Monday, February 28, 2011


A miscellany tonight, as all too often. A week or two ago, enthralled with the density and productive rhythm of Johnson's Rambler essays – he turned those things out at the rate of 2 a week for about 2 solid years, you know – I floated the idea of retooling Culture Industry into a series of Rambler-like essay-lets. Well, that's not happening anytime soon, I fear. After all, writing Ramblers was Johnson's full-time job at the time; he didn't have to prepare talking points on the Odyssey and Carlyle and Macaulay, or do the cooking, or feebly attempt to pitch in on the raising of the kids.

More importantly, there's a kind of wonderful observational (& for that matter moral) intensity to Johnson's essays that I find myself having trouble mustering. It's true, at the best of times I'm terribly scattered, my mind and sensibility on a dozen different texts, things, issues. And my habitual, engrained diffidence makes it difficult for me to issue pronouncements in the Johnsonian manner, or even to try patiently explaining things – things always seem, in the next layer of analysis, far more complex than my explanation would indicate.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable series of moments at the otherwise fabulous Louisville conference this weekend were those numerous times when folks asked me "What's your next project?" & I found myself answering, "well, I'd like to write brief book A, or maybe brief book B, and somewhere down the line is big book C." And where does the paper you just gave fit in with A, B, or C? Er -- nowhere, actually; it's just something that's been obsessing me for a while. I'm sure Jonathan Mayhew would have pointed things to say about directing one's energies, but keeping on task has never been my strong point.

At any rate, the conference was a great time, as conferences tend to be – yes, there were some excellent panels, including in-depth treatments of Michael Heller & Lorenzo Thomas, and a fine reading by Rae Armantrout, but as usual the selling point of these gatherings is the chance to get together with one's academic friends whom one only sees at conferences. "Get together" in the sense of "going out to excellent exotic restaurants and going out on extended drinking binges." The sort of thing, I guess, that my undergraduates do every weekend – or at least the binging part.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hey, would whoever shared the Ruskin & Pubic Hair link on Facebook let me know who they are? Just out of curiosity...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

advice for booksellers

I cannot live without books.
–Thomas Jefferson

We talk of food for the mind, as of food for the body: now a good book contains such food inexhaustibly; it is a provision for life, and for the best part of us; yet how long most people would look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it!
–John Ruskin
When I moved to south Florida from the DC area, it didn't take me long to realize that one thing I would be missing, constantly, would be decent bookshops. Sure, we have the ordinary Barnes & Nobles and Borders (fewer, it seems!). And there are a sprinkling of alright independents (not nearly as many as you'd think). But the vast desert of asphalt and concrete that stretches from south Miami to the north end of Palm Beach County, that houses well over five million people, has fewer decent second-hand bookstores than any major metropolitan area I've ever visited. When I moved here a decade & a half ago, there were maybe six or eight; now there are three or four. At the end of this month, there will be one fewer.

I discovered what was then the best of the pack, a shop in Ft. Lauderdale owned & operated by R--- H---, soon after moving here. I was delighted by his deep collections in modernist poetry, in art criticism, in British history, in – surprisingly – Marxist theory. His books were modestly priced and decently arranged. There was a kind of quiet comfort to the shop – three stories of labyrinthine shelves – that made browsing for hours a positive pleasure. I gathered eventually that R--- H--- had inherited the business, and much of his stock, from his father; and alas, it did not grow – when I bought all his books on David Jones, they weren't replaced with other, as delicious titles. But there was always something there for me to not resist buying.

Several years ago, R--- H--- decided to get out of the brick-&-mortal retail business, to retire upstairs to a single floor of his shop where he could concentrate on high-end internet sales & appraisal work. I understand he's doing just fine. The shop proper was taken over by a woman who'd been his assistant for some years & by a new face, an overtanned Canadian refugee who manned the cash register; the store was redubbed – imaginatively indeed – "The Book Shop." What followed was a half-decade slide into mediocrity. The always elastic organization of the place became positively anarchic. The pricing went mad – who wants to buy a Verso remainder, easily found on the internet at half cover price, at two dollars off? The place began to cater to the despicable south Florida "home decor" market. One overheard conversation:
Home Decorator: So how much do I have now?

