This is part one of a three-way conversation (at the moment) among Richard Seltzer in Boston, Deane Rink in Antarctica, and Jonathan Loschi in Idaho. For Part 2 click here.
I was doing a search on my former boss, Carl Sagan, but was up into the 170s where I more expected to get francoise and bonjour tristesse instead of carl arcana, but lo and behold there sat your list. I too have been doing a variant on this since 1963, when I was a senior in high school, so had some odd thoughts as i perused yours. [BTW, about 20% of the books on your list (of which count I could not determine) are on my 34-year-list which has just passed 3900.] I have more trashy reading on my list, which asks the question, did you not ever pick up occasional movie or sports bio or rumor collection and refuse to finish it so it would not sully the integrity of your list? If you could pick the five most infuential books on you, with short whys, what would you pick? Same about the five most elegantly-written? What about the five most visually striking? Ponder these while I post one typical page from 2-3/93
2938. THE GOOD RAIN by Timothy Egan - across time and terrain in the Pacific Northwest, with gentle humor and rich social insight.
255 p. c1990 Vintage pb *****
2939. GENIUS by james Gleick - the life and science of Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and bohemian iconoclast.
532 p. c1992 Pantheon hb *****
2940. RED GOLD by John Hemming - the European conquest of the Brazilian Indians, 1500 to 1760.
677 p. c1978 Harvard U. Press hb ****
2941. HORROR COMICS by Mike Benton - an illustrated history of that most gruesome of genres in which teenagers delight.
144 p. c1991 Taylor pb ***
2942. THE DEVIL'S MUSIC MASTER by Sam Shirakawa - the life and controversial career of Wilhelm Furtwangler, German conductor.
506 p. c1992 Oxford U. press hb *****
2943. DUNSTER by John Mortimer - a contemporary tale of friendship, love, honor, and betrayal in modern-day London.
296 p. c1992 Viking hb *****
2944. VANISHING EDEN edited by Edward Atkins - the plight of the tropical rainforests, with gorgeous photographs.
304 p. c1991 Barron's hb ****
2945. UNDER THE JAGUAR SUN by Italo Calvino - three quirky fictions centered, each, around one of a man's senses.
86 p. c1988 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich hb ***
2946. EIGHT LITTLE PIGGIES by Stephen Jay Gould - sixth volume of collected essays from Natural History, each better than the last.
479 p. c1993 W.W.Norton hb *****
Sometimes in the early days, my blurbs reflect more about me than about what I read, but by the time I had reached the point above, I had become adept at finding one phrase, sometimes lifted and modified from the book itself, that captured the mood and my attitude towards a given tome. I hope this interests you and look forward to some kind of response. I leave for 5 months in Antarctica in early October, at which time my e-mail may well change, so let me know before then if at all possible.
Have you ever come across any other obsessives in this area.? And, lastly, are you the same richard Selzer whom you list the books of in your list (MORTAL LESSONS is one I've often stared atin the library but never quite got around to prioritizing it onto my brain-bound conveyor belt.)? If so, there's a spelling difference,n'est-ce pas?
P.S. do a search on me and you'll get some idea of what I do and why.
One of the things we do with our newsletter and Web site is make available public domain etexts from the Internet on IBM/Mac diskette for teachers and others who don't have full Internet access. As part of that PLEASE COPY THIS DISK project we include the Passport to Knowledge info, such as LIVE FROM ANTARCTICA. Are you connected with that program?
Yes, you can use my letter in your letters to the editor column. I don't mind if other bibliophiles start e-mailing me especially after I get to Antarctica where many long lonely nights await.
To answer your other query, i was the field producer for LIVE FROM ANTARCTICA and will reprise the role with LIVE FROM ANTARCTICA-2 which will be broadcast from Palmer Station on the ant. Peninsula. As field producer, I direct all shoots, edit them on the ice, conduct interviews with the scientists, and also am expected to post field journal reports and answer e-mail queries from students, as our PBS TV programs are the marquee for NASA's Science Internet Project. It is those postings from LFA-1 that you would find from an Alta Vista search of my name (and yes, it was Alta Vista masquerading as yahoo)
I would consider posting my entire list (yes, even including dr. Leland Glover's The Impotent Male, which I read in panic back in 1968 after a drink-induced failure of my main organ had me briefly worried) but that list takes up 800 Kb in my hard drive and I fear I don't have it formatted properly to trandsfer fromhard drive into e-mail (pine). I typed it into my computer using Chicago type, and I'm afraid if I select all and change it to 12-point Geneva,with 6" margin,it willso screw up the formatting that I'd have to go through the entire list and recorrect all errors. That I cannot take time to do, as I am now busy preparing this, my foorth trip to the frozen continent.
All the best,
I'm sure if I made such a list a year from now it would look quite different (subjective judgements depend so much on mood.)
But here's today's list --
In one fell inspirational swoop last night, without reference to the master list (that consultation may well change it for me, as will the passage of time), I've whittled it down to eight significant influences.
I haven't kept track of gender or race -- but yes, I'm sure it's overwhelmingly white and male. I do, however, try to keep track of country and century and category (like Novel), as an encouragment to diversify my reading.
I had to run through the second half of my list again because I knew I was remembering only the books that I had read a long time ago that knocked my socks off. Ergo, you are getting a list of more like 25 than 5, but what the hell.
OTHER IMPORTANT INFLUENCES
The only one of those that I've read is Les Miserables.
Thanks very much. That looks like an excellent shopping list. (The older I get, the more important it becomes to me to read the good stuff. There simply isn't time or energy for hit-or-miss, for operating in a mode where only one out of ten books you read is at all memorable.)
PS -- These are all from the past. What books have been highly recommended to you for future reading? What will you be taking with you to Antarctica?
here i sit,pondering how i'll keep interested on the ice, pissed off that most of the books already down there reflect rather pedestrian tastes, at a time when i'm stretching into the esoteric. note esoteric doesn't necessarily mean hardcore scientific stuff, just less than obvious stuff.
Currently on my shelf to take South ( fat paperbacks get special priority because they're the most efficient way to bring in printer matter) This list will probably change many times in the next 6 weeks, and it now includes a disturbingly high number of re-reads, but at least I know I'll enjoy them,whereas a new book is always a crapshoot.
Any suggestions? My creative writing instructor at Cornell oh so many years ago once got a summer job manning a fire tower in the wilderness of the Cascades. He spent three months with nothing but Proust, and came out a whacko writer.
Alas, the cerebral antarctic book culture of years goneby (I first spent time at the South Pole in 1984) has slowly mutated into a Doom and video culture; Do I sound enough like an old phogey in my one great truth plea for somebody to notice what these new cultural inventions, Tv & cyberspace and the like, seem to be doing to the literacy and understanding of the mass of new citizens? So be it. And damn it, we DID have better music in the sixties or why would today's kids still be listening to it,and trying to be pale imitations of their butterfly parents?
You probably saw Cathedral on someone else's list. I haven't read it yet, but several people recently recommended that I read it.
1) You'll have an Internet connection there won't you? If so, hit the Gutenberg Project, Bartleby, and others (I've got pointers to those at my Web site.) There are thousands of books available for free on-line. Of course, it's a pain reading on a computer screen, but if someone else is paying for printer supplies, you could always print them out in a readable font and size.
2) If you won't have a good, fast, Web-browable connection, I've downloaded to diskette the vast majority of them. Check the catalog of PLEASE COPY THIS DISK at my website http://www.seltzerbooks.com/catalog.html Lots of good, but not well-known 19th century works are available that way -- and a diskette can hold two or three books. It's a lot less bulky than carrying around paper. (That's what I do for LIVE FROM ANTARCTICA etc.) Anyway, if that would be of use to you, just pick out the ones you want, send me email, and I'll send them to you at no cost -- my contribution to science and Antarctica.
