Wednesday, February 27, 2013
persons of a contemplative disposition
I was reminded yesterday of why certain books hang around on the bedside table for so long. While I was putting everything away I hesitated over Ben Franklin's Papers, thinking, Self, let's be honest here, am I really going to continue reading this? Then my own handwritten note on my bookmark reminded me of page 41: Ben Franklin as Silence Dogood, the opening paragraph of a letter to The New England-Courant, September 1722:
"In Persons of a contemplative Disposition, the most indifferent Things provoke the Exercise of the Imagination; and the Satisfactions which often arise to them thereby, are a certain Relief to the Labour of the Mind (when it has been intensely fix'd on more substantial Subjects) as well as to that of the Body."
It is impossible for me to read a statement like that and not wish to continue. Impossible! The rest of the letter doesn't disappoint - it describes a moonlight ramble on the streets of Boston and the interesting (to put it politely) characters Dogood observes. Lightly satirical, vivid, non-judgmental, what's not to love.
The original paper is so very beautiful, by the way. I would love to read that instead of the reprint I've got here - I've carefully read books from the eighteenth century, and facsimile editions thereof, and find that the long s is easy to adjust to after a bit. It actually helps me with reading comprehension since it slows me down long enough to encourage a higher level of concentration on the text itself than I might otherwise give. Usually I read quickly but remember little. One nice feature of the volume I am reading, though, is its lovely facsimile reproduction in full of Franklin's Poor Richard, an Almanack, from 1733. Just the thing for this particular person of a contemplative disposition. How could I ever have thought of putting this book away, unfinished? I ask you.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
a clean sweep
About once a month the stack of books on my bedside table begins to teeter, if not actually threaten to collapse, and I must finally remove the hangers-on: those it has become obvious I am not going to read or continue reading, as well as those I have already read but simply want to bask in their residual glow for just a bit longer. The pile was becoming untenable, so I made a clean sweep and brought the whole shebang downstairs to my computer, to share them with you today (and keep in the spirit of too much information, from last time we talked). Here we go:
The Letters of Samuel Johnson Volume III edited by Bruce Redford (Princeton University Press 1992). I bought the five-volume set two years ago, I think, and read the first two volumes immediately, then made the fatal mistake of setting them aside for too long. So this winter I skimmed the first two again, just to remind myself of the lay of the land, then launched into Volume III. Halfway though and threatening to stall out once again. I shall persevere!
Seventh Heaven by Patti Smith (Telegraph Books 1972). After reading her memoir Just Kids last week I couldn't leave Smith behind so quickly, so I rummaged around in my books and came up with this little book of her poetry, a first edition, a gift many years ago from a dear old friend, and kept for this long for just that reason. I read it straight through, and hoo boy it is fierce. Not for the shrinking violets among us.
The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne (Cooper Square 1965). The books of Ronald Blythe have led me to chase after many other authors never before read (by me, that is...), poets Thomas Traherne and John Clare not least among them. Ecstatic religious poetry of a very high order, heavy going at times, but written in such a spirit of praise and exaltation that, at his best, Traherne lifts the reader right over that otherwise difficult stile straight into golden meadows full of blooming wildflowers. This book has the dubious distinction of being in my bedside stack the longest. Perhaps six months or a year. I read a bit then put it back and take up something else. Similarly, with the following...
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Volume I, 1706-1734, edited by Leonard W. Labaree et al (Yale University Press 1959). Of the lives and works of the founding fathers I have frankly read little. But somewhere in the introduction to this collection of Franklin's earliest writings he is referred to as "the American Samuel Johnson." Need I say more? Well, I will, a bit - early in life he wrote some very entertaining essays under the pseudonyms of Silence Dogood, Martha Careful, and Caelia Shortface, and one of his first satirical papers was entitled The Busy-Body, which came out in numerous numbers, reproduced in this volume. Hilarious! How could I not read this, I ask you? I am up to page 100 or so, and this is the book that has been on the bedside table second-longest. I am almost at the point where I want to track down the other volumes in the set, but have yet to commit to that endeavor.
