April 29, 2011:
This just in: THE QUOTABLE THOREAU, ed. by Jefferey S. Cramer, Princeton University Press, $19.95. Princeton is in the midst of producing one of those scholarly editions of Thoreau's works that take forever and cost a fortune, but here you can get him in small doses. It's the lazy man's Thoreau, don't have to go to the trouble of reading all of Walden or Cape Cod or, for that matter, the Notebooks, which run to about fifteen volumes in the old reprint I have downstairs. I've read the aforementioned Walden and Cape Cod and have dabbled in the Notebooks, but here all the dabbling has been done and we have all the gnomic utterances we could possibly want from the man. He and Emerson together are maybe the most quotable Americans who ever wrote, always throwing off aphorisms. Everybody knows this one, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." But do you remember this one? "The unwritten laws are the most stringent."
Stuff like this comes from being very quiet, and very observant. If you do look into the notebooks you can see him doing this; a good part of them, especially later in his life, are close observations of the natural world. He records what date the lilies of the valley bloom, where the oriole nests, when the salamanders appear in the ponds in the spring. And he does this every year; he's making a kind of almanac of nature. It's not exactly scintillating, but it is impressive. Such persistence! And then you'll run into one of his apercus [great word], and it shines like a jewel. "All genuine goodness is original and as free from cant and tradition as the air." And, a bit of a favorite, "My happiness is a good deal like that of the woodchucks."
It's nice to see a person doing his own thinking, not reading David Brooks or Paul Krugman, not watching either Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow, but seeing, in his own way. You get it in Civil Disobedience in a major work, one of the essential American essays. Here you get it in countless little remarks. I know, Dr. Johnson, who was all remarks, said that "remarks are not literature." OK, this is not literature. You're never going to read it all the way through. But when you're in the garden, and it's quiet and warm, and you have a little time to yourself, this would make a fine companion. It's a handsome little book, not too pricey, easy to hold in your hand. I'm going to keep it.
Book the second: Jim Shepard, YOU THINK THAT'S BAD, Knopf, $24.95. I have an odd connection with Jim Shepard. Earlier this year a book came in that was a collection of small pieces about writers and their relationship with other people's books (don't remember the name) and his piece was the first one in, so I read it, and he talked about finding a copy many years ago of a book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, at a bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson. I knew that bookstore well; it's where, even earlier, I had sold my copy of that very same book. I tracked him down and wrote him an email suggesting that he had bought my copy, and I was glad it was in good hands, and that I had sold my copy, along with a copy of Pynchon's V, in order to pay my rent. He responded and said, in effect, well, how about that.
Anyway, Shepard writes short stories, and I like them. He's got an unusual mind, and there's one in this collection I found especially appealing. It's called "The Track of the Assassins" and it's told in the voice of Freya Stark, the great English explorer who spoke Arabic fluently,threw herself into the Middle East, traveled the deserts to all manner of archaeological sites, and wrote any number of books about her experiences. Good books, classics of their kind. But this story is not really about the experiences, it's about her relationships with her family and her much more beautiful sister and the betrayals, large and small, that they practiced on each other, the kinds of betrayals that occur between people who love each other. And this is a hard thing to do, to get that deep inside somebody else's mind, where that somebody else is a real person, a person who belongs to history. Novelists do this from time to time, write historical persons into their books, but I seldom find it convincing and in general I think it's more realistic, if you will, to make your characters up. But Shepard gets away with it. In his hands it seems perfectly natural. That's good writing.
But I'd like my copy of Pynchon back.