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Poquette's Bookaccino II

Club Read 2011

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Edited: Sep 15, 2011, 4:09pm Top

Here begins part two of Poquette's Bookaccino. Part I is located here.

Books read so far in 2011:

1. The Friar and the Cipher, Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World by Lawrence Goldstone
2. The religious quests of the Graeco-Roman world; a study in the historical background of early Christianity by Samuel Angus
3. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
4. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
5. The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art by Richard Stemp.
6. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
7. The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul
8. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
9. Boethius (Great Medieval Thinkers) by John Marenbon.
10. The High Medieval Dream Vision by Kathryn L. Lynch
11. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances Yates
12. The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance by Joscelyn Godwin
13. The Golden Thread by Joscelyn Godwin
14. Aldus and His Dream Book by Helen Barolini
15. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer
16. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
17. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
18. The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
19. The Real Rule of Four by Joscelyn Godwin
20. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francisco Colonna, tr. by Joscelyn Goodwin
21. The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance by Arthur Versluis
22. Sir Thomas Browne and his 'Religio Medici' by Alexander Whyte
23. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler.
24. 2666 by Robert Bolano
25. One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys

Currently reading:
The Art of Memory by Frances Yates
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin
A world of great stories: 115 stories, the best of modern literature by Hiram Collins Haydn
Porius by John Cowper Powis
The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser — As of mid-September, I'll probably not finish this year

Jun 3, 2011, 3:47am Top

Wecome Bookaccino part 2

Jun 3, 2011, 2:30pm Top

"the capacity for discovering the real fatality, the real predestined direction of one's intrinsic nature and the refusal, when this is found, to waste one's energies in alien paths and irrelevant junketings."

Just caught up on "Bookaccino 1", which reminded me how much I enjoy following along. Thinking about this quote...I want to find the "real predestined direction" of my "intrinsic nature", what a wonderful concept. But how do I find that without reading pretty much everything? And what happens if I get there and then, later, change my (perhaps intrinsically lacking) mind?

Jun 3, 2011, 3:41pm Top

But how do I find that without reading pretty much everything? And what happens if I get there and then, later, change my (perhaps intrinsically lacking) mind?

Joseph Campbell famously said, "Follow your muse." No doubt you have found that one book leads to another and somewhere along the way, various lightbulbs go on and then, hopefully, discernment kicks in. And changing one's mind is in the nature of the human condition. And by then, perhaps Plan B, C or D can kick in. But isn't the world of books wonderful? It let's you know that there is actually a potential for alternate plans.

Jun 3, 2011, 4:11pm Top

Hi Suzanne, I spent some time at Hay on Wye (the book town) today and came across The Allegory of Love. Thought of both Bas and you. Have you read it? Seems to fit in well with The Discarded Image.

Jun 3, 2011, 4:44pm Top

#4 : Oh, just trying to figure out my "reading self" this year and stumbling into these problems. This muse...it doesn't show itself when I most...lost, so to speak. The JCP quote reached me because I've had this kind of stuff in mind.

Jun 3, 2011, 5:11pm Top

Zeno, The Allegory of Love is a book I've been looking for. Since it is out of print, even second-hand paperback copies are expensive. I do have his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, but only got halfway through it. It's even rougher going than The Discarded Image. But I'm just now noticing there's a chapter on Edmund Spenser, which I haven't gotten to, and in view of the group read, maybe now is a good time. I also have An Experiment in Criticism, but have only dipped in to get a sense of it. Have you read any of these Lewis texts?

Jun 3, 2011, 5:42pm Top

7 - no I haven't but was tempted by the reviews from Bas and yourself.

I was trying not to buy - just looking at Hay. However, if I had known that you were after The Allegory of Love I would have nabbed it - I think it was under £10.

Jun 3, 2011, 6:05pm Top

Thanks for the thought, Zeno. It will turn up sooner or later.

Jun 4, 2011, 5:11am Top

Finished reading The Art of Memory. Too late to write a review tonight. Something to look forward to.

Edited: Jun 5, 2011, 2:33am Top

The Art of Memory by Frances Yates

You may have heard the story of the ancient Greek poet Simonides who was engaged to give a panegyric honoring the host of a banquet. But said host reneged on the deal, agreeing to pay Simonides only half the amount originally offered because the panegyric included a section praising the twin gods Castor and Pollux, from whom the poet was told to seek payment for the balance. At some point Simonides was called outside and while absent from the banquet hall, the roof caved in killing everyone inside, including the mean spirited host. The identities of the dead were so completely obliterated that mourners who came to claim the bodies were unable to recognize their own kin. But Simonides remembered where everyone was seated and was able to assist the families in locating their dead.

It has come down to us that this event was the source of the memory technique which was attributed by the ancients to Simonides. In ancient times before books were commonplace, in those storied times when Homer's epics were passed on by word of mouth, people depended upon memory for the retention and transmission of knowledge to a degree that staggers the imagination today. Apparently there were techniques for retaining prodigious amounts of material beyond the obvious rote memorization. It is those techniques that are the subject of Frances Yates' The Art of Memory.

What we know about these techniques is scanty at best because those whose writings on the subject that have survived only speak about the methods in the broadest terms, under the assumption that every reader would know what they were talking about so widespread was the understanding as recently as the time of Cicero. In fact, Cicero's De Oratore is one of only three ancient Roman sources that talk about the art of memory at all, the other two being an anonymous document known as the Ad Herrenium, which for many centuries was erroneously attributed to Cicero, and a work of Quintilian called Institutio Oratorio.

The technique involved memorizing the architectural details of an existing building, such as a temple, and then affixing ideas that one wanted to commit to memory to specific locations within that building so that they would come to mind in a prescribed order. Cicero speaks in De Oratore about how he memorized important speeches before the Roman senate using this technique.

Similarly, it was reported by Quintilian that a Greek named Metrodorus of Scepsis used the twelve signs of the Zodiac divided into 360 subsections in a similar fashion as a storehouse for memorization. Because Quintilian wrote in less than glowing terms of the art of memory, it fell out of use and was completely lost by the time of Charlemagne. But the ideas were resurrected at some point and names associated with variations on the theme of the art of memory include Ramond Lull, Giulio Camillo, Thomas Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, Robert Fludd, Francis Bacon and ultimately the Enlightenment philosopher Leibnitz, among many others.

The story is astounding of how the relatively simple idea of memorizing by association with a building — whether a temple or in later times a theater — the zodiac, or both, was enlarged upon to such an extent that the idea took on a life of its own. What was at first intended to be a tool for simple memorization of speeches or poetry became under Giordano Bruno and others a superstructure for containing all the world's knowledge. In the course of the Renaissance, it acquired occult attributes which put it in danger from Church authorities with the net effect of driving it almost completely underground. And once again, through the developments that occurred during the Renaissance, it becomes apparent that humanists and Neoplatonists were quite different breeds of cat and not at all on the same page philosophically.

The Art of Memory opens a window on a relativelly unknown aspect of Western intellectual history. The first quarter of the book should be of general historical interest. Beyond that it goes deeper and deeper into abstruse documents, almost none of which have been translated from their original Latin or French or German into English. So in addition to being rather arcane subject matter to begin with, unless one can read five-hundred-year-old texts fluently, there is hardly anywhere to go with this subject for most of us.

Interestingly, memory systems as such are still alive and well. I have a book on my shelves called Stop Forgetting by Dr. Bruno Furst, which was published in 1949. Two approaches to memorization are given, one of which invites you to memorize a list of words ingeniously associated with numbers from, say, one to a hundred which become part of your permanent memory. You are then supposed to associate, for example, items on a grocery list with the assigned numbered words and create an image in your mind linking the two. For example, if the number one is associated with the word "tea" and you need to replenish your supply of Darjeeling at the grocery store, that is an easy association. This is merely a variation on the theme of memory by association that was used by Simonides, Cicero and the rest.

Readers who are interested in ancient, medieval or Renaissance intellectual history will find The Art of Memory to be a storehouse of fascinating information. I am only assigning it three and a half stars because I believe it contains more information than the average reader wants to know, but this is not to detract at all from the quality of writing and clarity of presentation. On the whole, I found it to be an unusually interesting book.

Jun 5, 2011, 4:44am Top

Excellent review Suzanne. It seems to throw some insight into how the epics of the past were handed down from generation to generation, but if the art was lost by the time of Charlemagne, then it perhaps does not have such a great significance for reading the classics today. Interesting, but your review has made the decision for me to not seek this out. That is what good reviews are all about. Thumbed of course

Jun 5, 2011, 10:30am Top

Fascinating review. Thanks.

Edited: Jun 5, 2011, 5:03pm Top

Thanks, Barry and Jane!

True, Barry, that it doesn't have much direct connection to reading the classics today, but for those of us with a somewhat perverse interest in the arcane elements of medieval and Renaissance intellectual history, it has more than passing interest. I'm thinking I need to go back and reread parts of The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance with its veritable catalog of visual imagery, not to mention the Divine Comedy and the Hypnerotomachia to see the elements of memory lore there. In that connection, here is an interesting passage from Yates:

What scope for the imagination would be offered in memorizing Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, as advised in a fifteenth-century manuscript! Would the Lady Philosophy have come to life during this attempt and begun to wander, like some animated Prudence through the palaces of memory? Perhaps an artificial memory gone out of control into wild imaginative indulgence might be one of the stimuli behind such a work as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, written by a Dominican before 1500, in which we meet not only with Petrarchan triumphs and curious archaeology, but also with Hell, divided into places to suit the sins and their punishments, with explanatory inscriptions on them.
I was unable to squeeze into my review so much from this book that is fascinating. For instance, memory was considered to be part of rhetoric, but it was also considered by such diverse authorities as Cicero and Aquinas to be in ethical terms a part of Prudence. The discussions on the parts of Prudence relate back to my earlier reading of The High Medieval Dream Vision which talked about the faculties of memory, intellect and imagination. This all becomes very involved – too involved for a brief review, but the first 100 pages or so of the book are full of stuff like this that throws light on the life of the mind through the middle ages and, as an added bonus, connects with so much of my own earlier reading. But I don't wish to oversell the book. It is of specialized interest to be sure.

Jun 6, 2011, 10:52am Top

I started The Faerie Queen today and after reading all the dedicatory sonnets etc, I read Canto I of Book I. I plan to read a Canto per day and so probably cover a book every two weeks. I do not want to go any faster because I did find I needed to re-read to ensure that I wasn't missing anything essential. There are plenty of commentaries on the net that you can check if you get confused.

I am not finding the language too difficult - it is a lot easier than Chaucer and it flow so musically. It is a joy to read and that is the trouble for me as I am tending to gallop on and then find myself a bit lost.

Errors den is not for the squeamish

I shall post a short note on the thread at the salon to say I have started.

Jun 6, 2011, 5:16pm Top

I've added The Art of Memory to my wishlist.

I have The Faerie Queen in five volumes and cannot find the first volume in order to get started.


Jun 6, 2011, 6:37pm Top

If you do not mind reading on line, a version of the text is available at http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/fqintro.html

Jun 6, 2011, 7:31pm Top

Oh, I absolutely loathe reading on line, and I got my text for the notes, on the same page and all. I'll dig a little; there are only three or four hundred books in that pile and it should be in the top three feet or so. Thank you for the suggestion.


Jun 6, 2011, 7:55pm Top

If you are in a pinch, Hamilton's edition of The Faerie Queene has notes on the same page and is conveniently collected in a single, large volume.

Jun 8, 2011, 5:05am Top

A Night in the Luxembourg (Une nuit au Luxembourg) by Remy de Gourmont, tranlated by Arthur Ransome. 1915

One of the pleasures of reading is that the discovery of one book often leads to other books. This is certainly the case with the deceptively pregnant little volume entitled One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys. If it weren't for the group read of Porius, I wouldn't have learned from Barry that One Hundred Best Books was available for download at the Gutenberg Project. If I hadn't bought a Kindle recently and discovered how to download free books from said Gutenberg Project, I wouldn't have followed up and downloaded One Hundred Best Books. Having read it and lingered over the mini-reviews of each of the so-called hundred best books, my curiousity would not have been piqued by the authors on the list of whom I had never heard. Some of those authors gave titles to their works that are of the type that excite the imagination. For example Old Wives' Tale, Anna of the Five Towns (both by Arnold Bennett), Madame Tellier's Establishment (de Maupassant), The Confessions of a Fool (Strindberg) and A Night in the Luxembourg (Gourmont). It is this last title that called up images of my own strolls through the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Out of curiousity, having never heard of Remy de Gourmont nor his book, I went in search of it and found a copy.

Remy de Gourmont (1858 - 1915) is nowadays considered with the Symbolists. He was a respected novelist, poet and critic—"perhaps the greatest since Walter Pater," according to Powys— whose writing style, according to some, displayed an infectious charm. Sadly, most of his work is unavailable in English.

A Night in the Luxembourg is not at all what I expected, even having read Powys's summary. Is it a romantic – dare I say erotic? – novel of ideas? Is it an Epicurean dialogue? Is it a dream vision? Is it a symbolist prose poem? The answer is yes to all. It is not of great length, but it is exceptionally deep and satisfying on every level.

In this era of strident discourse between theists and atheists, at first glance this book might be viewed as blasphemous by the former and as piffle by the latter because it consists in part of a dialog between an ordinary man and a figure who claims to be one of the gods, and whose philosophy is decidedly Epicurean. The dialogue concerns itself with juxtaposing the virtues of Epicureanism—not merely hedonism—against Christianity and Judaism, as practiced. Incidentally, a lovely trio of "goddesses" is part of this god's entourage.

By way of refreshing my memory of Epicureanism, a quick trip to Wikipedia revealed that Epicurus owned a garden in ancient Athens that was located roughly between the Agora and the Academy. He founded a school that met at the Academy, which he called The Garden. That a nineteenth century Symbolist would locate a novel in the Luxembourg Gardens expounding the virtues of Epicureanism cannot be coincidental.

A Night in the Luxembourg is quotable on nearly every page. Even in translation, it combines a literary lushness with clarity of thought. This is yet another book that begs to be reread.

Powys says, "It is a book for those who have passed through more than one intellectual Renaissance." Many of us have indeed "passed through more than one intellectual Renaissance," and therein lies part of this little book's appeal.

Jun 8, 2011, 8:14am Top

Hi Suzanne, This sounds good, I had a quick check on project Gutenberg and it does not seem to be available, although there are other books by Remy De Gourmont, but in French of course. I shall look out for this one.

Of course Arthur Ransome rang bells with me but I could not think why until I looked him up to see that he is the author of a famous series of children's books, which are widely advertised in the Lake district in England, which is where I presume the books were set. Swallows and Amazons for you next then.

Jun 9, 2011, 4:28am Top

Barry, I'm going to watch for Swallows and Amazons. In the meantime, I downloaded Portraits and Speculations from the Internet Archive.

Jun 9, 2011, 5:05am Top

Illuminations by Walter Benjamin

Finished this tonight. I'm not going to do a formal review. This is a collection of ten essays on various literary topics plus a lengthy introduction by Hannah Arendt. Interestingly, Benjamin was a Marxist, and Arendt abandoned Marxism at some point and wrote a book called the Origins of Totalitarianism.

I enjoyed really only three of the essays. Most of the others were heavily laced with political theory and I found myself disagreeing with the text and just on principle, I dislike mixing politics with literary criticism. It just doesn't work for me. So on balance, I would have to say the book was a disappointment. I was particularly disappointed in the essay on Baudelaire, which I found somewhat opaque in places, but also I just disagreed with a lot of the interpretation of the poetry. Benjamin had a very different world view from mine, and of course, he was writing primarily in the '30s, so the times were different.

However, having just read three books in succession that were written in the first half of the twentieth century, I would say that the passage of time has less to do with my dissatisfaction with Benjamin than his particular mind set. I have The Arcades Project on my TBR pile, and I'm hoping there will be less of political theory and more of aesthetics there. Of the three writers, I found that Remy de Gourmont resonated the most. At this late date, am I only now discovering that I've been an Epicurean all these years and didn't realize it?

One thing that did intrigue me, Benjamin touches on the flaneur in several contexts. A few years ago I read a book called The Flaneur by Edmund White, which has faded somewhat into memory. Now I want to dig it out and compare how Benjamin's vision compares with White's.

Dramatic changes in society that accompanied the technological advances of the early twentieth century seem to have preyed heavily on Benjamin's views of art, society and history. And of course, the rise of Fascism in Nazi Germany posed a palpable threat which couldn't help but color his views. The saddest thing of all is that it was Nazi policies that precipitated his suicide at the border crossing between France and Spain in 1940 as he was attempting to flee and was barred from doing so.

Jun 9, 2011, 5:47am Top

Interesting stuff Suzanne, especially your thoughts on mixing politics with literary criticism, with some writers I suppose this can't be avoided as their strong political views permeate everything. It is as well to be aware of this when reading.

The Flaneur by Edmund White is also on my radar.

There is nothing wrong with epicureanism, which reminds me I have got Marius, the Epicurean by Walter Pater on my TBR pile to read sometime.

Jun 9, 2011, 8:32am Top

Benjamin can be thought provoking, but I prefer Adorno's work. He is political too, but his work on aesthetics--particularly music--made quite an impression on me when I read him. I haven't read The Arcades Project, but I would expect it to remain political in tone, from what I know of him and his cronies.

Edited: Jun 9, 2011, 4:20pm Top

Hi, Barry – I've noticed the political influence, especially on "theory" as an outgrowth of literary theory. But doesn't usually annoy me too much unless it's something titled, "A Marxist Interpretation of Through the Looking Glass." But I probably wouldn't be reading it to begin with.

Glad you mentioned Walter Pater. I have one of his books which I have read part of and now I'm curious about Marius the Epicurean.

BTW, when I mentioned above that I had read three books in succession from the early twentieth century, I was thinking of Powys, not Yates. So to be clear, the three books were the Powys One Hundred Best Books, the Gourmont and the Benjamin.

Jun 9, 2011, 4:14pm Top

>25 wrmjr66: - wrm - thanks for stopping by and welcome.

Do you have a particular book by Adorno to recommend as a starting point? I've seen his name here and there but am totally unfamiliar.

Jun 10, 2011, 7:45am Top

>27 Poquette: well, Adorno was quite versatile, so it depends on what you are interested in. His Philosophy of Modern Music and his Aesthetic Theory are the books I was most thinking about in my post. He was also quite involved in metaphysical and other philosophy. I remember enjoying parts of The Dialectic of Enlightenment which he co-wrote with Max Horkheimer. I dipped into Negative Dialectics, but it was mostly over my head (my philosophy background isn't all that great).

Jun 12, 2011, 1:28pm Top

Hi Suzanne. Sorry Benjamin was not that great a read for you. I find him best on the intangibles of life - particularly when writing of the likes of CB, Kafka and Proust. His politics do not seem overbearing to me - in fact I barely notice them. It is more his fascination with the esoteric, the weird Talmudic traditions which he says in Kafka for example was most influenced by which fascinate me.

Jun 13, 2011, 12:05pm Top

>28 wrmjr66: Thanks, wmr. I'll take a look at those. The first two you named sound very interesting.

>29 zenomax: Zeno – let me hasten to say my reaction to Illuminations wasn't all negative. I actually enjoyed the first part of the book immensely. Things began to go downhill with the essay on Baudelaire, and I began to quibble more and more with Benjamin as the book wore on from there.

I have now read the Baudelaire piece twice in the hopes of understanding why it didn't resonate because Baudelaire is the one writer Benjamin considers with whom I am most familiar and the piece I was most looking forward to. The interesting thing about it is that there is so much food for thought in all that disagreement that it wasn't a total loss. Benjamin has some interesting insights, but I found myself seeing what he saw and interpreting it quite differently. I won't bore you with examples.

This doesn't mean I'm right, of course, but there obviously is more than one way to look at what Benjamin has to say. And the beauty of poetry is that the resonance is in the eye of the reader. All of which makes his opening salvo in the essay on translations so odd. There he says the reader is of no import from the point of view of translating. The reader would disagree, of course.

I also found his views on photography to be somewhat contradictory and I found a lot to disagree with there, as well.

At any rate, I'm sure we could have a lengthy and interesting conversation about it all. Have you read the Baudelaire essay? Do you favor any particular aspect of the book?

Jun 13, 2011, 1:24pm Top

Suzanne - it is good to have an alternative perspective from someone whose judgment I trust. Gives me something to ponder upon when next I read Benjamin.

In Illuminations I have read the 2 Kafka pieces and the the essay on Proust most carefully, some of the others, including 'The Storyteller' and the piece on CB more cursorily.

I do recall that the piece on CB was not half as much fun as the section on CB in The Arcades Project for me. But then Arcades is much to my taste in style and content - short snapshots of quotes, thoughts and connected ideas.

Jun 13, 2011, 6:04pm Top

Existentialism and Death on a Paris Afternoon by Victor Methos

This is one of those Kindle Singles that was recommended probably because of other books purchased recently. No touchstone. It is a story that takes place during the German invasion of Paris during WWII and explores the reactions of the Paris populace from an existentialist point of view, with a surprise ending. Aside from the odd misspelling and grammatical error, it did grip my interest.

Jun 13, 2011, 7:02pm Top

Barry listed the books he's currently reading in hard copy and on his Kindle, and it reminded me that I am in the middle of more books right now than I have ever been:

Hard copy, mostly group reads:

Porius by John Cowper Powys
The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser
A World of Great Stories, 115 Stories edited by Hiram Hayden

Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis (for the Spenser material)


Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
The 21st Century Emerson Collection: The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Suspended Judgments: Essays on Books and Sensations by John Cowper Powys
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville
Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart D. Ehrman

Been downloading free books like crazy to my Kindle. If I get stranded on a desert island, I just hope I have the Kindle with me and they have electric power. I'll be set for years!

Jun 13, 2011, 7:10pm Top

It is so difficult to juggle all those books, especially when Porius and The Faerie Queene are such slow reads.

Jun 19, 2011, 8:06pm Top

In the midst of all these books, I've managed to finish one.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

Dreamlike and haunting, this book tells the tale of a house, its gardener, or gardeners, and its environs near a lake in Germany from prehistoric times until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is not clear how many gardeners are part of the story. The inhabitants fade in and out, nameless and barely described, but their experience is what counts. One almost has the feeling that the house is telling the story because we don't get much personal detail. But there is plenty of atmosphere. The most arresting part of the book surrounds the period leading up to, during and after WWII. At the beginning, the property belonged to a Jewish family, and their fate is dreadful and heartbreaking in line with so many other tales of mindless hatred. At the end, the property is all balled up in bloodless and bureaucratic red tape, and government functionaries have become locked in a perpetual inability to restore legitimate ownership because the property had been illegitimately confiscated during the war and the authorities seemingly are unable to find a way forward.

There is much to praise about this book, but also much to criticize, but it probably comes down to personal taste. Either one will enjoy it or not. It is a translation from the German, and one suspects the translator has done a masterful job in conveying the tone of the writing. The tone is impersonal and aloof, yet one feels in the end as though one has experienced a kind of dreamlike vision of exquisite surroundings on the one hand and nightmarish horror on the other.

Jun 19, 2011, 8:19pm Top

Hi Suzanne, What made you pick up this book to read? Was it a result of a recommendation on LT. I note that janetinlondon had raved about it. You seem less enamoured with it.

Changing the subject - my bookclub and my suggestion that we change the prescribed book to be read has resulted in e mails flying off left, right and centre. The result may very well be that me and Shelly will be starting our own bookclub. I'll keep you posted.