Beatrix Potter's Art by Anne Stevenson Hobbs (Warne 1989). Full-color illustrations throughout, of her drawings and watercolors of landscapes, plants, animals, architecture, and many early versions of what would become her iconic book illustrations. Creepy sometimes, wonderful often.
Lawren Harris: An Introduction to His Life and Art by Joan Murray (Firefly 2003). Short with some good color reproductions of his paintings. I've been reading a lot about The Group of Seven for the past few years. I love his stylized paintings of snow, like this one.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Dell 1991). What? A girl cannot survive on Samuel Johnson and Ben Franklin alone...? I must say, it's been forever since I've read a mass-market paperback, and a real bodice-ripper to boot. They aren't called that for nothing - her bodice really does get ripped in this novel! Often! Also not for the shrinking violets among us. The feisty heroine wouldn't stand for it. Gabaldon's own description of her historical romance novel and the popular series that followed is here. I don't know if I will go on and read the whole series, but you know, I might. Ryan asked, last night: "What are you... reading?" He doesn't often see me with thick shiny-covered mass-market paperbacks in hand.
Postcards from Vermont by Tucker Nichols (Gallery 16 2006). Part of The Expanding Color System: 1 Artist 1 Concept series of books from this San Francisco gallery. I bought a secondhand copy after reading a book that had some handlettering and artwork by some guy named Tucker Nichols in it, which I loved, and I wanted to see what else he was up to. Reproductions of postcards sent to the gallery from an old farmhouse in Vermont. Using whatever materials were on hand - duct tape, cardboard, index cards, flotsam - Nichols wrote or drew on them and mailed them off. Strangely minimal, almost nothing to them. And yet.
Inside the Painter's Studio by Joe Fig (Princeton Architectural Press 2009). I've already read this three times and here I am reading it again. Addictive. Fig's art is fascinating and so is this book. If you care about the weird minutiae of how painters get their work done, that is. I'm so excited that there will be a companion volume published in 2014.
This list is getting long. See why the pile was teetering? Something had to be done! Only a few more:
The English Gentleman by Douglas Sutherland (Debrett's Peerage Ltd 1978). A good companion piece to the famous-and-infamous Noblesse Oblige by Nancy Mitford. Except, the author tells us in his foreword, "This book, I hope, is different in that it is the first one to be written by a man, almost exclusively for men. It examines what makes or breaks the gentleman and leaves it to the reader to decide whether he wishes to be part of the upper classes or not. It is also hoped that this volume will be helpful to ladies who wish to be able to recognize the gentleman when they meet one, and to let them know what they are in for should they be reckless enough to marry one." Short and overly droll. In dubious taste but hanging around nonetheless.
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt by Nick Hornby (Believer Books 2006). More of Hornby's terrific essays about books and reading, from the Believer magazine. I read his collection More Baths Less Talking (Believer Books 2012) a few weeks ago and immediately wanted to re-read all the earlier books in the series. Reading and then re-reading books about reading. That's what it's come to, around here.
That's it. I'm going to put these back in the book room and start anew, excepting Johnson and Franklin. The only thing left up there right now is one of Will Shortz's New York Times spiral-bound Sunday crossword puzzle collections. That always forms the base of the pile. Words, in a non-narrative format - so soothing. Sometimes I simply don't want to read anything, but I still would like a bit of quiet time, with words involved somehow.
I've also been browsing in Mark Bittman's massive How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (Wiley 2007), but it's so big that if I'd taken it upstairs to begin with it certainly would have finished off the stack, and with all the rest, perhaps even the table. It's not a big table.
Friday, February 22, 2013
too much information?
