September 2009 Archives

TimBar.JPGI was absolutely delighted to learn last week that Timothy Barrett, one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of paper and papermaking, has received one of twenty-four “genius” grants awarded this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, an honor that carries with it a $500,000 no-strings-attached stipend to use as the recipient sees fit, which in this instance, you can be certain, will go toward extending what is already a remarkable body of work.

Tim’s day job is research scientist and adjunct professor at the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa, but his skills are manifold. He is a teacher, to be sure, but he is also a scholar, a historian, and a true craftsman, and his eagerness to share his knowledge is an inspiration. His 1983 book, Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, and Techniques, draws on research conducted in the field in the 1970s, and remains a classic in its field. I have had the great good pleasure to interview Tim several times for my work-in-progress, a cultural history of paper to be published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf; he was the person, in fact, who sparked my interest in the topic in the first place during a speaking visit I made in 2002 to Iowa City. After spending a couple of days in his company, and hearing so much of what he had to say about this endlessly fascinating subject, I finally said, out loud, “you know, there just may be a book in all of this for me.”

Two years ago, I took a course in the history of paper taught jointly at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville by Tim and John Bidwell, curator and head of the Department of Printed Books and Bindings at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. (You can be sure there will be profiles of both in my book.)  Last year, Tim put me in touch with Paul Denhoed, a colleague of his living and working in Japan, who coordinated a trip I made there to meet with a variety of interesting people, including Richard Flavin, an American expatriate, papermaker, and artist who has lived in Japan for more than thirty years, and Ichibei Iwano, a ninth-generation papermaker based in Echizen northwest of Tokyo, and recognized by his country as a Living National Treasure. I mention the latter in particular because Tim, in his way, enjoys a similar stature here in the United States.
A little bit of something for everyone with this quartet--solid nonfiction, a scholarly biography, a charming novel, a new selection of poetry from the work of a grand master. Fall, indeed, is here, and the new releases not only are plentiful, but remarkably rich, surprisingly so, given all this noise we’ve been hearing lately about good books being in decline, and publishers cutting back on their lists. Can’t prove it by me.

TracKid.JPGStrength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, by Tracy Kidder; Random House, New York, 277 pages, $26.

Tracy Kidder has to be ranked among the best writers of literary nonfiction out there, one of the few authors who you can pretty much say, time after time, is not going to disappoint you with his latest effort. No surprise, then, to report that this, his eighth book, may well be his best--which is saying quite a bit, when you consider that his earlier efforts have included The Soul of New Machine, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Home Town, and Old Friends, and that his honors include the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Robert F. Kennedy Award. The story can be summarized briefly--a young man comes to New York from Burundi in 1994 with $200 in his pocket, a survivor of the horrific civil wars that have decimated his country, no English-speaking skills at all, but filled with hope and grit. Two years later, he enrolls in Columbia University without so much as a green card to his name, his story not only one of survival and hope, but one of tenacity, decency and good will that will lead him on to medical school and a life filled with purpose. It’s a great tale, of course, and Kidder is one terrific reporter.

JoanArcJp.jpgThe Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc, by Larissa Juliet Taylor; New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 251 pages, $30.

As historical figures go, I can think of no other individual who has achieved the kind of iconic stature accorded in death to Joan of Arc (1412-1431), the peasant girl from Domremy variously cast as saint, sorcerer, soldier, lunatic, witch, gifted leader, and martyr in the seven centuries that have elapsed since her execution by the English, and her subsequent passage into sainthood. Larissa Juliet Taylor, a history professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has written a splendid  biography of the young woman that takes a fresh look at the original sources--which survive in abundance--and presents a full, rich examination of the person and the many myths that grew around her. Just as interesting is the informed look Taylor offers into medieval life.

NickBaker.JPGThe Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker; New York, Simon & Schuster, 243 pages, $25.

I was planning on taking this one along with me on a flight I’m making tomorrow out to Columbus, Ohio--I’m speaking at a meeting of the Ohio Preservation Council on Thursday, and will file a report here in due course--but wound up getting absorbed in it beforehand, and read it straight through. So it goes. What impresses me most about Nicholson Baker, I think, is the easy facility he has for going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, sort of the way David Halberstam used to do one big work of cultural history, then treat himself to a change of pace with a book about sports. I don’t know which form is more relaxing for Baker, though I would suspect it is the novel. His latest here is a fun book, especially for those among us who are fascinated by the creative process. Baker’s narrator is a middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder who is trying like the dickens to write an introduction to a new anthology of poetry--rhyming poetry, no less--and finds himself blocked. The ruminations are witty, as always, a delight to read, and the celebration it offers of poetry most welcome. The voice is spot on here, vintage Baker.

WallaceStev.jpgWallace Stevens: Selected Poems, a new selection edited by John N. Serio. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 326 pages, $30.