Jun 20, 2011, 1:52am Top

Yes, Barry, it was largely because of janetinlondon's review. I was looking for something not too long and this seemed to fill the bill. For whatever reason, in the end it didn't thrill me all that much. While there were lyrical passages, particularly the descriptions of the landscape, the writing was choppy elsewhere. And there was a pall of sadness that overhung the entire book. A little of that goes a long way.

Jun 20, 2011, 3:08am Top

Anthony Burgess, whose book 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice is under discussion in Le Salon, prompted me to mention a book in my library for which he contributed the Introduction. That book is The Age of the Grand Tour published in 1967. And to repeat myself, this is an almost elephant folio-sized coffee table book that I have not read from cover to cover, but as a devotee of the "grand tour," I have feasted on the sumptuous illustrations and read in it here and there.

Burgess wrote only the Introduction, and all the bits and pieces are by famous writers of yesteryear. This book is a treasure, illustrated with famous paintings, etchings and illustrations from the 18th century by Canaletto, Chardin, Piranesi, J.M.W. Turner, Watteau and many more.

I suggested it might be time for a closer look, and having just now reviewed the table of contents, I am posting it here to convey an indication of what a fascinating historical artifact this book represents.

Departure from England
The Whole Circle of Travellers, Laurence Sterne
Of Ideal Perfection, Edward Gibbon
Of Things Most Requisite, Mariana Starke
Companions to Dover, Fanny Burney
The Shores of Albion Recede, William Hazlitt

First Impressions
'God Save the King', Fanny Burney
They Do Not Insult Strangers, William Hazlitt
Wonderful Difference, Dr. Edward Rigby
Insolicitous Landlords, Tobias Smollett
City of Petrified People, William Beckford
The China of Europe, William Hazlitt

Ballad of the Women of Paris, Francois Villon
'With Glistering Spires and Pinnacles Adorned', William Hazlitt
Le Supreme Bonheur, Mrs. Anna Jameson
A Fashionable People, Tobias Smollett
Laissez-les-Passer, Dr. Edward Rigby
Tragic Farce, Victor Alfieri
Gins and Man Traps, Philip Thicknesse

Beyond Paris
Beds are Better in France, Arthur Young
You Are Obliged To Eat the French Way, Tobias Smollett
Red Indians in Europe, James Fenimore Cooper
The Very Skirts of Italy, Tobias Smollett

Alternative Route
Love is a Religion in Germany, Madame de Stael
Some Hundreds of Relicks, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
The Athens of Germany, Madame de Stael
Grand Fair at Munich, William Beckford
An Entirely Modern City, Madame de Stael
The Wild Illustrious Philosopher and the Monarch of French Literature, James Boswell
A Reputation for Taste and Intelligence, James Fenimore Cooper
With Alps in Plenty, Lord Byron
Mignon, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Glorious Italy
Italia, Vincenzo da Filicaia
Boswell to Rousseau, James Boswell
The Object of Our Pilgrimage, Edward Gibbon
Comfort, My Good Sir, is Unknown in Savoy, Peter Beckford
Genoa the Superb, Lady Morgan
The Proud Vale of Lombardy, Stendhal
How Cheerful the Society, Mrs. Piozzi
Though Few Breakfast, All Sup, Peter Beckford
The Ideal Beauty of the Middle Ages, Stendhal
A First Sight of Rome, Mrs. Anna Jameson
The Sacred Capons of the Sistine Chapel, Stendhal
Behold the Wrecks of a Great Nation, Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Gala-opening of the San-Carlo, Stendhal
A Night Visit to Vesuvius, Mrs. Anna Jameson
Pompeii, Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Venetian Islands, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Daggers Are out of Fashion, Lord Byron
Farewell Venice, Mrs. Anna Jameson

Jun 20, 2011, 7:33am Top

What a role call! The age of the Grand tour sounds a wonderful tome. Bit expensive however and now out of print. I had a quick look at Amazon UK and saw used copies available for £30.00. However the titles of the contents are intriguing.

Suzanne are you going to tell us what Anthony Burgess says in his introduction?

His 99: Novels must have been a great book to have commented on. It certainly makes you want to go back and read some of them. (I am assuming that like me you have not read them all)

Jun 20, 2011, 11:39am Top

Suzanne - very interesting to read your interpretation of Visitation, as I also came across the review in Janet's thread. Although it was not a book i would normally think to read, Janet's review made it sound really interesting - she name checked some key words that always attract my interest (memory, loss, dreamlike...).

When you say there is much to criticize, could you give a little more detail?

Jun 20, 2011, 11:45am Top

Travel writing was a big interest of mine in times gone by, so your book on the Grand Tour sounds well up my street!

I guess it takes writing from whenever the 'golden age' was, but I would have thought some later victorian/edwardian entries might have been quite interesting too.

I have often meant to obtain Edward Lear's travel writing, which come complete with his sketches. He seems (from my limited knowledge) a pleasant, interesting, but ultimately melancholy figure.

Having said that, I'm sure the book doesn't lack for anything. Any one of those authors would stand up on their own let alone this distillation of the best of each....

Jun 20, 2011, 4:31pm Top

I should have given the full title which clarifies the specific period at issue. You are about to see what I mean. The title amounts to its own review:

The Age of The Grand Tour, containing Sketches of the Manners, Society and Customs of France, Flanders, The United Provinces, Germany, Switzerland and Italy in the letters, journals and writings of the most celebrated voyagers between the years 1720 and 1820, with descriptions of the most illustrious Antiquities and Curiosities in these countries, Together with the Story of such Traffic by Anthony Burgess and an Appreciation of the Art of Europe in the Eighteenth Century by Francis Haskell, and in addition decorated with a great variety of engravings, paintings, watercolours and drawings gathered especially for this particular work.

Perhaps the best way to share the flavor of Burgess' introduction is to give you a long quote from the beginning:

The countries of Northern Europe have built remarkable civilisations beside cold seas and under a weak sun. But no reasonable man of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic stock has ever been wholly satisfied with his own civilisation. Indeed, such periods of history as have been marked by Teutonic pride in Teutonic self-sufficiency have been unhappy ones. The chill oceans need the tempering of the Mediterranean. Unless the German or Englishman is willing to submit, however, remotely, to the influence of the South, there is always the danger of his relapsing into coarseness at best, at worst, brutishness. That is why, in the most enlightened phases of Northern history, no man could be considered cultivated if he had not gone out to engage the art, philosophy and manners of the Latin countries. True, he was able to import the cultural products of the South: Britain, once an outpost of the Roman Empire and later a French-speaking kingdom, has always been in many ways a vassal of Southern culture. But the venturing forth to experience the sun of Italy, as well as her architecture and paintings and statues, or to crumble in the fingers the soil of French vineyards—this was an education of the flesh and the spirit at one and the same time.

The eighteenth century was the great age of the Grand Tour, perhaps because then Britain felt most closely drawn to a Latin culture. This was, after all, the Augustan Age. The models of English art and literature were classical; the language of Johnson and Gibbon was Latinate; in architecture the Gothic was despised and the Graeco-Roman adored. But it would be a mistake to think that the prolonged Southern pilgrimage was a new thing. The fascination of Italy is age-old; Italy is the one country of the South whose major cities have venerable English names—Naples fo Napoli, Florence for Firenze, Venice for Venezia. There is, in Britain, an old familiarity with Italy that has a flavour of the filial about it: Rome was once mother to the British islanders. France has been a mere neighbour, though a profoundly influential one; Greece has been too remote, the gate to the Levant. Spain has been an enemy, somewhat barbarous with her extravagant baroque, Moorish residues, a dangerous empire or the wreckage of an Empire. But Italy has always been vinous, laughing, drenched in color and song. . . .

* * * * *
Let us eschew generalities and set a particular scene. You are the eldest son of a wealthy family which, in the middle years of the eighteenth century, is highly enough regarded, though it is not very ancient. The estate in the Midlands has nourished the dull years of your boyhood . . . . The world has opened out for you a little: you have been to Oxford and learned to contain claret and to whore without disastrous consequences; you achieved an unspectacular degree. What now? The crown of your education must come. Your father travelled in Europe and still talks of it—pictures in the Uffizi and the sweet voices of castrati. He has not really been humanised by his foreign experiences, but he is not as gross in speech or manners as some of the country squires you know. In Florence he bought a few little pictures, and these he exhibits with conventional pride to chance visitors. . . .

The book is 13.5 inches tall x 20.5 inches wide. The type is not large, and Burgess goes on for twenty or so three-column pages filled with erudition and graceful writing, interspersed with period illustrations. I wish I could share it all with you. Unfortunate it is that this book is out of print.

Jun 20, 2011, 5:15pm Top

Zeno, I hesitate to voice my criticisms of Visitation because I do believe they amount to a matter of taste. The author's approach to the subject is actually quite interesting. The rather vague and sustained dreamlike quality where one sometimes has difficulty grasping fully what is going on makes for challenging reading. I found myself having to reread in places. The ambiguities, the impersonal tone captured the bleak fate of many people who passed through the property. Perhaps it boils down to the fact that despite the almost poetic quality of the writing, I don't relish depressing tales. I have known holocaust survivors and cried with them over their horendous losses and frightful experiences, and the reminders in this book left me in a very sad place.

Jun 20, 2011, 5:30pm Top

#42 Love the snippets from the introduction. The paragraph that sets the scene is just delightful. Thanks for posting that Suzanne. I will keep my eyes open for a cheaper second hand copy of this book.

Jun 23, 2011, 1:52am Top

Hi Suzanne, just realised I haven't said a word so far on your second thread. I'm here! I'm interested in the things you read but it's all from a completely different world from what I read, so I never have much if anything to say. Same goes for zeno and Dan. A pity, I'd love to join in, but there it is.

I'm with you on depressing tales. The better written they are, the harder they are to like. I always feel like I should embrace these things for what they are, but it's so hard to sit down and think: right, I'm now voluntarily going to make my world go dark for a while.

Jun 23, 2011, 2:35am Top

Hi Suzanne.

I am glad to have found your thread(s); you have been reading so many great books and written such excellent reviews. I am an Eng. Lit. MA, but hardly ever read any of that now. Most of my reading takes place on hour+-long rides on trains, buses and subways across the vast expanse on the city, on my way to class, or on the way back home.

Your thread may inspire me to slow down a bit and pick up some Renaissance drama or poetry.

It will take a while for me to get started for real, as I will try to reconstruct 2011 reading, sofar.

Jun 23, 2011, 1:05pm Top

Hi Rena, I am happy to know that you are reading my thread. It boggles the mind how many reading choices there are out there, and it's a wonder any of us read any of the same books – let alone people on opposite sides of the world. Thus I enjoy reading other people's threads because it provides a window into completely new and fresh points of view. The group reads over in Le Salon at least provide a bit of a forum for shared reading experiences. At any rate, I'm glad to hear from you whenever something strikes your fancy. Thanks!

Jun 23, 2011, 1:06pm Top

Hi edwinbcn! Welcome to my little Bookaccino. I can relate to your hour-long train rides. For two years I commuted by train between San Francisco and San Jose and that provided an excellent opportunity to read. Books on tape also allowed me to watch the countryside roll by as I listened. As long commutes go, this one wasn't all bad.

It's good to have you here.

Jun 24, 2011, 1:47am Top

Thanks, I certainly will whenever I can add anything! I just want to clarify, when I mention zeno and Dan above, I mean I have the same issue on their respective threads. I wasn't speaking on their behalf about your thread! Oh, the ambiguities of language.

Jun 24, 2011, 12:55pm Top

I understood your meaning, Rena. Now that I've reread your post, I see the ambiguity. But not to worry. I have the same problem, by the way. Don't always have anything intelligent to say about every thread I visit, so I end up saying nothing.

Jun 25, 2011, 3:10pm Top

Yesterday was a red-letter day. Two miracles: One, I went off to my local casino (wayyyyy off the Strip) where they have twice daily poker tournaments. Haven't been playing poker much since the Feds shut down Full Tilt and Poker Stars and decided I needed a poker fix. Believe it or not, living here on the fringe of Las Vegas, I hardly ever go to the casinos and then it's only to play poker or eat – I'm not into casino gaming, as such.

Anyway, I WON THE POKER TOURNAMENT! The old duffer who was chip leader when we got down to three players refused to chop the pot, saying very arrogantly: "Why would I want to chop?" But he obviously hadn't been paying attention. Once making it to the final table, chip stacks were going up and down like yo-yos. I thought I was a gonner at least twice, but just when I had to push all in out of desperation with a pair of nines, my opponent had kings, and I stood up and was saying goodbye to my neighbors at the table, when another nine popped up in the flop. Wow! So long story short, I got down to heads up with said arrogant duffer and proceeded to relieve him of his chips over the course of five hands. Hooray for me!

The other miracle: Just before heading for the tournament, I was fishing around in a storage cupboard in the garage and opened a box that was labeled "kitchen stuff" and wonder of wonders, it was full of books – and I'm not talking cook books. How did this box get shoved in the closet? I'll never know. At any rate, it contains many treasures that I didn't even realize were missing, including all my Mapp and Lucia books and coincidentally, my copy of Burgess's Earthly Powers. I could have sworn I had cataloged that way back when, but checking my catalog, it is not there. There were a bunch of lit crit books that I'd forgotten about and some other treasures which will be cataloged soon. I still have about 200 art books that I haven't listed here, so this little find will provide incentive.

Okay. I'm done.

Jun 25, 2011, 5:04pm Top

Suzanne, Sounds like a good day, lovely story about finding that box of books - it sounds like a pretty big box.

Congratulations on winning the poker tournament and beating that arrogant duffer. I hardly understood a word of that story not ever having played myself. The on-line poker games must be an incredible temptation.

Jun 25, 2011, 6:26pm Top

Barry, the box wasn't all that big — 20 books or so, but I was glad to find them. The 200 art books were and are already on the shelf, and initially I had decided not to catalog them, but I'm beginning to think they should be listed if only to complete the picture (no pun intended).

As for on-line poker being a temptation, which it no longer is thanks to Big Brother here in the US, I never thought of it as a temptation so much as a lazy man's alternative to actually getting oneself out the door to play. On line you can find action 24 hours a day. I should say that on line I only played tournaments — never cash games. Too much opportunity for hanky-panky in ring games, but the tournaments were okay. I specialized in the $3.50 buy-in 10-table tournaments, which I was actually in the black in. So I always looked at it as an opportunity. Some of us actually believe poker is a game of skill! You are matching your wits against other players, rather than the casino, or whatever venue. Any way, it's too much fun, and the on-line play has honed my skills — and my appetite for the game. This is a substitute for social life, as well, in lieu of a book club. Even though I've been in the Las Vegas area for seven years now, I still hardly know anyone, so once in a while it's nice to crawl out of my cave and interact with members of the human race.

Jun 25, 2011, 8:41pm Top

Hi Suzanne, I thought I would drop be and tell you that I finally was able to borrow Medieval Heroines In History And Legend from the library. I'm only into the second CD (audio only), but I can tell that it's going to be fascinating, just from the bit I've heard so far. Thank you for the recommendation!

Jun 26, 2011, 5:06pm Top

Hi Lisa, good to see you. So glad to hear that you are enjoying Medieval Heroines. I'll watch for your review.

Jun 27, 2011, 3:35am Top

A day of miracles indeed. I'm glad that your nine popped up in the flop etc, though I, like Barry, don't understand a word of it. And the books are great - such books to find! If it happened to me, they'd no doubt be kids' books, which is nice, but not quite the same thing.

Jun 27, 2011, 2:02pm Top

Considering that there are allegedly 50 million poker players in the United States alone, and heaven knows how many worldwide, it is fascinating how few literary readers are attracted to the game. Like reading, playing poker could take over one's life if one would let it. Poker feeds my competitive urges, but a little goes a long way. My problem is that I have too many interests, and I've never been able to sustain monomania in any one area long enough to crowd everything else out. So I remain a sort of dilettante, sampling a little of this and a little of that. But books and reading have always been a major preoccupation and I doubt anything could ever crowd out this part of my life.

I finished reading The Confidence-Man yesterday and am now trying to figure out how to write a review that will not run as long as the book! Melville's little "comedy" will go down as one of the best books not only of this year – but ever. The group read over in Le Salon seems to have faded away, and so presumably no one will be offended if I go ahead and post a review sooner rather than later.

Jun 27, 2011, 8:04pm Top

The Confidence Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville

My review is posted here due to its length. I gave this book five stars. Obviously, it's not for everyone, but I love the multilayered erudition of this amazing book.

Edited: Jun 28, 2011, 3:35am Top

Suzanne, Excellent review of The Confidence mam - Superbon as they say here in France. I have just down loaded it onto my kindle. Thanks to your review I will have a good start in reading behind the words. I am going to try and read it next month. I will also re-look at the thread over at the salon. You deserve to go straight to the top of the hot reviews

Jun 28, 2011, 3:36am Top

There is a groundswell of feedback recently pushing me towards Melville.

My choices seem to be a re-read of Moby Dick, Billy Budd or the Confidence Man.....

Which should i go for?

Jun 28, 2011, 3:36am Top

There is a groundswell of feedback recently pushing me towards Melville.

My choices seem to be a re-read of Moby Dick, Billy Budd or the Confidence Man.....

Which should i go for?

Jun 28, 2011, 3:38am Top

Your review is tipping me toward the latter

Jun 28, 2011, 7:11am Top

Great review and well-deserving of a thumbs up! I sense my TBR pile growing again...

Jun 28, 2011, 8:14am Top

You are top of the hot reviews

Jun 28, 2011, 10:08am Top

bas - I first read that as 'top of the hot reviewers...' There is a compliment for you Suzanne.

Jun 28, 2011, 12:17pm Top

Great review, Suzanne -- it's an amazing tour-de-force of a book.

Jun 28, 2011, 1:42pm Top

Thanks everyone — Barry, zeno, wrm and Jane.

Barry, I hope you downloaded the Modern Library version. It has an excellent introduction and copious end notes, which are a pain in the neck to toggle to and fro, but I think I found a way to make it less so. Because The Confidence-Man was the final novel published in Melville's lifetime, the reader sees glimmerings of his lifelong reflections on existential matters, and knowing something of him and how he developed intellectually and philosophically are very helpful in reading and understanding his work.

The Confidence-Man is relatively short — less than 300 pages — and it can be read at the very least for its entertainment value.

Zeno, The Confidence-Man is unlike almost everything Melville wrote, so I see no reason not to dive right in. Billy Budd is even shorter and was published postumously. If you have it handy, I say go for it. As always, I recommend an edition with a good introduction and notes.

Jun 30, 2011, 5:07am Top

33. The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus by Antoine Faivre. Translated by Joscelyn Godwin. 1995

Knowledge of the myths about Hermes is essential to understanding "the long path of the Western imagination, from the Middle Ages to the present." The appeal of Hermes/Mercury is not difficult to grasp, but his complexity is astonishing. He has been recognized through the ages variously as messenger of the gods, a psychopomp (i.e., conductor of souls), discoverer of the arts and sciences, inventor of the seven-stringed lyre, the master of knowledge, master of words (see Acts 14) and other things.

During the Middle Ages his Greco-Roman mythology became entwined with lore about a figure known as Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice-great Hermes"), a sage of ancient Alexandria who was credited with authoring many books that have been handed down under the rubric Hermetica, the most famous being the Corpus Hermeticum. This book appears to be at the very core of esoteric learning from the Renaissance forward.

My reasons for reading this book were threefold. First, this year I have been pursuing the subject of pagan influences on Western art and literature culminating in the Renaissance. Three other books either written or translated by Joscelyn Godwin have contributed significantly to my understanding along these lines, and so it was natural to add a fourth. Second, the Corpus Hermeticum has been mentioned over and over again in various of the books I've been reading this year, and I was hoping to learn more about it since it is not available in English translation. Unfortunately, The Eternal Hermes doesn't precisely address that book with any direct specificity. third, I was intrigued with the question of how Hermes and Hermes Trismegistus became conflated and how the Hermetic tradition was basically co-opted by occultists, Kabbalists and alchemists.

The Eternal Hermes is largely historiographical and amounts to a survey of the literature—mostly in French and German—from ancient times to the present. Once again, it is a bit of a slog getting through it all, but it is useful especially for the bibliographic essay at the end.

The Eternal Hermes is a collection of six essays about the many and varied roles played by Hermetic lore in the course of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic and even the Symbolist era.

After the Corpus Hermeticum was discovered during the early Italian Renaissance, it was translated by Marsilio Ficino, and soon thereafter was appropriated to a large degree by scholars and adepts who were interested in alchemy, Kabbalah and other esoteric pursuits.

In the course of reading, I leaned a few things that were quite surprising. For instance, I did not know that the Greeks in the third century B.C. "saw the gods as actual human beings who were divinized after death." This deification of humans is known as "euhemerism," and it led to a belief in Hermes as a historic figure who had been deified. This helps to explain how the Greek god Hermes became conflated with a supposedly historical figure Hermes Trismegistus.

Another interesting factoid regarding Greek mythology is that I hadn't quite understood the relative importance of two sacred mountains associated with the Greek pantheon—Olympus and Parnassus. Of course, everyone has heard of both mountains, but in my case, in a vague sort of way. We all recognize Mt. Olympus as the home of Zeus, Hera, Pluto and their various offspring. But Mt. Parnassus only had vague associations for me, if any at all. Come to find out, it was associated with Apollo, Orpheus and home of the Muses as well as others.

Considering the scholarly nature of this book, I will give it three stars. It is not exactly beach reading, although it is very interesting for what it is.

Jun 30, 2011, 9:26am Top

Suzanne, The Eternal Hermes looks like one for the enthusiast. You will have to wait until some good soul produces a translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. Interesting bit about the deification of humans into Gods. I suppose this is almost logical when you think about their view of the universe.

Jun 30, 2011, 4:47pm Top

This is a fascinating subject for me as well. I can't remember if you have Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Yates? One book I have been after.

Edited: Jun 30, 2011, 5:56pm Top

Barry, The Eternal Hermes is definitely for the enthusiast. Well put.

Zeno, I do have Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, but it is a version I downloaded from the Internet. Now that you mention it, perhaps I should give it a look.

If you're interested you can download and print it out at


The website is very slow, so be forewarned.

Other than that, I have two books left on my pile on the subject of pagan influences, and I am hoping to get to them later on this year:

The Mirror of the Gods: How the Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods by Malcolm Bull

The Survival of the Pagan Gods by Jean Seznec

But first, I need to concentrate on the group reads and am hoping to fit in some fiction just for fun.

Jun 30, 2011, 6:40pm Top

Speaking of group reads, there is a fascinating paragraph in The Eternal Hermes that touches upon The Faerie Queene. Tell me what you make of this, if anything, Barry – and anyone else who is reading Spenser just now:

Mercury belongs not only to painting and emblems, but also to the political and literary imagery that follows the course of historic and regional circumstances. This served especially to remythologize, or to remythify, the role bestowed on the sovereign. Thus in England there is the theme of the magician-king or queen. From Spenser and Elizabeth I until Pope and Queen Anne, the planetary god Mercury was identified with the monarch, often serving to represent his or her magic power. In Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590), Gloriana (that is, Elizabeth) revives in the very bosom of Protestantism the Medieval notion of a World-Emperor who will restore the Golden Age by repairing the ravages caused by Adam's Fall. Queen Elizabeth herself did not hesitate to turn for advice to the magus John Dee (author of Monas Hieroglyphica, 1564), just as King Arthur took counsel with Merlin. It is to the credit of Douglas Brooks-Davies* that he has drawn attention recently to the consequences of the identification, in England, of monarchy and magic, using precisely the images of Mercury and Trismegistus. This identification justified the pretention of realizing an ideal realm or Empire, differing little from the Arthurian model. Here again, different "traditions" came together in an interesting syncretism. On the one hand, following many of his countrymen, Spenser saw England as a kind of Egypt. On the other, the anti-Roman Hermeticism of Giordano Bruno (particularly of his book Spaccio de la bestia triomfante {The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1585}) acted as a ferment in this country, where the tradition of the Druids (supposed to be the descendants of Noah by his son Cham) was still kept alive by those in power, and tied to the notion of the king's sacerdotal and magical role. As we have mentioned, the Druids were often included, at this period, in the tradition of the prisci theologi (ancient religions), despite the absence of any writings surviving from them—or perhaps because of that. This is why the English monarch, as a more or less complete incarnation of these disparate elements, tends like Mercury to represent a tension between Heaven and Earth, the scepter being regarded as a caduceus, or vice versa. For this reason, too, the wisdom of Trismegistus is attributed to him or her. In the seventeenth century and following the work of Spenser, there are numerous works that carry this imagery, such as Ben Johnson's Mercury vindicated (1616), a panegyric of the Mercurial and magical monarch that was performed at Court, and "Il Penseroso" (1645) of Milton, which transmits the idea of a terrestrial and reformed monarchy, evoked by a poet whose role in this instance is that of the visionary intermediary, like an inspired Merlin beside his King Arthur.