Overtanned Canadienne: You've chosen $12000 or so. I think that's something like forty shelf-feet worth. Would you like this nicely-bound set of 19th-century medical encyclopedias?

HD: Ooh, that's nice. But no, we've filled the cases.

OC: How about these (holds up a mint boxed set of Emily Dickinson's letters)? Or these (ditto Joyce's letters)?

At the end of this month, however "The Book Shop" is going out of business. I made a valedictory visit this morning, picking up a handful of things at half price – the Library of America's 20th-c. poetry anthology, some Laura (Riding) Jackson, Isaiah Berlin, Chantal Mouffe, etc. I can't say I'm sorry to see it go, given that every visit there in the past few years has been such a painful experience. Worst perhaps was the afternoon (maybe just a "bad day" for the OC) when a young man came up to the register with a stack of books & asked if he could negotiate down the price of one of them.
Young Man: If you don't mind me saying so, I think a lot of your prices are way too high.

Overtanned Canadienne: Where are you gonna do better?

YM: Well, on the internet; I mean, if I want a particular book, I'll always go online – when I come into a brick-&-mortar shop, I want to be surprised by something I didn't know I wanted, at a price I can afford. Times are changing for used bookstores.

OC: Don't tell me how to run my business!

YM: I'm not telling you how to run your business, I just thought –

OC: Get out of my shop! Right now! I don't ever want to see you here again!

Me (silently): Ouch.
I'm not losing any sleep over The Book Shop's demise. I too will go online for particular titles, & when I want to browse aimlessly, we have here in Boca Raton one of the finest second-hand shops in the southeastern US, the always-expanding Bookwise.

But for the overtanned Canadienne, if ever she decides to go back into bookselling, a few tips from someone who's probably spent more free time browsing in bookstores than she's spent reading books:
•Please don't talk so loudly. I know loud voices are par for the course down here, since it seems half the population grew up in Long Island or New Jersey, but nobody wants to hear you rant over your cell phone about your last bad date, the problems you're having with your tax lawyer, or whatever. Especially when the acoustics of your shop are such that you can be heard loud and clear in every corner.

•Try to figure out some semi-logical, semi-coherent pricing structure. Half cover price is a good place to start, tho of course you can make exceptions for books which are rare or scarce or only available at astronomical prices. But I'm not about to pay 75% of cover price for a remainder I get at a fraction of that from the Labyrinth catalogue. (Yes, your customers do get catalogues...)

•Don't talk trash about your previous customers – yesterday's, last week's, or the guy who just walked out the door – in front of people who are currently browsing. This should be logical, I think – no-one wants to speculate on what you'll be saying about him or her a hour from now.

•Try to learn something about books yourself. When I hear you chat incessantly about movies, Broadway shows, and television, & your only reference to actual reading material involves the authors of the more popular stretches of the Oprah Book Club, I'm unlikely to have much faith in your skills at buying, pricing, & sorting what you might get in.

•Addendum to above: Ex library books with stamps, perspex sleeves, etc. are, for collection purposes, worthless. Don't try to convince me otherwise by pricing them sky-high and marking them "rare." Sorry – these are "reading copies." Mid-century Soviet editions of Marx, Lenin, etc. are by no means scarce, so stop pricing them like the Holy Grail. Cheap reprints of big art books are not comparable in value to their trade publisher first editions.

•And above all else, keep your goddamned bichon out of the shop. The canonical animal for a second-hand bookshop is a cat. Period. Two cats, tops. Nobody wants a hyper, yippy little animal underfoot (even if he is "cute"), especially one who wants to have sexual congress with customers' legs. I suppose many of us have fantasies about sexual encounters in used bookshops – but I'm pretty sure not many of them involve toy dogs.
One rumor has it that R--- H--- may be reassuming the helm of this foundering vessel. Who knows? In the meantime, requiescat in pacem, Book Shop.

my writing life

First things first: when it comes to writing tips, from the very basic hints as to how to get started up to how to organize one's work on a major book-length project, there's still no blog out there I've encountered to compare with Jonathan Mayhew's Stupid Motivational Tricks. However, if you're looking for something just a skoshe more basic, I've just stumbled on – well, Jonathan pointed me there – a über-clearly written and extremely sensible newish blog, Get a Life, PhD. This one strikes me as especially useful for grad student types; I wish it had been around when I was in that particular purgatory.
I'm taking a deep breath right now – not that I really have time to – before tackling the next round of writing projects. (Well, before I tackle them I've got a stack of Iliad tests to mark, & a conference paper to lick into shape, so I'm not exactly lounging in the sun...) Those should be relatively easy: a set of four successive book reviews, all of books that I'm interested in & keen to write on. Indeed, I've already finished one of the books & have started drafting a 1st paragraph of the review, so I feel for once that I'm ahead of the game.

