Monday, October 23, 2017

The Rectification of Names

                        The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things
                        by their right names.

                                                                                     Edward O. Wilson

The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry

“In the daily assault of mendacious or empty language,” writes Eliot Weinberger in his introduction to this collection, “Chinese poetry promoted the Confucian ‘rectification of names’—that words should mean what they say, that it is the poet’s task to restore meaning, that the poet, like the enlightened ruler, was a person who stood by his word.” Writes James J.Y. Liu, in his primer, The Art of Chinese Poetry, “To the question of what poetry is, most orthodox Confucians would reply: it is primarily a kind of moral instruction. And since government by moral influence is a Confucian political ideal, the function of poetry also includes a comment on social and political affairs.” Indeed both of these disciplines—statecraft and poetry—are dependent on, if not defined by, the very words they use (or misuse), that is by their particular relationship to language.

Confucianism, often referred to as a ‘civil religion’, made a faith, a philosophy, of everyday life. Founded on humaneness, on the essential tension between tradition and innovation, the poetry it inspired is characterized by an often startlingly wide range of human emotions and experiences: “war and weather, loneliness and politics, drunkenness and minor aches and pains, friendship, gardening, bird-watch, failure, river journeys, religious and sexual ecstasy, ageing, poverty and riches, courtesans and generals, princes and children, street vendors and monks…”, on what Ezra Pound, devotee and innovative translator of some of the poems in this collection, called ‘radiant gists’, ideograms in verse, with which he experimented at length in his own Cantos. Indeed this anthology is nearly as much about the Western fascination with classical Chinese poetry and its ‘rectification of names’ as it is about classical Chinese poetry itself.  

What is important to understand about this essential Confucian concept and charge is that it had less to do with the reactionary policing of the language they used, with enforcing adherence to a collection of fixed, officially sanctioned words and phrases, than with simply (simply!) leading and writing by example, that is, with integrity of purpose and meaning. It meant, for these Confucians, striving daily to establish and maintain a working cultural and cognitive consensus when it came to the language they used, so that it served them both broadly and well, so that it served the greatest good. A ‘sentimental archaism’? I think not. One has only to listen for a minute to our current Commander-in-Chief, to read a few of his infamous Tweets, to know that—as George Orwell put it in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language"—our language is in a bad way. 
Orwell's essay is worth considering (or reconsidering) in the light of today. While initially one might be tempted to read it as  somewhat preachy, pedantic—a schoolmaster’s scolding for adults, it is nothing of the kind. Orwell had little interest in such things, engaged instead, all his writing life, in a way that is nearly Confucian, in a fierce and protracted war against the intellectual and moral sloth that helped to give rise to the violent 20th century orthodoxies of nationalism, fascism, and communism—righteous, bombastic, expressly antidemocratic movements that resulted in the murder, destitution, and general dehumanization of tens of millions of people around the world in less than a half a century.  

One doesn’t have to look hard to see the relationship between the bastardization of our language—as we see it practiced by the current administration—and the material and moral anguish of the nation as a whole. Language matters; it always has and always will. Perhaps no one knew this better than the poets in this fine collection.

Here, by the poet Lu Chi, is the poem, “She Thinks of Her Beloved”:

It is going to rain.
The fresh
Breeze rustles the leaves of the
Cinnamon tree. It scatters
The begonias on the earth.
The falling petals cannot
Be numbered. Scarlet leaves fly
In the wind. The wind raises
Whirls of dust. All the world trembles.
It blows over the gauze screen,
Chills my flesh
And disarranges
My hair. Desolate and alone
I dream of my beloved
At the edge of Heaven, far
Across towering mountain
Ranges and roaring rivers.
I watch the birds wheel in the
Starry sky. I wish they could carry a letter. But he
Is too far away, they would
Never find the way. Rivers
Flow to the sea. Nothing can
Make the current return to
Its source. Lustrous and perfumed,
The magnolias lose their petals
All through the day and the night
I loosen the agate pegs
Of the lute and put the jade
Flute aback in its case. In the
Silence and solitude, the sound
Of my beating heart frightens me.
The moon breaks through the clouds. I try
To write a poem in the endless night.

                  (Translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

Here, by Tu Fuo, is the poem “Outside the City”

It is bitter cold, and late, and falling
Dew muffles my gaze into bottomless skies.
Smoke trails out over distant salt mines
Where snow-covered peaks cast shadows east.

Armies haunt my homeland still. And war
Drums throb in this distant place. A guest
Overnight in a river city, together with
Shrieking crows, my old friends, I return.