*The Mercurian Monarch: Magical Politics from Spenser to Pope (1993).
Talk about syncretism! Here we have Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus, King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth, and Milton all tied up together. Oops! He left out Porius!

Jul 1, 2011, 1:20am Top

34. Corpus Hermeticum attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, c. 3rd century AD?

As luck would have it, I clicked on my own touchstone and discovered that there IS an English translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and it is available for Kindle for 99 cents – a bargain I couldn't pass up. Through a fluke, I also discovered my Kindle version has hot links to chapters, but the links take you directly to the web site below instead of to the text. That might change if I were to turn off my wireless connection, come to think of it. The full text is available here, in case anyone is interested:


It is a short read – I polished it off late this afternoon and evening. I now have answers to one of the burning questions – not that this will do much good!

After taking copious notes I was going to write a review and post it here, but I just looked at the Wikipedia article and it is much less derivitive than my comments would be. So I refer you there.


Here is the big takeaway for me. At the crux of my fascination with pagan influences in Christian Europe through the Middle Ages and Renaissance is the question of why esoteric philosophies like Hermeticism, Kabbalah and Alchemy carried such a strong appeal in the face of the compeling message of Christianity. What could Hermeticism offer that Christianity did not? Please realize that I came at this with a clean slate, so to speak, only having a hazy notion of paganism and occult philosophy when I began this project about a year ago. It has been a real mystery to me because I grew up on the inside of Christianity and perhaps – although I have fallen into unbelief – I carry with me still, many decades later, the vestiges of the culture I grew up with.

Of course, from this late perspective in 2011, it is easy to say that state-run Christianity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had oppressive tendencies, and many people probably felt a secret desire to escape the ubiquitous control of the Church. The most vivid rebellion against the Church took place during the French Revolution, but that was centuries after the flowering of pagan influence during the Italian Renaissance.

But in reading through the Corpus Hermeticum, I see that one of the notions appearing there, and that I have run across in other readings, is the idea of man having the potential in the afterlife of becoming a god. For example:

"This Mind in men is God, and for this cause some of mankind are gods, and their humanity is nigh unto divinity." —Corpus Hermeticum XII, "About the Common Mind."
I suspect, although I don't know for a fact, that this notion of attaining godhood in the afterlife is one of the occult teachings of secret societies from time immemorial. It even appears in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy! It undoubtedly has compeling appeal to many people. And it is obvious why such a notion is not bandied about. One can just imagine the ridicule . . .

This insight seems to have such a ring of truth to it, that I have a hunch this is the answer I've been looking for – although I didn't know it. It certainly explains a great deal, from my perspective at least.

Jul 1, 2011, 3:04am Top

> What could Hermeticism offer that Christianity did not?

Let me paraphrase part of the introduction to the Dutch translation of 1990 by G. Quispel and R. van den Broek:

The influence of the hermetic literature on the humanistic Renaissance can hardly be overrated. No-one doubted the genuineness and therefore the high antiquity of these writings. People were convinced that already Moses was influenced by Hermes Trismegistus. ... Plato too would have been influenced by Hermes, both during his stay in Egypt and through earlier Greek philosophers, especially Pythagoras. In that way the teachings of Hermes Truismegistus could be seen as the basis of the best what the biblical and the classical traditions had to offer. It was thought that with the Hermetic writings we had at our disposal the sources from which biblical faith and Greek philosophy had drawn. This is illustrated in the image of Hermes and Moses on the marble floor of the cathedral in Siena (1488): Hermes is giving with his right hand a boook (of law) to the slichtly bowing Moses ... below Hermes it is written: 'Hermis Mercurius Trismegistus contemporaneus Moysi'

The Walburgkerk in Zutphen also has a fresco depicting Hermes:

Probably for that reason one of the Dutch publishers of esoteric texts is called "Walburg Pers".

Jul 1, 2011, 5:33am Top

Suzanne, He left out Porius because he is still reading it.

The more I read of Spenser the more I think he belongs to the medieval period of poets/writers. I do not detect many influences from the Rennaissance in his verse. There is magic in abundance and the appearance of Arthur as Prince Arthur in the first book of The Faerie Queene all cements these links for me. there is no doubt that Spenser mythologised Elizabeth as Gloriana a magical queen. Spenser was a very English poet. The furthest he travelled was Ireland.

I have not read enough of Milton yet to form an idea of where he belongs.

Pim's comments are very interesting and point to an explanation of how pagan texts could be accepted by some Christian believers especially in Europe under the influence of the Renaissance. We all know of the influence of classical texts on Renaissance thought, but it is difficult sometimes for us to square the circle with orthodox Christianity.

Jul 1, 2011, 6:47am Top

A high standard of debate here! Really fascinating stuff, Suzanne, Pim & Bas.

If I had the wherewithall to contribute I would, but happy just to read and learn for the moment....

Jul 1, 2011, 11:10am Top

your thread is brilliant, poquette, gambling, books, esoterica, my god, what haven't you covered here.

Have you come across Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy in your reading of esoterica?

Jul 1, 2011, 1:52pm Top

>74 PimPhilipse: Pim – thanks much for that quote. I've been so focused on the Christian era that I have completely glossed over the more ancient aspects of Hermeticism. Is the book you were quoting from De Hermetische Gnosis in de loop der eeuwen by Gilles Quispel? I was trying to figure out whether it was available in English, but maybe you know . . .

>75 baswood: Barry – somewhere I read that Spenser's non-Faerie Queene poetry is more reflective of esoteric Renaissance philosophy, not so much in the FQ itself. I was totally floored by Faivre's mention of "Il Penseroso" in that context. Now I'm going to have to reread that poem with a brand new perspective!

The more I've thought about Pim's comments in the context of all my readings this year, I'm realizing that my thinking has been skewed somewhat. But the fact is that all the so-called heresies across the millenia are a potent indication of how far the Church had drifted from the original message in the Gospels and from what resonated with large swaths of the people. One has to wonder how the history of the West would have differed if Christianity had not been co-opted by the Roman state. And you are so right that squaring the circle is almost impossible.

>76 zenomax: Zeno – by all means, jump in at your pleasure. Always happy to hear your perspective.

>77 tomcatMurr: Tom – thanks so much! But we poker players like to think we are playing a game of skill. Gambling! Phooey!

I have not come across Rudolf Steiner or Anthroposophy. But I will look him up and see where he fits in my scheme of things. Thanks for the lead.

Thanks, everyone, for your input.

Jul 1, 2011, 3:44pm Top

It's from the introduction to the Dutch translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, published in 1990.
The chapters are translated by G. Quispel and R. van den Broek. From the text it is not clear, however, who the author of the introduction is.

Jul 1, 2011, 8:13pm Top

Really, really behind, but I finally caught up. I loved your comments about The Art of Memory in 11. I've added it to the wishlist. For some reason, your review made me think of Ledoux's etching of the Theatre of Besancon:

Jul 2, 2011, 12:30am Top

>79 PimPhilipse: - Thanks Pim. It may have been published in English as The Way of Hermes . . . with an intro by Quispel. I'm going to check it out. Many thanks!

>80 janemarieprice: - Always nice to see you Janet. Thanks for posting the Ledoux etching. It is very evocative.

Edited: Jul 7, 2011, 3:53pm Top

Just stumbled on this link in another thread, claiming to be a list of the 100 greatest writers of all time. It is well done, provocative, and I find myself in some disagreement with rankings, etc., but it is terrific for the pictures of all the authors.

Disagreements? Well, for example, they list Faulkner as number one. At this moment I can't think who I would put at number one, but Faulkner would not come to mind. And Jane Austen is not on the list!!! But no list is perfect and I love lists because of the controversy – dare I say turmoil? – they engender, if nothing else!


ETA: The same web site also has other provocative lists – 100 greatest novels, etc.

Jul 7, 2011, 5:21pm Top

Suzanne, Yes I have seen this list before, very interesting. Some really great photographs as well.
They could have done a bit better with Sophocles though, he looks a bit statuesque.

Ok then Suzanne. How many of them haven't you read

Jul 7, 2011, 5:53pm Top

I'll get back to you, Barry, on that. Got some work to do, then recheck the list. I'm curious myself, probably most.

Jul 8, 2011, 1:56am Top

I've decided to post the list of 100 greatest writers here for my own convenience. This is an interesting list, although I probably would have made a different list in terms of ranking, and some of the writers I have never heard of would have to be replaced by others.

To answer your question, Barry, I have actually read something of most of the authors, contrary to my first thought: 7 of the top 50 I have NOT read; 18 of the second 50 NOT read.

So Barry, what is your score?

And anybody else, please chime in.

Here is the list as succinctly as I could present it:

1 William Faulkner 2 Franz Kafka 3 William Shakespeare 4 James Joyce 5 Gertrude Stein 6 John Milton 7 Samuel Beckett 8 Vladimir Nabokov 9 Anton Chekhov 10 Marcel Proust 11 Fyodor Doestoyevsky 12 Dante 13 Geoffrey Chaucer 14 Virginia Woolf 15 John Ashbery 16 Charles Dickens 17 Homer 18 William Butler Yeats 19 Herman Melville 20 Laurence Stern 21 Miguel Cervantes 22 Euripides 23 Stendhal 24 George Orwell 25 Lord Byron 26 Dr. Johnson 27 William Blake 28 Ovid 29 William Wordsworth 30 John Keats 31 Henry James 32 Samuel Coleridge 33 William Carlos Williams 34 D.H. Lawrence 35 Walt Whitman 36 Emily Dickinson 37 Virgil 38 Mary Shelley 39 Arthur Rimbaud 40 Iris Murdoch 41 Robert Creeley 42 Mark Twain 43 Robert Lowell 44 Charles Baudelaire 45 Ivan Turgenev 46 Gustave Flaubert 47 Eugene O'Neill 48 John Steinbeck 49 Charles Olson 50 Toni Morrison

51 Goethe 52 Sophocles 53 T.S. Eliot 54 Nathaniel Hawthorne 55 Tennessee Williams 56 Leo Tolstoy 57 Flannery O'Connor 58 Emily & Charlotte Bronte 59 Thomas Pynchon 60 W.H. Auden 61 Henrik Ibsen 62 Edgar Allan Poe 63 Willa Cather 64 Malcolm Lowry 65 Jorge Luis Borges 66 Tu Fu 67 James Baldwin 68 John Berryman 69 Harold Pinter 70 Walter Benjamin 71 Stanley Elkin 72 James Agee 73 Percy Shelley 74 Philip K. Dick 75 Ezra Pound 76 Jonathan Swift 77 Saul Bellow 78 Julio Cortazar 79 Flann O'Brien 80 Carson McCullers 81 Ernest Hemingway 82 Gabriel Garcia Marquez 83 Frank O'Hara 84 Joyce Cary 85 Maryse Conde 86 Isak Dinesen 87 Derek Walcott 88 David Mamet 89 George Eliot 90 Lorine Niedecker 91 Robert Heinlein 92 Henry Miller 93 Robert Hayden 94 W.G. Sebald 95 Rumi 96 Wallace Stevens 97 George Bernard Shaw 98 Czeslaw Milosz 99 Honore de Balzac 100 Joseph Conrad

Jul 8, 2011, 6:02am Top

Suzanne, An interesting list but very pro American. I have not done so well as you. I have NOT read 15 of the first 50 and 26 of the second fifty. Plenty left to read then.

I have read all the English authors as you would expect. I don't think I would like to compose my own list but if I did I would certainly include some of the "Beats" and no Sartre, Colette or Jane Austin is unforgivable.

Jul 8, 2011, 10:14am Top

The list is also heavily modern--thus all the photographs--but otherwise not all that striking. I've read at least some of 48 out of the first 50 (some of the poets pretty spottily, though) and 38 in the second 50. So I'd say despite some glaring oversights it's a pretty canonical list too.

Despite their blurb at the beginning that they are focusing on "great" rather than "important" writers, I think they got some backwards. I went through a wonderful period of my life reading Heinlein, and he is certainly important in sci-fi, but he is not great. While I find Benjamin interesting (though as I've said elsewhere, I prefer Adorno), if the argument is that he redefined the essay, then there should be room for Montaigne, who invented the genre.

As with all lists, though, the fun is in the debate. Thanks for pointing it out!

Edited: Jul 8, 2011, 11:59am Top

I've read something from 9 of the top 10 but only 30 of the top 50!

There are a few names I don't know - most of them American, which perhaps reinforces the american-centric nature.

Having Sebald and Benjamin in the list makes me happy, as well as Kafka rated at 2 (above Shakespeare and Joyce, which is only right and proper), but am I right in saying there is no Musil?

Asian and south American authors seem very thin on the ground too.

But thanks for posting Suzanne, I'm a listomaniac too.

Jul 8, 2011, 1:23pm Top

Yes, the list is skewed embarrassingly towards American writers, unjustifiably so IMHO. There are too many of those Americans that I have never heard of to make their inclusion credible.

William Faulkner No. 1? Gertrude Stein No. 6? Samuel Beckett No. 7? I don't think so.

And I'm exposing my neglect of modern writers here, but who are John Ashberry, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson? Do they really belong on a list of 100 greatest writers – and in the top 50 to boot?

Jul 8, 2011, 7:45pm Top

Interesting list. Did you notice that there were only 14 women on the list; 5 of these in the top 50; and 1 in the top ten?

I love the photos.

Jul 8, 2011, 9:28pm Top

who are John Ashberry, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson?

My thoughts exactly. And where is JCP?

Jul 8, 2011, 10:20pm Top

"...Ashberry, ... Creeley....and Olson...on a list of ONE
HUNDRED (!) greatest writers (!?) ( Emphasis added; 89 ,91)

Who were they: To take the question literally: Ashberry and Creeley were once noted poets; Olson, a VERY noted one. Though you could say that they "had their following" but were hardly household words in general
An anecdote about Charles Olson soon after his death. One of the literati who hung out in a Harvard Square book shop, said of him, "The day that Olson died, several whales were beached on the North Shore -- which I thought was POETIC JUSTICE!" The one he said it to (not me) replied, "'Poetic' perhaps, but I don't see that it was 'justice'."

Jul 9, 2011, 1:22am Top

>90 labfs39: Lisa, I'm chagrined to admit that the women writers I have NOT read include Iris Murdock, Tony Morrison, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Joyce Cary, Maryse Conde and Lorine Niedecker, exactly half of the 14. So I'm in no position to comment on their appropriateness for the list other than hearsay. But still shaking my head over Jane Austen.

>91 tomcatMurr: Indeed, Tom, where is John Cowper Powys? Umberto Eco, anyone? *betraying my own proclivities*

>92 rolandperkins: Welcome, rolandperkins, to Bookaccino! A wry story about Charles Olson. Is there a hidden message there that reflects some deep truth about Olson? Makes one wonder.

Obviously, we're going to have to check these fellows out. But it sounds like their day came . . . and went.

Jul 9, 2011, 3:42am Top

Kenneth Patchen

Just been listening to a podcast on Jung that zenomax provided a link to. It got me thinking about my early days in San Francisco when Jung was co-opted by the New Age movement. I learned about Jung, Joseph Campbell and tarot cards all in the same day. I'll never forget it.

Later my mind wandered to the poet Kenneth Patchen who lived in the Bay Area from the fifties on until he died in 1972. I'll never forget the sound of his voice reading his own poetry. I cannot find the audio of the poem I remember most but this will suffice:


Jul 9, 2011, 4:08am Top

>93 Poquette: P, Joyce Cary was a man....

Jul 9, 2011, 4:48am Top

Excellent video Suzanne, Kenneth Patchen is new to me.

Jul 9, 2011, 2:01pm Top

>95 tomcatMurr: Wow, Tom, that's really embarrassing. *shaking my head* I've heard of Joyce Cary and The Horse's Mouth my entire life and always assumed he was a woman. This is going to require a serious attitude adjustment on my part. In penance, I may have to read the book!

>96 baswood: Barry, Kenneth Patchen, as you could see from the video, spent some time in New York but moved to Northern California for health reasons in the fifties. He did illustrations of many of his poems similar to the ones pictured.

Here is the poem I was hoping to find audio for:


The sea is awash with roses O they blow
Upon the land

The still hills fill with their scent
O the hills flow on their sweetness
As on God's hand

O love, it is so little we know of pleasure
Pleasure that lasts as the snow

But the sea is awash with roses O they blow
Upon the land

Jul 9, 2011, 5:29pm Top

On 93, 95: "Joyce Cary was a man"

Right, and so was the once-famous, now almost forgotten, poet
Joyce Kilmer (author of "Trees'). I can't think of an author-Joyce
who was a woman, except the very capable historian Joyce Appleby (a Wish List item, to me).

Cary's Except the Lord and MisterJohnson are long-time TBR
items to me. (To be RE-read in the case of "E t L").

Jul 9, 2011, 8:06pm Top

Suzanne, I have just finished reading the chapters on Spenser in Studies in Medieval & Renaissance Literature. As they are a collection of unpublished essays (in his lifetime) then they are going to be a bit of a mixed bag and these certainly are. I thought however that the essays "Edmund Spenser" and "On reading the fairie Queene" were excellent. Very good introductions to the poem. "Neoplatonism in Spenser's poetry" was impenetrable and "Spenser's cruel cupid" and "Genius and Genius" were interesting.

I have also read an essay from Pelican Guide to English Literature which takes a very different view of Spenser and The Fairie Queene. I will post some comments on this at the salon.

Jul 9, 2011, 8:14pm Top

Ashberry was quite heralded in his day, but I can't imagine he'll have the influence needed to stay significant 25 or 50 years from now. Same for Creely. Olson was a better poet, but nowhere near a giant.

The shortage of women is ludicrous. Perhaps more ludicrous is combining 2 of the 3 Brontes as if they are the same author (because what novels could be more similar than Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights?).

Jul 9, 2011, 9:21pm Top

The Horse's Mouth is excellent, as is the rest of the trilogy from which it comes. Your penance will be highly enjoyable.

Roland, we will not mention Joyce Carol Oates in this context, will we.

No, we will not.

Jul 10, 2011, 1:28am Top

"...we will not mention Joyce Carol Oates,,," (101)

She's not on my Favorites List -- which is a not very exclusive one-- probably about 200 on it -- and not title of hers, I think, is on' my very extensive Wish Llst, but....
all things considered, no we won't, if the list is limited to 100. But I wouldn't exclude her from all lists of this kind.

Jul 10, 2011, 1:34am Top

"is there some deep truth...(in the Olson anecdote)?"

Not at all, to my mind. I think it was very shallow -- in a class with the old joke about Orson Welles* of an earlier era:

-- "What was Welles's role in the movie of Moby Dick?" (1956)

-- "The title role."

* I never met either of them, but I understand that Olson and Welles were of similar body-type.

Jul 10, 2011, 4:27am Top

Why is everybody talking about Ashberry is the past sense? He is still alive, he is still working, he published a translation of Rimbaud this year. Critical concensus places him as one of the great American poets - right from the beginning he was praised, Auden choosing him for the Yale Younger Poets Prize (which caused controversy, the charge being that Auden chose him for being a young gay man rather than the work).

The list just highlights the compiler's taste for modernist writers. Bearing that in mind you could argue that focusing on the modernists makes sense since these writers took more risks in their works. On the other hand you could argue that modernism was an elitism approach to writing designed for a clique of the 'good people', after all the 'great unwashed' are of no importance at all.

Be careful to spell Joyce Cary correctly, as Joyce Carey is a woman, an actress known for work with Noel Coward.

Edited: Jul 10, 2011, 1:17pm Top

>99 baswood: Barry, You are putting me to shame. I am neglecting my Spenser reading. Seems like I've bitten off too much just now. And I have dropped the ball on the C.S. Lewis material because I too was having difficulty with it but figured I'd try again after I got into The Faerie Queene. Bottom line, I look forward to your comments over on the Salon thread.

>100 wrmjr66: Thanks, wrm, for mentioning that about the Bronte sisters. What were they thinking??? Why didn't they bundle Mary and Percy Shelley while they were at it?

>101 tomcatMurr: I'll seriously add The Horse's Mouth to the tilting TBR, Tom, since you put it that way. ;-)

>102 rolandperkins: As for Joyce Carol Oates, she did write one book that was amazing, IMHO. And that was Son of the Morning. There was a time when I was much younger that I was going around saying I wished I had written that book.

>103 rolandperkins: Cute, Roland! And thanks for clarifying.

>104 Jargoneer: Welcome to Bookaccino, jargoneer. Nice to see you here. Thanks for straightening us all out regarding Ashbery, which I believe you will find is spelled with one "R". It is interesting that while "critical consensus places him as one of the great American poets," some of us among the great unwashed somehow missed the bulletin. Accordingly, your argument resonates "that modernism was an elitism approach to writing designed for a clique of the 'good people', after all the 'great unwashed' are of no importance at all."

I've been through the relevant posts three times and haven't seen any misspelling of Joyce Cary's name. Maybe I missed it. At any rate, we are now on notice. Thanks.

ETA: touchstone fix.

Jul 10, 2011, 5:50pm Top

Interesting list and discussion - yes, both quite modern and American. I'm missing 15 of the first 50 and 32 of the second. I love Faulkner, though I don't think he needs to be at 1 and the Bronte combo is unreasonable. Might as well just have one entry for 'The Greeeks'.

Jul 10, 2011, 9:21pm Top

I like a list like that that's willing to stick its neck out for the chopping block. Robert Creeley doesn't belong on this list for sure (on a top 1000 writers list?--perhaps) but nevertheless, let me say how much I love the man's deep felt poetry. Here's his home page, and here's a good representative of his I like:


Seeing is believing.
Whatever was thought or said,

these persistent, inexorable deaths
make faith as such absent,

our humanness a question,
a disgust for what we are.

Whatever the hope,
here it is lost.

Because we coveted our difference,
here is the cost.


I don't think Stanley Elkin belongs on this list either, even as much as I admire him, but I'm sure glad regardless that he's being given some much-needed exposure anyway! He's a rip-roaring funny writer. Read anything of his, and get ready to crack UP. George Mills & Mrs. Ted Bliss both won the Nat'l Book Critics Circle Award, & The MacGuffin was a finalist for the NB Award.

And I would switch Baudelaire's & Rimbaud's positions if I could; just seems to me the right thing to do.

Wonderful discussion & thread(s) you've got going here, Poquette!

Jul 11, 2011, 3:36pm Top

>106 janemarieprice: Good point, Jane, about the "Greeeks"!

>Hey Enrique! Welcome! Good to have your input here.