With this volume we go from a novel that considers the creation of poetry to an actual poet who not only excelled at the craft, but tried his level best to explain it to others. “No other poet I  know of has written so elegantly and so persuasively about the beauty and significance of poetry in everyday life,” writes John N. Serio, a noted scholar of the great American poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). “The imagination--frequently synonymous with the act of the mind, or poetry, for Stevens--is what gives life its savor, its sanction, its sacred quality.” This generous selection of the Reading, Pennsylvania, native’s work--published to mark the 130th anniversary of his birth--will delight those familiar with his work, and encourage newcomers to thirst for more. Kudos to the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for its commitment to publishing great poetry in beautiful, superbly edited editions.

I really did not want you to have to start the weekend this way, but I just can’t believe this.

I have no words.

Neither, apparently, will this school library when they’re finished with it.

It will have a $50,000 coffee shop and a $12,000 espresso machine. You’ve heard stories like this one before: it’s not a high school library where one is expected to browse, to read, and to learn; it’s just another groovy place for a frappuccino, and an expensive frappuccino at that.

As a former teacher, I have no words (except expletives) for any educator who says things like, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”

Mind you, it’s not the first time I’ve heard such a sentiment expressed, and it’s true that there are many who have accepted the hypothesis that electronic information is superior to printed books, and who believe that if this is so, then books should be discarded. That said, I’d like to point out that one important difference between the replacement of papyrus with print and the replacement of books with electronic information might be that society didn’t deliberately discard and destroy scrolls when books came along.

See you in the stacks -- the ones that remain, anyway.
You talk about adults who should know better making block-headed decisions. There is a piece in today’s Boston Globe by reporter David Abel bearing the startling news that a prep school here in Massachusetts, Cushing Academy in Ashburnham--to all intents and purposes right in my own backyard--has announced that it is going bookless, and not wasting any time, either. That’s right, this private institution that has purportedly been preparing young people for the demands, challenges, and rigors of college and beyond has determined that printed books not only are irrelevant to what they claim to be doing to help shape minds and characters, but totally disposable as well.

Lock, stock, and barrel, and without so much as engaging the opinions of the faculty and staff, some  20,000 books--a pretty skimpy collection to begin with, I must say, for a place of learning that has been around since 1865, which leads me to believe they’re been thinning out materials for quite some time as it is--is being tossed. Not to the landfill, mind you, that would be too overtly contemptuous, but out the door all the same, the shelves to be replaced with--get this--a “learning center” equipped with three flat-screen televisions and a cluster of “lap-top friendly study carrels.”  The really big news is the $50,000 coffee shop that is going in, complete with a $12,000 cappuccino machine. Talk about providing nourishment for the mind.

“When I look at books, I seen an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,” headmaster James Tracy told the Globe. “This isn’t Fahrenheit 451. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.”

You have to ask, of course, who the “we” is here. The school’s librarian, Liz Vezina, was understandably cautions in her comments, but the thrust of what she had to say is clear enough.”It makes me sad. I’m going to miss them. I’ve grown up with them, and there’s something lost when they’re virtual. There’s a sensual side to them--the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.” Alexander Coyle, chairman of the history department, spoke for a number of his colleagues with these words: “A lot of us are wondering how this changes the dignity of the library, and why we can’t move to increase digital resources while keeping the books.”

I’m just taking a wild guess here, but I would lay very good odds that Ms. Vezina and Mr. Coyle are voices that were summarily dismissed by Tracy and his administrative colleagues.when they agreed to dissolve the library. But hey, not to fret: Tracy said the school is springing $10,000 on some Amazon Kindles to have available, should any of the youngsters have a yen to read a Shakespeare play, let’s say, or a Toni Morrison novel.

For what’ it’s worth, foolishness like this has been attempted before, and it’s failed miserably. Back in the 1960s, the founders of Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts decided to  go bookless too. Lucky for them they joined what became the Five College Consortium, which allowed the Hampshire undergraduates to borrow what they needed from Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts, something they did--and continue to do--in large numbers. I wrote about this in A Splendor of Letters; by that time, there was a real library--with real books--functioning on campus.

But that, at least, was on the college level. I have to assume that youngsters applying for admission to Hampshire back then had to demonstrate a facility with books. You wonder what some admissions officer at Harvard, UCLA, Emory, or the University of Michigan--just about any accredited college or university out there, really--is going to think about an applicant from a secondary school that does not require its students to read books at all. But I’m sure the administrators at Cushing have given that a lot of thought, too. Make me another cappuccino, please--and stay tuned.
In 1922, Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey was the toast of Paris. He was feted and fawned over, the women obliging, the men in awe.