                 (Translated by David Hinton)

Finally  here, perhaps one of the best known of all in the west, is this poem by Li Po:
The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me,
I grow older,
If you are coming down through the narrows of the
           river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
                                As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

                                   (Translated by Ezra Pound)

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Reading Life

 Eyesight and the Reading Life

About a year ago, during a routine eye exam, I learned that I have cataracts--my doctor showed the specks to me in full color; they looked like slender boats moored erratically in some foreign port--and explained why my world was suddenly out of focus. It was evident that something was up with my vision. I had shifted to reading the Times on-line and, try as I might, I could no longer make out the print in my beloved Penguin classics even with reading glasses. How odd the feeling is of losing our body to age, the gradual slipping of the senses a prelude to what will doubtless be more serious losses. While I can still remember specific lines in novels I read decades ago, and still recite sonnets of Milton that I was made to memorize in high school ("How soon hath time the subtle thief of youth"), I have a harder time with my students' names and find myself saying "excuse me?" more often than I'd like to admit. On the other hand, the pleasure I take in reading and in music has only increased with the years, so that now I yearn to revisit the books I loved when I first became a reader. Many people are readers; some are serious readers--many people don't read at all. But other people, perhaps out of shyness or a propensity toward introspection, perhaps out of vanity and neurosis, create a reading life separate from their "real" and public life.  It's a world full of characters who become more vivid and interesting than the people one meets in ordinary life. The universe of words. And each day, as I read of the latest outrages in the Times--the President tossing rolls of paper towels to the desperate citizens of Puerto Rico--the quiet, inner world becomes more attractive, the one where Maxim Rysanov plays Schubert's A minor sonata (D. 821) while Richard Ford describes his parents in Between Them. I suppose it must always come to this: as we age we yearn to recover what we've lost. Perhaps a political space in which decency still had a chance, or those hours of quiet introspection where, with the help of books, we plotted out the course of the life that we increasingly begin to think of in the past tense.

So....with my eyesight getting worse and my yearning for books increasing, I purchased a Kindle. Never did I imagine myself reading books on a small screen, giving up the heft and pleasure of the paperback book, the tactile thrill of heavy bond paper and the aroma of printers ink. How sterile is the electronic book, how homogeneous the volumes that, in paper form, would be distinctive in weight and measure! I felt like a classic pianist might feel having given up his Steinway for an electronic keyboard. I felt like a traitor. But I could see the fonts, make them as large as I wished, back light the pages (letting my wife sleep in peace).

Best of all, I was able, in a few frantic days of shopping, to load up my Paperwhite with sixty books, including dozens of those I had committed myself to rereading: The Education of Henry Adams (certainly among the finest of American books of any kind), all of Shakespeare's plays (free!), the mawkish novels of D.H. Lawrence (far worse than I remembered, but reading Geoffrey Dyer's odd bio of Lawrence made me curious enough to try Women in Love again), Thomas Hardy and Conrad (Nostromo), late Joyce and early Woolf. Proust for a pittance. St. Augustine's Confessions in the Sarah Ruden translation. And new books as well: Anthony Marra's extraordinary A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Pankaj Mishra's essential From the Ruins of Empire, Charles Rosen's Piano Notes, Jan Swafford's biography of Beethoven, a couple of books on the election of 2016, and much more. No matter where I am, there is a book for the occasion, so long as I remember to plug the thing in each night. It's supposed to hold two thousand books. I won't find out, but the notion of fitting all the books I'll read for the rest of my life on one hand-held device has a certain elegiac appeal.


I wanted, in a handful of reports, to recommend a few books, fiction and nonfiction, that have occupied my time of late.  I hope you too, dear reader, can find something of interest in these volumes. I also hope to write short essays on some of my rereading as autumn slips into winter and there's a bit more time to look backwards.


Arlie Russell Hochschild's award-winning Strangers in Their Own Land recounts Hochschild's travels among the Louisiana Tea Party, a book that kept reminding me of Gulliver's Travels, especially Book IV of that unforgettable misanthropic classic. It would be uncharitable to tar the nice, down-home folks Arlie sips coffee with as Yahoos, but, my goodness, what is any reasonably intelligent person to make of his fellow Americans when they sit on top of life-threatening benzene leaks, sinkholes caused by fracking, and inhale toxic air laced with arsenic and then blame not the polluters for the ruination of their sportsman's paradise but the EPA and Barack Obama? Hochschild has been praised for her open-mindedness, but I grew impatient with the author's tolerance of the hateful views of liberals, African-Americans, journalists, government workers, and the poor that tumbled from the mouths of ministers, housewives, oil workers, politicians, and businessmen. The willful refusal to acknowledge any social connection outside a narrow circle of racial, ethnic, and religious identity (and these right-wingers have the nerve to bellyache about liberals' fixation on "identity politics"!) negates any possibility of civil life, of true identity as a nation, or of human empathy. One character reported to Hochschild her anger at being "manipulated" into feeling sorry for starving African children by a reporter on public television--which, the woman explained, was why she watches Fox News and listens to Rush Limbaugh--those cesspits of rancor. I get the whole it's-an-objective-science-thing about sociology, but how Hochschild restrained herself from going insane is beyond me. She must be a wonderful woman, a model of self-restraint--not a liberal among conservatives but a vegetarian among cannibals. I'm pretty sure I was supposed to come away either having understood my fellow Americans who admire the likes of Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump or at least with a heightened tolerance of a point of view that is different from my own. Unfortunately this isn't what happened. We hear a lot about "understanding" the far-right these days, but any such efforts would make about as much sense as abolitionists trying to understand slave owners in the 1850's.