3) Did you check my list of favorite fiction? http://www.seltzerbooks.com/readbest.html and my more elite fiction favorite list? http://www.seltzerbooks.com/read11.html
When it comes to etexts of classics, the Internet and literacy do converge.
(Hey, and if you have Internet access down there -- read some of my stuff at my Web site: The Lizard of Oz, The Name of Hero, etc.)
Well, we do get internet at McMurdo (South Pole is a different story; satellite only available a few hours a day) but, based on my experiences from two years ago, e-mail sent might take a few hours to get delivered.
I think this is because the local LAN server collect all outgoing traffic and bundles it, but I am no net-maven and may be all wet on this. Yes, i will plug into it as often as I can, though it is entirey possiblemy e-mail address will change when I hit the ice. It did last time. In any event, if e-mail is delayed, probably internet will be also, so it will be less fun to surf than now. But we'll see. I had already found Bartleby and Gutenberg before I stumbled upon Samizdat, but think you actually have more stuff on your disks than they carry on the net.
I will take you up on your kind offer to provide some disks. I have scanned your entire list (indeed, your entire website,and it is very complete and good) and think I'll ask for three disks only: 1) Mark Twain Disk #5, with his stories on it; 2) Styles and blunders, which includes Strunk & White and Fowler; and 3) Guy de Maupassant stories en anglais. Other things, like reading your HERO book, I'll try to do from my icy terminal station.
I have told my boss, the executive director of Passport to Knowledge,about you and your inclusion of LfA and PTK on your Internet disk series. If Geoff Haines-Stiles contacts you from his office in Summit, N.J., blame me. I think he'll be delighted. And PTK has the second LFA-2 coming up, live broadcasts from Palmer station on 1/23/97, 1/30/97, and 2/6/97, on PBS in daytime to encourage classroom use. That's my baby. Also, Live from Mars is upcoming as a part of PTK (which derives some of its funding from a NASA Science internet Project grant)
Now for the fun part. Fave S/F novels of the day:
By the way, I once worked indirectly for Digital. For 5 years, I was an associate producer and Director of Research for THE INFINITE VOYAGE,a PBS science series produced by WQED and the National Academy of Sciences, which was funded by DEC.
I'll add the others to my shopping list (which is getting rather large.)
For Sterling/Gibson, I like their joint effort The Difference Engine, but haven't (despite trying hard) been able to get into any of their solo efforts.
My wife is a Pournelle fan (we met him at a conference in Washington about 15 years ago). But I haven't been able to finish any of his books myself -- they just don't appeal.
For Niven, I like Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers.
For Heinlein, just Stranger in a Strange Land
For LeGuin, the Wizard of Earthsea series and Left Hand of Darkness. (She's sort of the reverse of Chinese food. As soon as you're done, it feels like you haven't had anything to eat; and then hours and days later you start to feel nourished).
For Lessing, I havent' been able to get into her sifi stuff, but I enjoyed her semi-autobiographical novels starting with Martha Quest.
Yes Parker is very Boston (and very restaurant) oriented. It's strange how he can be addictive. You get used to the style and the Spenser perspective and he carries you along even when there's very little plot.
I've read most of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but no Wilkie Collins. (A couple of his are now on the Net).
By the way, a couple of modern Victorian imitations are quite good -- for instance, The Quincunx by Palliser.
Yes, I remember those days at Digital. I was in employee communication at the time and hence got the task of publicizing the series inside the company. At the time I was hoping to find some way to get involved in the production/writing end of it -- but there was no way.
I got your disks the other day; many thanks.
Also managed to read THE SONG OF THE DODO over the weekend. what a masterful discussion of a tres complex subject, rivaling Jared diamond's THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE or any of Stephen Jay Gould's essays. This is one book I'm glad I didn't wait until Antarctica to read.
Subject: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Richard--thanks for the tip of the hat to The Jesus Incident and The Lazarus Effect. Curious about what you'd think about The Ascension Factor, since Frank passed away before he could do any writing on it. I'm proud of it because I believe Frank would be.
One of my solo novels, JAGUAR, is available free on the web at: http://www.tcd.net/~bransom
All best wishes, Bill
If you don't mind, I'll add a link from my home page to yours, and I'll also include your note in Letters to the Editor in the next issue of my newsletter Internet-on-a-Disk.
PS -- That reading list of mine has produced some very interesting responses. One of the more recent ones was from Deane Rink, who does such PBS/NSF shows as Live from Antarctica. He's a very heavy reader and is right now stocking up a supply of must-read books for another lengthy stint in Antarctica. You might want to get in touch with him -- Deane Rink <firstname.lastname@example.org>
SUBJECT: Frank Herbert
In 1970, a gaggle of us anti-Vietnam war protestors from Cornell all moved to Seattle to organize local opposition to the war in Boeing's hometown. We settled in the U district and started organizing students at UW into something we amorphously called the Seattle Liberation Front. (I cringe today when I think of our naivete).
Assigned to cover the UW beat for the local newspaper was a Seattle reporter named Frank Herbert. He was a great bear of a man, with full bushy beard, and appeared quite sympathetic to our cause.
Then the FBI arrived in town, having trailed many of us SDSers from Ithaca across state lines to WN. All of a sudden, our pictures were on the front page of the Seattle P-I as we had been branded outside agitators. Frank offered to help us get a rebuttal printed in his newspaper, and I, putatively as the most literate and academic of our motley crew, was chosen to "liase" with him.
Suffice to say, it was like a master class in writing, one that I was probably too swept up in the politics of the day to fully appreciate. But it did start me reading the Dune series, and pretty soon thereafter, Frank's success with S/F allowed him to retire from the daily grind of being a newspaper reporter. He did, by the way, facilitate the publication of our point of view in the P-I.
Thanks for the tips on Bill Ransom's new work; I'll check it out. Is he, by any chance, from Seattle?
To what extent are you collecting author-encounter anecdotes? I ask this because Frank Herbert isn't the only author with whom I've rubbed elbows.
If you're interested, I could probably dredge up anecdotes on the following:
Some of those names you may not recognize, but do an author search and you will see, for instance,that Steve Katz is an avant-garde novelist who publishes with very obscure presses; that A.R.Ammons is a Bollingen award-winning poet; that McCall and Mcconkey are two academic novelists (McCall wrote JACK THE BEAR,which was turned into an awful film),and that Tim Egan,the N. Y. Times stringer for the Pacific NW, has written 2 or 3 regional history books.
From: Jonathan Loschi <email@example.com> Date: Sat, 9 Nov 1996 17:40:27 -0800 (PST)
How do you feel about Cormac Mccarthy? Reading your correspondence with Rink, I noted his interest in "Conversation" by Llosa. I've read it, it's dense and very politically nuanced as per the area, and would really recommend reading say an Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on (the subject country suddenly eludes my jellied brain) so you'll understand all the references to various political movements contained therein. But, back to my original question, I'd recommend starting with "The War of the End of the World" by Llosa. It's one of his easier reads but very vivid in it's imagery. It's an apocalyptic novel based on a sort of "Koreshian" figure.
And, as way leads on to way, that reminded me of another such novel that remains one of my all time favorites--"Blood Meridian" by Cormac Mccarthy. The man owns the English language. An extremely vivid writer who creates a character in this novel called the Judge who leaps from the page. The last 30 pages knocked my socks off..probably the scariest sequence in fiction I've ever read.
I tore through all of his books shortly thereafter. Some are better than others but his writing is always to be admired.