I am awaiting the arrival of the fridge repair man, for the second Friday morning in a row (this time, I am confident, he will prevail over the resident deep freeze gremlins), and thus find myself with a bit of time on my hands. So here is another post close on the heels of the previous one. On my mind: the writer of a blog I read from time to time recently posited that blogs which are not ironic or tongue-in-cheek are embarrassing to read. I paraphrase here, but in essence the writer couldn't believe that someone would take him- or herself seriously enough to write a blog as if he or she were simply writing about real life to a friend. Why would anyone do such a thing? The writer went on to say that people who did write blogs, in this manner or otherwise, were essentially egotists with ulterior motives, presenting tidied-up versions of themselves, and that such writing is ego-driven and hence inherently suspect (since solely-ego-driven action always has a purpose, usually nefarious).
I have to wonder how many books this blog writer has read. Because long before the advent of the blog, there were these things called books - you know, narratives written by real people, edited to make particular statements about life, both truthful and imagined. Full of information on all subjects under the sun. And certainly many authors are egotists, but goodness me, how does anything ever get accomplished in life, by anyone, other than by a real person taming that egotistical voice, even putting it to work, and getting on with the project at hand, whatever that might be?
But those are books, and this is about blogs, and having an online presence. And what to write about, what to tell. In other words, how much information is too much information, in a mere blog? I write about a lot of stuff here, and yesterday's weepy post about overcoming my painting malaise was, for me, balanced right on the cusp of too much. Should I have just told it to my diary instead? (I did, as a matter of fact, but in much greater detail, I really really like to keep diaries). Well, I decided to write some of it here too, because I like to write letters to friends, about reading, painting, the weather, real life, whatever's happening. And as you know, I realllly like to talk about great books.
But to return to the nameless blog alluded to in the first paragraph, now that I have strayed so far from it: it is itself ironic and tongue-in-cheek, and is written under a pseudonym. So I'm taking it with a grain of salt. But still. I'd say most of the blogs I read regularly deal with the minutiae of real people's actual lives, and that's exactly why I like them so much. What say you, if anyone isn't too embarrassed to read this and then leave me a comment on the topic? Which do you prefer, in entertainment, literature, blog-writing, or otherwise - real life or the made-up persona? One might say, memoir or fiction (or fiction posing as memoir...)? An ironic blog or a sincere one? A carefully-edited slice of life or too much information? Having read the Diary of Samuel Pepys, and Montaigne's Essays, and Byron's Letters and Journals, ad infinitum, it should be evident which side of the coin toss I prefer. Although in all honesty, I can sometimes say both!
Where oh where is that fridge guy. I have a painting to finish today.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
art and soul
A busy week around here. Last weekend I read a few books that helped me overcome a recent painting malaise. They were so good that I felt buoyed up, and that rising tide lifted me right into the studio and left me standing high and dry at the easel. There I was, so I worked for three days on a painting I've seen in my mind's eye for the past five years, but was fearful about attempting. I have many such paintings stored away in memory, and thank god they wait around for me for so long. I get busy painting other things, both in the studio and outside, and I also get involved with the world and its obligations, and I think I will get to it (whatever that is, waiting so patiently to be made) during some future quiet moment. Well, I don't know of any better quiet moments to be found than those that occur on a daily basis in mid-February in rural Maine. The upshot of this is, that I finished the painting yesterday. It isn't what I intended, of course - what I see in my head is so much better, always, than what I am able to do - but you know, it still is something. It has form and life and energy and shows that I paid close attention to a particular moment in time, and it retains something of that moment, which meant a lot to me when it happened, and continues to resonate today. So I'm having a quiet celebration, this morning. (And already thinking about the next painting - being creative often feels relentless.)
Among the books that helped me over the impasse were two which I'm glad to have read back-to-back. The first is the memoir Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco 2010) about her life in art and music and her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. What a book. It has everything - sex, drugs, and rock and roll not least among them - even wonderful glimpses into all the New York bookshops she clerked at as a young and literally starving artist - but at the heart of the book, and the reason for its being, is the story of her own development as an artist alongside that of her soul mate (what a term, I know, but read this book and then tell me another that could better describe the two of them and their closeness throughout their journey together). She deserved to win the National Book Award for it, and lo she did.