Upon the news of her death, I reread (most of) Kate Millet's Sexual Politics. A few sections of the book seemed dated, but the core of it--the second chapter in particular--felt timely. Millet, writing late in the 1960's, managed to bring a wide range of historical, biological, social, and economic ideas to bear on the question of patriarchy. I remember how Camille Paglia trashed Millet (and Susan Sontag) in her Sexual Personae; I think Paglia, an intellectual exhibitionist at heart, might have used the word "whiny" to describe the founders of the Second Wave. But this slur was unfair when Paglia wrote in 1990 and even more unfair now. We no more live in a post-patriarchal age then in a post-racial age, and Millet has much to teach us still. Immediately after Millet I read Rebecca Solnit's broadside--Men Explain Things to Me. In view of Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, and our absurd President, Solnit was just the thing. The ugliest of our impulses merely disguise themselves as something else--overt racism became the "birther" movement; overt misogyny has become....well, overt misogyny.


Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War is dry but essential reading for anyone who would make sense of what has happened to American worker's wages and life chances in the past fifty years. Gordon is a meticulous scholar, and once you get past the statistics, the details of the story of how American material life changed over the past century and a half are fascinating. What did Americans eat in 1870? What were the comparative advantages of rural life in 1900? What was the progress of electrification and sanitation in urban America in the 1910's? How many pairs of pants did a farmer own? How often did he bathe (not often)? Gordon handles the minutiae of ordinary life with the verve of Jacques Le Goff, my favorite of the annalists school of historians. Gordon's is a big book, and you come away feeling as if you've doubled your knowledge of almost every subject related to American life--marriage, working conditions, diet, furniture, waste disposal--you name it and Gordon explains it. And, most importantly, he demonstrates not only that American workers are worse off now than they were thirty years ago, but why.


Jonathan Allen's and Amie Parnes's Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign shows how completely out of touch with ordinary Americans the Washington politcal establishment has become. As the title suggests, the Clinton campaign, despite the polling of Nate Cohen and the apologetics posted on the editorial pages of the Times and Post, never had a chance (the absurd Electoral College helped of course).  For example, despite employing twenty or so speechwriters, PR people, aides, and loyalists to draft her Democratic convention acceptance speech, the words themselves failed to deliver a convincing rationale for Mrs. Clinton's candidacy--infighting, arrogance, and myopia made it impossible for Clintonworld (as the authors call Clinton's hermetically- sealed bubble) to figure out what American voters wanted (and not merely what they wanted to hear). It's a sad book, not quite Euripides, but a tragic tale nonetheless. It has all the elements of tragedy: hubris of course, also fate, villainy, hamartiae, guilelessness, but also, like all tragedies, an outcome that sets the world out of joint. Tragedy, if it were merely personal, would  be akin to melodrama. Instead, the hero's fall is a sign of a social diminishing, of our own fall.

[to be continue]

George Ovitt (10/15/17)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

In the Library

But the certainty that everything has already been written nullifies or makes phantoms of us all.
—from the “Library of Babel”

As all libraries should have, our library has a wonderful and spacious center aisle, at the entrance to which a giddy patron can see the many shelves unfold in delectable succession, the space between them paradoxically shrinking in vision and remaining the same in reality, the simple repetition suggesting unending, “perhaps an infinite,” unfolding. As there should be, in this center aisle are tables with built-in lamps, tables of the sort that only exist in the center aisleways of libraries, tables of the sort we are adamant must be in libraries (which in turn should be like our homes in plush comfort but unlike our homes in that grandeur and columnar permanency should be the dominating aesthetic). Borges’ lamps were “spherical fruits”; our library’s, however, are sturdy, mushroom-shaped things sprouting at the tables’ twenty-five yard-lines. They are large and globular, as they ought to be. And so as to avoid poking holes in the illusion, the cords to these lamps are hidden somewhere below. The translucent caps of the lamp-mushrooms are plastic, and this is less good (for the library is a place of wood and glass) but considering the height and motor control of the children who swarm on this campus in June and July for advanced summer school programs, it’s forgivable. The lamps are rarely on, because the library is almost always lit with the invisible brilliance of New Mexico’s incessant sunniness, and this is also less good, because one must cloud the day in one’s head before a lamplit library session commences. The antithesis of the library is good weather.
            The tables themselves are, in relation to the aisle, perpendicularly oriented. Borges’ library had no aisles, only radially organized hexagons; librarial orientation I, however, have no opinion on, except that open floor should be minimized to what is necessary for an imposing foyer and, beyond that, just walkways and space enough to scoot back one’s chair. The tables in our library are set like bricks across the gap between stacks so that awed seventh graders in search of comics and depressed ninth graders in search of some optional but not optional Timothy Egan book must veer slightly to the right or left as they pass the tables, moving closer to the stacks, which in themselves tend to work like walls extraterrestrial, glowing with unseen energy, attracting some people (these kids put their fingers on books spines) and repulsing others (these kids stand at the end of a shelf and, bent slightly at the waist, peer into the narrow hallway between stacks like they’re looking into a cave they’re being forced to enter).
            I am a tickler of spines. But I don’t just love being between stacks, I even like lingering at their ends, noting their Dewey addresses, wondering at the families housed in these high rises. As I imagine many others do, I love to walk up and down the center aisle, veering toward the right or left, noting what colors and shapes and titles catch my eye before disappearing. It’s like walking through a suburban neighborhood at night. I am too old to play the games that I play in the library, but sometimes I catch myself thinking that the book that drew my advancing peripheral sight was somehow fated to do so. I usually leave it there, though, defying such futures.
            Recently I veered and saw something worthy of legitimate pause. It was at about knee-height, and stood between a tattered volume from the beginning of last century, dust-jacketless and faded blue, and a glossy-wrapped brick of a book with HEMINGWAY on its spine. The book I noticed most distinctly, however, was a thin book, and shorter than its two neighbors, its glossy cardboard spine still perfectly unbent at all corners. When I got closer I saw the three books more clearly: on the left was The Question of Henry James, Dewey Decimal call number 818.46 DUP, an anthology of criticism published in 1945. On the right was By-line: Ernest Hemingway, 818.5 HEM, a 1967 anthology of the man’s journalism. In between was the oddball: Grumpy Cat, 818.54 GRU, a 2013 book that contains jokes and anti-inspirational posters all centered around the strange internet personality Grumpy Cat, who is a real cat with an unfortunate face that makes him look disgruntled always. He’s the Garfield of the internet generation. 