Thanks for the recommendation. I'll add that to my shopping/reading list.
for continuation of this discussion about Cormac McCarthy etc., with Deane Rink, click here
Blood Meridian is the only Cormac McCarthy book I've read, and I agree with you that he "owns the English language." Though I'd observe that very few native writers of English have the flare of a Nabokov or the density of a Conrad. But I have a bitch with McCarthy, based on Blood Meridian and confirmed in discussions with my best friend, who has read everything of his and loves him more than anybody. He writes about cruel and depressing subjects and psychotic, damaged people, apparently thinking that verbal pyrotechnics somehow substitutes for uplifting thoughts. I tend to agree that a history of violence in America is a truer aesthetic vision that the cotton candy of pop novelists and pandering filmmakers, but it annoys me that there are few verbal pyrotechnicians who use their language skills to inspire and uplift, rather than degrade and cut down. And the word play authors who do trip lightly over life as flitting butterflies tend to be devalued; I cannot tell you how many academics I've known who deride my taste for reading Tom Robbins in public. To them, I reply, it's better than reading the Marquis de Sade in private.
Anyway, Jon, welcome to bookbabble 101, the only site that will die if it grows.
I'd hardly force an aesthetic on anyone. I wholeheartedly agree the man writes of depressing topics. I've read every book he's written and can't find more than a shred of optimism in any of them. Yet, take it for what it's worth. I think the distinction to be made is judging someone vis a vis what they DO write about versus what you believe they COULD write about. I see very few examples of anyone using their gifts for the greater good solely and writing against themselves and being truly successful in terms of what they could be were they indeed true to themselves. However, dark "themselves" may indeed be.
I'm not the largest Tom Robbins fan. The writer of that genre (and you're probably more well versed in it than I am) that I much prefer is John Irving. "Cider House Rules", "...Owen Meany", "..Hotel New Hampshire", etc. have all struck me as masterful and uplifting if that's what you're looking for. But I don't think I'd force that upon an author, or use it as any thing more than a means for identifying the ones you'd prefer to read (and I don't think you're trying to make any grander statement than that). I only know that as much as I'd prefer it to be otherwise, I don't always control my own level of motivation. It comes via the low road as often as the high road.
But, to agree with you, I think there's something infinitely "angsty" about the American culture that seems to cater to darker topics.
I'm truly trying to think of uplifting American authors and with the exception of Twain, I'm clueless.
Hell, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc....it seems all of our "writer laureates" etc., would rather put a bullet through a characters head, before a crown of thorns on top of it.
Keep them coming.
I'm getting closer and closer to the time when I can add to my bibliopage; things have been hectic down here, and we have "hurried up and waited" more often than we'd have liked. That's usually what happens when weather cancels flight plans, or planes break down, etc. When you are supposed to have travelled somewhere but you mysteriously show up in the McMurdo galley anyway, people shun you and refer to you as the "ungone."
I'd love to have a copy of your Alta Vista book, but I fear if you send it by snail mail, it'll get caught up in the FPO "system" and bounce around two or more continents until some bored Navy lifer decides the package is sufficiently ripped to see what it is and pilfer it. So here's what I'd suggest; send it to me at home in L.A. and I'll pick it up on 12/13/96, when I pass through L.A. for one day on my way down to Chile for the second leg of my bifuracated Antarctic sojourn. I'll have full internet access from the research vessel Polar Duke and from Palmer Station, so that is where it will become useful to me. I'm trying to carve out the time while down here to teach myself html and cgi from downloaded tutorials, but I have just scratched the surface, and my reading has gone all to hell in the process. I've logged three books in four weeks, a snail's pace for me: NEANDERTHAL by John Darnton, MARS by Ben Bova, and a re-read of Nabokov's PALE FIRE.
I'll send you an Antarctic musing on NEANDERTHAL inter alia after I go to the galley to eat my "un-supper."
Have you ever read anything by JG Ballard...."Empire of the Sun", "Crash" etc...."Empire.." was made into a movie by (I think) Spielberg. He's very interesting. Overall, his entirety of work might be more fantasy (like Bradbury) or even science fiction (like Phillip Dick). Good writer, but I've read very little of him so I may have bypassed the thorns in favor of the berries.
Also, ever seen the movie by Bunuel, the South American author, called "Man facing Southeast"? I've read some of his short stories which I liked, but the movie I thought was stunning...very uplifting..
The only Bunuel I know was/is a Spanish filmmaker, not a South American author. He made some stunning movies in the 60s but is either senile or dead now. (UN CHIEN ANDALOU, EXTERMINATING ANGEL, THE MILKY WAY, DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, inter alia.) I heard good things about MAN FACING SW, but have yet to rent it. But you have come, in a short "commodius vicus of recirculation" back to the point where you entered, South American authors. I presume a man of your erudition has read some if not all of Garcia Gabriel Marquez. I won't belabor the obvious but if you haven't treated yourself to IN EVIL HOUR or CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD, think about it. Actually, SOLITUDE and CHOLERA are two examples of difficult, deep, demanding, REAL, yet uplifting books written (at least translated) with all the literary flash and dash of Cormac McCarthy, (dare I say it?) and then some.
Wow! You caught me just as I was leaving to eat what passes for food down here in Navy-land. One quick comment, and I'll add more soon. The only book of John Irving that I've ever truly loved in A SON OF THE CIRCUS. This guy wrote a book about India without having ever gone there and I, who did spend 6 weeks there in 1986 filming, thought he got it more "spot on" than Forster or Rushdie or Vikram Seth.
Also, I know why people hate Tom Robbins, but someone who writes about the possibilities of love starts off well above the scale with me, and must pander to the grossest of Harold Robbins in us all to remove him/herself.
Apres la cuisine,
Richard and Jon: I didn't write this for our book dialogue, as you'll see from perusing it, but it does touch on a current book that I read during my first week here. It is a "field journal" like you have seen posted on my Live from Antarctica webpage, but my boss has told me he won't recommend placement on this year's version, so I send it to you.
If you think it merits inclusion on the books dialogue page, go for it.
My boss's reasoning was that high school teachers couldn't understand it, let alone their students. I share not this opinion. (I have other Antarctic field journals that I have resisted the temptation to send you, because I know they will eventually reside on Live from Antarctica's site. If you want them just for your own perusal, let me know and I'll bounce them your way, but not for webification)
If Kekule had not had a dream of a snake eating its own tail, he might not have discovered the chemical structure of the benzene ring. I've often wondered how, and why, "fortune favors the prepared mind." (Or as it is sometimes put, "luck is the residue of design.") I brought a novel down here to Antarctica to read, NEANDERTHAL by John Darnton, a book that under normal circumstances I would have knocked off on the 14-hour plane flight to New Zealand. But I was too excited to read, and put it off until my arrival to McMurdo. Of course, once I got here, I became so busy that reading consisted of a chapter a night at 1:00 AM after I had stumbled into bed. So, here I am fourteen days into my long Antarctic stay, and I'm still not finished, but I am 2/3 done, well into the part where modern-day physical anthropologists encounter a relic band of Neanderthals in the Pamir Mountains east of Turkey. In line with modern scientific speculation about these proto-homo sapiens, the fictional Neanderthals do not have the ability to vocalize like humans do. So, for plotting purposes, the author gives them another sense, an ability to communicate without speech, to participate in a kind of group non-verbal communication that renders speech, and the individuation that it inevitably causes, irrelevant to their group-think way of life. We are now, of course, at that confluence in the river where science and fiction converge, and shouldn't presume that things operate like this in the real world of hominids and human evolution.