Champion for three years, he was used to celebrities wanting to put the gloves on and spend a fantasy few minutes sparring with him. A fighter who took all that occurred within the ring with extreme seriousness - it is not a playground1 - he nonetheless indulged many: he allowed silent film star Douglas Fairbanks to throw jabs and rights at him, knowing that Fairbanks’ smaller frame and lesser weight would not put much power behind his punches, if they connected at all. Singer Al Jolson put the gloves on with Dempsey and, being an aggressive fool, made the bad decision to get cute and throw a punch that had some stream in it. After he woke up, he was forever afterward proud of the scar on his chin, bearing it as a badge of honor; Dempsey had reflexively countered but, being a gentleman, was horrified and apologetic.

There were more than a few in Paris that year who stepped into the four corners with the Champ for a light dance around the squared circle. They were no threat.

There was one person in Paris that year whose desire to get in the ring with Dempsey would not be indulged. Ernest Hemingway was a threat. Not to Dempsey but to himself.

As Roger Kahn, in his biography of the champion, A Flame of Pure Fire, reported Dempsey’s side of the story: “‘There were a lot of Americans in Paris and I sparred with a couple, just to be obliging,’ Dempsey said. ‘But there was one fellow I wouldn’t mix it with. That was Ernest Hemingway. He was about twenty-five or so and in good shape, and I was getting so I could read people, or anyway men, pretty well. I had this sense that Hemingway, who really thought he could box, would come out of the corner like a madman. To stop him, I would have to hurt him badly, I didn’t want to do that to Hemingway. That’s why I never sparred with him.’”

Hemingway had delusions of competence. He often boasted to interviewers that he was “a good semi-professional boxer.” He was nowhere near so.

In 1948, Hemingway, then forty-nine, challenged Brooklyn Dodger relief pitcher Hugh Casey, a guest at Hemingway’s Havana retreat, to get in the ring with him. In his living room. Casey, without any boxing experience whatsoever, dropped Hemingway, who crashed into a glass-topped table on his way to horizontal.

On another occasion, related by George Plimpton in his story, Ring Around the Writers, Hemingway insisted that his friend, former Heavyweight Champion, Gene Tunney, get in the ring with him. Hemingway presumed too much but was saved by Tunney’s sportsmanship and control: Countering a Hemingway punch thrown with a little too much seriousness given the situation, Tunney ripped a straight right but pulled it just an angstrom unit away from Hemingway’s face, the clear message being, “you were that close to having your head handed to you and it is only because I am merciful that you are not currently residing on Dream Street.”

“In those days,” novelist Morley Callaghan recalled in That Summer in Paris, his memoir of a season in 1920s France and his friendship with Hemingway, “He liked telling a man how to do things.” The kid’s in his mid-twenties and he’s telling other man-children how to do things. Hemingway loved boxing, hung around gyms, and tried to box with someone, anyone at every opportunity. But the reality, according to Callaghan, who had done some boxing himself, was that, “we were two amateur boxers. The difference between us was that he had given time and imagination to boxing; I had actually worked out a lot with good fast college boxers.” In other words, Hemingway was lost in the romance of a sport that has no romance to those seriously pursuing it; the romance strictly belongs to spectators.

“My writing is nothing,” he once averred to writer Josephine Herbst in all sincerity, “my boxing is everything.” Good thing he didn’t quit his day job.

Callaghan and Hemingway boxed together quite a bit that summer. Callaghan may have been being generous when he called Hemingway an amateur. He remembers that his wife would complain that he always came home with bruised shoulders after sparring with Hemingway. Callaghan would laugh in response, explaining that the shoulder welts and bruises meant that Ernest had always missed his jaw, nose, or mouth. Against someone who had any sense of what they were doing, Hemingway, apparently, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn or fight his way out of a wet paper bag.

Once, the two sparred, and, as Callaghan recalled, “he did something that astonished me.” Continually being tagged by Callaghan’s left jab and unable to counter or beat him to the punch with his right, Hemingway was taking a slow, steady shellacking, his mouth bleeding, his lips split open. “It must have been exasperating for him.” Particularly as Callaghan was five inches shorter and lighter than Ernie The Oak Park Pretender Hemingway.

“Courage is grace under pressure,” Hemingway famously declared. Under intense pressure to keep his oversized ego from circling the drain and self-image flushing down the toilet, Hemingway then “loudly sucked in all the blood. He waited, watching me, and took another punch on the mouth. Then...he stiffened. Suddenly he spat at me; he spat a mouthful of blood; he spat in my face.”

“That’s what bullfighters do when they’re injured. It’s a way of showing contempt,” Hemingway offered as lame excuse for this cross-culturally acknowledged insult, an affront so profound it is an invitation to violent response. So much for sportsmanship.

I, admittedly, know little about bullfighting but my guess is that when a bull is frantically twirling a toreador on one of his horns like a plate-spinning Vaudeville act, the only reason blood is running out of the bullfighter’s mouth is because he’s been gored in the abdomen, and the only contempt he may be feeling is for himself, for his stupidity while he, panicked and afraid, ruefully contemplates death.