We have been throwing rocks at this list and yet I find myself wondering how the heck one would go about formulating such a list? What if we were to form a committee amongst ourselves and draw up our own list? I say this with trepidation, because it seems that such lists and the reactions thereto are quite personal and based on the breadth of each person's own reading, etc. I confess that there are some embarrassing gaps in my own fiction reading.

So the first question is: Would you all like to give it a shot?

And if so, how shall we go about it?

I suspect this could be a very long drawn-out process, and if we accept that at the outset, maybe one way would be to begin with thinking about what we would consider to be the ten greatest novels of all time. We could discuss this and then maybe take a vote.

Anybody else have any thoughts about this? If you think it's a waste of time, that's okay too.

What say all of you?

Jul 11, 2011, 4:39pm Top

Suzanne, it would be difficult to vote for something that you have not read. I suppose a start might be for anyone interested to name their 50 best writers and then to analyse the results and make a list of those writers that appear most often in the lists. I am not suggesting that the results from this should be the final list, but it might be a start.

People might then make a case for inclusion or non inclusion of authors not on the list with a challenge for other list makers to read that author if they have not already done so.

Of course there would need to be a separate thread and you would have to overcome the reluctance of some LT users about making lists.

Of course I would be up for it.

Jul 11, 2011, 4:49pm Top

A separate thread is a good idea. I think Enrique was daydreaming about something like this in Le Salon. We'll wait and see what he says.

I would be hard put to come up with 50 best writers myself. I was thinking I would have a hard time with even a list of ten because I haven't read deeply in those who many might consider to be prime candidates. My list would have to consist of writers I know well. That may not be an uncommon problem.

Jul 11, 2011, 8:46pm Top

Rique LOVES lists.

Jul 12, 2011, 6:59am Top

Isn't the problem about any list of writers is that they tend to the centre (the acknowledged classics) hence they all more-or-less resemble each other. One of the good things about the above list is that it is quirky and it is that quirkiness that people are responding to. That's why individual lists are so enjoyable and infuriating.

I'm probably the only UK based person here which is a pity since for World Book Night next year the organisers have asked for lists of your favourite 10 books and why in order to choose which 25 books they will give away next year.

Jul 12, 2011, 1:24pm Top

>112 Jargoneer: turnerd, I see you have changed your screen name from Jargoneer. What a sacrifice that must have been because it was a very clever name. I always admired it anyway.

You are most definitely NOT the only UK-based person who frequents this thread. There is at least one other and there is also an ex-pat living on the continent. Is World Book Night a British thing? Haven't heard of it before.

Jul 13, 2011, 4:48am Top

That's interesting. how do you get to change your name without losing your library. I am getting a bit fed up with baswood its a bit prosaic.

I keep thinking I might post my 50 favourite or who I consider to be the most important writers, but I am still lacking the list and the courage to post it.

Jul 13, 2011, 5:52am Top

>114 baswood: - if you goto Edit Profile one of the options is to Change or Delete. Just put in a new name and your password, wait a couple of days and hey presto!
If you post the list as your 50 favourite writers people can't disagree, they can only ask questions about your choice; if you post it as the 50 most important writers you will be asked about your choice but also "Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Baswood?"

>113 Poquette: - to be honest I liked the name initially but then I began to think it sounded a bit facile when I posted some messages. On the other hand I'm not completely convinced by the new name (despite it being my real name). Perhaps I should have changed it to - TLTFKAJ (The LibraryThingers Formally Known As Jargoneer). I may change it again if my calendar of Forgotten English talks to me again.

World Book Night is, as far as I know, only a UK thing. This year they gave away 1 million books, 40k of 25 different books - people had to write to them (via the website) explaining why they wanted to give away a certain book and if selected were sent a carton of books. Next year the books they are going to give away will be selected from nominations by the public (not quite how they are selected, just hope it isn't the 25 most popular).

Jul 13, 2011, 7:24am Top

114 bas - you need a thread asking for nominations for your new LT name!

Jul 13, 2011, 1:35pm Top

I'm having trouble coming up with a list of 10, much less 50. Chalk this up to one of my bad ideas.

Jul 13, 2011, 1:58pm Top

#116 No! I do not.

#116 Thanks turnerd, I am still thinking about it.

Edited: Jul 15, 2011, 10:35pm Top

Having just caught after (i enjoyed doing so )being quite far behind, a couple comments:

#78One has to wonder how the history of the West would have differed if Christianity had not been co-opted by the Roman state.

Interesting thought. Was it Christianity the led to the Catholic Church and the Refromation rebellion ( and arguably to the Renaissance and the industrial revolution ) or was it going to happen regardless of the chosen religion?

Edited: Jul 15, 2011, 11:08am Top

To Barry, re #75:
The more I read of Spenser the more I think he belongs to the medieval period of poets/writers. I do not detect many influences from the Rennaissance in his verse.

Tough argument here to me because Spenser was so dependent on Rennaissance Italian writers for so much of FQ. Spenser was an odd hybrid, he was trying to be in the Rennaissance while holding tight to the medieval heritage. My comment comes from other people's research, of course, not my own.

Jul 15, 2011, 3:34pm Top

Spenser is purposely writing in an archaic style. He seems much more like a Renaissance poet in his Amoretti & Epithalamion. One of his real strengths as a poet, to my mind, is the way he can pick up different poetic styles. The Shepheardes Calender is a good example of what I mean. I think some of his better eclogues (e.g., "October") are as good as anything in The Faerie Queene.

Jul 15, 2011, 3:45pm Top

Does anyone have an explanation (or link with one) on how are the medieval and Rennaissance styles are differentiated?

Jul 15, 2011, 5:20pm Top

The difference between medieval and Renaissance style is a vast subject which is touched on in various ways by many sources. The article on Humanism in the Catholic Encyclopedia on line provides an excellent short survey of how Renaissance humanism – which promoted Classical Latin style, grammar, philology and rhetoric –compared with medieval scholastic logic and dialectic. This article is densely packed but worth a look.


In addition, Renaissance writers were to a large extent influenced by the so-called "occult philosophy" engendered by Ficino and della Mirandola. Several of the books I've been reading in recent years, most of which I've reviewed on LT, underscore all this, especially:

The High Medieval Dream Vision by Kathryn L. Lynch
The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances Yates
The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance by Joscelyn Godwin
The Art of Memory by Frances Yates
The Medieval World View: An Introduction by William R. Cook
The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis

Maybe others have further suggestions?

Jul 15, 2011, 6:01pm Top

Suzanne, I hope you don't mind me and Dan hijacking your thread.

#120. Dan. I link Spenser's Fairie Queene back to the medieval writers for the following reasons.

1) Spenser's use of allegory. Le Roman de la Rose, The Divine Comedy, and Pier's Plowman are all medieval allegorical texts. I know that Spenser was influenced by the more recent Italian epics like Orlando Furioso, but I think his use of allegory looks backwards to those medieval works.

2) Spenser's narrative style screams medieval at me. The way that he lists things; for example Book 1 Canto 1 stanza 9 where he provides a list of the trees is very much like Chaucer. There was a need to demonstrate knowledge in this way. Also his description of the seven deadly sins in Book 1 Canto IV harks back to Gowers Confessio Amantis. again there is a need to describe them in a very medieval way.

3) the setting of the poem is in the age of medieval chivalry more 14th century than 16th century and we get things like the description of the horse that the knights ride that relates directly to the character of the rider; very much a medieval idea and used extensively in Chaucer's prologue to the Canterbury tales.

4) Perhaps the most persuasive argument for me however is that Shakespeare was just around the corner, producing work just 10 years after the Faerie Queene that demonstrates a huge difference in style. By no stretch of the imagination could you call Shakespeare a medieval writer, he was of his age an Elizabethan. Compare him to Spenser and you can easily see that Spenser is more closely linked to texts written 200 years in the past rather than 10 years in the future.

I am not denying that Spenser a well educated man was influenced by the Renaissance, but his chosen style of writing in the Faerie Queene is linked more closely with the 14th century than the Elizabethan period.

Jul 15, 2011, 8:22pm Top

3. Very interesting, this is also a feature of the Welsh medieval tales in the Mabinogion.

Jul 15, 2011, 8:36pm Top

No hijacking going on here! This is what we are about. And I appreciate your expertise in this department, Barry.

Jul 15, 2011, 10:34pm Top

Barry - One small correction is to take those ten years away. Shakespeare's play were being performed at least as early as 1592, where as books 4-6 of the FQ were published in 1596. Shakespeare was only about 12 years younger.

But, overall, I can see the medieval connections you mention, but I can see the Renaissance connections too.

First, look at your four points for the other side

1. Dante is (Early Italian) Renaissance, actually he kicks off the Renaissance. Spenser is associated with Dante (as you point out), and also with Ariosto & Tasso - both Renaissance Italians.

2. Spenser wrote the epic to sound old, which meant making it sound archaic. It the process, he actually invented many "archaic" words. This is also part of the reason it sounds medieval.

3. While the chivalry themes look back to the medieval, that is not entirely relevant to the medieval-Renaissance debate. Part of Spenser's theme in FQ is to link King Arthur to Queen Elizabeth. You can't do that without going back to Arthurian and chivalric times.

4. Two points here. (a) Yes Shakespeare and Spenser were doing radically different things, but...poetry and drama are different things. (b) Further, I would link John Milton much much much closer to Spenser than to Shakespeare. Paradise lost, published in 1667, is deep into the English Renaissance.

Second, look at elements that are clearly Renaissance:

1. Humanism (see Suzanne's link, post #123) - his work is full of classical references, imitation (Ovid, Virgil, Aristotle, etc. ) and ideas.

2. The intentional, nationalistic use of English. There are archaic (and pseudo-archaic) aspects, and plenty of Latin derived words (and many other foreign derived words). However, the overall intention was to make the classic epic in English, specifically in English. It's very much a proto-Nationalist celebration of the English centered British Empire of that time. (book 2 specifically mentions Virginia).

3. The humanity of his characters, despite the allegorical themes. We can apply his work to real life, to an extent...sometimes to a remarkably vivid extent.

Edited: Jul 16, 2011, 7:17am Top

Interesting stuff Dan, but we may be edging towards an argument about when the Rennaissance started and the medieval period ended. It would appear to me that they ran side by side influencing each other.

Your three points on "elements that are clearly Rennaissance" would apply with just as much force to Geoffrey Chaucer writing at the end of the 14th century. In fact they would be an excellent starting point in describing Chaucer's influences.

We could therefore say that Spenser was influenced by similar sources (although they would not be the same sources because Chaucer did not have as many of the classical sources to hand), Spenser however chose to cloak his magnum opus in allegory rather than looking forward to the more realist writings of the Elizabethan age.

Going back to my original point that you picked up on Dan. I was wrong to say that "I don't pick up many Renaissance influences" in Spenser's verse, because as we have demonstrated these influences were present in both medieval writers and Elizabethan writers. I should have said that: In the Faerie Queene Spenser seems to me to belong to the medieval period more than to the Elizabethan age.

Jul 16, 2011, 9:40am Top

Barry - I emptied my knowledge base in #127! I can't join the argument further, but I'm interested in the questions: When does the Renaissance begin in literature, and what defines the change? Where does Spenser fit and why? What makes Chaucer Medieval and Milton Renaissance other than dates?

Jul 16, 2011, 10:17am Top

very interesting discussion! I like Dan's idea of Spenser writing in Medieval pastiche. Makes a lot of sense to me.

Jul 16, 2011, 6:23pm Top

The Renaissance isn't just a historical period, it is also geographical. It starts in Italy and is nearly over in the south by the time it starts in England. Chaucer (post 128) is an interesting point. He is a medieval English writer who is reading and imitating Renaissance writers on the continent. We would probably call Chaucer the first Renaissance writer in England if it weren't for the fact that it took a century and a half for the second one to appear.

The Faerie Queene is definitely not Spenser's most "Renaissance" work, so I really encourage anyone who is interested to look at some of his other stuff to see how he fits into the Renaissance. He was extraordinarily influential--even more than Shakespeare for the 17th century.

Our hostess, Poquette, has provided a very good list of works on the Renaissance. To hers, I would add a few other classics.

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt
Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas
Civilization of Europe in The Renaissance by John Hale
The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg

Jul 16, 2011, 10:23pm Top

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a treasure here in wrmjr66. He has a PhD in English lit and he's showing a picture of Spenser on his profile page.

I bow to your superior knowledge. Thanks for explaining the geographical progression of the Renaissance from Italy northward. I believe the beginning date of the Renaissance is even in dispute to some extent although I seem to recall that Petrarch is known as the father of humanism. Interestingly he was born the same year (1304) Giotto is thought to have painted the Arena Chapel. Not that that has anything to do with Spenser, but little factoids like that are useful to me in trying to associate dates and events in my own mind.

Jul 16, 2011, 10:27pm Top

Noting the great lists (plural) of books...

Jul 17, 2011, 6:49am Top

Just checking out on the book list above and note that I have a copy of Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. I will read it soon.

Jul 17, 2011, 7:35pm Top

>132 Poquette: I would blush virtually if I could. In truth, it's been 15 years since I left academia, and I haven't kept up (future grad students do not take my reading list as up to date!). To be honest, I had forgotten that I had Spenser up as my profile picture. It's appropriate, though. I did spend an awful lot of time with the old guy!

Anyway, it has been enjoyable recalling some of these works and debates in this thought-provoking thread. I look forward to reading more--about Spenser or anyone else.

Jul 18, 2011, 1:15am Top

#108 Re: lists. Have you read A Novel Bookstore? In it two bookstore owners devise a way to select interesting novels for their store by committee while controlling for the classics, translated lit, etc. At the time I read it, Monica (JustJoey) and I thought about trying to do something similar, but it is a Herculean task. I couldn't even settle on four authors I wanted to invite to a dinner party on Barry's thread!

Jul 18, 2011, 5:01am Top

By the way, re #131 I read Burckhardt at University way back when but could probably benefit by reviewing. The other titles you mentioned are unknown to me. I will look for them.

>136 labfs39: Lisa, you may note that some of us couldn't narrow down to four either, and so we posted two lists. Give it a try. You can do it!

Jul 29, 2011, 2:28pm Top

Porius by John Cowper Powys

Feeling like I have achieved some sort of medieval Arthurian ordeal, I have finished reading Porius and am thrilled and looking forward to getting back to my good old stack of TBRs. Wow, I am so far behind.

Jul 29, 2011, 8:20pm Top

Well done Suzanne and welcome back to the real world.

Jul 29, 2011, 8:29pm Top

Thank you, Barry. And yes, it is good to have that monkey off my back, in more ways than one!

Jul 30, 2011, 8:31am Top

Congratulations, Suzanne. I still have about five chapters to go, and then I too can lay my sword aside, the old dragon finally slayed.

Jul 30, 2011, 2:52pm Top

Hi Dewald, I'll be interested in your take on Porius. My own reaction is so mixed – and partly for reasons not directly connected to the book – that I am going to let it sit for a while. Not sure I'll ever do a review, but would love a healthy discussion of it with you and others who have read or are reading it.

Jul 30, 2011, 10:55pm Top

it's regrettable, but hopefully what will remain after all the dust has settled is an image of a remarkable book. dmsteyn, I didn't know you were reading it too!

P, thanks for your kind words on my review on THE_THREAD_THAT_WILL_NOT_BE_NAMED. our private discussion earlier helped me to clarify certain things I was trying to get at.

Edited: Aug 4, 2011, 4:38pm Top

In summing up our discussion here a couple of weeks ago about lists of the greatest writers, greatest books, most important writers, most important books, etc., we seem to have concluded that any such list will inevitably spark debate and that what it comes down to in the end is personal preference.

Several years ago I decided to begin compiling a list of favorite books read over my entire lifetime, keeping in mind the fact that they were favorites at various stages of my own development. Thus, childhood favorites were not summarily knocked off the list simply because they had been superseded by a book read later in life. This list taken in reading order represents to me a storehouse of memories, because oftentimes my reading of a book is associated with contemporary events.

My list of lifetime favorite books is terribly unsophisticated when you compare it to other lists, but it contains many classics and semi-classics of both fiction and nonfiction. And the fact is that for one reason or another I love these books and the memory of reading them. In the final analysis, that is the important thing to each of us individually, isn't it? When we find that other people share our particular love of a book, that creates a connection much more meaningful than whether we had all read the important books and are able to check them off as though they were so many trophies in our display case.

My list of favorites exceeds 100 at the moment because I am still in the process of making sure every meaningful book in my entire life is recalled and given appropriate consideration. I have labeled them as a Collection in my library called "Favorites" — no surprise there. But my tag cloud now lists "Faves" subdivided into twenty or so different whimsical categories that I put together also a few years ago in an effort to discern any meaningful patterns in my reading. There are many patterns, but I don't think they are terribly meaningful. They are fun, however. If you are interested, by all means take a look and let me know your reactions. I briefly contemplated posting some of them here, but for now you can see them in situ, as they sit in my library.

Just to whet your appetite, however, here is a list of the categories (each preceded by "Faves/", e.g., "Faves/Anglophilia"):

Books on Books
Children's Books
Decline and Fall
Geography & Travel
I Heard It First
I Saw the Movie First
Late Encounters
Memoirs and Biography
Most Personally Influential
Mythology Philosophy Religion
Not Currently Owned
Politically Incorrect
Roman Theme
Science Fiction
Tear Jerkers
Toward My Religious Education
Wistfully Evocative
WW I and II
You Won't Believe This Is on the List

Faves Pre-College
Faves 1960s
Faves 1970s
Faves 1980s
Faves 1990s
Faves 2000s
Faves 2010s

Aug 4, 2011, 7:59pm Top

Wow, That's an enterprise Suzanne. I had a look at your faves in your library and some of them would be my favourites too. I see you have nearly 2000 books listed, it must have been difficult to pick just 117 of them as favourites.

It's nice to see things like Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs. I loved all Burroughs books when I was a kid, especially his Martian stories.

I will have a closer look later, I have just got in from another jazz concert and its 2 am here.

Aug 4, 2011, 10:18pm Top

That was a lot of fun to look through. I went through your decades and then went straight to my list and looked back my ...two...decades trying to evaluate the books based on how I saw them then. The trend of types was quite interesting...both in your list and in my own. I didn't put a decades tags together, but I do have prexisting year-by-year favorites, like 1995 favorites".

Aug 5, 2011, 10:34am Top

What fun! It's a bit like dipping into your stream of consciousness and pulling out little gold nuggets! I like some of the categories as much as the books in them (e.g., Toward My Religious Education). I was happy to see two of my heroes, Augustine and Boethius among your favorites.

Aug 6, 2011, 3:04pm Top

>146 dchaikin: Dan, two decades??? I thought you were way older than that! (In terms of maturity, of course!) Enjoyed looking at your faves and the trends. ;-)

Aug 6, 2011, 3:08pm Top

>147 wrmjr66: It's a bit like dipping into your stream of consciousness and pulling out little gold nuggets!

That's exactly how I feel about it.

So pleased to find another Boethius afficionado! You must tell us how you became interested in him.

The Consolation of Philosophy captured my heart and my undying interest when I read it for the first time early in 2010. I had tried to read the Chaucer version quite a few years before because it was at hand, for one thing, and I kept bumping into Boethius' name, but that was absolutely the wrong place to get the true sense of the work. My first modern reading was the P.G. Walsh translation published by Oxford, which was truly wonderful. A sort of Boethius binge took hold of me, and I've since acquired five other translations including the Loeb Classics Latin version plus some background books. As you said, the poetry is wonderful. The whole thing is a masterpiece, IMHO.

Aug 6, 2011, 3:31pm Top

I guess this is as good a place as any to post some material I have been gathering on the influence of Boethius over the millenia. I tried to create a wiki page, but it wasn't working out, so here goes.

Boethius — Who He Influenced

I have been hearing for many years of how influential Boethius was on the approach to education during the middle ages and that The Consolation continued to be widely read afterwards but that interest gradually waned. This was an issue of curiosity for me and so I have made a point of trying to find out more about exactly who came under Boethius' spell. Through his translations and commentaries, Boethius transmitted Plato and Aristotle to the West in a time when "Latin was rude" and Greek texts were increasingly inaccessible. It has been said that scholasticism has its roots in Boethius and the structure of education via the quadrivium and trivium can be traced to him. Almost every commentator makes the point that Boethius was influential until the Renaissance but that he continued to be widely read until the end of the 19th century. So I have been compiling a list of as many people as I could find who were, as they say, influenced by Boethius and especially The Consolation.

Here is what I have come up with so far.

Boethius' Theological Treatises: Influenced Alcuin (court of Charlemagne c. 800); Anselm; Abelard (his Theologia Summi Boni); Gilbert of Poitiers; Thomas Aquinas

Translations of Aristotle: William of Ockham

Boethius' De institutione musica: was one of the first musical works to be printed in Venice between the years of 1491 and 1492.

Guillaume de Machaut, 14th century French poet and composer, his musical balades "Esperance" (B13) and "Je ne cuit pas" (B14)

Sydney mentions Boethius' use of prose and verse in The Consolation: "planet-like music of poetry" points directly back to De institutione musica

Consolation of Philosophy: By 1500 sixty printed editions had been published in English, French and Italian translations (Cambridge Companion, p. 301)

King Alfred; Alcuin (De grammatica); Alain de Lille (De planctu Naturae); Jean de Meun (translator); John Gower (Confessio Amantis); Dante (Convivio); William of Conches, Queen Elizabeth I (translator), Erasmus

Chaucer (as translator and in Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale);

John Walton (translation 1410) ("more popular than Chaucer's at the time") (see Boethius in the Middle Ages pub. by Brill)

Lorenzo Valla (Renaissance scholar)

Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queene): Right Reason is analogous to the Lady Philosophy of The Consolation

Sir Thomas More (A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation) his last work written in prison contains consciously "illuminating similarities and differences" to and from, respectively, The Consolation; "human life as exile."

Hans Holbein/Rowland Lockey, Sir Thomas More and Family, Nostell Priory, The Consolation pictured on the sideboard.

Thomas Jefferson (3 copies in his library two of which are in Latin, one in French)

Wordsworth (The Prelude)

Robert Southey (The Colloquies) said it was based on The Consolation, but critics say Wordsworth's "The Excursion" was also part of the inspiration. (David Chandler, Wordsworth Circle 34:1, 2003)

John Cowper Powys was originally going to write Porius about Boethius but changed his mind. In that connection, readers of Porius will be interested to know that Aquinas's account of the highest good in his Summa Theologiae builds on The Consolation, and the definition of eternity given by Philosophy in Book V became the starting-point for almost every later medieval discussion of God and time. (Brill)

Emerson refers to Boethius in his journals.

Emily Dickinson was attracted to his stoicism.

Philip IV of France owned de Meun's translation, the preface of which was addressed to him. (Cambridge Companion, p. 280)

Dante in the Convivio mentions that The Consolation was not widely known in Italy "in his day," but eight Italian translations appeared during the 1300s. Dante's thorough knowledge of The Consolation and his deep affinity with Boethius are beyond question (Cambridge Companion, p. 298)

Bernard Silvestris Cosmographia and Alain de Lille de Planctu are widely regarded as rewrites of The Consolation

Milton (Paradise Lost); Samuel Johnson (translator with Mrs. Thrale, his literary collaborator); James Boswell (two copies in his library)

John Kennedy Tool (in Confederacy of Dunces Ignacious J. Reilly is at heart a Boethian); C.S. Lewis (in The Screwtape Letters, "Boethius was an example of timeless wisdom."); J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings)

Pope Benedict XVI

The Consolation also in the libraries of Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Margaret of York, Thomas Mann, Walker Percy and Ernest Hemingway

The first specific mention of "Fortune's wheel" is in The Consolation of Philosophy (Book 2:1). Many writers picked up that image:

Marlowe (Tamburlaine) "I hold the Fates found fast in iron chains / and with my hand turn Furtune's wheel about."

