Friday, January 28, 2011


The art of making bad choices

All the books I read lately seem to consist of morality tales. Characters real and imagined, living with the consequences of their actions.

First, An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin's new novel (Grand Central 2010). I wanted to love it, I really did - I love Steve Martin - I mean, who wouldn't want to be him - novelist, movie star, in a bluegrass band - but the main character of this book was so despicable, with her complete lack of any kind of moral compass, the terrible choices she made, how she treated others. I read it with a bad taste in my mouth. Fortunately, the novel is also a primer on the contemporary art world and how it functions, which is interesting in its own right, considering Martin is an active participant in this world as a collector of art. So, an exposé, in fictional form, worth reading but watch out for that story line, it takes some nasty turns. Very unpretty. See how the mighty become mighty, and see how they fall.

Second, Anthony Bourdain's new collection of essays, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Ecco 2010). Real-life tales about his further adventures in food. Kinda like Calvin Trillin's The Tummy Trilogy on heroin. Or, no longer on heroin, since Bourdain cleaned up his act twenty years ago. But the vocabulary remains. Despite all the bracingly rampant vulgarity, he, however, certainly does have a moral compass intact and functioning, and writes so well about his experiences with food, celebrity, money, the Food Network, famous chefs, his own disasters and successes, I really loved it. Very worth reading, this naming-names tell-all. See the mighty, from the court jester's point of view.

Third (not really third, because I've read many other books recently, but let's say third for the sake of some kind of continuity here), of course there's Boswell's Life of Johnson. Which I finished last weekend, finally. It's one long morality tale from beginning to end, told by a profligate of the highest order. Because, let's face it, James Boswell made some spectacularly poor choices in life, particularly those involving prostitutes and alcohol. He tells us himself that he was drawn to Samuel Johnson because of Johnson's reputation, his intellect, and above all, his example of piety and conduct of life. To say Johnson was religious would be putting it mildly. Today we might find it strange that a renowned scholar and Truly Great Brain would prostrate himself before his religion to the extent that Johnson did. Not so, in the eighteenth century. Johnson composed prayers, practiced good works, went to church, supported many people more indigent than himself, was, in short, a moral man who feared death and judgment and did not want to be found lacking in the eyes of his God. And yet, was not pedantic or
proselytizing about it. Just tried to be good, within himself (and failed often, in his own eyes).

Johnson on proper conduct of life:

"If (said he), I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman..." (Life Vol II p.124)

"Getting money is not all a man's business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life." (ibid p.140)

"Always, Sir, set a high value on spontaneous kindness." (ibid p.417)

"Make an impartial estimate of your revenue, and whatever it is, live on less. Resolve never to be poor. Frugality is not only the basis of quiet, but of beneficence." (ibid p.456)

"The world passes away, and we are passing with it; but there is, doubtless, another world, which will endure forever. Let us all fit ourselves for it." (ibid p.504)

" is very short and very uncertain; let us spend it as well as we can..." (ibid p.616)

"To have attempted much is always laudable, even when the enterprize is above the strength that undertakes it..." (from Johnson's Preface to the Dictionary)

Would that Boswell had taken more of this advice. Not to
proselytize myself, but would that we all could.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Keeping warm

Lots of snow here and more on the way in two days, and until then, below-zero temperatures. This is always the time of year when I wonder what, exactly, I'm doing here. As I shovel through a three-foot drift on my way to the compost pile. The heap of snow beside the end of our driveway is as tall as I am - we don't know where we're going to throw the next batch, when it arrives.

All this deep January weather has me contemplating warmth. Seeking it, maintaining it, cherishing it, all different kinds of warmth. Chores take on new meaning. Washing the dishes is a pleasure, the water is so warm. So is taking warm laundry out of the dryer. And vacuuming the house keeps me warm. So does shoveling snow, and lugging in wood, and baking cookies. Hot tea, too, cup after cup. In fact, anything around the stove works well. Ryan's been baking a lot of bread. I've been making soup. I invented this great soup the other day, and it's very warming: parsnips, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, curry powder, chili flakes, stock, salt, pepper. Good with dumplings, will cure what ails you, and warm you through and through.