Suffice it to say, had Hemingway gotten into the ring with Dempsey and pulled that nonsense, Papa would have wound up a paragraph in Le Monde’s obit section, his novels never written. Too bad it didn’t happen. The Western world’s men would have been spared a lot of grief by the twentieth century’s greatest master of macho baloney. “A little less machismo, a little more pianissimo,” as Book Patrol library correspondent, Nancy Mattoon, dryly notes of Hemingway.

Later, Hemingway and Callaghan sparred again. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in awe of Ernest, was present as timekeeper, a chore he knew nothing about. Hemingway was, yet again, on the receiving end of Callaghan’s left jab, bleeding, and not looking like the god that Fitzgerald (and Hemingway) imagined him to be. During the one-minute break, Hemingway noticed that Fitzgerald was stricken. When F. Scott rang the bell for the next round, Hemingway came out like a bull, throwing wild, wide punches. Then “Ernest, wiping the blood from his mouth with his glove, and probably made careless with exasperation and embarrassment from having Scott there, came leaping at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch...I caught him on the jaw; spinning around he went down, sprawled out on his back,” Callaghan reported.

Fitzgerald was aghast; he’d mistakenly let the round go an extra minute. He admitted this to Hemingway, who promptly laid into him, unmercifully accusing Fitzgerald of deliberately allowing the round to go overtime so that that he could “see me getting the shit knocked out of me.” Grace under pressure...

Hemingway’s embarrassment and resentment would negatively affect his friendships with Callaghan and Fitzgerald. There is a name for someone who behaves so atrociously after honest defeat: sore loser.

Hemingway also fancied himself an amateur bullfighter. As there is no record of his blood being spilled, it is reasonable to conclude that the bulls he was fighting were not wearing boxing gloves.

It may be that as he aged and all the psychic armor he’d been donning piece by piece in youth like multi-layered underwear against the cold began to fall off in tatters, he was left naked and shivering. His body was breaking down, his robustness bust. He was no longer the a man he wished to be. So he knocked himself beyond next week into the next life. So much for grace under pressure, the only real grace being if feces don’t run down your pants leg during extreme duress, cool equipoise occurring only in novels, particularly those of you know who.

Hemingway was, by all accounts of those who truly knew him, a soft, sensitive and sentimental young man. He went to enormous lengths bordering on travesty to mask it. “It was amusing to remember the Hemingway who had first come to Montparnasse,” Callaghan wrote. “Ask anybody. Why had he been wearing those three heavy sweaters to make himself look husky and powerful? A ridiculous giveaway.” He was a victim of his own warped sense of virility, an insecure artist’s sense that what he is doing is perhaps feminine in nature, God help him, and rather than balance it, go overboard and, in the end, drown. Writer and publisher Robert McAlmon claimed that a “scandalous incident” transpired between him and Hemingway early in the future Nobelist’s career. McAlmon was a homosexual. Whether true or not, the mere rumor must have driven Hemingway to throw on a few more sweaters no matter how uncomfortable the fit.

Let us now officially deep-six the Hemingway fantasy of people growing “strong in the broken places.” That nonsense is strictly for bones. In the real world, the psychic wounds we bear remain weak at the break, they never heal, they never scar. They remain as hard scabs that when scratched or rubbed will bleed again, the blood-run slow or fast depending upon the how forceful the scratch or rough the rub. Or how we pick at it, ourselves. Time may heal all wounds but for most of us there isn’t enough of it. Hemingway was a deeply wounded man. No crime in that. The felony is in the fallacy of his writing.

Earnest Hemingway was an innovative stylist but not an honest writer. Rather than examine the uncomfortable realities of manhood and masculinity in his work, he evaded them, avoiding the inner exploration that would have been necessary to discover truth. In its stead he created a romanticized, wishful thinking vision of virility that plagued his and successive generations of men with an impossible standard that even he could not bear.

My Grandfather, a huge man in an era when few were that size and quite handy, once dropped heavyweight contender, Harry Krakow aka Kingfish Levinsky, with a single punch that laid him out cold on the street for wolf-whistling and cat-calling my grandmother. Poppy could have taken out Papa in a blink; he was the toughest man I’ve ever known and I’ve known more than my share. I did some amateur boxing when I was young, dumb and made of rubber. Compared to my grandfather, I’m a cream puff. But even I could have put Hemingway on the horizontal express.

If John Donne were alive today, I suspect he’d have the last word. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,2 Ernest, it tolls for thee... ... eight...nine... ten. OUT! “


1. As Thomas Hauser, the best writer on boxing of our and, perhaps, any generation has noted with devastating acuity: “People play baseball, they play football, tennis, basketball, hockey, they play a lot of sports. Nobody plays boxing.”

2. Meditations 17.
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