Marlowe (Edward II) "Base Fortune, now I see that in thy wheel / There is a point to which when men aspire / They tumble headlong down."

Shakespeare (Henry VI part 3) "Though Fortune's malice overthrow my state / My mind exceeds the compass of her wheel."

Ariosto (Orlando Furioso) and Spenser ("Daphnaida"): the inexorably turning wheel used primarily as an image of the impermanence of worldly wealth and success, a very Boethian notion.

Tennyson ("The Marriage of Geraint" in Idylls of the King) "Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel with smile or frown, / With that wild wheel we go not up or down . . . / Thy wheel and thee we neither love nor hate."

W.H. Auden ("In Time of War") "Abruptly mounting her ramshackle wheel, / Fortune has pedalled furiously away."

In conclusion, according to Courcelle (1967), "The very size of his medieval influence has led to an attitude, widespread among historians of philosophy, which makes Boethius almost disappear as a figure in his own right. He is seen, rather, as a conduit through which Greek philosophical ideas were transmitted to the Latin tradition" (see Brill).

Aug 6, 2011, 3:36pm Top

Wmr, or anybody else, if you have anything to add to the above, please let me know. I am very interested!

Aug 6, 2011, 4:25pm Top

#148 - to clarify, two decades of reading. I'm under 40, but just under. I didn't read as a kid...

Edited: Aug 6, 2011, 7:28pm Top

144> I cannot wait to see these lists. Seriously, I can't wait any longer. Is this your idea of cutting to commercial after taking us to an exciting cliffhanger?! Listen, this commercial has already lasted for TWO (2!!) days, and I need to get some sleep and feed my starving children. Please, have mercy and list the lists!

Aug 6, 2011, 8:28pm Top

we want lists!!!!!!!
* Murr banging his tankard on the table*

Aug 6, 2011, 8:29pm Top

PS: Great stuff on Boethius, btw

Aug 6, 2011, 9:13pm Top

Are youse guys really unable to navigate to my library????

Here is a link to my tag cloud where you can click on the various lists. Have mercy on me! Puleeeeeze!

Aug 6, 2011, 9:25pm Top

Wow, great stuff on Boethius Suzanne. The big point of interest for me is the claim of the first specific mention of the wheel of fortune. This image was so important in the middle ages. I am reading Medieval Philosophy by Anthony Kenny at the moment, which is a sort of potted history of medieval thought and so I will look for references to the wheel of fortune.

Edited: Aug 27, 2011, 1:48am Top

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Aug 7, 2011, 5:22pm Top

Great stuff Plainswriter. Your point about trying to see things through the eyes and mind of a medieval scholar is very pertinent indeed. It is a fascinating thing to try and do and can only be attempted after some immersion in the writings of the period. As always the more you know the more you understand. Boethius is particularly interesting to me because of my reading of Chaucer. Boethius wrote his "Consolation" in 524 and many years had passed when Chaucer was reading him at the end of the 14th Century. Two different mindsets there let alone mine of the early 21st century. A thicket indeed.

Good luck with Porius.

Aug 7, 2011, 5:45pm Top

Hi there Gene, and welcome to my little Bookaccino! It is so good to see you here.

And thank you as well for your very interesting comments, which range farther and wider than I ever hoped to do.

Actually, by way of background since you couldn't possibly know this, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy has catapulted to near the top of my list of all-time favorite books. I finally read it only early last year after hearing all my life, it seems, about how great and influential Boethius was in the history of the West. Perhaps it is the kind of thing that one appreciates more as one gets older, but I see no reason why people of every age would not find the beauty of especially the poetry appealing.

The whole notion of exactly how Boethius exercised said influence on the West has become a secondary interest, and I have actually been making notes for a while now to measure the extent of tht influence simply out of curiosity. That posting, then, #150 entitled "Boethius – Who He Influenced" is basically a regurgitation of my notes on that subject. I was prompted to post it here and now because wmrjr66 indicated he was a fan. It is always great to hear from fellow enthusiasts, and thus the post at this time re Boethius. It was fun and amazing to see in one place the names of all the people through the ages to whom Boethius has "spoken." To me that is one of the wonders of reading the words of someone who lived 1500 years ago. He speaks in universals and the proof is that his words were heartfelt to people across the ages.

The lists that tomcatMurr and EnriqueFreeque were crying for (tongue in cheek I am bound to say) were the lists of my favorite books alluded to in post #144. I perhaps jumped the gun by changing the subject so abruptly to my summary of findings on who Boethius influenced.

But I know tomcatMurr will be especially interested in your remarks about Porius and the writings of Julian Jaynes. He wrote a masterful review of Porius which I heartily recommend to you.

Aug 7, 2011, 5:54pm Top

>159 baswood: Barry, your post arrived while I was composing mine. Indeed, it is difficult to compare writers from such disparate ages as Boethius and Chaucer except to see how what Boethius said has been kept alive and is reflected in the writings of subsequent generations. But the same might be said of Homer, or Plato or Cicero or St. Augustine, for that matter. Boethius is in a sense a great laboratory study of the transmission of ideas and metaphors and even to some extent thought processes.

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Aug 7, 2011, 7:28pm Top

When you say 'heard it first', do you mean audio books? If so, it means you listened to Umberto Eco on audio? Surely a bit dense and hard to retain in that format? Or not?

Aug 7, 2011, 7:38pm Top

>162 GeneRuyle: Gene, please don't take my clarification amiss. I was just in hopes that we were on the same page, so to say. Your comments are welcome indeed.

And I hope you enjoy Porius. Your reactions will be of interest to all.

Aug 7, 2011, 7:47pm Top

Hi Rena! Yes, indeed, "Heard it First" means I listened to the audio version. By way of explanation, as I child I adored being read to, and it turns out audio books provide a definite link to childhood in that respect. Some would say I'm entering my second childhood, but that's another subject!

I actually listened to Foucault's Pendulum twice approximately ten years apart. I have also read parts of it. It is one of my favorite books. I think I mentioned to you before that I listened to the audio version of Don Quixote back in the late 1990s, and found it to be very entertaining. Relative density and retention don't seem to be issues. But everybody is different. I was blessed with an ability to enjoy both listening and reading. You should give it a try, if you have not already – audiobooks, that is.

Edited: Aug 7, 2011, 7:57pm Top

The New York Trilogy: City of Glass; Ghosts; The Locked Room by Paul Auster

And now for something completely different . . .

(At the risk of abruptly changing the subject again, please don't let these little interjections stop you from saying anything at all about anything we have been discussing heretofore.)

The New York Trilogy is an almost perfect laboratory example of a postmodern metafiction. One can imagine it being the focus of an entire seminar devoted to deconstructing it as a practical exemplar of contemporary literary theory. Seen in this light, it makes for a delicious romp through three short novels which in the final analysis are really one story told in three different ways. For the unsuspecting reader looking for a quick thriller, reading City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room is like wandering through a maze where all the standard expectations for hard boiled detective fiction have been turned upside down. In fact, like Humpty Dumpty (the subject of a punning riff in City of Glass), the hard boiled fictional egg has taken a tumble out of reality and broken itself beyond repair.

The author/narrator/protagonists consist of three incarnations of the same character, and the author/character Paul Aster also assumes three different iterations before he is finished. If you don't understand this at the outset, you will more or less once you get into the book.

The mistake that is easily made in reading these stories is to assume that they occur in a world "governed by empirical laws," as a critic pointed out. They do not, and the best approach is to just assume you have entered the Twilight Zone and keep going. No actual harm will be done, and you may even enjoy the trip.

For your further edification, here are some excellent journal articles, all of which can be found at Questia.com, that will explain the fine points of this trilogy as it relates to postmodern literary theory. After you read this book and one or more of the following articles, if you were not already well versed in said literary theory, you may find that a veil has been lifted from your eyes and the graduate seminar will be unnecessary after all.

Alford, Steven E. "Mirrors of Madness: Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy." Critique 37:1 (1995) p. 17.

Russell, Alison. "Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Fiction." Critique 31:2 (1990) p. 71.

Zilcosky, John. "The Revenge of the Author: Paul Auster's Challenge to Theory." Critique 39: 3 (1998) p. 195.

This review is also posted on the book page.

Aug 7, 2011, 8:29pm Top

Yes something completely different indeed, but a book that I like very much. Auster always writes so well and is not afraid to play with genres. Not too difficult to read and always something of interest. Glad you liked it suzanne

I have not read all of Auster's novels but always pick them up when I see them second hand or cheap. Moon Palace is my favourite.

Aug 8, 2011, 6:14pm Top

>150 Poquette:, Poquette, bravo! Your list is awesome. I suspect Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy has lost some current appeal because some are put by the religion. Ah, well, too bad. There's so much that illuminates our own struggles with fortune's wheel.

Aug 9, 2011, 12:41am Top

pmackey, thanks for stopping by. Glad you like my list. There are actually at least three people who pop into this thread from time to time who have a liking for Boethius. He doesn't come up in conversation, though, except once in a blue moon. As for being put off by "the religion," most religious critics have blasted The Consolation because it was too philosophical. I'm neutral on that aspect. Like you, I admire his stoicism in the face of impending doom, although I do not subscribe to that particular branch of philosophy. I just found out a few months ago that I've been an epicurean all these years and didn't know it! But that doesn't prevent me from feeling a deep affinity for The Consolation.

Aug 9, 2011, 12:43am Top

Barry, I'll have to look into Moon Palace. I am definitely not through with Auster.

Aug 9, 2011, 5:38am Top

I agree with what has also been said elsewhere, that Auster's earlier works are superb, The New York Trilogy, and Moon palace belong to my favourites, together with Leviathan and The Music of Chance. I was not so excited about The book of illusions and Oracle night. I have bought, but not yet read, all subsequent novels.

What I like about Auster is the ease of telling, and the sense that from the start, but also further in the books, there remains an infinite number of options, some apparently absurd, but never absurd as in "magical realism" (which I do not like at all). To my mind, many of Auster's works are related to Kafka's novel Amerika, which I would also recommend.

Aug 9, 2011, 10:48am Top

Thanks for your recommendations, edwin. More Auster is definitely in my future.

Aug 9, 2011, 1:33pm Top

Wow, I go away for a long weekend and a Boethius party breaks out. What wonderful notes and information on Boethius and his influence. I first read Boethius in graduate school as part of a class on Medieval literature, and I was immediately hooked. You see allusions to him everywhere in the writing of the middle ages and the Renaissance. The only name that popped out at me as "missing" from your list of influences is Montaigne, so I offer that as a slight addition. I think Boethius still has an influence today. Alain de Bottom wrote The Consolations of Philosophy, which I haven't read but is clearly an allusion to Boethius' great work.

Aug 9, 2011, 1:43pm Top

>173 wrmjr66: de Bottom? lol!

Aug 9, 2011, 1:49pm Top

On the topic of Auster, I have only read The Brooklyn Follies, which I really didn't like. Then again, it isn't one of his 'canonical' texts, and I was going through a rough time (last year of High School, etc.) when I read it, so maybe I should give him another chance.

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Edited: Aug 9, 2011, 5:14pm Top

>173 wrmjr66: wrmjr – I've always wanted to throw a Boethius party! *teeheehee*

Thanks for your suggested additions. Somehow I did not think of Montaigne. Actually, I think my research into French writers was spotty at best, so there may be other lacunae.

As for Alain de Botton (please note the ultimate "n"), I cannot believe I forgot about him. His Art of Travel is on my favorite books list and his The Consolations of Philosophy completely slipped under the radar. Thanks for reminding me that I actually wanted to get that book.

>175 dmsteyn: Dewald – since I have only read The New York Trilogy I don't know how the rest of Auster's writing goes, but if it follows along the same lines, it is deeply postmodern and unless you were in a very advanced high school, the unexpected turns postmodern writing takes may have – not unexpectedly – been a bit much at that stage of your life. (When I wrote my review, I had the reviews of others here on LT in mind. Several people simply did not understand the game, and so I thought it would be helpful to clear the minefield to a small extent for those to whom "postmodern" is unknown territory. I certainly didn't mean to talk down to the cognoscenti!) By all means, do give Auster another go!

ETA – touchstones

Aug 9, 2011, 8:59pm Top

158, 176>
It's easy to get so lost in the vaporous elaborations that seemingly come from nowhere and then return there, leaving one somewhere in between.

Plainswriter, that describes me perfectly, when reading your post! Are you perhaps Henry James?

Lol, just kidding man, but seriously, you seem to be very well informed on Porius, but it was my understanding that you have not read the book yet. perhaps I missed something.

173, Poquette, Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is a fairly good intro to a handful of philosophers, but don't expect anything profound.

Aug 10, 2011, 12:58am Top

tomcat, I've heard that elsewhere, but I am interested to see what he has to say.

Aug 10, 2011, 10:32am Top

Yes, Botton and not Bottom. I make that mistake all the time. In my defense, whenever I see his name, I form a mental picture of an erudite medieval philosopher who is at the same time Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream (post-transformation, of course).

Aug 10, 2011, 1:32pm Top

LOL! When I saw Alain de Botton on TV I felt a total disconnect with my own impression of him after having read The Art of Travel.

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Aug 11, 2011, 12:02pm Top

Haha! nice reply!
WJ makes a lot of sense to me.

Edited: Aug 11, 2011, 6:16pm Top

Just been perusing your thread, Suzanne, for the first time. Not that I know much about Boetius or most of the other ancients (to me) that were cited. I'm more of an Auster type reader, and I don't much care for him. But I wanted to put my two cents in concerning this ...

Boethius is in a sense a great laboratory study of the transmission of ideas and metaphors and even to some extent thought processes.

... by mentioning Montaigne myself, whom I do like, and noting that a portion of Sarah Bakewell's recent, well-received book, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne and Twenty Attempts at an Answer , goes into the matter of transmitting his writings over centuries, and does a good job, I think, discussing the influence of changing times, the passions of the various interlocutors, and so on, in the resulting reinterpretations.

Aug 11, 2011, 8:22pm Top

>184 copyedit52: Welcome to my thread, Peter! Thanks for your comments about Boethius in the context of Montaigne, or is it the other way around? Either way, the Sarah Bakewell book sounds more than intriguing. I just went to Amazon for a quick look and I suspect it is right up my street.

Aug 11, 2011, 8:47pm Top

The Love of Books; Philobiblon by Richard de Bury, Project Gutenberg (2008) (Kindle), or
Philobiblion, L'Amour des livres by Richard de Bury, Parangon (2001)

There is an element of synchronicity or serendipity – or both – to the fact that the very next book on my tottering TBR pile was Richard de Bury's Philobiblion (French version) or Philobiblon (Latin and English). My French text was acquired at a bookshop in Paris in 2005. It is a small book and I bought it thinking it would be fun to read in French. However, I let it sit too long, my French vocabulary has become rusty from disuse and so it has languished on my shelves. Recently I stumbled on the Project Gutenberg version in English and determined to read it sooner rather than later.

The synchronicity or serendipity alluded to above relates to the fact that Bishop Richard was apparently a great fan of Boethius and refers to him and quotes The Consolation here and there throughout. So here is another name I can add to my list of Boethian influences. Of course, the good Bishop refers even more to Aristotle, referring to him variously as "chief of philosophers," "the sun of philosophic truth," "the sun of science," "the arch-philosopher," "Phoebus of philosophers," "the Phoebus of the schools," etc.

It is not surprising that this little book is not much read today. It is a characteristically 14th-15th century text (written in 1344 but not published until 1473), full of moralizing and sententious pronouncements. It's author Richard de Bury was, after all, Bishop of Durham. And his purposes for writing it were, first, to instill a love of learning and of books in the clergy; second, to justify to his peers the time and money he devoted to acquiring and studying books; and third, to outline his plan for installing and managing a new library at Durham College, Oxford. Alas, he did not live long enough to see that third objective fulfilled. His rules for the lending of books from said library are charming nonetheless.

The Philobiblon is a paean to knowledge and learning as presented and preserved in books, both old and new. Some of the chapter headings provide the flavor:

– That the treasure of wisdom is chiefly contained in books
– The degree of affection that is properly due to books
– What we are to think of the price in the buying of books
– The complaint of books against wars
– Of the gradual perfecting of books
– Who ought to be special lovers of books
– Of the advantages of the love of books

With all his love of books and learning, which he goes into with the determination of a medieval disputation after "having first invoked the Sevenfold Spirit, that it may burn in our musings as an illuminating fire," including presumably the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might and knowledge (see Isaiah 11:2), he amusingly picks to pieces the behavior of students towards books, which in de Bury's time were mighty tomes that rested permanently on lecturns or tables:

Wherefore we deem it expedient to warn our students of various negligences, which might always be easily avoided and do wonderful harm to books.

And in the first place as to the opening and closing of books, let there be due moderation, that they be not unclasped in precipitate haste, nor when we have finished our inspection be put away without being duly closed. For it behoves us to guard a book much more carefully than a boot.

But the race of scholars is commonly badly brought up, and unless they are bridled in by the rules of their elders they undulge in infinite puerilities. They behave with petulance, and are puffed up with presumption, judging of everything as if they were certain, though they are altogether inexperienced.

You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies, and when the winter's frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down, nor does he think of wiping it with his pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture. Would that he had before him no book, but a cobbler's apron! His nails are stuffed with fetid filth as black as jet, with which he marks any passage that pleases him. He distributes a multitude of straws, which he inserts to stick out in different places, so that the halm* may remind him of what his memory cannot retain. These straws, because the book has no stomach to digest them, and no one takes them out, first distend the book from its wonted closing, and at length, being carelessly abandoned to oblivion, go to decay. He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left. . . .

* stalk or stem
And it goes on.

Quotable quotes are in near endless supply in this amusing if somewhat stilted little book. It has a definite appeal for readers who enjoy books about the love of books and reading.

Aug 11, 2011, 9:05pm Top

yuck! I shall never look at library books in the same way again!

Aug 12, 2011, 4:02am Top

#186 Suzanne, I had not heard of this book, sounds fascinating and an immediate download to my kindle.

Aug 13, 2011, 8:13pm Top

Umberto Eco's stunningly beautiful book The Infinity of Lists has been at hand now for a couple of months. As I page through it from time to time, looking at the sumptuous pictures and browsing the odd list, I gradually become aware of a strange feeling of elation that the riches of this book somehow engenders in me. I cannot think when I have been so taken by a picture book – or even a book of lists, for that matter. But even as the pictures are actually visual metaphors of lists in one way or another, the book is much, much more than your typical collection of lists. Perhaps the word "Infinity" in the title is the key to that sense of elation, because I feel the enormity of the world of ideas and visuals that have been gathered together here.

While it is purportedly a book of lists, it calls to mind the commonplace books that began to appear in the 15th century where people gathered various bits and pieces of information they wanted to remember. A commonplace book was in effect a memory storehouse where one could put such memorabilia. A surprising number of commonplace books compiled by famous writers have been published and are at least accessible to anyone who wants to get inside the heads and to vicariously experience the reading of writers from the past.

I have run across a surprising number of these, some of which are in my library, and the whole subject has taken on a life of its own for me.

Francis Petrarch in My Secret Book – a collection of imaginary dialogues between himself and St. Augustine in which Augustine advises Petrarch on ways to cure his unhappiness – gives us a precursor of what was to come in the evolution of commonplace books. In the dialogues Augustine has recommended some helpful books in this regard:

F(rancis): I've already examined all these very carefully.
A(ugustine): And what then? Weren't they any use to you?
F: They were a great help while I was reading them. But as soon as the books left my hands they lost their power over me.
A: That's what usually happens . . . But you could still benefit from your reading if you made a note of it.
F: What sort of note do you have in mind?
A: Every time you come across something in your reading which excites you or sobers you, make sure it is deeply impressed on your memory and become so familiar with it that – like doctors when they are having to cope with illnesses which must be dealt with at once – you have the prescription already written out in your mind, so to speak. . . . When by careful reading you succeed in this, you must mark the helpful passages very clearly, as I said to begin with: they will then be held in memory as if by hooks, when they would otherwise slip away. With such help you will stand firm against all ills.
It wasn't until a couple of centuries later that paper became more plentiful – and at a time when the expansion of knowledge was becoming unmanageable. The Renaissance man was increasingly unable to be master of all knowledge, and commonplace books began to appear probably as memory aids and to help people organize the material they wanted to remember.

For some reason thoughts of The English Patient come to mind because of Ondaatje's portrayal of the commonplace book which the English patient Almásy has somehow managed to preserve through all. This of course is his copy of Herodotus, which is described thus:

A copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations—so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus. . . .

She had . . . picked up the patient's notebook, the book he had somehow managed to carry with him out of the fire. The book splayed open, almost twice its original thickness. . . .

And in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herodotus' The Histories, are other fragments—maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books. . . . the references in his book are all pre-war, the deserts of Egypt and Libya in the 1930s, interspersed with references to cave art or gallery art or journal notes in his own small handwriting. . . .

She has been focused and submerged within the crabbed handwriting in his thick-leaved sea-book of maps and texts. There is even a small fern glued into it. The Histories. . . .

He bought pale brown cigarette papers and glued them into sections of The Histories that recorded wars that were of no interest to him.
Here, then, is one way to do a commonplace book.

But what also connects The English Patient to The Infinity of Lists – reminiscent of Homer's catalog of ships in the Iliad with which Eco opens his book – is that marvelous catalog of desert winds in the opening pages and which Almásy has inserted into his copy of Herodotus: the aajej, the africo, the alm, the arifi, the bist roz, ghibli, haboob, harmattan, imbat, khamsin, datoo, nafhat, beshabar, samiel, solano, etc.

A subtext of The English Patient is books and reading and how one's readings take on a life of their own in one's own life experience. Ondaatje skillfully and hauntingly weaves literary references into the thought processes and storytelling of his characters. All these literary references contain their own subtext and metaphorical meanings that relate to the themes of the novel.

The above is not a review, as such, but it will stand as an introduction to a new way of looking at my own reading and a new way of thinking about this thread.

Aug 13, 2011, 8:16pm Top

While it may be a bit of a leap, I have been thinking about all these literary threads we here on Library Thing are producing, and in a way we are each creating our own commonplace books. Ours are removed somewhat from the original definitions of what a commonplace book has been historically, but times have changed, access to information has exploded and it seems to me that we can define our own commonplace books as they fit our circumstances. I, for one, would never have been motivated to write so consistently about my reading if it were not for this thread. Not only is it a place where I can record the history of my own reading, but I feed off of the interplay with those of you who comment. So this public form of commonplace book, even though it is not a compilation of quotations per se, seems to stimulate my juices in a way that a private compilation would probably not.

A text read and remembered becomes, in that redemptive rereading, like the frozen lake in the poem I memorized so long ago — as solid as land and capable of supporting the reader's crossing, and yet, at the same time, its only existence is in the mind, as precarious and fleeting as if its letters were written on water.
Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading

Aug 13, 2011, 11:03pm Top

Poquette, I remember watching the movie, "The English Patient", and wanting to get my hands on his book. My intellect said it was a movie prop, but the bookaphile in me wanted it for my library.

Aug 14, 2011, 2:35am Top

>191 pmackey: pmackey – actually, it should be the other way around. The movie is a visual prop for the novel.

Aug 14, 2011, 2:46am Top

In the Country of Books: Commonplace Books and Other Readings by Richard Katzev (Matador 2009, Kindle Edition)

In connection with my most recent posts, I ran across this book by psychologist Richard Katzev which explores the history and types of commonplace book, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "A book in which 'commonplaces' or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement." Because Katzev wanted to remember the great works of literature he has been reading, for the past twenty years or so he has been recording noteworthy literary passages that he came across in his reading.