            I extracted him. Henry James slumped to the right and rested on Hemingway’s immovable shoulder, an intimacy I’m sure had long predated Grumpy Cat’s meddling in perhaps the only locale in the Dewey Decimal system that permits such an illicit union between these two men, especially with James on the left.
            I gave the two their privacy and examined Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book, thinking I’d discover what about it might justify its shelving between two predators like James and Hemingway. On its cover the internet-proliferated personality stared out at me. I remembered, then, some of his jokes, which I’d seen before in those short, desultory walks through the urban blight of Google images. I remembered that Grumpy Cat is kind of funny. James and Hemingway, I know, never would have paid attention to something so base, and for a moment I just stand there with Grumpy Cat and feel the pull: as an English teacher and writer, I should do my duty and hide the book somewhere, check it out and never return it, misshelve it egregiously in the back of the library. But as a member of whatever generation birthed this sort of gelatinous humor, I sort of like Grumpy Cat, and I also know that I cannot defeat him, even if I do hide him behind the whoever was the 19th Century’s Timothy Egan.
            I turned the book over. Ah. I’d only seen part of the call number. It was actually 818.5402: the 402 in the decimal had been around the bend of the book’s thin spine. I looked at James and Hemingway. They were just plain 818.5s (Here’s the Dewey Decimal flow-chart for the irrationally interested: Literature [800’s] > American And Canadian [810’s] > Authors, American and American Miscellany [818] > 20th Century [.5]). Same nationality, different species. But the numbers seemed to suggest that we weren’t far off from GC’s home—I thought maybe to the right of Hemingway somewhere was its numerical spot. I imagined a scenario in which an infinitely jointed eighth grader in a too-big t-shirt had come for GC and then misplaced him after the ten minutes it took to read his book. I then wondered why such a book would even exist, one that could be consumed in ten minutes. Perhaps the simple and everlasting pressure to monetize things was the reason someone made a book out of insipid things found for free on the internet.
I traced the shelves and found that even the next shelf down, all 818.52’s (> Before 1945 [.02]) The shelf below was the stack’s bottom shelf, containing Lionel Trilling and the dustier, shadowy parts of Gertrude Stein, and a book of Ed Abbey’s postcards. There were 818.54’s there (.54 = 20th Century>After 1945). But even the just-.54’s were not Grumpy’s home. I followed the trail to the top of the next stack. A Capote Reader, then a book by Mary Oliver, no, no...