This has been in some ways a very busy year for writing, but gratifying in surprising ways. That is, about 18 months ago, I started getting solicited for book chapters. Lots of book chapters: four, in fact, all of them in the sort of highly prestigious projects that I would have killed to be in ten or 15 years ago. On top of that, I was committed to writing a big career-retrospective essay on Guy Davenport for Parnassus, whose editor essentially told me to take as much space as I wanted to – yes, a dangerous thing to tell a writer. The book chapters ranged between 6 thousand and 9 thousand words – between twenty-odd and thirty pages apiece, & needed to be highly polished, smart, and all that.

I took a leaf from Mayhew's book, & decided to keep pretty close records of my writing progress in tackling each of these. And now that the last of them has been sent off, here's what I've noted:
•The Davenport essay, the longest of them (some 40-odd pages) took me precisely 15 working days; the others took between 10 and 17 working days. More or less, that is, three working weeks for each essay.

•I revise pretty continually as I work, so that when I come to the final sentence of a piece, what leads up to it has usually been worked over several times. When I begin the day's writing, I usually go back over what I've already written and make changes before I begin new sentences. And when I finish an essay, I typically spend a single writing session on final revisions – but no more than that. (That's what editors are for, after all.)

•I do my citations in as close to final form as I write; if I'm writing in MLA style, I start building the Works Cited with my first quotation, if some variant of Chicago, I start making footnotes as soon as I quote something. That way, I entirely avoid the pit I've seen colleagues (mostly in grad school, but once in a while in academic positions) fall into of spending half a day or more at the end of their writing cycle running down the sources of their quotations.
Now here's the surprising & gratifying part. In case you haven't figured it out, I feel a great kinship with Samuel Johnson, who notes that he wrote his Lives of the Poets "in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste." But I don't have Johnson's serene self-confidence in my own abilities, and to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel entirely "up" to any of these assignments – one in particular felt like it was pressing the limits of my knowledge. And I felt more than a little uneasy about the pace at which I dispatched these pieces.

But mirabile dictu, once the essays went one after another into the mail (well, the e-mail) and I'd done my best to repress the memory of the "dilatory haste" with which I'd written them, the editors' responses started coming back – and they were all astonishingly positive. Believe it or not. Time and again, I'd open an e-mail expecting to read Sir, we have read your essay, and it will not do, and I'd find a note saying Golly, thanks! this is great, this is just what we wanted!

I must be doing something right. I'm not quite sure precisely what, but something. So forgive the momentary laurel-resting and gloating; after all, right now I'm foreseeing five new shiny publications over the next year (well, six, since there was another essay out there before this batch). Now to write some poems.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

reference two-step; open letter

I too dislike them – endnotes, that is, with continual flipping back & forth between where you're reading & the back of the book. I always end up with two bookmarks, one where I'm at & the other where the reference notes are. I always thank my lucky stars when the designer is awake enough to put a running header on the notes page listing the pages to which the notes refer (eg, "Notes to pages 43-57").

Me, I've always dreamed of publishing a book annotated like The Pound Era, or one of Geoffrey Hill's critical works: full references in the back, but keyed by page number & phrase, so there are no irritating superscripts whatsoever in the actual text. But how does this work in biography? I was reading in some book t'other day, & the author made the very astute point that when one's reading a "noteless" biography – even when it has its references in the back keyed by phrase – one is far more likely to pass over a bit of sleight of hand, of evidentiary fudging. Well. That makes sense. And come to think of it, as I read Richard Altick's sprightly Lives and Letters: A History of Literary Biography in England and America, I'm pretty continually irritated by the extra work his phrase-keyed reference entail. Could we all just go back to notes at the foot of the page?
Open Letter to the editors, in re/ Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture (U Alabama P, 2010)

Dear Guys:

I've had your collection for a while now, but am only now reading it page-by-page from front to back. And enjoying it immensely, by the way. It's an endlessly rich & provocative collection. I'm sure I'll hit some slow bits, but I'm a long way in & it's been all excitement so far. A few thoughts:

1) I've been thru the business of editing a collection of "essays by various hands" before, and I know it's pretty much like herding cats – keeping folks to deadlines, trying to get everybody's files in the same format, etc. But there's got to be some kind of uniformity here. I don't mean that everyone needs to be using MLA style or Chicago style, or whatever. But everybody needs to cite their sources somewhere. There're essays in here that are scrupulously endnoted with full bibliographical citations; great. There's one with a lengthy and stimulating "essay on sources"; excellent. But there's a bunch of them with wee parenthetical page number citations – eg, (Bernstein 23) – or even abbreviation citations – eg, (T 47) – that entirely lack lists of works cited. What gives? Did all the lists of works cited get lost in a hard drive meltdown or something? Or just get lost?

2) Somebody's got to proofread more carefully. You can't depend on the folks at the Press to do that any more, you know. I haven't gone thru a stretch of two pages yet without hitting a typo or two, and that's too many – it's just plain distracting. I know, I know, some of them are pretty minor; but it's embarrassing to hit "Zukofsksy," especially a few pages before you hit "Zukovsky" – and with a whole run of the name being spelled correctly in between.

3) And speaking of getting names right – and Bob Archambeau is the only person who gets to spell LZ's name with a "v," & even he gets bitch-slapped backchannel when he does it – the title of Norman Finkelstein's long poem is Track, not "Tracks." (That one three times, in short succession.)

I like this book a lot; I'm learning from it, & enjoying it. But man it's sometimes hard not to be distracted & irritated by flyspecks like these. (I ought to know; I can't look at one of my own books without wincing.) Was it Aby Warburg or Mies van der Rohe who said "God is in the details"?

But anyway, Congratulations!

Monday, February 07, 2011


I've survived the weekend. It began, horrifically, with the girls' school carnival, 2 hours of trudging around in the sun (not awfully hot, probably high 70s or so, but the humidity's back up) and seeing how much cotton candy & pizza Daphne could inhale without going into some kind of carb-sugar shock. Then back to Casa Scroggins & the full-scale run-up to the girls' birthday party. Yes, they were born the same day – February 1 – but I think this might be the first time we've actually had a single party for both of them at once. I've almost managed to repress the memories of yesterday afternoon (I've vague recollections of kids shrieking happily, and many things being strewn about the yard), but I won't go into it now.

Today their grandmother took them off our hands, so we had a rare weekend afternoon to ourselves. Much of which we burned by going to a giant book sale at the local public library, which seems to be making space for new computers & cafés and who knows what? massage parlors? by selling off much of their collection of books. Sigh. At any rate, I picked up a nice copy of David Macaulay's wonderful Cathedral, a older kids' picture book of how they actually constructed cathedrals back in the middle ages, with wryly clear text and beautifully expressive and detailed line drawings. Oh, and a bunch of other stuff, including some Joyce criticism and heaven help us, an old Fulcrum edition of Bunting's Collected Poems. This makes by my count the sixth collected Bunting on my shelves (Fulcrum, Oxford, Moyer Bell, Oxford again, Bloodaxe, New Directions).
Yes, the New Directions editions of the complete LZ poetry are now out & available. My copies turned up last week in the mail, in one of those old-fashioned mailers padded with grey cat's-hair lint that inevitably sifts onto the floor and your pants and shirt when you open the thing, & that falls out from between the pages for years to come. But that's okay. My report? They're just fine. Photo-reprints, to be sure. "A" is pretty much the same as the old California & Hopkins "A", with a new very informative introduction by Barry Ahearn and a handful of typographical errors corrected. ANEW: Complete Shorter Poetry is the Hopkins Complete Short Poetry under a different title, and (again) with some key typos fixed. I'm glad to have them, tho I have multiple copies of the texts, & have had all the typos marked for years. (I'm not about to give up my disintegrating 70s-era paperback of "A", with its palimpsest of a quarter-century's boneheaded annotations.)

