Abbey” is more valuable than his tragedy. Macaulay’s Essays on Clive and Warren Hastings are as brilliant, powerful, and instructive as any single chapter of his “History”—with the additional advantage that they can be read at a sitting. Certain readers have been found to admire Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” more than the “Excursion.” Coleridge talked of spending fifteen years on the construction of a great poem; had he done so, it is doubtful whether his reader would have preferred it to the “Ancient Mariner.” From all this, it may be inferred that, if writers, instead of “frittering themselves away” in periodicals, had devoted themselves to the production of important works, the world would not have been much the wiser, and their reputations not one whit higher. Besides, there are many men more brilliant than profound—who have more √©lan than persistence—who gain their victories, like the Zouaves, by a rapid dash;—and these do their best in periodicals. These the immediate presence of the reader excites, as the audience the orator, the crowded pit the actor. Jerrold sparkles like a fire-fly through the tropic night; Hood, in that tragic subject which his serious fancy loved, emits, like the glow-worm a melancholy ray. But they could not shine for any continuous period, and had the wisdom not to attempt it. Are they to blame that they did not write long books to prove themselves dull fellows? It is of no use to cry out against the present state of things in literature. The magazines are here, and they have been produced by a great variety of causes. They demand certain kinds of literary ware; but whether the wares are valuable or the reverse, depends entirely upon the various workmen. It is to be hoped, if magazine writers possess a specialty, that they will stick to their specialty, and work it out faithfully—that no one will go out of his way, like Mr Dickens, when he wrote “The Child’s History of England,” or Mr Ruskin, when he addressed himself to the discussion of questions in political economy.
To the young writer, the magazine or review has distinct advantages. In many instances he can serve in the house of a literary noble, as the squire in the fourteenth century served in the house and under the eye of the territorial noble. He may model himself on an excellent pattern, and receive knighthood from his master as the reward of good conduct. If otherwise circumstanced,—if, following no special banner, he writes under the cover of the anonymous, and is unsuccessful,—he may retire without being put to public shame. In the arena of the magazines he can try his strength, pit himself against his fellows, find out his intellectual weight and power, gradually acquire confidence in himself, or arrive at the knowledge of his weakness—a result not less valuable if more rarely attained. If he is overthrown in the lists, no one but himself is the worse; if he distinguishes himself, it is a little unreasonable to expect him to keep his visor down when roses are showering upon him from applauding balconies. A man eminently successful in the magazines may fairly be forgiven for rushing to a reprint. Actors who make a hit at Drury Lane, almost immediately make a tour of the provinces. A reprint is to the author what a provincial tour is to the actor. If he is an amusing writer, people welcome him in his new shape with the gratitude which people always entertain for those who have amused them; if he is a great writer, people desire to shake hands with him, as the elector is proud to shake hands with the candidate whom he has elected as his representative. And, indeed, the magazinists may fairly be compared to the House of Commons—a mixed audience, representing every class—stormy, tumultuous, where great questions are being continually discussed; an assembly wherein men rise to be leaders of parties; out of which men are selected to rule distant provinces; out of which, also, every now and again, a member is translated to the Upper House, where he takes his seat among his peers, in a serener atmosphere, and among loftier traditions."

His reference to Macaulay reminded me of something that master stylist said about the state of history: "Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. (What of Gibbon?) But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays." Good historical essays. He was quite right, and there is no shame if one might one day be lucky enough to count himself among their number. It is every author's secret dread that he be found out to be seeking fame. But it is perhaps good policy to keep it from one's thoughts. You can hardly write well or for long with posterity looking over your shoulder.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lowbrow and Loving It

The term “popularizer” is the anathema of academia, both in history and philosophy. The thought that these disciplines can be explained to the uninitiated, and in a pleasing fashion, is blasphemy. This is not a new complaint (Gore Vidal discusses it delightfully, of course) but an article I read recently by Alain de Botton put me into ecstasy. His words have reinforced for me my choice of vocation.

Although I have written much in the personal/philosophical essay, and shall continue to do so, this is not very marketable material. In future, along with my less salable work I must try seriously for publication and payment. Of course, I have already unconsciously gone down that road with my historical researches. In William Craig Rice’s essay “Who Killed History? An Academic Autopsy”, he makes the point that academic historians are obliged to be technical and obscure to impress their colleagues and hope to kiss the golden ring of tenure.

Rice argues that the independent popular historians are popular for just that reason, independence. They can afford to take chances and follow their deepest inclinations, the pleasure from which all great writing flows. He ends the essay with the following quote: “Voltaire once said that history can only be written well in a free society. His dictum is borne out today by our better writers of history, who are also our freest. Perhaps it follows from Voltaire that if history is not written well, its writers are not free.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Show and Tell

H. P. Lovecraft
That we wear many masks is not a new observation, but not all the masks we wear represent what we would like to be, but instead, actually reflect who we truly are in spirit. I have always felt in deep sympathy with the character of an Eighteenth-Century English gentleman of leisure; in a word, an aristocrat. This is not hubris, but who I truly feel myself to be. The question why this is so is better left to psychology. Perhaps I saw in this image all that was best and highest in human nature. It represented an ideal of what I longed to become, the nobleman.