I copied some of her writing into my journal. This first (p.65):
"In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one's work caged in art's great zoos - the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?
I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination."
Later, quoting Mapplethorpe, she gives us what she calls "his manifesto as an artist" (p.75):
"'I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.'"
So beautiful. What got me standing at my easel again was this (p.170):
"I was both scattered and stymied, surrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems. I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations. And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple. When you hit a wall, just kick it in."
And this (p.256):
"It's the artist's responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation."
The second book I read was Art and Soul: Notes on Creating by painter Audrey Flack (Penguin 1986). I read this a few years ago but after all the Emily Carr books last month, and then Patti Smith, and also seeing a wonderful exhibit by a painter who happens to be female (and a hero of mine - Lois Dodd), I wanted to read more books written by women about their experiences with their art, in whatever form it takes. They help me set aside the fear I have in my heart, what I sometimes call the why-bothers, and just get back to work already. Flack's book is a series of short titled vignettes - each about an event, opinion, thought, conversation, artist - organized loosely by topic. They are wonderful and in their totality reveal much about her inner life. She has thoughts similar to Smith's, about what art is and where it comes from (p.10):
"The act of painting is a spiritual covenant between the maker and the higher powers. The intent of the artist flows through the work of art, no matter what the technique or style."
She speaks elsewhere of being moved to tears by great art (p.76):
"...then it happened, the pulse-pounding experience that occurs when one comes into contact with a masterpiece of superhuman energy, a transcendent work of art....Tears flowed from my eyes....Time stood still; art once again cut through unreality and presented bare energy, truth, and joy."
Certain songs or pieces of music bring us to tears. Of course I have cried over many books throughout my life, and I hope to be so moved for years to come. And a few times I have stood before certain paintings in museums and felt that overwhelming welling-up of emotion. In response to what? What Flack calls the "bare energy" of them. What the artist was able to see and communicate. That "illumination" that Smith hints is the reason for art in the first place. Her book has it - the truth - in spades. I finished reading it late at night, with tears in my eyes.
Friday, February 15, 2013
Valentine's Day, what a lot of pressure. I received a few valentines, after mailing only one, and now feel guilty about not sending more. So here we go: I forthwith send out love beams to everyone, and not just for one day. Hey, you there, you know who you are - I love you. And you and you and you, too. I used to think, long ago, practically during the dark ages, that love was a finite substance and we only had so much to share or give. Thankfully I abandoned that stingy line of thinking and now believe it is infinite. Really, infinite. Wildly more than enough for everyone, everywhere, throughout all time. Mwwwah, sweethearts.
Ryan and I are approaching 21 years together (the dark ages were before I knew him) and we didn't make a fuss yesterday, just curled up with Hodge in the evening and watched a favorite romantic movie - the BBC version of Persuasion from 1995, with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds in the lead roles. Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel (and is in the running for my favorite novel), and this is my favorite screen adaptation of her work. Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility runs a close second, but I find the actors all just a little too unbelievably beautiful, which is not the case in Persuasion (in fact I see from the Wikipedia entry about the film that the actors did not wear makeup, and in directing the film, Roger Michell "tried to make it something which is absolutely about real people and not about dressing or hairstyles or carpet."). The characters are so well-drawn, both on the page and in the screen adaptation, that when the happy ending finally arrives, as we hope it will, we silently cheer that the lovers are able to literally sail away from their circle of distressing relatives and rigid social obligations and take to the high seas with the Royal Navy.