Cut to a magical day on the ice edge, where the open waters of the Ross Sea meet the seasonal pack ice of McMurdo Sound. I have travelled by the U.S. Antarctic Program's newest toy, an A-Star helicopter (aka "Squirrel") to the ice edge with my crew to videotape the presence and activities of emperor penguins, who inhabit this fragile and dangerous (to homo sapiens) zone. We start off slowly, landing at a couple of sites about a hundred yards away from the sea ice edge. Before we are allowed to get out and walk closer to the edge, JR, our field safety guide and monutaineer, must hop out and drill a hole in the sea ice with a large steel ice screw. If the sea ice is less than 24 inches thick (all dry, not slush), we cannot park the A-Star and get out. We have a problem; over the last few days, the sea ice edge has changed. A cold front has whipped through, and new sea ice has formed, thinner, with patches of open water within itself, a very dicey area where none of us wants to venture. This doesn't bother the emperors, who can always hop into the water and swim from one patch of sea ice to another. But it limits us. Will we have wasted our precious helicopter allotment for naught? Our first two landings find ice 18 inches thick, and we take off and cruise the leads looking for more stable ice near groups of penguins.
No luck. We go halfway across the sound, almost to the Dry Valleys, trying to "save" our day, and finally in frustration turn back and head for Cape Royds, a fallback manuever that we know will get us an Adelie penguin rookery on land, where we can safely put down. On the way, we sight a group of Weddell seals sunning themselves on what appears to be better ice, and we decide to set down and tape them, although we know that we'll be lucky if they roll over in their torpor. Seals come alive underwater, but resemble large, fat slugs, moving only when necessary, when topside. We find a 30-inch-thick landing zone and get out with all our gear. A lone emperor stands guard between us and the seals, but, no, he's not blocking our way. He sees us and is waddling towards us. We scramble to get our cameras out, still and video, and the emperor of the ice comes to within three feet of us before he stops , stands there, and wiggles his neck in the contortionist way that emperors have.
Occasionally, he lets out a sound, a raspy "caw, caw, caw" that cuts the exquisite silence that exists on the sea ice when the helicopter is shut down on a windless, sunny day. Then, bored that we are not, in fact, larger members of his own tribe, the lone emperor turns and walks away, in the opposite direction from the seals, towards the thinner and more dangerous ice near the open sea. We turn and watch him, and to our amazement, in the distance, we spy a gaggle of penguins, more than we had been able to spot anywhere up to this point.
The question soon becomes, Can we safely follow him? Is he leading us, literally, onto thin ice? JR gets his handy ice screw and starts moving in that direction, probing any suspected weak areas and avoiding any sea ice cracks that have been masked by the six inches or so of snow that lies atop the ice itself. While the emperor walks a straight line, we trace a circuitous path towards the same spot, the congregation of emperors. A few hundred yards later, we have set up our tripod and are ready to let our lenses do the walking the last hundred yards or so. 31 emperors are in a group, some standing, some lying on their bellies, all a healthy distance from a miniature polyna, a small open pool of sea water completely enclosed by the ice. This must be where the penguins came from, and where they will undoubtedly go to re-enter McMurdo Sound when they become hungry. We tape these guys for over an hour, getting sound recordings of their group vocalizations as well. This is what we've come for; we may never go home.
We think we are going to get tape of penguins diving into the water, but they just stand around and repeat the same vocalizations over and over. Brian, our cameraman, is frustrated and yells, "You're boring. A fine bunch of emperors you are. Do something." Then he pans the camera towards the hole and sees through the zoom lens the reason the penguins are all on the ice, yards away from the open water. With his snout barely visible above the water, an interested party cruises the open water hole, looking in the direction of our emperor convention. It is a leopard seal, and the penguins are dinner for him. But he hasn't got a chance of catching them on the ice; he must wait until a reckless one lets his hunger override his caution, and then pounce while in the water.
For the entire time we are there, not one penguin enters the open water, although a delegation of three do occasionally waddle nearer the hole, and "scout" the presence of the leopard seal. The penguins know, without consultation, when to gambol and when to amble. This brings me ("by a commodious vicus of recirculation," as Joyce writes upon entry into FINNEGAN'S WAKE) back to my introductory paragraph, my speculation on Neanderthal group-think, a seemingly-irrelevant opening that the attentive reader will have already noted is out of place in an Antarctic field journal.
Do animals that lack language as we know it possess a different, compensatory sense that we humans have never even thought to look for? Myrmecologists, those who study the behavior of ants, speak not of the individual ant, but of the super-organism that the entire colony possesses. I've often wondered, when watching flocks of birds execute stunningly quick turns in mid-air, all in complete and utter synchronicity, how they do this without the radio communications that enables the Blue Angels to do similar, if less impressive, maneuvers. Is language, that cornerstone on which students of human evolution have built the special exception by which homo sapiens set themselves apart from other animals, really a pale imitation of the communication that goes on between members of other species? Did I just witness, with the 31 emperors, yet another example of animal ESP? And who said, anyway, that extra-sensory perception is extra-sensory? (Extra comes from a Latin root, meaning "out of.") I do believe it was a human who came up with that term. Ask an emperor, and he might tell you that it is language that is "extra," a wildly-inefficient way of communication that lower species on the evolutionary scale, like homo sapiens, resort to because they are forever prohibited from experiencing the oneness with their group that all the higher animals have built into their genes. On second thought, don't ask an emperor. You don't want to know. And he will probably be too busy mind-melding with his brothers and sisters to tell you.
Well, you must have cyber-esp. J.G. Ballard is one of the darkest, yet one of the finest writers I have ever read systematically. For some reason, I seem to read him during my Antarctic trips (of which this is the fourth in 12 years). My favorite is THE DAY OF CREATION, a modern-day HEART OF DARKNESS set in Africa, underappreciated even among his fans because it, like EMPIRE OF THE SUN and its sequel, THE KINDNESS OF WOMEN, is not really s/f. In general his fans like his s/f, because it is not set in the far future but in the present just a tiny bit extrapolated. I loved HIGH RISE so much I found I could only read a chapter a day, an abysmally slow pace for me. But CREATION is just wonderful, and he's no optimist! EMPIRE was made into a Spielberg movie, and I thought the movie quite good, but the regular Spielberg fans didn't agree. (I became aware of Ballard very early in my reading career because I became convinced in early 1964, when I was but a stripling, that JFK had been murdered by the CIA. I still think that, but by 1965, I had found a Ballard story that played off a similar theme, the first fictional treatment of that subject, and it had to be from a European writer, as their sense of history and credibility is (or was) much more developed that ours. I think the short story was entitled "The JFK Assassination Considered as a Horse Race," but I may be mingling memories with another s/f story that came later with a similar theme, by Barry Malzberg or some other minor s/f/luminary. (I cannot check my library down here, so must rely on an imperfect memory; if I leave the computer to surf an answer, I'll lose my train of thought with you.)
There's a series of author interviews on videotape that I have systematically checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library, and Ballard is among my favorites in that series, as is John Mortimer, another British writer of trtemendous appeal (to me). DUNSTER and SUMMER'S LEASE are comic and tragic simultaneously, and the Rumpole short story series just keep getting better and better.
What are you doing in Idaho anyway? Are you Mark Fuhrman's neighbor?
You're destroying my stereotype of Idahores as genetically-damaged Montanans, who live for The Executioner series if they live (biblio-wise) at all.
I forgot to copy Richard on this, so bounce it to him, and we'll start including you in our roundtable. I got attracted to Richard by my finding his list of books read. I maintain a similar list, now over 3930, since I was 17, and am considering adding the whole kit and kaboodle onto the biblio-page, but haven't the time or aptitude to transfer it from my disabled powerbook (useless on the Ice, where no 1-800 numbers work) to this machine. If I don't get that done soon, I'll do it upon my return to L.A. in early March.