This trait is perhaps surprisingly not unusual. The great horror writer H. P. Lovecraft fitted very much into this mold, though his reasons, I suspect, are more vague. His short story "A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson" shows Lovecraft making fun of these pretension's, so he was obviously well aware of his affectation’s, and could joke at his own expense.

The American astronomer Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble telescope is named, spent three years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and, to his colleague’s eternal irritation, the accent and mode of dress never afterward left him.

Lastly, I should not omit the poet T. S. Eliot. Rarely has a man's character been written so plainly on his face. Though born and raised in St. Louis Missouri, he eventually became more English than the English. During his early years in that country, his desire to be so was looked on curiously by the natives. Obviously, something in the quality of "Englishness", if such a thing exists, resonated deeply with Eliot's conservative values. He came from a wealthy American family and aristocracy is aristocracy wherever it may reside.

What an irony that the desire to emulate an age and a nation, so often tied to reason and sensibility, should be derided as irrational.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Printer's Devil

Old and New
At the start of the Renaissance the abbot and occultist, Johannes Trithemius, wrote a book entitled In Praise of Scribes. In it, he attacked the recent invention of printing and celebrates the superior qualities of the pen. How did he get the word out? In print of course. Even Trithemius could see the writing uh, printing, on the wall.
Trithemius also wrote another book, this one about the use of spirits to communicate over long distances. He would have been amazed by the magic of the Internet. Like Gutenberg preceding it, the Internet threatens the previous technology just as startlingly as the press did the scribe, and just like the press it came seemingly out of the air to change everything that came before. This very abruptness has caught so many off guard it is no wonder the eBook is under a hail of derision.
To the unconverted let me remind you, the book is an ongoing project, a largely technology driven enterprise. If the medium in which it has evolved has remained relatively static for the past five centuries, it is not for lack of trying. Gutenberg had applied the available equipment of his age so well there would be no real advancements in printing until the Industrial Revolution and the power of the steam engine.
Unlike Antony, I come not to bury the eBook, but to praise it, and I say this with all the passion of a true book lover. Confirmed bibliophiles will raise their hand’s in unison when asked what part of the book stands out the most---the smell. The olfactory experience of a library is like that of incense in a sacred space. Beyond its tactile properties, the scent of a favorite title can instantly launch one into the time and place it was first read. Of lazy summer days by the pool, or quiet winter evenings in an armchair. This, for lack of a better word, “presence” of a book is the first thing the true bibliophile loses when the beloved is consigned to the digital world. Yet, this heavenly scent, so tied to our conception of the traditional book, is relatively recent.
Before the Civil War, books were printed with the higher quality, thus more costly, rag paper as it had been for centuries. It is due to its higher quality and durability that the government still uses it to print money.
Few of us have been privileged to take in the atmosphere of the Bodleian in Oxford, or to taste with Poggio the treasures of St. Gall. And no man lives that has stood among the numberless scrolls of fabled Alexandria. We can only guess what delicious bouquet a million volumes of papyrus, coated with cedar oil, may have consisted of. And so the familiar friend in the guise of bound paper and ink is not as eternal and unchanging as we might wish to think.
However, we must not forget the first task of a book, to convey knowledge, and to do so as conveniently as possible. For those who have been paying attention, it is obvious how convenient obtaining information is online compared with a trudge to the local library. The supremacy of the computer is testified to by the role those public libraries are taking in computer training and literacy. What library still uses that arcane relic, the card catalog?
Many book lovers are fearful of hypertext, the idea of embedding links in the text to related information and perhaps even changing the text its self. For a world so long accustomed to the seeming permanence of print, we have forgotten the age before it when all books were handwritten. It was common to include glosses on words that were unusual and annotations or alternative readings in the margins that, sometimes, in later copying were incorporated into the body of the text as though it had been there all along. This occurred in stunning and unexpected ways. Those familiar with biblical scholarship are well aware of the variant readings of the New Testament that would shock many of those who believe the Bible was delivered from Heaven as an uncorrupted vessel of God’s word.
Even print has not been totally immune from these practices. The footnote and endnote are less personal yet similar attempts to squeeze the most out of a text for the benefit of the reader. Hypertext is the next logical step beyond the limitations of the page.
However, as with most new tools, the world is often slow to adapt. A paperback can be bought for pennies, the eBook technology is still cost prohibitive. Much like Gutenberg’s bibles, they are not for a mass audience. The market and technology has still to develop and find its way but, as the computer has become as ubiquitous as air, so its companion the eBook will doubtless compose much of the atmosphere of this new world.
The eBook is awkward, ugly and plain. Four centuries ago the same was said of print. Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who had assembled one of the finest manuscript libraries of the Renaissance, was heard to remark he would have been ashamed to own a printed book. In the end, we got used to the aesthetics in exchange for convenience. Unlike the Duke, I am fond of that old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

Published at Teleread.org.