Which sounds like a most attractive prospect this morning, since I am writing this while awaiting the arrival of Tim, the Sears refrigerator repairman (fridge less than a year old, first major appliance we've ever had to purchase, thankfully still under warranty with a mere two weeks to spare). Surely this is the absolute antithesis of romance. Perhaps I should return to the Royal Navy posthaste and begin reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series once again. Is four times enough? Several years have elapsed since I last read it, so I will have forgotten great swaths of both plot and prose. I read Persuasion for the umpteenth time again last summer, so that remains closer in memory. Gosh, is there a more perfect book? In it, Jane Austen's exquisitely controlled wrath at her situation in life and the social scene she observed around her echoes like far-off cannon fire. The novel reads like a love letter and one cannot help but wonder if it is autobiographical. It must be, minus the happy ending. Although who's to say, if she'd had the happy ending in real life, would her novels have remained unwritten? Should our hearts break for her, or should we rejoice in her masterpieces? Both? Idle speculation of a pleasant kind.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Living with seasons is thrilling. Sometimes too thrilling. The snowstorm this weekend was, in a word, wild. Yesterday was split between sitting inside and watching the snow fly by sideways, and curling up with a book, I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron (Vintage 2010). Loved it. Her droll, snappy essays provided such a perfect lift when the sky was falling. And fall it did. Although huge winds throughout the storm left us with some spots scoured completely bare, we now have five-foot drifts elsewhere. The end of our driveway this morning looked like this (I love how the neighbors' house across the street is peeking over the mountain of snow between us and them):
Ryan worked on it for a while and made some progress. Luckily the snow is very dry and light, so it isn't hard to move, it's just time-consuming because there is so freaking much of it. The neighbors' yard is bare, but their front porch in the lee of the wind is buried in a huge drift.
Meanwhile, in the back yard, I dug out the woodpile and the shed. The snow is all the way up to the green tarps on top of the woodpile. And the metal buckets we put the woodstove ashes in are buried.
Holy crackers. I mean, I've lived in Maine my whole life, but this is a crazy amount of snow all at once.
It was maybe fifteen degrees out, but I had two coats on, two pairs of gloves, a scarf, sweater, flannel shirt, boot socks, boy jeans, Bean boots, etc - and I was warm as toast. Layering is the only way to go, this time of year; it's not a fashion statement, it's a necessity. Speaking of necessities, look behind me - more bare ground where the wind swept all the snow over the field and off down the hill. A huge flock of wild turkeys floundered out of the deep snow in the woods and then spent the afternoon in that bare patch, scratching the ground and eating whatever they could find. We watched them from inside. Hodge was enthralled, as were we. Some of them even walked in single file up the path I'd dug, past the woodpile to the sandy driveway, to scratch around there (like chickens, they need grit in their diet). Glad to help - we're all in this together!
Friday, February 08, 2013
Two feet of snow in the forecast for this evening and here I am snugged in at home reading self-help books and wondering what all the "real" booksellers and "real" painters and "real" writers are doing today. Selling expensive rare books and painting subtle masterpieces and writing their brilliant memoirs, I bet, which is what I am not doing much of at the moment. Every year I encounter some fallow time, a stretch of weeks when nothing seems to be germinating. I can't predict when it will occur, but it always comes around at some point and I have to remember to be kind to myself and not worry that any gifts I happen to have on loan from fate might be gone forever. They always come around again. (At least they have thus far. Ahem.) And so, since I can't seem to do otherwise, I quietly prepare for their return. I read, and write in my journal, and regard my unfinished projects with calm equilibrium. I stretch and gesso canvases, and visit museums and bookshops and art supply stores. One of the self-help books calls this filling the well and it's a good metaphor. In the studio, I archived last year's work and see that I completed a hundred oil paintings in 2012, not bad at all. On the book front, I went to another little library sale last weekend and only came away with half a carton of books, but at least that was something, even if they do seem like awfully small seed potatoes. My micro book business did make money last year, as I am discovering from the papers we are gathering as we prepare to file our taxes. The news is good and all is well, more or less as usual. So why am I reading self-help books? Is it a February thing? Or, come to think of it, are all books self-help books? Yes, I believe, among other things they are our own prescriptions for our true selves. Our own seed packets, sown in fallow fields, to bloom when the sun returns. Meanwhile, the snow is already flying in swirls here, the teakettle is singing, and the books on the bedside table beckon. May everyone weather their winter storms safely.