On Marquez...I've read just about all of it, and, I agree, he's so good it's spooky. I like to play around with the patterns that I see in South American Literature...similar ones (at least in my mind) pop up in Rushdie (I was going to say "Indian literature" but he's all I've read from there). So, rather than being South American in origin (I think I actually mean Latin American) I think they are more aptly "postcolonial."
As for the literary moniker for these patterns, some call it "postmodernism"....lot's of orality, telling a story and then telling of telling it, close ties to history, very non linear, etc....but I also see the same things in Marquez who would be labeled a "magical realist" and Fuentes who supposedly is a modernist. So, essentially, I don't know what these labels mean..but here's what I think.
There's a wonderful scene in a book by Carlos Fuentes called THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ (a backbreaker) in which a catholic church is described very vividly almost as if the interior exists in layers. Outermost being the modern day catholic icons, etc., then a layer of spanish architecture and then a base layer that contains vestiges of pagan gods that the indigenous people worshipped before the great white conqueror arrived. An everpresent theme to me in all this fiction is searching for sort of a nationalist identity amidst the realization thatmodern day Mexico, Peru, etc. is a hybrid of many other places more so than a place all it's own.
You see characters that all share the same name (Aureliano Buendia), dead characters making cameos periodically (the past is always present), etc., as well as the idea of solitude. There's a good essay in a book called THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE by Octavio Paz that lays out this theme of solitude and what exactly it means. It's all still a little mishy mashy in my mind.
I guess in brief it seems to me that the history of Latin Americancountries is Hegel's dialectic. You've got the thesis of a current regime, the antithesis of a coup or revolution, and then a thesis of a new regime which is actually more of a synthesis. And, that seems to permeate the fiction.
I'm cutting myself off because I fear I'm getty "windy."
I've forwarded all those on. I'm going to have to start keeping a book list. I've never thought of that.
But about Idaho...I'm a transplant. I'm originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia. I attended the College of William and Mary and got my degrees in Religion and English. I graduated, had no idea what I wanted to do, and had developed a distaste for Hampton Roads, Va. I had a friend in Boise, came to visit for a summer, fell in love with the state and stayed. I bounced around for a while before deciding to go to law school which is where I am at now.
Fuhrman's a bit up north with some more his type. But overhyped is Idaho's attraction to Aryans. The real attraction to them is just how tolerant these people are. Very different mindset from the East coast. Very relaxed and very friendly. This is probably the most scenic area of the country I've ever been in with the exception of the Black Hills and Montana.
A love of words, reading, etc. lends itself quite well to law school. I'm fast finding out that fewer people here actually impress with intelligence than baffle with bullshit, and who better to do that than.....
Off the cuff, 5 best short stories.....
1- THE DEAD by Joyce...i think the final paragraph about the snow falling on Michael Furey's grave is an almost unrivaled closing paragraph..
2-THE HANDSOMEST DROWNED MAN IN THE WORLD by Garcia Marquez
3-anything by Flannery O'Connor..maybe A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND
4-A ROSE FOR EMILY-by Faulkner
5-okay i've hit a wall
re e-mail: there's been some screw-up in my forwarding from NASA Ames on my quest account. So, until 12/9, S328 is better, and I do get them all, since nobody else on this account reads or writes on literature.
After 12/9, I go to the other side of the continent via USA (one day conjugal visit home) and will have a different e-mail address at Palmer, but don't yet know what it is.
Re; short stories. Is "The Bear" considered a short story? If so, chalk it. Marquez "innocent Erendira" also. (and I do love "Handsomest Drowned Man" also) And Allan Gurganus, author of the wonderful OLDEST LIVING CONFEDEARTE WIDOW TELLS ALL, also wrote a story for Granta that is the last one, I think, in his WHITE PEOPLE volume, about a young white boy selling life insurance to poor blacks in rural North Carolina. His guilt, all our guilt. A personal favorite!
Well, that explains it. My cameraman down here is from Virginia Beach, used to work for NASA Langley. And, in deep dark past, I decided to transfer while in college from Cornell to Hampton Institute, on a one-semester exchange program established in the 1960s. I spent a weekend at Hampton and attended their honors seminars in English, only to realize that their best professor (J. Saunders Redding, whom Cornell later pirated) was a buffoon whose only idea of teaching Shakespeare was to "confide" in his students that the sonnet "To a Dark Lady" was about Avon Bill's passion for African women. Pshaw!
Further parallels. I went to law school, graduating from Golden Gate U. School of Law in SF in 1976, but for reasons I won't go into now, I became convinced that practicing law was paid prevarication, and happily I fell into a job researching science and science history for COSMOS, Carl Sagan's 13-hour love song to human scientific achievement. That is what led to me becoming a documentary producer, for me a much more satisfying and adventurous lifestyle.
"Paid prevarication"...I can't say that that eludes me to be honest. I'm still lamb white in regards to the whole thing. I'm in my first semester of first year. I'm still young (26), and am coming off true paid prevarication in it's most ugly, warted sense (manager at Sears Credit services), so I'm still a bit high on it. But, I have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation when my legal writing instructor is only 30. (Already left private practice after only 4 years, and doing well for herself to take a drastic pay cut to teach this) And, my older professors seems so incredibly jaded (or is "wordly" the right word?).
But perhaps this will be my springboard to branching out as well.
You guys are incredible. There's no way I can keep pace with this volume of correspondence (much less the pace of your reading). I love this stuff.
Do either of you have any contacts at the New Yorker? This should be a column there or in some other such magazine.
You two are the be-all and end-all of my literary contacts. I am in Northern Idaho after all.
My reading lately has dwindled to some poetry and short stories. I'll have no time to plow through an entire book again until Xmas break, but I'm taking suggestions. I've been getting fairly interested in the idea of "fuzzy logic" and "smart technology." It's more from a philosophical perspective since I have not yet mastered "dumb" technology.
But, are either of you familiar with the subject? I've read bits and pieces of a book that I hope to get through over xmas called "Fuzzy Logic" by Kosko. Any recommendations in the area that are written in a layman's style?
Also, has anyone ever read "A Peoples History of the United States" by Howard Zinn? That's another I'm interested in.
This just suddenly popped into my head but a good non fiction recommendation---no pulitzer, but fairly interesting, odd sort of story--is MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by John Berendt. It's about an actual murder among Savannah's decadent elite. It's got antiques, transvestites, homosexuals, drugs, family secrets, the whole shooting gallery.
We've got to start changing our subject headers or poor Richard will never sort these back and forths out. Presume you saw his note. Richard, if you're listening, I'd prefer to be credible than incredible, and would prefer to be edible over either. But seriously, thanks for your compliments. (I don't think we're at The New Yorker stage yet, especially with that ex-VF gossipmonger reductionist running it, but we might be moving in an encouraging direction. Also, the quickness with no fact-checking by which I shoot these bowshots off in my interstitial time should really be slowed down to a leisurely contemplative crawl if these are to be treated as serious crits.)
Now, on to the paid prevarication. Law is an intellectually fascinating subject, or could be if it were written by people who cultivated a sense of language style, but, alas, it has a sober function, to mitigate property relations, to settle (sometimes irrational) disputes, to mete out resources according to society's dictates and against individual's passions, to punish those who would transgress. In short, it is about power, not about knowledge, and almost by definition abhors the multi-synaptic, brain-mimicking, freewheeling netizen attitude that I, as a new surfer, find refreshing. The net is hypet-linked and demands, or is best utilized by, hyper-literacy. The law is linear, result-oriented, and totally unable to distinguish grays in between the black Scylla and white Charybdis. This is especially true of American law, where the adversarial system encourages each side to exaggerate their own side's merits and the opposition's failings. I have two long stories that illustrate this, a case in which I was accused of felonious behavior because I objected to an undeclared war (only "congress shall have the right to declare war'" says the constitution) and a very high profile case in which I found myself thrust just upon being spit out of law school. These are for another, more leisurely time, but suffice to say, Shakespeare's views on law comport more closely with mine than do dork Bork's.