I also keep away the cold by forgetting about it, by becoming so engrossed in a book, or in the making of a painting that I lose track of everything else. Easy to do, when the book is wonderful (I finished Boswell's Life of Johnson over the weekend). Easy to do, when one of the reasons I love to paint is that the state it puts me in is one of suspension of all else, all externals fade away for a time. In reading, in painting, experiencing this state only makes me want to return to it. It's not merely passing time, wishing it away, waiting for the winter to be done. I never wish time away, it's too precious.

Final thought today: keep on the sunny side, after all, it's the warm side.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Wish list

A very short post after yesterday's overly long one. Wish list: this lovely edition of Johnson's Dictionary and this set of contemporary periodicals. Yum, yum!

Monday, January 17, 2011


The measure of a man

Samuel Johnson was known for his vigor as an author and as a man - he was tall and large and often slovenly, his writing was erudite and prolific, his conversation second to none. He had a wide acquaintance, and surely one great measure of a man's worth is how he appears in the eyes of others. Now we know that Boswell was attempting to capture on paper the genius of his beloved great friend, so he was wildly prejudiced in his favor, but Boswell himself states over and over again throughout his writings that this portrait is created from both light and shade, to show the whole person, and is not merely a panegyric, as biographies had largely been up until this particular one.

Johnson is described by his acquaintances thusly:

" great a mind as his cannot be moved by inferior objects: an elephant does not run and skip like lesser animals." (Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides p.230)

"He appears to me like a great mill, into which a subject is thrown to be ground. It requires, indeed, fertile minds to furnish materials for this mill." (ibid p.338)

"When you see him first, you are struck with aweful reverence; - then you admire him; - and then you love him cordially." (ibid p.343)

"Pliability of address I conceive to be inconsistent with that majestick power of mind which he possesses, and which produces such noble effects. A lofty oak will not bend like a supple willow." (ibid p.353)

"This man is just a hogshead of sense." (ibid p.390)

"...he was a dungeon of wit..." (p.391)

"...URSA MAJOR." (ibid p.420)

"...slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk." (Boswell's Life of Johnson Volume I p.265)

"A robust genius, born to grapple with whole libraries." (ibid Volume II p.5)

"He's a tremendous companion." (ibid p.106)

"I compared him at this time to a warm West-Indian climate, where you have a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxuriant foliage, luscious fruits; but where the same heat sometimes produces thunder, lightning, earthquakes, in a terrible degree." (ibid p.226)

Another measure of such a man could be gleaned from how he describes others. Johnson is not quite as generous with them as they are of him, perhaps. At least in his public conversation, which by accounts was combative and overbearing to the point of compulsion. For example, he would often take the contrary position in a discussion, just to argue a point well, even if he didn't actually believe what he was arguing for and might later contradict himself. He appeared to delight in this form of winning, what we call one-upmanship today. But, as Boswell notes well into his Life, after numerous examples of such, his friends encouraged him in this, just to hear him argue and speak, and "He who has provoked the lash of wit, cannot complain that he smarts from it." (Life Volume I p.391)

Some examples of Johnson's thoughts about his contemporaries:

Burke: He "...has a mind as narrow as the neck of a vinegar cruet." (Journal of a Tour p.341)

Lady Eglintoune: "Her figure was majestick, her manners high-bred, her reading extensive, and her conversation elegant." (ibid p.414)

Chesterfield: "This man... I thought had been a Lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among Lords." (Boswell's Life of Johnson Volume I p.177)

Churchill: "Sir, I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still. However, I will acknowledge that I have a better opinion of him now, than I once had; for he has shewn more fertility than I expected. To be sure, he is a tree that cannot produce good fruit: he bears only crabs. But, Sir, a tree that produces a great many crabs is better than a tree which produces only a few." (ibid p.208) (Ouch!)

Anonymous: "He is, indeed, continually attempting wit, but he fails. And I have no more pleasure in hearing a man attempting wit and failing, than in seeing a man trying to leap over a ditch and tumbling into it. (ibid p.302)

Baretti: "There are strong powers in his mind. He has not, indeed, many hooks; but with what hooks he has, he grapples very forcibly." (ibid p.373)

Burton: "Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, he said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise. (ibid p.415)

Gray: "BOSWELL - '... but surely he was not dull in his poetry.' JOHNSON. Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT.'" (ibid p.569) (Ouch, OUCH!)