            In the middle of the top shelf, however, I reached an unmistakable ridge. The land beyond it was radically different than what I’d climbed through to get there. My old nemesis, Dave Barry, stood there on the ridge, telling jokes to himself and rocking back and forth. Not Dave Barry. Give me Louis Anderson, Tim Allen, any other unfunny comic! I was exposed to Barry early and often in a 90’s sitcom based on one of his books. The show was called Dave’s World and I knew for sure that it was boring and unfunny even when I was nine and totally indiscriminate (I wouldn’t miss an episode of “Family Matters” or “Boy Meets World”). All of Barry’s writing has, for me, forever been tainted with that show’s dusty, forced humor, a precursor to Everybody Loves Raymond and modeled undoubtedly on The Cosby Show (the sets in all three shows are nearly identical) but without believable acting or notable characters, and gripping the low-budget coattails of Home Improvement. When I discovered later that he was foremost a writer and not a creator of awful TV, I impudently applied the latter characteristic to the former. When I saw his syndicated stuff in papers, I skipped over it for the same reason I’d skip over Andy Rooney or the pastor’s message in the weekly church bulletin: this is for old people.
            Barry was just six thin volumes to the right of a book by Vonnegut in this particular bibliothecal landscape. In between the two men were oddities. There was an outrageously oversized but thin book called Orangutan Tongs by Jon Agee, author of “wordplay books.” Next to it, a pocket-sized book of daily meditations derived from the weird bestseller Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, which was a sort of self-help/novel hybrid that suggested to 1970’s America that maybe your reality is just an illusion you create (!!!) (and subsequently created a reality in which forty years later a friendly college student in one of my freshman writing courses gave it [the novel, not the book of meditations] to me to read, I think because he thought I smoked pot a lot). Anyways, then Dave Barry.
            Agee’s orangutan begins the .5402 (20th Century> After 1945 > ???), but Barry’s territory in that continent is downright Russian in size: Dave Barry Turns 40, Dave Barry Does Japan, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys. Despite Barry’s appearance I feel encouraged, for I can sense that I am nearing Grumpy’s hometurf, which is guarded by gatekeepers like Barry. We pass Bill Cosby, who is very busy and who doesn’t notice us, and then Ellen Degeneres of 1995, who on the back of her My Point...And I Did Have One is sort of curled into a sad fetal position, head bowed and face hidden in a way that perhaps is too easy to interpret as fear in the years prior to her 1997 Oprah-assisted coming out. Then a brand spanking new edition of The Complete Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids, then a 1993 book called Whad’ya Knowledge, which is a compendium of (very, very) slightly funny facts that one of the back-cover blurbs calls “Sort of Garrison Keillor-meets-Groucho Marx.” They’re referring to Feldman, the author of this book, and who Wikipedia tells me is a relatively well-known radio personality that dispenses something like “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” (which I listen to occasionally [WWDTM, not Feldman] and which I find interesting only because it’s not at all funny, though it is clever at times) but with far less syndication. Why Feldman is important is because of .5402 FEL. Next to him is .5402 HAL (Quickie Comebacks). Here are Grumpy Cat’s two neighbors.
When I part them, they don’t seem upset. Nobody moves. I slide Grumpy Cat back in to his place.