But the law in literature is a different can of eels. Jon, I strongly urge you to start reading the Rumpole series of short stories by John Mortimer. Once you have read a few, start watching the PBS re-runs starring Leo McKern as the indefatigable barrister. Only after you have all the recurring characters down can you appreciate the TV series. If all lawyers were Rumpole, and quoting Wordsworth was considered an acceptable allusion in a capital case, I might change my mind about these preening leeches. But Rumpole is forever condemned to fight knobheaded judges and play petty politics in his own office with ambitious social-climbing underachievers. Mortimer, whose father was a lawyer, and who is one himself, I think, could only elucidate the law by stepping outside of it and transforming it into literature, by realizing that a higher truth is possible in the arts than can ever be achieved in the law. The truth is the victim in an adversarial system, a victim seldom appreciated and often papered-over with platitudes and good intentions, cloaked by absurdist notions of fairness and clogged by procedural instruments of torture handed down from the Inquisition. Free speech is an obnoxious oxymoron to a moron who relies on a granite-protected system to derive his/her own personhood and and social status. Law is to ethics and philosophical understanding like cybersex is to sex - a legend in one's own mind and hand. Isn't Wanker a Dickens character in BLEAK HOUSE? If not, it's only because his lawyer/agent changed the name to Jaryndice or somesuch to protect the guilty.
Having said all that, I must end this with an exhilarating legal note.
Justice William O. Douglas once wrote a dissent, I believe, on the issue of whether trees should have standing to sue. (to defend themselves from anthropogenic attack) This idea was picked up in a short book by some law professor; you can find it in Lexis, but I am on the lawless continent where Lexis is the name of a woman who left large winter-over footprints.
Be sure to make your law school experience fun. Try writing a brief in a 14-lined sonnet, or titling a case with a palindrome. Turn it in to your prof who burnt out after 4 years. If she has a heart, you'll get an "A" even if you don't deserve it.
Maybe I'll delve into Mortimer over my x-mas vacation. It's ironic that I can get a chill FOR the law by watching the plight of Thomas More in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS initially, but then having stepped back for a moment suddenly realize it was the contemporary state of the law that KILLED him, and his own convictions in antithesis of that were what was truly compelling. Missing the forest for all the trees I suppose.
Your distinctions remind me of a sort of epiphanic moment I had as an undergrad. Taking a contemporary literature course, I, one day, listened as my professor tossed off the casual statement that the purpose of higher education really, contrary to what's usually presumed, is to teach you to communicate within the bounds of western discourse. The more I pondered it, the more I kept coming back to an image of a bubble within a bubble. Going to college convinced that you're getting a four year window to explore reality, truth, etc. and to break out of societal strictures. Her comment conjured up an image of breaking out of your own little bubble (your own society) but still staying within the larger bubble of western discourse. Really, any sort of pursuit for truth can never definitionally come to an end. Once you've broken down one wall, you're hemming yourself in if you're celebrating your new found "freedom" rather than looking for the next wall. Beware of those who can explain it all.
I think a healthier pursuit is to "mysticize/spiritualize" your everyday. Like Tibetan prayer wheels that blow in the wind, or the religiousness of the same monks scrubbing the stairs, etc. I think a more colloquial way of putting it is to keep it "FUN." There's so much fear in law school...fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of gettting called on period..when the real fear ought to be always saying the right thing.
That's when you know something is truly wrong.
There's a book by Sam Keen (used to be editor of Psychology Today) called VOICES AND VISIONS where he interviews "psychic visionaries." He interviews Castanedaa, and others like him. But the most interesting interview contained therein was with a fellow named I believe Lilly who pioneered dolphin experiments. He had 3 dolphins in a pool and would toss 3 balls of different colors into the pool. Somehow he communicated the word RED to the dolphins (I can't remember if he actually just yelled it or piped it underwater or what) and a dolphin would then nose the RED ball out of the pool, and so on through all the other colors. His point was to show how intelligent dolphins were. Well, periodically the dolphins would break their pattern and start nosing the wrong ball to the edge of the pool in such a way that they were never inadvertently right. Always right 3 out of 3 times, or wrong on all 3. He then started dickering around with the idea that these dolphins may indeed be as smart as him if not smarter. The ability to break the rules was an illustration of their true grasp of the rules. And, then apparently they went on a hunger strike for, he believed, their freedom. So he called all his experiments off and set them free. Maybe there is credence to all that, or maybe not, but the man's successful to me because in even what would seem to be the most mundane assumption--humans are smarter than dolphins--he entertains the prospect that he may be incorrect.
Well, it's now off to read Torts. Comparative negligence is a real hoot. A jury of your peers weighs all the evidence and rules that you were 42% negligent in an accident, while the other actor was 58% negligent. It's an odd calculation whereby a fact pattern utterly devoid of stats and figures is able to yield a numerical result.
For me, the spiritual was another trap, probably because of the historical circumstance that pertained when I was growing up. Surprise! I'm older than you, 51 to be exact, and came of age in the mid-1960s when there was a lot of spiritual seekers littering the road to truth. That's unkind, I know, but many of these seekers were really people running away; seeking was the means by which they tuned out from the pressures of growing up and the lies that their parents and society's in loco parentis were telling them. So what did they do? They went to india and trashed a third world country with middle class values and boorish behavior; in fact, they've never left. At any given moment, approximately 500,000 westerners roam the fetid streets of India looking for enlightenment, and if that's not forthcoming, chemical substitutes. Don't get me wrong; internal astronautics can be a good thing. The early LSD experimentation was conducted by Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsburg and others with noble intentions, as a consciousness-expansion protocol, but somewhere along the way, big money and psychic novocaine became more important than one degree off center as a new perspective. Your note mentioned John Lilly, the dolphin scientist. It was Lilly's LSD trips that took him off the scientific schneid and moved him to a place where he could comtemplate dolphin awareness from another perspective that our comfortable anthropomorphic one. Lilly became increasingly impatient with the measured civility and refereed caution of the science establishment, I think with good reason. Castaneda took a different, but parallel journey.
These were my intellectual mentors as I was struggling with all these competing forces, asserted values, etc. But I had a different co-evolution. I gravitated towards the highest levels of science and found in the best of them, only there, not in the institutions, a level of understanding and a breadth of acceptance to non-intuitive experience that religion had promised but in my case failed to deliver. This is a mammoth topic, one better pursued over a cup of hot chocolate in a mountain cabin with fireplace going and time suspended from worldly constraints. And it strays from the literary life somewhat, though not from the goals of literature. I'm not even sure it's worked out coherently in my head today, nor that it will ever be. But I'll try to take it in small bites, and throw a suggestion or reaction your way when I'm sufficiently introspective enough to have something meaningful to say. Now I gotta eat.
Soon, my Allen Ginsburg story, which pertains.
There are quite a few people down here who would be interested in obtaining your Alta Vista book. One I know of is Robbie Score, the lady who found the Mars rock that has come to recent prominence, when she was here in a different capacity in 1984. She now is assistant manager of Crary Science and Engineering Lab at McMurdo.
Why don't you send me purchase by mail and/or e-mail info and I'll disseminate it to interested parties down here? It's the least I can do for my free copy.
Also, what ideas do you have for subdividing the bibliomania page? As long as it stays small, I don't see a problem, especially if we discipline ourselves to not use automatic reply that keeps the same title for multiple documents. Of course, you can always sequence them by time and date. What if others start writing? We could have a veritable garden of forking paths.