As he points out, other than critics and those who actively value reader-response theory, "in most critical discussions of literature, the experience of the reader is virtually ignored, as literary scholars tend to dwell on the meaning of the text from various theoretical or cultural frameworks." In this book the author focuses on "the experience of readers, how literature enters their lives, and possibly changes them" and in the process examines his own literary experiences.

This book is notable, first of all, for the way it uses literary quotations to illustrate his points. Here are some examples:

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading. . . . Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things.Robert Darnton

Advice is like snow; the softer it falls . . . the deeper it sinks into the mind.Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Wisdom is learning what to overlook.William James

To collect is to sympathize with art. To make one's own commonplace book is a good way to become a thinker—perhaps even a poet.Gilbert Highet

At the breakfast table I always open the newspaper to the sports page first. The sports page records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but men's failures.George Plimpton
He talks about powerful books and wonders whether their significance should be weighed by the number of quotations he records.

His reasons for keeping his commonplace book have evolved over the years.

"Transcribing memorable passages from the books I read is how I become truly engaged with the book, engaged with the issues that are important to me at the time of my reading. . .

"Lately, I have begun to think of my commonplace book as a form of collecting; in my case, collecting ideas as well as clever or provocative expressions that stand apart from ordinary discourse and are, for that reason, worth preserving. . . .

"Collecting ideas also has a number of distinct advantages compared to collecting most other objects—they cost next to nothing, they are easy to find, do not clutter up your closet, and don't require periodic repair or maintenance."
In deciding to write about his commonplace book, his first thought was to analyze it for the purpose of gaining insights about himself. He is, after all, a psychologist. Upon looking into the matter further, he discovered that he was in good company in pursuing the tradition of commonplace books both historically and currently. He thus provides a survey of the literature, which includes examples of commonplace books published by Milton, Thomas Jefferson, E.M. Forster, W.H. Auden, among lesser luminary lights.

Of further interest is the fact that psychologist Katzev decided to conduct a survey of people who currently keep commonplace books by placing ads in the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. His survey and its results are reported in the book.

Katzev's open self-analysis is fascinating because he reveals himself to be much like the rest of us. His investigations lead further to a recognition of the positive psychological effects of reading and writing about what we have read. He also shares with us his analysis of parts of his own commonplace book organized under topics like "Waiting for The New Yorker," "Journeying Through the Book," "Annotating Ian McEwan's Saturday," and perhaps most interesting of all, "Does Literature Change Lives?"

I would give this book 4 stars, and I should think it would be of interest to everyone who writes a literary blog or keeps a literary thread, notebook or journal—or even a commonplace book.

Aug 14, 2011, 6:59am Top

Suzanne, fascinating stuff about lists. I have been a list maker all my life, in fact people whom I have lived with have often chided me about the lists I seem to keep. A few comments then on my list making:

If I want to remember something I will write it down. I can of course then refer to it, however the further I get away from the list (the amount of time that passes after writing stuff down) then the less chance that I will ever refer to the list again.

Half the fun of making a list is in thinking how I am going to organise it so that it will be useful and amusing to me.

I don't believe I have ever completed a list, which is not surprising as most are so open ended: I would not know whether they were complete or not.

I can identify with Richard Katzev when he says that list making is a form of collecting. We are making a list of stuff that we feel is important to us and that we do not want to lose.

I still tend to hand write my lists rather than putting them on the computer. I am less likely to refer to stuff on the computer I think.

Anyway enough about me. There are some other issues that you raised I would like to comment on:

Lists of things crop up frequently in Medieval literature. Chaucer was a great list maker. The general consensus seems to be that this was a way of showing off ones knowledge, but perhaps more importantly it was a way of providing knowledge to others.

The William James quote "Wisdom is knowing what to overlook" is more important than ever today as there is so much information. Do we need to make lists when we can google for information on most things? This is easy to answer as we need to make lists of things that are important to us and which we can express in our own words. Googling can be a tremendous waste of time and it is so easy to become side tracked. Also we are reading others expressions of knowledge, which we have not personalised. This is the important thing for me as far as understanding goes: I need to express it in my own words.

Library Thing is primarily a list of books that you own. It is also a forum where you can express your ideas on books and other subjects. The big difference however is that it can be wide open for anybody to read. My lists are all private, not because I want to keep them secret or I would be embarrassed if others read them (although there might be a little of this), but because they would be of no interest to anybody else even if they could understand them. I think LT does appeal to the list maker in all of us, but it can be much more than that.

Reader response theory is a whole other issue.

Aug 14, 2011, 8:20am Top

>193 Poquette:, Poquette, thanks for the excellent post. I've added In the Country of Books to my wishlist. I didn't know that the journal/book that I keep had a definition. I didn't feel weird about it because of people like Marcus Aurelius wrote down his meditations. Still, your discussion of the historicity of the commonplace book and the great and small that kept them is reassuring. I am humbly in good company.

>194 baswood:, Baswood, I think you must be my twin. Making lists is the same for me... it isn't "real" unless I write it down and that has to be on paper. I use the computer and make lists on them as well, but normally that list begins with paper and pencil. What I love about LT is it is more than a social site like Facebook (which I find to be boring). It's a pretty sure thing that to be in LT means you're a book lover, and with the different groups and threads you can find other people with similar interests.

Aug 14, 2011, 2:13pm Top

Barry and pmackey – I too am something of a list maker, but important lists go on the computer. I make grocery lists by hand, and when I shop I tend to never buy anything that isn't on the list, which can be both good and bad. But what I call important lists that are currently being updated all the time include such things as a list of books read in 2011, my Kindle content, various bibliographies on Boethius, books of hours, my favorite books with commentary, Teaching Company courses, Club Read recommendations picked up on various threads. The LT tags create their own minilists within my LT library list. I even started an index of all the art works shown in the various Teaching Company art courses I have. Now that really is compulsive, isn't it? LOL

Bottom line, you are in good company! ;-)

But Eco's Infinity of Lists, which started this conversation, is a totally different ball of wax, which is part of what makes the reading experience so exhilarating – not to mention savoring the pictures. This is in effect an essay about lists which is profusely enhanced with copious quotes and illustrations. He doesn't merely list the ships in Homer's Iliad, he quotes the entire passage containing the famous catalog of ships. He quotes the passage from Hesiod's Theogony that presents a seemingly infinite procession of divinities. He talks about visual lists, and cites paintings like Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights or Jacopo Negretti's The Taking of Constantinople or Vincent Laurensz van de Vinne's Vanitas with a Royal Crown and the Portrait of Charles I, King of England, Beheaded in 1649. All these paintings have so much going on in them it would be impossible to "list" everything. This is in part what Eco means by the "infinity" of the lists he describes. And all these so-called lists are quoted from great literature or visible in great art, both old and relatively new. The book is not easily encapsulated.

When I finish reading it, I'll have more to say about it. But don't hold your breath, it may be a while. This is one of those books – not unlike a book of poetry – to be savored and taken in a bit at a time, else all is a blur. Which brings us back to the idea of the commonplace book, which is conceived as a sort of memory storehouse. Eco's book is such a memory storehouse.

Edited: Aug 16, 2011, 1:14pm Top

It's always so interesting here, great stuff. Fyi, Boethius gets a mention in the notes in my edition of the The Faerie Queene. In book IV, Canto 10, Stanza 34, "the description of Concord and her works conveys conventional philosophical ideas ultimately derived from Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy 2. meter 8, and expanded in Chaucer, 'Knights Tale', 2990 ff, and in Spenser's 'hymn in honor of love' ...

ETA - but you already mention that in #150...

Aug 16, 2011, 12:36pm Top

Dan, it's funny how Boethius keeps popping up once he enters one's consciousness. Thanks for that reference!

Aug 16, 2011, 10:00pm Top

... Many things keep popping up once they've entered your consciousness. When I learn a new word, or discover a new interesting fact or notion, that suddenly keeps appearing in other reading materials.

Aug 16, 2011, 10:55pm Top

interesting about lists.....

Auden's commonplace book A Certain World mentioned above is one of my most treasured possessions. It's such an insight into the man's taste...

I've been keeping commonplace books since I was about 15. now, most of it goes on my blog.

looking forward to more about Eco's book!

Aug 17, 2011, 4:04pm Top

>199 edwinbcn: How true that is, Edwin. Part of the fun of reading is those little discoveries that lead to other discoveries. In the end, everything is connected.

>200 tomcatMurr: tomcat - how envious I am that you have had the presence of mind and the discipline to keep your commonplace books for all those years. I'm sorry to say I have started a number of times, but have not followed through. What a treasure house of memories that must be for you!

One quick thing about Eco's book: IMHO it has been misnamed. It should have been called just "Infinities" or "Allusions to Infinities." In Italian it is called Virtigine della Lista (Vertigo of Lists), which still doesn't capture it. "Vertigo of Infinity" would have been better! To call it a book of lists is to convey the wrong idea. The whole thing is about how the impression or idea of infinity is expressed by artists and writers from ancient times until the present.

Aug 17, 2011, 4:06pm Top

A World of Great Stories: 115 Stories, the Best of Modern Literature by Hiram Collins Haydn (Avenel Books) 1947

The best of modern literature . . . interesting. The title of this book is somewhat misleading. I for one fell into the trap of reading it as "a world of great short stories," but the fact is that much of the book is filled with excerpts from larger works. The editors attempted to find representative short fiction from every country of the world — except African countries. Seems odd to me that they couldn't even find something to excerpt from Egypt or South Africa, but what do I know about Egyptian or African literature between 1900 and 1947?

In reading these stories one is left with a sense of how bleak, primitive and hopeless humanity was in the first half of the 20th century. How different a world that was from what most of us living and reading today have experienced. Of course, the effects of the world wars between 1914 and 1945 created living horrors, personal and economic, that we can barely imagine today. A huge majority of the stories collected here reflect badly on humanity both collectively and individually. However, there are a few bright spots. Some of the stories actually leave the reader with at least an inner smile.

The editors state at the outset that most countries did not have a short story tradition, so it would have been impossible to create such an international collection of short fiction without resorting to excerpts from novels and even one play.

Altogether this is a significant collection of tales representing the period. I read the stories randomly, and as luck would have it, ended on a high note. I found some authors whose work interests me enough to look for more of their writing.

Edited: Aug 17, 2011, 4:50pm Top

A world of Great Stories does not sound very enticing from your review Suzanne. I wonder who the book was aimed at. Do you think it was meant as a sort of sample, so that readers would go out and buy more books?

You must have thought it worthwhile though giving it four stars.

Edited: Aug 17, 2011, 5:06pm Top

Barry, it's a mixed bag. There was a large swath of the stories I did not like, but that's because too many of them were depressing. Some people actually like that kind of thing. I suspect the editors were aiming at a literary audience and there may have been some sense of bringing the world back together again in a literary sense in the aftermath of WWII. I have to acknowledge that even the stories that I didn't like were well written. Hence, the four stars, in an attempt to be objective. And there were some real standouts. On balance, I do think it was worthwhile and worth reading as it presents a snapshot of world literature in the early 20th century.

A catalog of the world's great authors is represented here, which provides a sampling of stories from everywhere. A tour-de-force review was written by MeditationesMartini which gives all the authors and titles and a few words about each. You can see it here.

ETA - I probably would not have participated in this group read if this book had not already been on my shelves. I bought it sometime in the dim dark past and never got around to reading it.

Aug 19, 2011, 8:38pm Top

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes (1990) Kindle Edition

I love novels of ideas, and this one addresses some fairly big ideas with both humor and seriousness. We know going in that this really will not be a history of the world, or even a fictional account of said history, but we get the hyperbole in the title and smile at the prospect of finding out how Julian Barnes will tackle this subject. At the very least, this will be a commentary that has announced its intention to amuse.

And it does that with wit, irony and several demonstrations of how misguided the preoccupations of mankind can be at times. Most of the stories or vignettes deal with shipwrecks – or at least maritime disasters of one sort or another at various times and places through the course of human history. The shipwreck view of history seems to be where this is all going at the outset.

To launch (pardon the pun) his novel of ideas, Barnes begins with the story of Noah, the Ark and the Flood as told by a stowaway on board. And of course the question arises: If the stowaway was not on the published guest list as presented in the Bible, does he exist? This question is explored further in chapter three, which covers the trial and excommunication of the stowaway's descendents for a dastardly deed committed several millenia later.

Noah and his Ark make several appearances, as does Jonah and his whale. But in between, we are treated to a story about terrorists capturing a cruise ship, and one about a misguided alarmist who, thinking total nuclear war is imminent, sets sale in a boat in order to leave civilization behind but loses her mind instead. Then there is the real story behind Gerricault's Raft of the Medusa, which still later on is cross-pollinated with the Noah's Ark story.

These are the big events Barnes treats. And he shows us how these big events relate to big themes – like the reliability of history (of course we saw that one coming) history as art, love, love and truth, survival of the fittest, turning catastrophe into art, and even what is history?

These ten and a half chapters – as they breeze their way through history, skipping most of the boring bits – there are hardly any dates – are written in a breezy style with quite a lot of irony. No. Not quite a lot. They are absolutely larded with irony. But as the book moves forward, the cheeky irony is replaced with a more serious and at times more subtle irony.

But as we progress, it dawns on us that the shipwreck metaphor is too easy. While almost every chapter involves a ship, we run into a lengthy philosophical digression in chapter eight-and-a-half, which reveals that the real subject all along was love. But no . . . wait! Not merely love: truth aided by love. Whoa! This is really getting complicated. Truth and – oh yes, history. That's where we came in.

The history of the world in ten-and-a-half chapters cannot help being distorted. Which, it turns out, is the author's whole point. In ten-and-a-half chapters he has demonstrated that no matter how hard we try, history is written by people who love the truth but cannot help themselves in presenting it through a highly subjective prism.

What we have in the end are perhaps nine chapters reflecting on events both near and far, a half chapter which interrupts the proceedings to divagate on the subject of truth and love, and then there is a concluding chapter speculating on the future. And what a future it is.

And what a delightful romp! 4 1/2 stars

Aug 20, 2011, 4:57am Top

Suzanne, Excellent review of the Julian Barnes novel. I have had this on my shelf for ages and have often glanced at it and sort of wondered what it is all about. Now I know.

Aug 20, 2011, 7:31am Top

Nice review. I read that book long ago, and remember it fondly. The bits that stick with me are the first chapter that you mentioned, the story of the woman and the cave, and his take on "heaven." Reading your review makes me realize that this is one of those books that would stand up well to a re-reading.

Aug 20, 2011, 1:27pm Top

Thanks Barry and wrm. I think it would stand up well to a rereading. When I first picked it up I didn't realize it was already twenty years old! It could have been written yesterday as far as I could tell.

Since all that talk up above about commonplace books, I've been castigating myself for not having kept one – or at least something like one for all these years. And so in this context, here are a few quotes – some fun, some serious – from A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:

Don't imagine some Mediterranean cruise on which we played langorous roulette and everyone dressed for dinner; on the Ark only the penguins wore tailcoats. (p. 3)

That voyage taught us a lot of things, you see, and the main thing was this: that man is a very unevolved species compared to the animals. We don't deny, of course, your cleverness, your considerable potential. But you are, as yet, at an early stage of your development. We for instance, are always ourselves: that is what it means to be evolved. We are what we are, and we know what that is. (p. 28)

How do you turn catastrophe into art?
Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We'll have a play on the London stage within a year. A President is assassinated? You can have the book or the film or the filmed book or the booked film. War? Send in the novelists. A series of gruesome murders? Listen for the tramp of the poets. We have to understand it, of course, this catastrophe; to understand it, we have to imagine it, so we need the imaginative arts. But we also need to justify it and forgive it, this catastrophe, however minimally. Why did it happen, this mad act of Nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that's what catastrophe is for.
(p. 125)

Marx's elaboration of Hegel: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (p. 175)

Myth will become reality, however sceptical we might be. (p. 181)

All novelists know their art proceeds by indirection. When tempted by didacticism, the writer should imagine a spruce sea-captain eyeing the storm ahead, bustling from instrument to instrument in a Catherine wheel of gold braid, expelling crisp orders down the speaking tube. But there is nobody below decks . . . . Still it's natural for the novelist sometimes to fret at the obliquities of fiction. (p. 225)

History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, apian, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One good story leads to another. First it was kings and archbishops with some offstage divine tinkering, then it was the march of ideas and the movements of masses, then little local events which mean something bigger, but all the time it's connections, progress, meaning, this led to this, this happened because of this. And we, the readers of history, the sufferers from history, we scan the pattern for hopeful conclusions, for the way ahead. And we cling to history as a series of salon pictures, conversation pieces whose participants we can easily reimagine back into life, when all the time it's more like a multi-media collage, with paint applied by decorator's roller rather than camel-hair brush. (p. 240)

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap, strange links, impertinent connections. We make up a story to cover the facts we don't know or can't accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them. (p. 240)

Hard to believe this was a novel, no?

Aug 20, 2011, 9:44pm Top

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

This is another of those books that was terribly distorted by the movie version, visually beautiful though it may have been.

But movie aside, this is a tremendous book, a deep look inside the thoughts, aspirations, disappointments of an artist and a human being. I would give it 4.5 stars.

Here are a few quotes I wish to remember and think more about:

. . . the idea that almost everything conspicuously great is great in despite: has come into being in defiance of affliction and pain; poverty, destitution, bodily weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstructions.

Amor, in sooth, is like the mathematician who in order to give children a knowledge of pure form must do so in the language of pictures; so, too, the god, in order to make visible the spirit, avails himself of the forms and colours of human youth, gilding it with all imaginable beauty that it may serve memory as a tool, the very sight of which then sets us afire with pain and longing.

For beauty . . .beauty alone, is lovely and visible at once. For, mark you, it is the sole aspect of the spiritual which we can perceive through our senses, or bear so to perceive. Else what should become of us, if the divine, if reason and virtue and truth were to speak to us through the senses? Should we not perish and be consumed by love, as Semele aforetime was by Zeus? So beauty, then, is the beauty-lover's way to the spirit—but only the way, only the means. . . . And then, sly arch-lover that he was, he said the subtlest thing of all: that the lover was nearer the divine than the beloved; for the god was in the one but not in the other—perhaps the tenderest, most mocking thought that ever was thought, and source of all the guile and secret bliss the lover knows.

Who shall unriddle the puzzle of the artist nature?

Passion is like crime: it does not thrive on the established order and the common round; it welcomes every blow dealt the bourgeois structure, every weakening of the social fabric, because therein it feels a sure hope of its own advantage.

For mark you . . . beauty alone is both divine and visible; and so it is the sense way, the artist's way . . . to the spirit.

For you know that we poets cannot walk the way of beauty without Eros as our companion and guide.

Aug 21, 2011, 4:37am Top

History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, apian, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One good story leads to another. First it was kings and archbishops with some offstage divine tinkering, then it was the march of ideas and the movements of masses, then little local events which mean something bigger, but all the time it's connections, progress, meaning, this led to this, this happened because of this. And we, the readers of history, the sufferers from history, we scan the pattern for hopeful conclusions, for the way ahead. And we cling to history as a series of salon pictures, conversation pieces whose participants we can easily reimagine back into life, when all the time it's more like a multi-media collage, with paint applied by decorator's roller rather than camel-hair brush

Suzanne that's a peach of a paragraph. Some of those quotes from the Julian Barnes novel have passed into common currency. I am thinking particularly of history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

I see that you are limbering up for The Magic Mountain by reading Death in Venice. I have not read it and the reason for this is I love Visconti's film so much I am afraid that the book might spoil it for me. I know this is the wrong way round but there it is.

Aug 21, 2011, 7:44am Top

Barry, indeed that was my motive in turning to Death in Venice. I read a Mann short story in that collection of 115 short stories, and wondered whether it was representative of Mann's style. So I have a bunch of his other short fiction which I'll try to polish off over the next month. Glad to see that you will also be participating in the group read of The Magic Mountain.

Aug 21, 2011, 9:55am Top

So besides The Magic Mountain, what are the upcoming group reads in Le Salon? I try to check up on them every now and again, but I can barely find my way around the group these days—it's all so unorganized and confusing.

Aug 21, 2011, 10:25am Top

Hey Nathan! Good to see you! Was thinking about you the other day in the context of Julius Caesar. How did that performance go?

Yeah, Le Salon . . . here's the list. Hopefully things have settled down again.

Aug 21, 2011, 11:01am Top

That makes sense.

And eh, I didn't actually go to see Julius Caesar. May was too busy, so I missed all the FWO productions this year. But that was fine since I'd already been to see 3 in Dallas.

Aug 23, 2011, 5:59pm Top

A Scholar in His Study

Back to the subject of commonplace books, I just got hold of a marvelous publication entitled, Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century by Earle Havens. This was published a decade ago in conjunction with an exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, 23 July through 29 September 2001. Much more than an exhibition catalog, it presents a narrative description, illustrated profusely, of the entire history of commonplace type books from the time of Aristotle to the present day.

The illustration above is hard to read, but it says:

"The Study is a place where a student, apart from men, sitteth alone, addicted to his Studies, while he readeth Books, which being within his reach, he layeth open upon a Desk and picketh all the best things out of them into his own Manual."
According to Havens:

After translating Aristotle's Topica and completing a commentary on Cicero's eponymous treatise, Boethius produced his own systematic account of the commonplaces, the De topicis differentiis. . . . He returned to a rigorous Aristotelian understanding of the commonplaces as specific categories and strategies of philosophical and rhetorical argument.
More about this in due course. A more complete description of the exhibit can be found here:


Aug 23, 2011, 7:32pm Top

Suzanne, that publication on Commonplace books looks very interesting indeed. The page you have illustrated looks wonderful, does it date from the middle ages? I see that the writing on the page is divided into two parts with the right hand side in Latin. Its a good description of how a commonplace book works

Aug 24, 2011, 2:35pm Top

Barry, glad you liked that page. Surprisingly, it is much later than either of us had supposed – although it is from a printed book, which means post 1450. Anyway, it is from Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis sensualium pictus: hoc est, Omnium fundamentalium in mundo rerum, et in vita actionum, pictura et nomenclatura, London, 1672.

According to the Earle Havens text, the Orbis sensualium pictus was a Latin picture-book primer, which saw dozens of editions between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. By the Renaissance, the definition of a commonplace book included such language primers that contained collections of quotations with English and Latin on the same or facing pages, organized for the purpose of demonstrating moral wisdom. Students were also encouraged to keep their own notebooks of sententiae, or wise sayings, a practice which is echoed today in Wheelock's Latin.

I am just amazed, first, at how everything seems to relate to everything else, and second, at how even at my advanced age there are still whole subjects of which I have been quite ignorant!

Aug 24, 2011, 4:41pm Top

Like you Suzanne I wish I had kept a common place book through the years. One that was readable anyway. I have read somewhere on one of these threads that edwinbcn has kept a record of his reading since 1981. I find that impressive.

Aug 26, 2011, 12:45am Top

Great stuff P. I love the illustration in 215.

Aug 27, 2011, 2:53pm Top

Barry and tomcat, I hope to keep this topic alive for the foreseeable future. It has really struck a chord.

Aug 27, 2011, 3:05pm Top

A couple of days ago I finished reading a very interesting but extremely digressive and therefore somewhat difficult book called What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici. I am hoping to do a review, but I'm actually going to have to at least cursorily reread this book in order to do it, despite lengthy correspondence about it with Macumbeira over in Le Salon. In the meantime, you can read his very interesting review here. My review will have a slightly different focus than his, of course.