As all librarians should be, the librarians at our library are nice, and what I like most about them is their sense of humor about books. They like reading primarily; analysis is something that happens once the books leave their sonorous domain.
            This, too, is why I like our librarians: when I approach the front desk and ask to see the Dewey Decimal classification manual, they stare for a moment, then smile just barely, then say, “You mean...” as they walk over to the special librarian shelves where glossy Dewey Decimal volumes stand proudly.
            “Yes!” I said too enthusiastically, not two minutes after rehoming Grumpy Cat. I walked around the desk. I had not yet explained my purpose. The lady that normally does the nonfiction decimaling was clearly nervous—she thought I was there to check her work. Students streamed in and out of the library’s airlock, but all librarians turned to the librarian-shelves behind the desk. I pulled down a volume.
            It’s important to know that I am not a librarian. As an English teacher and writer, I inhabit an intensely curated book-world. If an English teacher is anything, he is curator; if the writer is anything, he is hoping to draw the curator’s eye and avoid his scythe. The English teacher/writer is a particularly painful combination: for curation is both highly necessary, as one does not write in order to be another voice crying in the wilderness or to even be a mediocre voice crying in the wilderness, but so, too, is curation highly personal, as one does not write in order to be culled. Thus, the English teacher/writer is not democratic, nor is he populist. He is elitist, totally unpredictable, multicultural only for the sake of legitimacy. He is viciously dismissive of literary mediocrity; he considers mediocre the lion’s share of books written by folks plenty more intelligent and talented than he. Naturally, being so paradoxical exhausts him, I mean, me, mostly because yeah yeah yeah the canon isn’t representative and all that stuff, but more so because while we teachers bicker over whether or not Huck Finn should still be taught, there are hundreds of thousands of books being published like donuts emerging from a machine, glossy, identical. The English teacher/writer cannot focus on this department meeting conversation on Huck Finn for long; he wonders if he’s the only one who notices that the meeting room is slowly filling with books; he sees the department chair’s furrowed brow being consumed by a cloud of hardbacks. A couple other colleagues, ET/W’s themselves, notice it, too, and they’re leaning back in their chairs, trying to keep their noses in free air. They look to the others like they don’t care.
            All that to say that the reason I like librarians is because they long ago saw the rising waters. Librarians dance in the cascade of publication; they splash around and grab books by the handfuls, read pages here and there, wonder gleefully at such abundance. Every English teacher and every writer needs a librarian counterpart, otherwise (I can already tell) we will be consumed by calcification or bitterness, or both.
            But let’s not deny that, when all kenneled in a library, there’s something attractive about the ocean of books, the depths dredged in the human intellect by five hundred something years of mass-producing our findings. What’s down there—I mean down below the top layer of bestsellers and classics, down in the black places into which Grumpy Cat’s form, even now, is being slowly absorbed, ink in ink—is no canon, really. What’s down there is chaos, hundreds of thousands of books published yearly in the US alone, read by a hundred folks, a thousands, and immediately forgotten by as many. The library must somehow house all of these unwanted ones (for who would write if they knew their progeny, as disposable as it may be, would just be disposed of?). In the chaos, there is Dewey. His acolytes are collating and organizing in the abysmal darkness like happy worker crabs who know or care nothing about merit or genius but everything about categories and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories…
            I brought Dewey’s book to a nearby librarian table. I found the place in the book.
            I spent some minutes untangling the lists of numbers and decimals. From what I could tell from such a cursory examination, Dewey Decimal had no explanation in the most recent manual for what exactly the .0002 is that’s added on to Grumpy Cat’s call number to make it Dewetically distinct from the book of Ed Abbey’s postcards.
            “Huh,” I said emphatically. The librarians leaned in.
            I then told the librarians the brief story of James, Hemingway, and Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book. The nonfiction decimaling lady smiled just a little, then smiled much bigger when she realized we were talking about a book of stupid cat jokes. I told them how GC was caught interfering with James’ and Hemingway’s amorous rites, though I didn’t say amorous rites because I am not among English teachers or English teacher/writers. Regardless, I saw that I had something of co-conspiritors in these women, these ladies of the chest-high check-out counters, these commanders of the demagnification machine. I was glad to be among them at that moment, for I don’t know that others would have been able to even feign interest in Dewey’s mysterious number-language and Grumpy Cat’s place in it. (An English teacher would have lamented GC’s presence in a temple so sacred. They’d say something like Isn’t the fact that Grumpy Cat is misshelved depressing enough in that it implies use? A writer would have sighed and said How can you compete with Grumpy Cat? And all of this is depressing and totally besides the point in a library.) Librarians, our librarians, said things like, “I sort of like Grumpy Cat,” and “What does that .0002 mean at the end of the call number?” and Dewey would do that!” and a few good-natured Oh-my-goshes. One librarian joined my hovering above the prostrate Dewey manual. Another joked that Dewey would have liked Grumpy Cat (this is brilliantly and probably unintentionally true, because Dewey spent a good amount of his waking life pitching a system of simplified English spelling to an uninterested public: Melvil Dui was his appellative simplification [don’t think too much about the different i sounds]; Grumpy Cat’s name wouldn’t have changed a bit in such a system). A third librarian floated to a computer to see the other books with the same four-decimal call number. The nonfiction decimally librarian stood with the same book open that she had opened when I first said something about Dewey. Even she was smiling.
            “Spongebob!” the librarian at the computer blurted. “I Can Haz Cheeseburgers!” She was smiling. She had somehow brought up all .5402 endings, which apparently were tagged onto other call numbers throughout the library. Though they share the .5402, I assumed that since Spongebob was not real and Grumpy Cat was, Grumpy belonged four to the right of Dave Barry, and Spongebob in an entirely different librarical hemisphere. I drew near to the monitor and noticed that Spongebob (Classroom Crack-ups) had the same exact call number as Grumpy Cat. I Can Haz Cheezburgers—more cats and more Dui simplification—goes there, too. Fiction, non-fiction—jokes, apparently, were genre-defying.
            I closed the Dewey book, shaking my head slowly, warmly. That Dui. He’s always doing stuff like this. We stood behind the tall counters and commiserated on the kind of fun insanity of Dewey, the difficulty of a joke’s genre, the fact that GC and Spongebob are just a couple books over from Ellen Degeneres, who I don’t think knows a thing about all this. We smiled and said thanks to one another for the little detour. One librarian was still looking at I Can Haz Cheezburgers on the screen.
            I began my walk back down the center aisle to my place at the tables in the stream. Rarely, I thought, was the lightless worker-crab part of a librarian’s job an intellectual topic. I congratulated myself on this indirect gratitude (By cracking the Dewey book, I have won their hearts!), and on my restraint, because even more rarely than Dewey-Manual-perusing is the occasion in which an English teacher does not comment on the relative worth of Grumpy Cat.
            Back toward my mushroomed table I strolled, eager again to be amid books, thinking I might could maybe perhaps write something witty about how short the Dewetic distance is between our canon and its chaff, feeling the prickly pleasure that an English teacher/writer feels when an idea hits him in a moment where there were no teacher-duties to be done, in an hour when the coffee hasn’t been burned off completely, in a place that has windows and other writers standing all around but making no eye contact, smashed as their faces were into the cover of their western neighbor’s jacket.
            As I walked down the center aisle I passed a pair of junior girls. One was thumbing her phone, the other was sitting with her legs splayed out. This girl was also holding her shirt up, like an elderly man on a front porch, to expose what I suppose was an overheated midriff. I frowned a bit, averted my eyes. This was a double downer: an English teacher does not like midriffs, and a writer does not like pop stars in his sanctum. Another kid—this one younger, knobbier than the girls, more fully covered by his clothing—walked down the center aisle in my direction, his arms wrapped around a stack of manga comics. A couple others—highschoolers—walked more quickly behind him, they had their phones out and their backpacks on, and, without even looking up, they parted around the manga-kid like unseen river fish around unseeing ankles.
            I reached my table-island. My eyes wandered back to the strange stacks where Grumpy Cat now slept. Dave Barry’s books were just visible on the top shelf of the 818.5402s. They hollered at me in 1990’s block letters.
            I returned my gaze to center. The aisle ended in the portion of the library unlit by electric light, but filled with white glow of indirect sun. In the very back: silhouettes of studying students at tables like mine, mushrooms unlit.
Pay no attention to the midriffs, the manga, the memes, oh English teacher/writer! You are surely nobler than these!
            Something in my peripheral vision suggested itself. I moved my eyes left, to the stack directly across the aisle from the one I’d just perused. I saw, on the left side of the aisle, just beyond my table, BARRY painted on spines there.
            I got up quickly and confronted them.
            I saw immediately that they were, according to the call numbers, correctly shelved. This was not eight eighteen point five four oh two but eight fourteen point five four oh two. Barry had, it seemed, had established a transoceanic colony here on the other side of the aisle. Here such colonial presence seemed even more grating.
            Because moving left from Barry: two James Baldwin volumes, then books of essays by Bakers (Nicholson and Russell), then the same by Maya Angelou. Further beyond her were folks like Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow, and the shelf ended with John D’Agata, whose name is on an anthology of not-boring essays about how, ultimately, boring essays are boring.
            In the shelf above: solid Emerson and Thoreau (they are 814.4’s [the .4 denoting nineteenth century]).
             To the right of Barry: Wendell Berry, then a cowboy author named Baxter Black, then the end of the shelf.
            In the shelf below were the likes of Didion, Dillard, Doctorow, Gretel Ehrlich, Ian Frazier. William Gass for God’s sake (which copy I’d squirreled in my office for months last year). This shelf ended with a book of essays by William Gibson of the Neuromancer I’d worshiped it in college.
            That Barry was there, in 814 (just: “American essays in English”) as opposed to quarantined in the 818 (“American miscellany”)—there, touching (undoubtedly without his permission) James Baldwin and officed on the floor just above Didion and Dillard and somehow at rest on a roost just below Emerson’s clawfeet—all of this was unsettling, not only because I held in my dark English teacher heart an admittedly unexamined belief that humor writing seems somehow out of place in Dewey’s otherwise stunning 800s, which is a fat-volumed, low-altitude range titled “Literature (Belles-lettres) and rhetoric” on Dewey’s topographic maps. It’s true, I had a hard time granting to Dave Barry is from Mars and Venus proximity to such a pinnacle as Nicholson Baker, whose U and I (813.54—fiction, Dewey? it’s nonfiction! What sort? Memoir? Sort of, not really. Analysis? In a way. Essays? Not at all. Travel? If you count from the living room to the study. Miscellany? Well, yes...but God, no! I’ll take fiction over Miscellany! Alright Dui, fikshun it is!) stunned me so thoroughly with its excellence that I wanted, standing there in front of his essays, to call him personally and apologize for Dave Barry.
            Yes, yes, this was all fodder for that intelligent essay I was thinking I’d write while simultaneously losing the window to write it in. Nevertheless I’d write it and publish it and anthologize it someday, another of the prudent little academic badges an English teacher/writer needed to be promoted out of full-time teaching and into a Jamesian/Hemingwayish/Bakerian life of Belles-lettres. The essay would question the librarians’ radical democratic worker-crab method that allows Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits to be separated from Baldwin by less than a fifty-book wall. It would also praise librarians for their bravery. The essay would recommend that there should be some in-cabin ding or a lighted symbol installed on each socialistic shelf to indicate that you are now descending from the canon.
            I returned to the table and began to write that essay, even, lingering on lamp shapes and the adjectival forms of library. I worked up a sufficiently intellectual, English-teacher huffiness about Barry, and I believed it would suffice for the English teacher/writer’s needs. This was not as it should be!
            I lost steam, quickly, though. I felt tired. An E T/W is always a little tired. As an English teacher I was easily riled by Barry, but as a writer he was something entirely different, indeed. Dewey was right: I had as much right to be mad at Barry as at Grumpy Cat.
            But such radical democracy was too much. I left the library.