Thanks a lot. By the way, I just did a telephone interview with a reporter from the on-line version of PC World. He'll probably be posting it on their site as an audio file. You might find it interesting.
Regarding "bibliomania", yes, it sounds like a good idea to handle author stories separately.
That whole Martian bit is neat -- amazing how a discovery/announcement like that can change the landscape. All of a sudden a trek to Antarctica is like a trip to out space (not just because of the harsh environment, but because of the kinds of information that can be uncovered.) It's a lot more glamorous looking for Martian microbes than penguins.
I passed along the book info to Robbie and will print up a brief announcement and post it in the Computer Room here at Crary Lab where most of the surfers among the 1200 or so at McMurdo hang ten.
Your ideas for bibliomaniacs are fine; I wonder if we shouldn't segregate the author stories into a different page, or at least highlight them in a different color on the hyper table of contents. Now there's only one, no problem. But I'm going to try to knock off Allen Ginsburg tonight, and a couple of others in the days ahead. They're digressions, not responses to you or Jon on lit and life.
FYI, I'm off into the deep field in three days for a week. No computers, no beds, just skidoos and Scott tents and freeze-dried foods and 40 knot winds as we shoot the meteorite hunters who scour the blue ice for messengers from space. This will be the nastiest week of my entire icy sojourn, but who ever said seeking Martians was easy?
I took one history class during my undergraduate sojourn. THE HISTORY OF AMERICA 1945-1980. My interest was particularly picqued because having been a product of public schools, history classes rarely made it past 1950. I had a very old professor who droned on metronomically and made a very interesting subject as arid as the plains.
One day, starving for something to latch onto and to give me a valid reason for not skipping his class regularly, I started pondering his comment to the effect that "when Eisenhower left office his approval rating was only about 40% but now we know he was an excellent president."
That was the first time revisionist history crossed my path. He followed in the semester with other gems such as "20 years down the road we see that the countercultural movement of the 60s has had no lasting effect and was indeed a futile exercise."
Simultaneously, in a Faulkner seminar, we had begun to plow through ABSALOM, ABSALOM. I'm sure you've both read it. If not, in brief, two young chaps sit around in their college dorm room recreating the history of a particular family that once lived in their town. They have only the barest facts to go on, but continuously flesh them out in the grandest style. For a while, as I read ABSALOM, ABSALOM, I chuckled, thinking that Faulkner was explaining my history class to me.
An interesting side note on Faulkner that's vaguely related to all this...I once read a transcript of a lecture/interview he gave while writer in residence at UVA. He would be asked questions such as "What did you mean when you wrote the phrase 'memory forgets before knowing remembers'" And Faulkner would always begin with the phrase, "Well, it might be this....." Next question, same intro to his answer..."Well, it could be this....." Perhaps he was aware he might be revising his own history.....Who knows. But I remember feeling stupid and being quite surprised at the same time when I realized history was not all facts..Imagine that. Think warm thoughts
History in general is not generals in history, though "great man" historians would have you so believe. After my turgid wind-down of yesterday, I feel compelled to bounce back, and you have inadvertently opened the Pandora's box for such a rebound. I only wish I had my home library at my disposal now, because I'll undoubtedly misstate a fact or some such, but that is the price I pay for trying to combine physical and mental adventure in the same temporal plane.
Revisionist history, AH, I know it well. And I must tell you a few sources that helped me understand the need for, and the threat of, revision. Anybody who takes a contemporary history course in college these days is asked to read THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT. Mailer's "history as novel, the novel as history" is oft-cited as the definitive work on the 1960s protest movement. Of course, this is balderdash, but Mailer does have a novelist's ear, and captures the March on the Pentagon with fair accuracy. How do I know? I was there, smelling the flowers that were placed into the guns of the National Guard, seeing the community that was a-building as the times were a-changing. I hoped against hope that the mad exorcists of the Pentagon would succeed in vaporizing the evil pentagram, but wasn't too surprised when the granite stayed in place as the exorcists floated off to other more ethereal pursuits. But Mailer did a service to the Movement that is invisible in his book, and this is why I rather like it despite the rather improbable scenario of a white Negro beatnik trying to make sense of a generation that had been born beyond his grasp. (similarly, I sometimes wonder how I, at 51, can ever grasp Gen X who have grown up on computers and dissonant grunge music when I grew up on TV and the strains of Dylan, the Stones & the Beatles.)
Back from the mental ellipsis, Mailer treated the hippies and politicos with a respect that was non-existent within the dominant culture in 1968, and as "the great American novelist," the author of the great American WWII novel, told a generation of our elders, his peers, that we were groping at some vital truth that had eluded them. Any cognizant observer on the social scene knows that the Vietnam War was only curtailed when the American middle class adopted, for whatever reasons, the anti-war stance of the rebels and flower children. So, for all our passion, all our generational rebellion, it was the Mailers of the world (even more than the Ginsburgs-same generation, but with his own admitted deviationism) that legitimized the anti-war stance. Ask around today: I rarely find anyone who admits that they supported the war back then, yet if all of them had been anti-war, it would have ended far far sooner.
Well, the war, and the JFK assassination (which the govt did a putrid job of spinning onto one lone nut) and the sober lectures about pot ruining the memory, and J. Edgar Transvestite's stolid anti-communism, and Sgt. Friday's deadpan earnesteness, and a host of other transparent cultural icons, did not make it difficult for a sane youth to begin to wonder about the reality of any "official" history. I found a few beacons along the way, and, not surprisingly, they were books. Books did not yell the sell at you like Timothy Leary did, or Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman. What was the essential difference between these buffoons and Nixon or Kissinger or Hoover, except the content of their delirium? Somehow, I discovered William Appelman Williams, an American historian of wide-ranging vision and radical insight. And the works, Marxist as they were, and therefore suspect because of their rigidity, of Paul Sweezy and Harry Braverman and David Horowitz (yes, the same David Horowitz who jumped sides and now is a right wing flakster). But even these works, great as they were, paled in comparison to another kind of history that I started to discover at the same time: Philip Slater's THE PURSUIT OF LONELINESS and William McNeill's PLAGUES AND PEOPLES and Alfred Crosby's ECOLOGICAL IMPERIALISM and the works of William Irwin Thompson. Finally there was a greater vantage point from which to view all this madness, a vantage point that did not automatically assume man to be the top of the food chain and the endpoint of evolutionary movement. Crosby came later than the others, but probably because of this, had a larger synthesis to weave. By all means, I urge you, if you like nature, the clear air of Idaho and Antarctica, the cultural autonomy that once pertained between isolated cultures and is now fast disappearing, and the notion that we are but one of many species that lay an equal claim to our spaceship planet, to read Crosby, to skim Ehrlich and Commoner, to find Daniel Botkin and the other deep ecologists, and incorporate them into your world view.
A quick aside; it was none of these people that started me breaking down artificial discipline barriers. It was two Europeans of quite different sensibility that I read much earlier - Arthur Koestler, whose trilogy (THE SLEEPWALKERS, THE ACT OF CREATION, and THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE) blew me away, and George Steiner, whose LANGUAGE AND SILENCE, EXTRATERRITORIAL and AFTER BABEL did likewise, that set me on the path, happily assumed and not defensively maintained, of polymathic dilettantism, a path I continue to pursue today. The only drawback of this path is that it isolates me from many others who don't want to commit the time and effort to keep growing after college or early formation is over, but I know that doesn't apply to you two, by the nature, Richard, of your organization, and by the nature, Jon, or your substantive comments.