Aug 28, 2011, 8:56pm Top

What Ever Happened to Modernism by Gabriel Josipovici (2010) Yale University Press, Kindle Edition

Books of criticism can oftentimes be rather obscure and abstruse enterprises, and this one by Professor Josipovici is no exception as it seems on first reading to wander all over the place before it comes to anything resembling a conclusion, much less an answer to the question posed in the title. Lest one should get the impression that this will be a negative review, let me hasten to say emphatically that that will not be the case. In fact, this book provides a philosophical and historical understanding of certain characteristics of Modern art and literature. So this review will attempt to highlight some important issues that the book deals with and thereby give the reader a clearer idea of where the author was trying to go. As he said, "we have to try and see Modernism not from without, as . . . the post-Modernists choose to see it, but from within. That is the task of this book."

First, it should be understood that the title of the book is What Ever Happened to Modernism? and not merely "Whatever happened to modern literature?" The scope of the book is much broader than mere literary criticism, although the author was a professor of literature at Oxford. Those of us with an interest in literature and the arts have at least a vague understanding of "Modernism" as applying generally to the post-Medieval period when all types of authoritarian regimes — whether heavenly or earthly — began to be openly questioned and scrutinized and even overthrown. Yet we understand that the period of so-called Modern Art had its inception in a very specific event that can be pinned down exactly to the opening of the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863. It turns out that "modern" is one of those words the application of which seems to perpetually move forward with the times. So in the year 2011, we view as old fashioned that exhilarating period of Modern Art between 1863 and the 1970s, when the tide turned enough to call for the naming of a new era — Postmodernism. So supposedly we now exist in a postmodern world, yet we still think of ourselves as modern. And just to put this into further perspective, let us remember that the term "modern" comes from the Latin modernus, which derived from modo, meaning "just now," dates from the fifth century and was originally meant to differentiate the "modern" Christian era from the "ancient" Pagan era. Thus, the moving sidewalk of history has carried the notion of "modern" forward with each passing year.

So we have ended up with two meanings of the word "modern," a general meaning that always is associated with the present, and a more specific meaning that relates to the period between 1863 and around 1970 which I shall refer to hereafter as "the period of Modern Art" to distinguish it from Modernism in general. Of course, Modern Art has always been a highly intellectually driven movement, and so the literary arts, including fiction, poetry, drama and criticism, all reflected many of the ideas that were engendered by the Modern visual and tactile arts. And that is the first point I want to make clear: Professor Josipovici is actually addressing both aspects of Modernism in order to help us fully understand the question raised by the title. We aren't merely being schooled in the elements of a style or the characteristics of a period in art and literary history. Being aware of this from the outset will be useful to the reader.

The second point is that in telling the reader what was going on literarily in the period of Modern Art, Josipovici cites many examples by quoting selected authors which help to illustrate his points. But he also presents enlightening discussions of the aims of painters and other visual artists and even composers during this period in order to inform his discussion of the contemporary literature. Writers and artists were on the same wavelength in terms of the abstract goals and standards they set out for themselves, and so it is fascinating to see how artists and writers and critics, each in their own way, interpreted the intellectual framework within which they were all operating. In effect, there was constant cross-pollination going on among them.

In considering the question of whatever happened to Modernism, Josipovici addresses both of these points at once. He isn't just asking, "By the way, whatever happened to Joe Smith?" in the sense that Joe Smith seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird, which the period of Modern Art eventually did in succumbing to Postmodernism. But he is actually giving us a blow-by-blow as though it were a prizefight, naming names, and explaining the progress of Modernism focusing mostly on the period since Cubism — i.e., the early twentieth century.

Two interrelated issues that Josipovici spent a good deal of time on concern a) the writer's "authority" in the context of the increasingly prevalent notion that "God is dead"; and b) the privileging of craftsmanship over the narrative and ethical or spiritual aspects of fiction. The argument goes that once there was no higher authority underpinning a writer or artist — i.e., through faith in God and church — a crisis of consciousness developed, referred to in general terms as a "disenchantment of the world." Suddenly the artist looked in the mirror and realized he carried the burden alone of the authority of his writing and in fact, perhaps he had no authority at all. The apparent conclusion of all this was in turn to question those very aspects of literature and art that had characterized novels and poetry — and art — before this earth-shattering crisis occurred. The consequence was that novelists such as Robbe-Grillet, Pinget and Claude Simon intentionally worked to strip away any vestiges of narrative and emotional content from their novels, thereby privileging craftsmanship, in the belief that by doing so they would be able to present a truer reality and "a genuine understanding of the human condition": Josipovici tells us: "What is at issue is reality itself, what it is and how an art which of necessity renounces all claims to contact with the transcendent can relate to it, and, if it cannot, what possible reason it can have for existing."

The effect produced by this Modern type of fiction was brilliant, but empty; impressionistic, but it had no soul. The novelist's concern was for "events, not with characters or ethics . . . [or] the plots devised by traditional novelists." And looking back, Modern authors and critics viewed traditional novelists as naïve and their writing style passé. By way of explaining this Josipovici writes:

"Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority. There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth. It doesn't rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Beethoven and Wordsworth. It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepreneurs: their inability to question what it is they are doing. In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture."

The tension between "commercial" and "artistic" continues to this day.

A further service that Josipovici renders for the reader is to demonstrate through many examples how different Modern fiction is from the literature of the past through a brief examination of older literature from Cervantes and Rabelais all the way back to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. As he said, "Seeing the art of the twentieth century in the light of the [past] can help us to understand many things."

Eventually it becomes clear that Josipovici is writing with the British reader in mind, and he has looked at the British reading public today and finds it wanting. He gives European readers much more credit for being aware of Modernism's subtleties. He thinks British readers — and by extension its "younger" (historically speaking) American cohorts — are woefully naïve. He even labels the whole lot of us as Philistines because we don't relish a steady diet of the rather arid and contrived output of the Modern purists. Josipovici seems to want us to accept the Robbe-Grillet–Pinget–Simon school of writing as the inevitable direction that quality fiction will continue to take — even in this postmodern era.

So, what happened to Modernism? It gradually adopted the view, not only that "living and telling are not the same thing at all," and "though we as readers and viewers looking back inevitably lack the sense of what it was like to live certain moments, the historian can work to counter that, as indeed the best ones do, and when dealing with works of art we can, if we are good enough critics, get close enough to them to convey something of what their making involved for their makers and first viewers."

This raises an interesting question: By stripping narrative from fiction, did this open the door for criticism to step into the vacuum? It certainly signaled the ascendency of the critic and criticism — and theory — as almost more important than the literature or arts it was purporting to criticize. While craftsmanship was revered at the expense of narrative, technique ran the risk of being seen as "a kind of shame." The circularity and self-contradictory aspects of this wordplay are obvious. But Josipovici points out that "argument and disagreement will never end" regarding the various ways Modernism can be interpreted, and "though we might feel that they were misguided we should think twice before presuming to tell them they were wrong."

Josipovici's report to us is a very personal one, and this review only scratches the surface by attempting to cut through all the diversions in order to ferret out the main thrust of Josipovici's argument. He has strong opinions and shares them freely, calling this group Philistines and that group positivist and another group naïve, as though his is the last word, which is all very charming and amusing, unless you happen to be one or the other! Yet he admits in the end that there cannot "be a definitive 'story' of Modernism. We cannot step outside it, much as we would like to, and pronounce with authority on it." There are too many divergent points of view. He concludes by asking:

" . . . are we to see our own history, that which makes us what we are, as something which blinkers us or which sharpens our vision? This is, in itself, of course, a very Modernist question."

The digressions — so long as you can keep your eye on the argument — are wonderfully rich and vividly informative about important books, music and the arts in the context of Modern literary and art history. He may assert that one writer is better than another, but he will back it up with quotations and analysis. One can disagree with his conclusions about the relative merits of this artist or that writer, or one reading public or another, but one comes away from this stroll through the brief history of Modernism with a whole new understanding of what the heck it was all about.

Studying this book will inevitably leave the reader or viewer better prepared for Modern literature or Modern art. I say "studying" because it really must be read twice in order to put it all together. On balance, however, I give it 4½ stars.

Aug 28, 2011, 9:44pm Top

"Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority. There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth. It doesn't rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Beethoven and Wordsworth. It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepreneurs: their inability to question what it is they are doing. In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture."

That is something to thing about. Brilliant review, as always, Suzanne.

Aug 29, 2011, 4:16am Top

Splendid review Suzanne. Do I detect that you have an objection to being labelled a Philistine? Despite this you still give the book the thumbs up. I will definitely get a copy of this as it sounds required reading.

I think it comes as no surprise to us all that modernism in literature did not happen in a vacuum. It is refreshing then to find a book that covers the art movement in general. I was particularly interested in your comments on the role of the critic and how modernism has opened up this field. I will have to read the book to find out more.

Thanks for your time in reviewing this book.I just hope the book itself is as well written as your review.

Edited: Aug 29, 2011, 12:57pm Top

I have read your review of What Ever Happened to Modernism with great interest and attention, and regarding our earlier exchanges, I am glad you read and reviewed such an interesting book here.

Current literary criticism does not seem to be able to explain, and categorize literary fiction of the period from roughly 1910 through 2010 sufficiently well. Personally, I feel, I have a fairly sound grasp of "Modernism", applying the label basically to the period of 1910 - 1940, and, with misgivings, "Postmodernism" applying it to all literature after 1970. Howver, I feel these two labels do not sufficiently cover literature from the period 1940 -1970, and are therefore questionable.

A possible strength of the book by Josipovici is that it seems to address specifically that period, by taking the movement of the nouveau roman, a type of French novel, defined and shaped in the 1950s, with main proponents of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon and Robert Pinget. The theory of the nouveau roman-movement can account for the development of a unified literary style going back to the middle of the 19th century, including authors of the past such as Huysmans, Franz Kafka and James Joyce, as well as including (then current) and later authors, such as Marguerite Duras.

As can be seen from your review, Josipovici can justify this theory by showing how it differs from classical literature. However, as a theory, I would consider it weak or incomplete, if it could not account for later, other authors or transcend the range of French literature, to include literature in other languages, foremostly English, authors such as Iris Murdoch, Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, etc.

Aug 29, 2011, 4:32pm Top

>223 dchaikin: Thanks Dan! Obviously, I was struck by that paragraph as well.

>224 baswood: And thank you, Barry! Yes, I do object to being just dismissed out of hand as a Philistine along with the entire population of the U.S.! It's just absurd to label an entire country as Philistine when I could cite a gazillion facts to the contrary. Unquestionably there are Philistines everywhere, including here, but blanket labels like that are nothing more than conversation stoppers. He has made his pronouncement and in his august opinion nothing more need be said on the subject. But I wasn't really offended. As I indicated in the review, I was mostly amused by it.

The book is well written in the sense that it is eminently readable. However, Josipovici doesn't make it easy to chart a path through it all. The chapters have rather enigmatic titles, and you don't know where the author is going until after you have gotten there, and you really do have to go back and at least do a cursory review to put it all together. The lengthy digressions give depth to what he is trying to convey and are really worth the time to digest what he is saying. Whether or not you agree with him in the end is an individual matter. And as for me, I consider myself a student, and I'm just soaking it all up for future reference and I shall probably eventually draw my own conclusions.

One of the dangers in my trying to review a book like this is that I'm not all that familiar with a lot of the fiction Josipovici discussed. This made it doubly hard to summarize in an intelligent manner. All I can hope is that I didn't misstate anything or say anything that is foolishly wide of the mark. Time will tell . . .

Aug 29, 2011, 4:36pm Top

>225 edwinbcn: Hi Edwin. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. It would appear that Josipovici agrees with you that the labels of "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" are inadequate. In fact, he makes a point of saying that "nouveau roman" is also a kind of catch-all label saying that authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras "were bundled together by clever publishers and lazy journalists into one entity, the nouveau roman." But that is somewhat out of context. On balance, I don't believe that labeling, as such, was part of Josipovici's agenda. He was simply attempting to trace the developments in the context of philosophy, art, music and criticism during what I called "the period of Modern Art."

Admittedly, you are in a much better position than I to comment on the relative merits of individual authors during this period because I have not read them. Even though I was an English major in the dim dark past, my interests have always lain in earlier literature, and I have pretty much allowed the twentieth century to pass me by in terms of literature and criticism. Art is quite another thing. But for a variety of reasons, my own personal interest in twentieth century literature and criticism has increased recently and that is in part why I read this book.

Very soon a group of us are going to start a thread over in Le Salon to discuss this book and others on the subject of literary theory and criticism in more depth, and hopefully you — and anyone else reading this — will watch for it and join us. I am certain your familiarity with this literature will mean that your contributions to our discussions will be tremendously valuable.

Aug 29, 2011, 10:32pm Top

Samson slaying a Philistine, Giambologna, Florence

Edited: Aug 30, 2011, 9:45am Top

Dan has suggested that too, but I'm afraid here in China I cannot come by the books on the reading list.

... besides, it seems the reading list has disappeared...

Aug 30, 2011, 1:51pm Top

Edwin, I'm sorry, we must be talking about different things. No reading list has been posted with regard to a discussion of Josipovici. Incidentally, that Josipovici thread got off to a shaky start in the salon, and people are discussing the book who have not read it!!!! It is a farce!

The Josipovici book is available electronically through Amazon. You don't have to own a Kindle. Just download the free Kindle app to your computer or PDA and the book is not terribly expensive.

Sep 1, 2011, 11:26am Top

Just catching up here. Excellent review, as always.

Sep 1, 2011, 4:58pm Top

Thank you, Jane.

By the way, I have to mention the gorgeous pictures of the new Beinecke Library on your architecture thread.

Take a look at that, folks! Wish I could see it in person. The Beinecke has been on my mind since I have been reading the exhibition catalog of commonplace books mentioned above in #215.

Edited: Sep 2, 2011, 1:13am Top

Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter (1986) Viking

Saints and Strangers, Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers by George F. Willison (1945) Reynal & Hitchcock

The reasons people have for buying a particular book must be infinite in number. I must confess that when I bought Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter back in 1986, I had never heard of her, and my reason for buying the book was primarily out of curiosity because I already owned another book by the same title. I was amused by this and thought it would be interesting to see what saints and which strangers this one offered up. Secondarily, I have always loved short stories and justified this particular impulse purchase by the fact that it looked to be a short and sweet collection.

The other book is by George F. Willison and the full title is Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers & Their Families, with Their Friends & Foes; & an Account of Their Posthumous Wanderings in Limbo, Their Final Resurrection & Rise to Glory, & the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock, published in 1945. This is a wholly different ball of wax. I stumbled on this book initially in a used book store in my home town where I was on one of those random treasure hunts, the sole purpose of which was as if to say: "Surprise me!" Being young and still relatively unlearned in the wide expanse of history books that were available, I thought this was indeed a treasure. I bought it on the spot for my father who was an avid genealogist, and he had drummed into my head that I was descended from at least 11 members of the Mayflower company. This was too good to pass up. Some years later after I had left home and settled in San Francisco, I found another copy in a local used book store and out of nostalgia bought it for myself.

Oddly enough, after buying the Angela Carter version, I never got around to reading the stories. It is quite possible that after I got it home and realized that the first story was about Lizzy Borden and the axe murders, I put it aside. I have no taste for blood and gore.

The other day Angela Carter's name appeared in an article I was reading about Tarot cards, which I was researching for a thread over in Le Salon, and I was stunned to find out that Carter had written several stories that at least alluded to Tarot cards. I grabbed her book off my shelf and tried to ferret out of the dust jacket description, the table of contents and a random dip here and there into the stories to see if any of those stories were in this collection. They were not, but no matter. I decided this was as good a time as any to see what kind of a story writer Angela Carter was.

After that rather lengthy introduction, I would like to shout from the rooftop: Angela Carter is a genius! I am beside myself with enthusiasm for her imaginative, quirky, amazing stories. Most of the eight stories in this collection deal with a familiar topic but with either an odd twist or from an offbeat point of view. If I had bothered to read the Lizzie Borden story way back when, I would have found that it concerned itself with the week leading up to that fatal day. No blood and gore. Just an exploration of the life of the Borden family before Lizzie went on her rampage.

Carter has a unique way of setting the reader up with preconceptions of what a story might be about. The magic of this is that the title sets the synapses to work conjuring up a series of associated mental images. Some of these actually turn out to be relevant, but it's a marvelous trick to create an imaginary tapestry of sorts before you have even read a word.

For example, one story is called "Peter and the Wolf," and indeed, it is a story about a boy named Peter and there are wolves, but this is not the story. But one files it away in a compartment of memory labeled "stories about boys named Peter and wolves."

Another story is called "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe," which weaves an imaginative tale about Poe's birth and youth and his mother's short life. Immediately I thought of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but that's just one of Carter's tricks. It has been too many years since I saw the movie, so I cannot say for certain whether there is any real connection, but that is almost beside the point.

Another story is a strange dreamlike reworking of parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which again is quite amazing in its ingenuity. And the final story is entitled "Black Venus," which is about Baudelaire and his mistress Jeanne Duval.

My favorite story is called "The Kitchen Child," which is about nobody in particular, but is told in first person by a boy who was born "downstairs" to the cook at the country house of an Edwardian couple. The story of how the boy is conceived right there in the kitchen while the cook was in the midst of whipping up a lobster souffle is masterful in its conception and delivery:

Then, just as she bent over the range to stir the flour into the butter, a pair of hands clasped tight around her waist. Thinking, at first, it was but kitchen horseplay, she twitched her ample hips to put him off as she slid the egg yolks into the roux. But as she mixed in the lobster meat, diced up, all nice, she felt those hands stray higher.

That was when too much cayenne went in. She always regretted that.

And as she was folding in the toppling contents of the bowl of beaten egg-white, God knows what it was he got up to but so much so she flings all into the white dish with abandon and:

'To hell with it!'

Into the oven goes the souffle; the oven door slams shut.

I draw a veil.
This collection of short stories is not to be missed, even if we are twenty-five years late! Five stars!

Sep 2, 2011, 3:51am Top

even if we are twenty-five years late

Over the past 8 - 10 years I have favoured buying and reading mostly the latest and newest fiction, but actually often came away disappointed. "Older" books are underrepresented on LT, and not read as much as new fiction.

That's a pity, because a lot of the older stuff is qualitatively very high, and if proved often much higher: classics, modern classics, etc.

Perhaps this is another aspect of Josipovici criticism, that editors and publishers are possibly less critical in their choice of what to publish.

Sep 2, 2011, 4:24am Top

Great review of the Angela Carter short stories. I have read some of them in the past and thought they were excellent.

Sep 2, 2011, 1:59pm Top

>234 edwinbcn: Edwin – for some reason I gravitate more to nonfiction, and while I love a good novel, I seem to favor older works that have stood the test of time since, like you, I hate wasting my time on mediocre stuff. And when I do choose a novel to read, it is usually because of the recommendations of other readers — critics and otherwise.

Your point about Josipovici and a general decline in publishing standards may be correct. On the other hand, critics have been saying that for two hundred years — or forever for that matter! But then he seemed to imply that novels like Flanders Road (La Route des Flandres) by Claude Simon should set the standard forever more. This reflects his taste and, as I said somewhere before, Josipovici's little book is all about his personal taste in the context of a lifetime of reading and criticizing books. Fortunately, the taste of one critic does not dictate what is or is not published!

Sep 2, 2011, 2:00pm Top

Barry, thanks so much. There will definitely be more Angela Carter in my future!

Sep 3, 2011, 7:59pm Top

Suzanne, I have another Boethius connection to add to your list:

The Romance of the Rose The major part of this allegorical dream vision was written by Jean De Meun, who like any decent medieval author made good use of his sources. He uses much of The Consolation of Philosophy including a long discourse on the nature of free will from part 5.

At one point in the Romance he says of the Consolation "If someone were to translate this book for the laity, he would do them a great service." He eventually took his own advice and translated the Consolation into French.

I have reviewed the Romance of the Rose on my thread.

Sep 4, 2011, 4:00am Top

Oh, this is delicious! Your review, I mean. Can't think why I didn't give de Meun more prominence on my list. I certainly did not have that quote about Fortune's wheel which I shall add to my archive. Many thanks!

Sep 6, 2011, 4:13pm Top

The Clerkenwell Tales by Peter Ackroyd (2005) Penguin, Kindle Edition

My first encounter with Peter Ackroyd was in Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2003), which is quite a tome. In fact, it is so chock full of information that I should have turned right around and read it again. It's hard to absorb so much detail from essentially fifteen hundred years of history. One thing that was clear, though, was the extent of Ackroyd's erudition. This man knows everything about British literary history.

So it was with a bit of a smile that I picked up The Clerkenwell Tales, which I understood to have a sort of oblique relationship with The Canterbury Tales, and I thought it might be kind of a fun read. Again, Ackroyd's knowledge of London history must have needed a place to go, because indirectly this little book gives the reader a painless dose of actual history in the process of weaving a tale of intrigue that occurs in 1399.

Now, it turns out that 1399 was a pivotal year. This was, first of all, the year before Chaucer's death. Second and more important, this was the year Henry Bolingbroke stole the throne from Richard II. The plot of Ackroyd's tale surrounds not one but two conspiracies that were both aimed at achieving an upset in the status quo, although their motivations differed substantially. One was anti-Church and involved the underclass, while the other involved the political class and aristocracy and was avidly pro-Bolingbroke. The plot structure provides room for all of the classes and types represented by the Canterbury pilgrims to shine — for better or worse. Ackroyd has cleverly named each chapter after a character — "The Prioress's Tale," "The Clerk's Tale," etc — coincidentally most of whom were on that famed Canterbury pilgrimage, but here there is no pilgrimage planned and the entire action takes place in the extended London environs.

The final chapter, "The Author's Tale," consists of endnotes which are supposed to lend an air of authority to all the goings on, but it would probably be a good idea to fact-check before accepting the whole story hook, line and sinker.

This was an enjoyable quick read, although I was disappointed that it wasn't more of a reminiscence of The Canterbury Tales, which I read originally at university. But actually, if I really want to reminisce, I guess I could read the real thing again!

Sep 6, 2011, 4:57pm Top

Suzanne, Yes of course you should read the whole thing again, but it would not be a quick read.

I have to say I have not read an Ackroyd book that I have liked. However I am very interested in this one as I know the history of this period so well. It sounds like you were not convinced by it, although you say it was an enjoyable quick read. I am tempted to put it on my kindle.

Sep 6, 2011, 6:20pm Top

I was wondering whether you had read it, Barry. It seems to be right up your street on the 14th century and Richard II and Chaucer fronts. It would be interesting to compare notes. The whole Canterbury pilgrims shtick is an appropriation of names and some characteristics but that's where the similarity ends. So you don't have to know anything about Chaucer's work to enjoy this one. The end notes seem to have a tongue-in-cheek tone to them, but I may be wrong. You are probably in a better position to judge that than I am. And I did not take the time to fact check. I'm merely the suspicious type in the sense that I don't always believe everything I read! But it is rather a romp, and I did enjoy it.

Sep 7, 2011, 12:04am Top

The Perfect Host [Novelette] by Theodore Sturgeon (1948) Kindle Edition

Theodore Sturgeon famously said, "Ninety percent of SF [science fiction] is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud." This is known as Sturgeon's Revelation. He was probably right.

Sturgeon and science fiction entered my consciousness together when I was in high school. The boy across the street loaned me a copy of E Pluribus Unicorn, which blew my young mind at the time. For quite a long while Sturgeon for me WAS science fiction.

But now, many decades later, I am confused. I dipped into Sturgeon's novella The Perfect Host thinking it was a piece of science fiction. But three-quarters of the way in it seemed like it could have been written by Paul Auster. A month ago The New York Trilogy had my full attention. The purported detective novels were not behaving well — you know, the way your typical hard-boiled whodunits are supposed to. Crazy haywire things were going on in those novels but in a controlled sort of way. You just had to keep going and figure there would be some resolution down the line — or not.