I came back the next day, put my stuff on the same table, and returned to stand in front of the same shelves, Emerson above, Barry below. I knew it wasn’t the democracy that had scared me off. I found the place, the lack of a gap that had weighed in my consciousness since I’d walked out the day before. No, it wasn’t Barry that had been the problem at all. Or rather, he only made the problem worse. The trouble was on the next shelf down.
            On the left of it, E.L. Doctorow. (This was a bad sign.) On the right, though, was Dunn. (Not Donne—oh, hope!) I pulled Dunn out from his anonymous place between Doctorow and Ehrlich. (It will be beneficial to have faceless and fameless Dunn on my right shoulder, I thought, shielding me from venerable Ehrlich). Dunn’s book was black, and its cover had an unremarkable abstract painting of cubes. Its title—Riffs & Reciprocities—was clearly too alliterative to be canon, I thought, and the font looked like Times New Roman that’d been simply squeezed from the sides. Bad typesetting, anonymous author that’s not Donne, chintzy title. Yes, hope!
            I opened the book. Norton published it. Something thipped against the inside of my sternum, but recovered, thinking perhaps this is Norton’s off-Broadway sort of line, like Nordstrom Rack or something.
            I flipped to the back.
            This (I read) was Stephen Dunn’s tenth volume. He’d won the Academy Award in Literature and a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
             I stepped backward and sat down quickly at the table. The horror, here, was that everything in the library was exactly as it should be.