P.S. Two years after publication of ARMIES OF THE NIGHT, I was taken by a professor of mine at Cornell to meet Norman Mailer in Provincetown, where he then summered. B. H. Friedman introduced me to Mailer in a restaurant as a promising young writer from Cornell and an assistant editor of EPOCH, the Cornell literary magazine. Mailer looked bored and acted like he had been through this drill ever so many times before. Then Friedman added that I was also an SDS organizer and fiery anti-war activist there. He said this because he was frustrated at me for not turning in some stories I had promised, and B.H. knew why. I was spending all my spare time organizing, not being the solitary artiste/aesthete that was de rigeur in creative writing circles at the time. Mailer perked up, and immediately started asking me questions about the movement, about its trans-campus organization, about the ethical qualities of its leaders, about how the threat of government pressure and internal contradictions (drugs and risk-free sex being among them) might affect its efficacy. Old B.H. was silenced in his tracks. Clearly the conversation had drifted in a direction that a novelist whose best work (YARBOROUGH) was about the obsessive life of competition bridge players could not relate to, and I think if I hadn't already abandoned the pose of the tormented artist, that I would have soon thereafter. Actually, I had already made the leap. At evening's end, Mailer asked me if I would be so kind as to drive a woman writer friend of his back to NYC from Provincetown. I said yes, and he took me up the street to meet Bonnie Golightly, who had just published LSD: THE PROBLEM-SOLVING PSYCHEDELIC. She was 20 years older than me, and I gave her the ride, delivering her to her Chelsea apartment. When I got inside, helping her carry her luggage up the stairs, I wasn't too surprised to see that her apartment was littered with cats and had no furniture except a few orange cartons that she used as chairs. She told me that she had been the model for Truman Capote's Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. I was stunned. I had been in love with Audrey Hepburn (still am) ever since seeing that movie, which was (coincidentally, hell there are no coincidences) about a young and struggling writer, kept by an older woman, who falls in love with a free spirit and has his life changed. That movie had, in 1962, positioned me to be the tormented artiste in the first place. By 1969, I had come full circle and life its own self had kicked me in the ass for my own betterment.
(Sorry, Richard, I didn't think I was going to launch into an author story here, but adrenalin does strange things. Or maybe its the clean air, cleanest on earth, of Antarctica.)
Very interesting. I will take those recommendations to heart and make it a point to look into at least a few of what you've referenced. I have read Slater's PURSUIT OF LONELINESS. An excellent book and I think a precursor, or rather, predictor of the development of this "generation x" phenomenon if it does indeed actually exist. Having spent my share of time in the last 5 years in bars with the so-called inhabitants of that culture, I've found that those the media usually points to as it's denizens are far from it. There's a malaise affecting people of that age bracket that results in almost a virtual paralysis. I've never met so many people who know exactly what they don't want to do, but haven't either the vaguest clue or derring do to make a decision about what they DO want to do. And, it's very reactive. No one wants to be like their parents. I know that's not new by any stroke of the imagination.
I think there's an apathy born of media overload and a firm conviction that you can never know who to trust. There's an author named Don Delillo who wrote a novel called WHITE NOISE that speaks to this.
Throughout any scene, he'll suddenly come in with an aside concerning some sort of media intrusion in the ear-space. Characters will be having some sort of discussion at the dinner table and suddenly he'll insert a line to the effect that "quietly in the background the TV could be heard telling me how white my shirts can be." And, his description of the supermarket is worth reading a hundred times. Not a classic novel by any stretch but very illustrative of a very, I think, real phenomenon.
I read an excellent book tangentially related to this subject. It was called STORMING THE REALITY STUDIO, and it was by a man, I believe, named Davis. An English professor at Duke. It ostensibly was a casebook of cyberpunk and postmodern fiction...tracing the development of what constitutes those two genres today. But, he breaks down his idea of postmodernism in an introductory essay that's very succinct and very practical. I've read Lyotard who supposedly is the architect of postmodern theory and found him interesting but very theoretical, ivory towered. I much prefer the practical application.
Really the challenge is dealing with the media hurricane, the sensory blitz, that comes at you every day. I think Faulkner speaks to this with his stream of consciouness, and Rushdie, with his character, Saleem Sinai, in MIDNIGHTS..whose life parallels the partitioning and independence of India. In both cases you have impossibly large amounts of information to try and make work for you, and you have to step back and attack it from a theme perspective rather than trying to break it down into its bit parts and components. On a micro level, it doesn't seem to work at all, but retreat and widen your focus and often you get a grasp.
Back to Generation X.....I think those who fit aptly within that label have dealt with this blitz simply through the "duck and cover" which is understandable, but a little sad. You can't live life curled up in the fetal position. I don't know if you've ever read anything by Douglas Coupland..MICROSERFS or GENERATION X..but he gives you kind of an idea of this.
But I happen to think it's a very vibrant time, and the Internet, to which I am very much a babe in the woods, is to me BETTER than sliced bread, and literally a new horizon. The greatest reference tool I've ever seen, and quite fortunately, bringing back the written word!!!
A time-limited response. I've read Copeland and can't stand him, or I should say, couldn't stand the aimlessness of MICROSERFS. Is that the fallacy of imitative form at work, whereby if you write a book about a boring character, you're compelled to make it boring?
I've also read DeLillo, but not WHITE NOISE. The book he did on Lee Harvey Oswald, LIBRA ?, was about as good a piece of interpretive history on psychodynamics of JFK assassination, "history as novel" as that spaceship looming large, GRAVITY'S RAINBOW is about WWII. You're probably too young to remember the flap that Truman Capote created, the literary fit he threw, when Mailer published ARMIES OF THE NIGHT and claimed in interviews that he had invented a new literary form, one that Tru had staked claim on with his book on those two killers whose title escapes me. (Synapse relief: IN COLD BLOOD). Also, I greatly enjoyed RATNER'S STAR, but being the science junkie that I am, with a tendency towards things cosmological, that shouldn't surprise you.
Speaking of Gen X, I ventured into the Southern Exposure late last night. That is a bar where the various workers accumulate on Saturday nights to blow off the steam of their six-day work weeks. Last night was Disco Era night, and "Shake your Booty," or "Sheik Djerbouti" in the Middle East, and other similar misshits were booming. Of course, I can remember Disco music, not fondly, but it was ancient history to the majority of the crowd in the bar. At about midnight, after three hours of drinking, with the diamond ball rotating and the lights so low you could hardly see the Exit sign, the younger members of the gathering (remember, we're all abject social misfits, or we wouldn't be here) started slam dancing. I like to cop a feel as much as the next guy, but this was pure aggressive football with chests; people have been hurt here in Antarctica before for mosh pit antics, and bar diving. I got my foot stomped on by some bruiser of a forklift operator who was making a desperate lunge at my "date's" butt. This I need about as much as a high blood pressure report. Give me the lost generation anytime, the samba is more elegant, and the tango more sensuous. Not that I would know from personal experience. I am ped-ally-challenged...as coordinated as a weighted ping-pong ball, with a tolerance level for high decibel prop wash that approaches the asymptotic limit of zero.
From the penal colony for Gen X's baddest cats, I remain
Deane of the Antarctic
I've never understood that whole "slam dancing" phenomena myself. Might as well hold your hand over the burner if that's what it takes to make it happen for you. The whole thought of that going on in the Antarctica is a bit surreal, and I'm quite surprised there's even a bar there. But, I'll bet I'd be surprised about a lot of what goes on down there.
Explain Pynchon to me. I've been read THE CRYING OF LOT 49 and admit to being intrigued but also admit to being a bit in the dark about the whole thrust. I've started one of his other books several times..I forget the title but it's about someone named Benny Profane..but can't ever get very far. What are his themes? What's at work in his works? Break him down into chewable chunks for me.
Also, do you think he might be someone we all know writing under a pseudonym? Maybe he's really that guy who did "Eraserhead." Or better yet, Alger Hiss (in which case we can expect no more from him).