Cibber: "It is wonderful that a man, who for forty years had lived with the great and the witty, should have acquired so ill the talents of conversation: and he had but half to furnish; for one half of what he said was oaths." (ibid p.578)

Goldsmith: "Goldsmith, Sir, will give us a very fine book upon the subject; but if he can distinguish a cow from a horse, that, I believe may be the extent of his knowledge of natural history." (ibid Volume II p.60)

Boswell: "I can tell you that I have heard you mentioned as a man whom everybody likes. I think that life has little more to give." (ibid p.274)

So much of this was said publicly, at times when Johnson apparently could not bear to be bested in conversation. One of the great surprises for me as a common reader, in making my way through this series of related books, is the difference between Johnson's bombast in public and his private persona. Much of the Life is long descriptions of table-talk, but Boswell also quotes at length from Johnson's personal letters and his private memorandum booklets, his pocket journals (later published as Prayers and Meditations - I do not yet possess a copy), to illustrate this very difference and round out his portrait, as it were. In his private writings, and many of his essays I have yet to mention, we encounter Johnson as a deeply religious man concerned with morality, eternity, charity, humility, fidelity to his duty and his friends, and his opinion of his own perceived failings as a human being. I find this most endearing. Boswell tells us repeatedly that this is also how Johnson truly was - his superego stilled - when not in company. I still haven't finished the Life. Two hundred pages to go. I am postponing the ending as long as I can, and reading in other Boswell/Johnson books, to keep these men and their times alive for a while longer.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Books: How do I love thee?

Let me count the ways. This Johnson-Boswell self-imposed reading program of mine is well underway and I want to take a brief moment to mention the tactile qualities of the experience. I began with an old Oxford edition of both of their accounts of their Hebrides journey. In the second half of this particular volume, the pages were uncut. I had to take the sharpest letter opener I possess and carefully slice them open before I could read what lay within. Delicate surgery, lovingly performed. I continued with Boswell's Life of Johnson, and since I do have three different editions on hand to choose from (ahem...), I looked them over to decide which to read. I ended up choosing the smallest, almost a pocket edition, if such a long book could ever be such a thing - Oxford 1904, with paper so thin it is almost onion skin, two volumes printed in one, bound in dark blue oxford cloth. The thin paper means I read and read and read and put the bookmark back in and it looks as if I've made no headway whatsoever. But - the main reason I chose this edition - after two hours or more of reading my hands and arms are not cramped up from grasping a larger and much heavier edition (such as the fat hardcover Everyman). Also, the typeface and font size is pleasant and clear. And the headers on each page note the date (the book unfolds chronologically, year by year) and the page's main topic. These topics are often delightful: Remedies for Melancholy; Johnson's Defense of Tea; Boswell Talks Stuff; The Lawfulness of Dueling; Goldsmith in Witty Contests; Virtue and Vice Mingled; Books in a Lady's Closet; Effects of Wine on Conversation; etc. They read through like an eccentric flip-book.

Progress report: I've read around 800 pages of the Life thus far. I also took a break to read Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763 (McGraw-Hill 1950), a lovely large hardcover with great paper and type and generous margins and a preface by Christopher Morley, what more could one ask for! Then I read Johnson's fictional morality tale, Rasselas, in a nice little hardcover reprint from the 1960s. Now I've returned to the Life, to pick up where I left off. I don't usually read in this roundabout manner, but I'm finding that each additional text I get my hands on only enriches the experience of reading the Life, as the people and their achievements (and foibles) begin to live and breathe. Thus, reading Boswell's version of meeting Johnson for the first time, in the Life, then reading his account of that entire year in his own London Journal, gives me the backstory, as it were, firsthand.

I am still searching for an affordable facsimile reprint of Johnson's Dictionary. And I begin to despair. I have the abridged version that Levenger printed a while back, and it is very nice indeed, but who wants to say, "A few years ago I read Johnson's Dictionary. Um, the abridged version..." Speaking of the tactile pleasures of reading, this edition is quite impressive. But the cost, the cost! I may have to resort to interlibrary loan.

I know all this verbiage only mentions what I'm reading, not what I think about what I'm reading. Well, regarding all the books we love so dearly, those old books that come to life under our careful hands, how many times can we keep saying we love them? Are there new ways to say such things? I begin to despair of that, too.

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