It is exactly that way with The Perfect Host. If you know Theodore Sturgeon, you know you are in for something strange. But the odd thing is that Sturgeon, who wrote this book in the fifties, long before the Paul Auster stripe of postmodern fiction was being written, seems like he is in some ways a kind of early prototype of the postmodern novelist.

But then you come to the last quarter of the book, and you start to breathe easier. You say, Oh, yes. Now we're on familiar ground. Make no mistake, The Perfect Host begins on a very odd note with a semi-naked woman jumping out of a hospital window in front of three witnesses. They all see her jump, but no one sees the woman land. There is no body. After that, the ingredients of this strange stew become more complex, with here a little magic realism, there a little now-you-see-now-you-don't, and toss in skewed perceptions everywhere. In fact, this book takes such a strange turn that Sturgeon has to step in – in his own persona – and put things on track. Come to think of it, isn't that what Paul Auster did in The New York Trilogy? Yes, these two writers are not so different after all. Of course, Auster is probably a more graceful writer, but he has nothing over on Sturgeon's fantastic imagination. I wonder . . . if this novella had been marketed differently . . .

Nah, it's too far out. But it's a fine example of Sturgeon's writing and a quick read at that.

Any Sturgeon fans out there?

Sep 7, 2011, 2:05am Top

I love Sturgeon, or at least I love a lot of his short SF stuff. Some of it is among the best stuff the genre has ever produced, in my opinion. I'd never even heard of this book, though. But now I am intrigued.

Sep 7, 2011, 5:42am Top

Nice review of The perfect Host. I have not read any Sturgeon apart from the odd short story in one of the many SF collections published way back when. Another one on my list of authors to explore.

Sep 7, 2011, 1:39pm Top

Hi bragan and Barry – The Perfect Host appeared on a list of recommendations for my Kindle, and having not read it before, I jumped at it. It is the title "story" in the fifth volume of Sturgeon's collected works which I didn't realize had been published. So there you go.

Sep 9, 2011, 1:34am Top

Un po'di Roma (1884), watercolor by Benjamin Walter Spiers

A different but similar painting was included in The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco.

Sep 9, 2011, 1:44am Top

Speaking again of The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco . . .

I have been struggling with the question of how to review this book in order to capture its essence while leaving enough between the covers to entice the reader to take the bait and experience it firsthand.

Earlier in this thread I mentioned that paging through the book, looking at the pictures and reading here and there gave me an odd feeling of elation. That was even before I read the following:

It's not that form cannot suggest infinity (the entire history of aesthetics reiterates this). However, the infinity of aesthetics is the subjective feeling of something greater than us. It is an emotional condition, a potential infinity. On the contrary, the infinity we are talking about now is an actual infinity made up of objects that can perhaps be numbered but that we cannot number—we fear that their numeration (and enumeration) may never stop. When Kant had a sense of the sublime when gazing up at the starry sky, he had the (subjective) feeling that what he was seeing went beyond his sensibilities, and so he postulated an infinity that not only our senses fail to grasp but one that not even our imagination can embrace; an uneasy pleasure which makes us feel the greatness of our subjectivity, capable of wishing for something we cannot have. The infinity of the feeling Kant experienced has a highly emotional charge (and it could be aesthetically portrayed even by painting or writing a poetic description of a single star). Instead, the innumerability of the stars is an infinity that we should call objective (there would be billions of stars even if we did not exist). The artist who attempts only a partial list of all the stars in the universe, in some way wishes to make us think of this objective infinity.

The infinity of aesthetics is a sensation that follows from the finite and perfect completeness of the thing we admire, while the other form of representation suggests infinity almost physically, because in fact it does not end, nor does it conclude in form.
In the beginning, Eco talks about "a swing between the poetics of 'everything included' and the poetics of the 'etcetera.'" He illustrates these two concepts with two examples from Homer's Iliad. One is a description in Book XVIII of the new shield Hephaestus forges for Achilles after Hector is killed, which Homer describes in minute detail, so much detail, in fact, that one wonders whether it all would have fit on a single shield. But this is an example of a form on which everything is included. The round edges of the shield impart a sense of completeness.

The poetics of "etcetera," is a "mode of artistic representation where we do not know the boundaries of what we wish to portray, where we do not know how many things we are talking about and presume their number to be, if not infinite, then at least astronomically large." Eco calls this representative mode "the list, or catalogue." This can be seen in Homer's famous catalogue of ships in Book II of the Iliad, where he lets us know that to name everyone who took up arms would be impossible "even had I ten tongues and ten mouths," so he limits his account by naming only the captains and the ships, but even this involves 350 verses of the epic poem!

This "poetics of 'etcetera'" is an important theme that underpins most of what I have seen so far in The Infinity of Lists. I still have not read the entire book but I have looked at all the pictures many times, and from what I have read so far, it seems to also characterize the examples from literature.

I continue to believe the book's title is misleading. It seems to be an anthology, both visual and literary, of examples of how infinity has been portrayed across the millenia, and one cannot avoid feeling the vertiginous effects of those portrayals, which inevitably involve lists of one kind or another.

Perhaps in another post I will list some of the examples. Eco's definitions put some of the great paintings that depict a myriad of objects or a cast of thousands in a whole new light.

Sep 9, 2011, 5:02am Top

You have got our attention Suzanne, but if you are going to type out a list that stretches towards infinity you are going to be typing for an awful long time.

Do we need to know everything by name? I wonder

Love the painting by Benjamin Walter Spiers.

Sep 9, 2011, 11:01am Top

This is a case where I think I prefer the two extremes rather than any middle ground. I like the idea of just enough description to create boundaries within which I can use my imagination to fill in the gaps, but I also covet the idea of a minutely detailed description, going beyond all reason. Both of these feel quite energising, do they not?

Sep 9, 2011, 2:20pm Top

Well, Barry, you'll be relieved to know I wasn't thinking of typing some endless list! I was merely thinking of giving some more examples besides Homer and Benjamin Spiers of what is included in the book. Eco himself said that he had not included every example in the history of the world of a literary or artistic depiction of infinity.

And no, we certainly don't need to know everything by name. I think that is the point. It is a kind of artistic convention to try to convey the idea of infinity visually or verbally. This is something that fascinated Eco, and he admitted that this was a function of his medieval studies and his readings of Joyce's novels. His own novels, especially The Name of the Rose, contain such lists or enumerations. It must be apparent by now that this fascinates me as well.

Just to give a couple of further examples that are somewhat accessible, Joyce made a list of things in the drawer of Leopold Bloom's kitchen near the end of Ulysses. This isn't actually in the book; Eco merely mentions it but includes something from Finnegans Wake. And the painting of The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino which takes up twenty feet of wall space in the Doge's Palace, Venice, gives the impression of the mass of humanity that was involved. And of course, the four edges of the painting imply that there was much, much more beyond.

http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/v/vicentin/lepanto.html Be sure to click on the thumbnail to see an enlarged view.

All of this discussion is good, because it may eventually be possible for me to boil it all down into a cogent and digestible review – once I finish reading. I keep getting carried away by the pictures!

Sep 9, 2011, 2:28pm Top

Hi Zeno, I believe your point about "using the imagination to fill in the gaps" is exactly what writers from Homer to Joyce and beyond were trying to do. And yes, "energizing" is the word. That is exactly the effect Eco's compendium is having on me.

Sep 10, 2011, 5:04am Top

[K]nowledge lies not in the accumulation of texts or information, nor in the object of the book itself, but in the experience rescued from the page and transformed again into experience, in the words reflected both in the outside world and in the reader's own being.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

A book, like a person, has its fortunes with one; is lucky or unlucky in the precise moment of its falling in our way, and often by some happy accident counts with us for something more than its independent value.

Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater

The idea of publication may have crossed his mind [i.e., Montaigne's] early on, though he claimed otherwise, saying he wrote only for family and friends. Perhaps he even began with the intention of composing a commonplace book: a collection of thematically arranged quotations and stories, of a kind popular among gentlemen of the day. [chapter 2]

Montaigne picked up rhetorical skills and critical habits of thought which he would use all his life. It was probably als ohere that he first encountered the idea of using "commonplace books": notebooks in which to write down snippets one encountered in one's reading, setting them in creative juxtaposition. [chapter 3]

How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Sep 10, 2011, 5:54am Top

Suzanne, The Sarah Bakewell book looks very interesting. I think I will have to get that.

Curiously enough I am at this moment (not quite true because of course I can't read and type at the same time) reading an essay from;The Renaissance, Studies in art and poetry by Walter Pater.

Do I detect also that you are dipping into Marius the Epicurean, some exciting reading.

I really ought to re-read The name of the Rose

I love the quote from Walter Pater.

Sep 10, 2011, 1:29pm Top

Barry, I am actually deep into all three books quoted above. I've been reading one or two chapters a day of each. I highly recommend the Sarah Bakewell book. Makes me want to dive right into Montaigne.

The Library at Night is interesting — more an extended essay but full of interesting ruminations — but not as good as Manguel's earlier book A History of Reading which was more substantive.

Marius the Epicurean is an odd little book. I'm halfway through the first volume and am waiting with bated breath to get to the Epicurean bits. I forget, did you say you had read it? I remember you saying you owned a copy.

I also have Pater's The Renaissance, which I started to read when I first got it a few years ago, but got interrupted and maybe I'll go back to it when I finish with Marius.

By the way, I've really dropped the ball on The Faerie Queene. The reality is that I'm just not in the mood right now.

Sep 10, 2011, 5:35pm Top

I will be looking forward to your review of Marius the Epicurean then. I read the book many, many years ago, but came away with a feeling that I could not recall or tell what the book was about, nor did it make any impression on me. Are there Epicurean bits?

It must be said that I read the book while travelling through China, which may have distracted my attention a bit, but that should have been no problem. I read most of the book while visiting friends in Chengdu, back in 1997.

I also have the impression that very little of Walter Pater is available in print, or am I wrong? I have an antiquarian edition of The Renaissance, but have not yet started reading it.

Sep 11, 2011, 4:21pm Top

Edwin, I can understand your lack of a concrete impression of Marius the Epicurean. It is written in a style I call "vaporous." This is not a technical term, merely my own shorthand for a rambling style that is so indefinite and fraught with flowery language that it taxes the mind to figure out exactly what the author is saying. Eventually one becomes accustomed, but it takes real effort.

For example, how is this for an opening sentence!

As, in the triumph of Christianity, the old religion lingered latest in the country, and died out at last as but paganism—the religion of the villagers, before the advance of the Christian Church; so, in an earlier century, it was in places remote from town-life that the older and purer forms of paganism itself had survived the longest.
What??? Did I miss something already? It is only in rereading it just now that I realize it is one of those Homeric similes, but this opening left me with the impression that somehow the first page of my copy had been lost and I had stepped in in medias res. Not my idea of a great beginning of a novel.

The novel is philosophical and follows Marius as he grows up and searches for an appropriate way to conduct his life. I am not yet halfway through, so I shouldn't say more now, but there are definitely "Epicurean bits," as I shall explain more fully when I finish.

Pater only wrote three books — Marius, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (variously titled) and something called Imaginary Portraits. He was a prolific writer for magazines and journals, however, and much of what is considered important has been anthologized and is currently available. A quick look at Amazon shows this to be the case. And of course, there are a number of Kindle choices as well. Considering where you are, however, it's not clear to me how helpful that is. But, for what it's worth . . .

Sep 15, 2011, 5:18am Top

49. The Case of Walter Pater by Michael Levey (1978) Thames & Hudson

I am currently about halfway through Marius the Epicurean, but feel quite frustrated regarding my ignorance of the circumstances in which Pater was operating. So I dropped everything and read this book which I happened to have at hand. It is an excellent literary biography by the then director of the National Gallery, London. Having read this is already helpful going forward. In the absence of a Norton Critical Edition, I have been doing a bit of research to try to place Pater in some kind of context. This book was certainly a step in the right direction, and it has given me some new insights into Marius. Now I have a pretty good overview, and I have on hand some journal articles and a couple of other books. I'm going to have to go to the library and see whether I can find some contemporary reviews of Pater's two primary works — Marius and The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.

One surprising thing to come out of this is how apt my course of reading this year has been in regard to Pater. In his way, he too was interested in pagan influences, although he was more targeted than I have been. He was part of the so-called Aesthetic Movement, which was the British answer to French Decadence, which arose at a time when a craze for ancient Greek art and culture was having a heyday in England, and which occurred at a time when any hint of wavering religious belief or homoeroticism were grounds for getting one into serious difficulty, especially in the Oxford milieu, where Pater had graduated and wanted to receive a fellowship. It is difficult to believe today in our libertine era that a book like Studies in the History of the Renaissance, (which was the originally published title) could have scandalized the academics among whom Pater worked and how his career was seriously impaired and very nearly squashed. This is all merely a hint of the context, and one can only shake one's head.

What has this to do with Marius the Epicurean? A great deal, it turns out. More to come on this subject . . .

Sep 15, 2011, 11:39am Top

Pater is awesome. I highly recommend The Renaissance. Think Burckhardt on opium. P was a big influence and friend of Saint Oscar. Poquette, you should check out tom stoppard's play The Invention of Love. It is about A.E. Houseman, but Pater and Oscar both play important parts in it. It will add to your understanding of the whole Pater thang, and the Aesthetic Movement. It's wonderful stuff.

You're familiar with John Ruskin, I take it? Given your (current?) interest in medievalism, his attitude to the medieval would interest you as well.

Sep 15, 2011, 11:41am Top

Suzanne - MtE has been in the shady recesses of my mind for some time now. Glad that you are giving us the benefit of your views.

Sep 15, 2011, 3:57pm Top

Tom, I have read parts of The Renaissance but it was like reading in a room without lights. Now I'm really ready to read it! And thanks for the heads up about Stoppard's play. I will definitely get that and read it.

Yes, I studied Ruskin way back at university. But there's another one I have to renew my familiarity with. Interesting how Pater evolved his aesthetics pretty much in reaction to Ruskin and Arnold who were practically worshiped as demigods at the time. What an interesting — and intellectually frightening — period!

Zeno, it's funny, isn't it, how things pop into the forefront when one is least expecting it? Six months ago Marius was not on my radar screen.

Sep 15, 2011, 4:01pm Top

"CERTAINLY THE MOST DISTINCTIVE element in Pater's aesthetic is his belief in life as an art. From the beginning he endeavored with almost religious earnestness to discover what principle would allow him to extract from life the last bit of value. All his strictly creative writings – the Conclusion to the Renaissance, Marius the Epicurean, Gaston de Latour, the Imaginary Portraits, Emerald Uthwart, and The Child in the House – are directed toward the problem of how to live. At the very threshold of his career he discovered the principle which he was to hold by till the end. With his usual delight in unifying apparently diverse ideas, he shaped a theory of life to conform with his theory of art. Life, he said, should be lived in the spirit of art. And as art was to be enjoyed for its own sake, so life also was to be lived for its own sake, not as a means to some far goal, but as an end in itself."

The Aesthetic of Walter Pater by Ruth C. Child (1940)

Sep 15, 2011, 4:04pm Top

PS: My dad's name was Oscar!

Sep 17, 2011, 3:57pm Top

Here is a highly abbreviated timeline which will be relevant to the post that follows:

Timeline of Hellenistic Philosophy

c. 470-399 BC Socrates of Athens. Emphasized virtue ethics.
c. 450-370 BC Democritus of Abdera. Atomist.
c. 435-366 BC Aristippus of Cyrene. Student of Socrates, founder of Cyrenaic school, advocating hedonism.
c. 427-347 BC Plato. Student of Socrates.
356-323 BC Alexander the Great
c. 325-265 BC Euclid. Founder of Euclidean geometry.
c. 384-322 BC Aristotle. A polymath student of Plato.
c. 360-270 BC Pyrrho of Elis. The first Skeptic.
c. 341-270 BC Epicurus. Founder of Epicureanism.
c. 333-264 BC Zeno of Citium. Founder of Stoicism. Anarchist.
c. 99-55 BC Lucretius. Epicurean.
c. 4 BC-65 AD Seneca the Younger. Stoic.
c. 55-135 AD Epictetus. Stoic. Emphasized ethics of self-determination.
121-180 AD Marcus Aurelius. Stoic.
c. 2nd - 3rd centuries AD Sextus Empiricus. Skeptic, Pyrrhonist.

Sep 17, 2011, 4:05pm Top

50. Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy by R.W. Sharples (1996) Routledge

Most of us who are drawn to good and even great literature are not generally concerned with the philosophical leanings of writers and characters in novels. Of course, there are exceptional cases, and one of those is Marius the Epicurean. And having gotten about halfway through Marius, I was dogged by several questions :

Why did Pater call his book Marius the Epicurean? Why not Marius the Stoic, or Marius the Skeptic? Or better yet, Marius the Cyrenaic? Or better still, Marius the Hellenist?

Was Pater even an Epicurean in the classical sense?

Why did he choose the time of Marcus Aurelius, a Skeptic, to set a book entitled Marius the Epicurean?

In order to understand the possible answers to these questions, I went looking for a simple review of Hellenistic philosophy and found it in Sharples excellent book. Here is a summary of what I learned that has direct impact on the answers to some of the above questions.

First of all, the Hellenistic philosophies — Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism — all were concerned with views of how life should be lived. But how to live, which is mostly referred to under the rubric of "ethics," is only part of the broad interests of philosophy, which included logic, physics, the theory of knowledge (epistemology) and the study of language (rhetoric). Mostly what we are concerned with in terms of Pater and literature in general is ethics, so we can concentrate there.

Second, Epicureanism is widely misunderstood as a philosophy extolling pleasure as the highest good. It was how Epicurus defined "pleasure" that makes all the difference. Summing up the actual tenets of Epicureanism as expressed in the first four Principal Doctrines: God or the gods are not to be feared, mostly because they are unconcerned with human affairs; death should cause no apprehension because there is no afterlife to fear; the good is easily obtained; and the terrible easily endured.

"For Epicurus the goal of life is pleasure, and the happy life is that with most pleasure and least pain. But this does not mean, as might be thought, the life of perpetual physical self-indulgence—though Epicurus already in his own lietime protested against those who understood him so. . . . the limit of pleasure is the removal of pain—both physical pain and mental anxiety. Once pain has been removed, anything further can only be a 'Variation' (poikilmos)—a 'seasoning' of pleasure; it cannot increase it, and so it can be dispensed with."

"The Epicurean will enjoy banquets and the good things of life if possible, provided he or she does so in moderation and in a way that will not bring more pain in the long run. . . . and general frugality makes us more able to appreciate the occasional luxury."

"Enjoying the present is in fact the genuine Epicurean version of the 'popular Epicureanism' enshrined in the injunction to 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.' But the popular notion often carries with it overtones of anxiety which are quite un-Epicurean."
Third, Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in Cyprus and is generally better understood than Epicureanism. The Stoics equated virtue with wisdom and thought that virtue/wisdom was all that was required to attain happiness. Virtuous behavior required that one live according to his or her own human nature and that destructive emotions should be avoided to prevent errors in judgment.

And finally, Skepticism maintained that tranquility and happiness were obtained through suspension of judgment. This brought freedom from anxiety. "The sceptic does not arrive at a conclusion, but undergoes an experience." They basically questioned everything.

What Sharples does not address is the Cyrenaic school of hedonism, which is the predecessor of Epicureanism and the philosophy to which Epicurus was protesting in establishing his own doctrines. Aristippus of Cyrene was a student of Socrates but he strayed rather far afield by teaching that seeking pleasure was the best way to live.

Marius was for a time greatly smitten with this way of life—in fact, a chapter in Pater's book is entitled "New Cyrenaicism." Pater seems to conflate the Cyrenaic school with Epicureanism, thereby continuing and promoting an erroneous conception of what Epicureanism was in its true form.

The questions posed above arose because elements of all these philosophies are apparent in Marius the Epicurean and this background is helpful in trying to ferret out exactly what Pater means in his philosophical meanderings.

Sep 17, 2011, 7:16pm Top

Suzanne, excellent run through of Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics. Very useful to point out the difference between hedonism and epicureanism. I am coming upon this with my current reading of Oscar Wilde, who one might consider a hedonist. Not true he is much more akin to epicureanism.

This is from The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Man has sought to live intensely, fully perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself. Pleasure is natures test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.

Sep 18, 2011, 1:26am Top

That definitely sounds more Epicurean than hedonist. Thanks, Barry.

By the way, I just happened to look up "Epicureanism" in the dictionary (Miriam Webster 11th ed) which says: "the philosophy of Epicurus who subscribed to a hedonistic ethics that considered an imperturbable emotional calm the highest good and whose followers held intellectual pleasures superior to transient sensualism." This is mostly consonant with my understanding except for that word "hedonistic" in there. But looking up "hedonism" it says: "the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life." This is a much tamer definition than I had in mind. The dictionary is probably not the best place to turn for philosophical definitions as it tends to reflect current popular usage which may be quite different than a specialist's understanding. So I guess there is still much to learn . . .

Sep 18, 2011, 12:18pm Top

there's more to hedonism than just orgies, Poquette. Get yo mind out the gutter, girl!


Sep 18, 2011, 2:07pm Top

I often indulge in hedonistic bouts of reading.

In other news, methinks it's time for Bookaccino III!

Sep 18, 2011, 2:19pm Top

What gutter? I didn't see any gutter! haha The article pretty much is in agreement with Sharples regarding the Cyrenaics versus the Epicureans. Glad to have confirmation of that.

By the way, have you seen T.S. Eliot's essay on "Arnold and Pater"? It's in his Selected Essays 1917-1932. Fascinating to compare that to Powys's essays on Arnold and Pater in Visions and Revisions. Two completely different views. Quite something.

Edited: Sep 18, 2011, 7:59pm Top

Nice post on the main forms of Hellenistic philosophy. Lucretius is an interesting read, though tough going at some times. Epicurean philosophy (like hedonism) is certainly widely misunderstood. I found that Stoicism is also misunderstood--though not as much--because it is often seen as the antithesis of a caricature of Epicureanism. To connect back to some of your earlier posts, Stoicism saw a revival among Renaissance writers. In England, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is probably the best known, but Ben Jonson is the exemplar. I think his lovely poem on the loss of his son is a testament to the fact that Stoics are certainly capable of deep feeling.

Sep 23, 2011, 7:31am Top

Lucretius is definitely now on my radar screen, especially since I discovered I have a copy as part of my Great Books of the Western World series! It is buried in the volume containing Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

Interestingly, I am finding that because of certain overlaps in the thinking of all the schools of Hellenistic philosophy, many people actually reflect some affinities with all three! Walter Pater and Montaigne come most immediately to mind as I continue with my reading of Marius the Epicurean and Sarah Bakewell's fascinating critical bio of Montaigne. I'm thinking just now that it is all well and good to have a consistent philosophy of life, but humanity being what it is, is more often inconsistent. And that is probably because we are capable of seeing more than one side of many philosophical questions, and we may find ourselves sympathizing with the Epicureans concerning cultural matters, wishing to be Stoic in the face of adversity, while remaining a Skeptic regarding nearly everything we read in the daily papers.

Sep 23, 2011, 7:48am Top

Suzanne I don't think that being inconsistent in our philosophical beliefs is a bad thing at all. It shows good common sense.

Edited: Sep 23, 2011, 8:39am Top

This thread is now pretty long in the tooth, and as Nathan has suggested, it is time to begin anew. This thread is now closed.

I look forward to continuing our conversation at Bookaccino III. Please come on over!

Group: Club Read 2011

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