Ben Dolan, a guest writer on Talented Reader, teaches high school literature and writes essays. His writing has appeared at and Massachusetts Review. Another essay is forthcoming at Diagram in November.

Monday, October 2, 2017


Hello, readers. I am happy to announce that my novel Parsimony is now available for purchase, for those of you who are interested. Here is a brief summary of it:

Parsimony is a novel about fathers and sons, about the twisted manifestations of politics and history in the lives of a particular Jewish American family. When the novel opens, David Ansky, a divorced and disaffected New York architect, has gone to Florida to move his elderly father into a local nursing home. He has never been close to the man and dreads the responsibility, intending to dispatch with the matter as swiftly as possible. Yet things do not go as planned, so that quickly he finds himself entangled in the past, trapped in a cat and mouse game with his father in which he is never quite sure how to gauge the man's remarks, which range from the paranoid and sentimental to the cruelly, severely astute. At the heart of this experience is David's reckoning, just after 9/11, with his own life and career, and with his family's radically left-wing past—with his Stalinist grandfather and with his bitter, politically disillusioned father, a Trotsky scholar and retired professor of Russian history. Set in the course of a single day in an apartment overlooking Sanibel Island, the novel explores the generational impact of shattered ideals.
To Order:

Fomite (I encourage you to place your order through this Fomite link as a means of supporting this fine small press.)


"A poignant, unflinching story about the fragile bonds between fathers and sons, Parsimony’s trenchant, heartbreaking prose captured me from the first few pages and continued to resonate long after I finished. This carefully crafted novel about love ineffable, about loss and death, is threaded throughout with spirit and hope—Memento mori becoming in the book’s final, beautiful passages Memento vivere. One of the finest pieces of new fiction I’ve read in a long time.”

                                   Mark Dunn, author of Ella Minnow Pea and We Five
"Peter Adam Nash imbues each line of elegant prose with a pervasive sense of unease. Along with the unfolding drama of the Ansky family, Parsimony skillfully evokes the controversies of one American decade after another. I was startled again and again by the shock of recognition—and by the all too relevant warning: how easily we defend ourselves against seeing systems of cruelty when blinded by conviction and hope, or by their absence."

                  Diane Lefer, author of Confessions of a Carnivore and California Transit: Stories

“Peter Nash's evocative exploration of the complex relationship between a son and his father possesses the melancholy wisdom of Philip Roth's Patrimony, the sense that we can never really know those closest to us until we know ourselves. Nash writes like a poet; his sentences unwind through ideas, emotions, and wise reflections on the sadness of aging, the difficulties of parenting, and the trials of sustaining intimacy when so much stands in the way. I loved this book for its quiet wisdom and for its commitment to telling the most daunting truths about growing apart from those with whom we share the most."

                              George Ovitt, author of The Snowman and What Happens Next

"With eloquent language worthy of literary recognition, Peter Nash’s Parsimony offers wisdom fraught with interpersonal and political conflicts… While thoroughly imagined in its historical context, Parsimony is at its core the story of a family. There may be years of drama quietly hanging on the fringes of relationships and paranoid behaviors beyond comprehension, but family shapes us, through and through. Parsimony exposes this truth with effortlessly elegant prose and characters who linger in the memory.
Foreword Reviews (starred review)

'A dutiful son helps his increasingly demented father make his last life transition, into a nursing home, despite their uneasy relationship.

European in feel, Nash’s (The Life and Times of Moses Jacob Ezekiel, 2014) novel unspools nonchronological layers of memory, spreading out from a single day, as David Ansky assists his irascible father, Jacob, who recently assaulted his maid, move from his Florida apartment to a care facility. Jacob—himself the son of Joseph Ansky, “professional Communist, imperious foreign editor for the Daily Worker”—is a retired Russian history professor who taught at Cornell and wrote a book on Trotsky. While, in the here and now, David sorts Jacob’s belongings, sooths his rants, and gentles him along the last lap of a none-too-happy life, filaments of the past unfurl and connect, offering glimpses of David’s childhood; his failed marriage; his choice of career, in part a repudiation of his father’s dry academia and barren politics. There’s a Sebald-ian flavor to this melancholy web of recollections, regrets, vignettes, infidelities, and mood moments, colored with intellectual and historical detail and some archaic vocabulary—“oppugning,” “sesquipedalian,” “impetrates.” And, occasionally, the story switches point of view from David’s resigned practicality to Jacob’s cacophony of sights, smells, and flickering thoughts. Nash’s composed tapestry of a family is delicate and poetic, although it accrues meaning more from the accumulation of episodes than penetration of character. There’s a late squall of melodramatic confrontation—“When I look at you now…all I can do is weep.” “I didn’t want to end up like you”—but the concluding mood is sweetly generous in its acknowledgement of generational love and loss.

Nash treads deftly into archetypal territory.'

Kirukus Review

Thank you very much for reading our blog.

Peter Nash