But the real nice touch here is that the two volumes are now uniform: the trim size of "A" has been enlarged a bit (a good thing), and that of ANEW has been sized down a bit. And they even look nice, in their beige-&-black starkness, beside the yellow, blue, & red volumes of the Wesleyan prose works. High time, methinks, for someone to get ND to do a slim volume of Arise, arise.
Bill Sherman quotes Jack Clarke in re/ my last post on biography to the effect that the biographer ought to take a stance of "love" towards her or his subject. Not sure I agree – but at the very least there has to be a certain deep-seated sympathy. That's what renders Humphrey Carpenter's life of Pound such a deadly doorstop, the fact that while Carpenter's got all the facts marshalled he clearly doesn't give a shit about his subject, doesn't much care for the poetry, indeed probably has gotten to the point of hating him. Tom Clark's life of Olson is similarly disappointing, vitiated by Clark's gradual recognition that Olson wasn't perfect, which somehow drives Clark into a fury of showing precisely what a jerk Olson was.

In splendid contrast is a book I'm rereading at the moment, Richard Holmes's Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, an exploration of the relationship of Samuel Johnson & the poet Richard Savage, an engaging ne'er-do-well who prompted Johnson's first great full-length work, the Life of Savage (1744). Savage was more than a bit of a jerk, blackmailing the woman he claimed was his mother, killing a man in a tavern brawl, & spending his way quite expeditiously thru whatever monies his friends & patrons handed him. But he & Johnson had been very close indeed in the years when Johnson was a newly-arrived Grub Street aspirant, & Johnson is very firmly on his subject's side in his little book, which Holmes reads as a paradigm for "romantic" biography – biography which involves more than dispassionate recounting of a life-story, but an actual identification between biographer and subject.

Holmes is brilliant at unraveling evidence, especially in regards to the bar-fight for which Savage was condemned to hang. (He got a last-minute royal pardon, thanks to some highly-placed friends.) Here's what the court records say; here's the testimony; here's the three or four different ways in which it might be read by a scrupulous biographer. And here's how Johnson chooses to present it in his biography of Savage – an interpretation which amounts, in the end, to a whitewashing of Savage, and a high-handed playing down of the most sordid episode of his deceased friend's life. Alas, it's one of those few places where Johnson's "love" for his subect – or his identification with him – gets the better of his staunch insistence on "truth."
I hope everyone had a good AWP. And I'm tired of hearing about it on Facebook. Indeed, I'm on the point of unfriending a bunch of poet-types, or maybe just adjusting my "news feed" settings, I'm so bloody tired of being the object of people trying to sell me their books. I know, I know – all the hip kids know that "social networking" is the next wave in marketing, that (as J. tells me incessantly) if you don't blow your own horn no-one will blow it for you, and that the marketing gurus tell us that repetition is the key to effective advertising. But gimme a break, okay?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

books beneath contempt

The gradations of a hero's life are from battle to battle, and of an author's from book to book.

Success and miscarriage have the same effects in all conditions. The prosperous are feared, hated and flattered; and the unfortunate avoided, pitied and despised. No sooner is a book published than the writer may judge of the opinion of the world. If his acquaintance press round him in publick places, or salute him from the other side of the street; if invitations to dinner come thick upon him, and those with whom he dines keep him to supper; if the ladies turn to him when his coat is plain, and the footmen serve him with attention and alacrity; he may be sure that his work has been praised by some leader of literary fashions.

–Samuel Johnson, Idler 102 (1760)
The last of the big Amazon Marketplace order – practically a dozen books on biography & biographical theory, bringing my collection in the field to probably the best in south Florida – arrived today. There have been some excellent things coming in the last few days: Hermione Lee's volume in the OUP "very short introductions" series (if I'd known this book existed, it would have certainly been on the syllabus for this semester's seminar); Richard Altick's classic, straightforward, but very intelligent literary history, Lives and Letters: A History of Literary Biography in England and America; intelligent collections of essays by various hands; André Maurois's airily lyrical Aspects of Biography; and David Ellis's Literary Lives, which promises to be one of the more thoroughly & smartly theorized takes on the genre.

A shame that the last arrival would leave such a bad taste in my mouth. I'd read Carl Rollyson's A Higher Form of Cannibalism?: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography 4 years ago, & thought it a ghastly, slapdash book. Now the letter carrier has delivered his latest, Biography: A User's Guide (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). I'm glad it was dirt-cheap – tho probably expensive at the price. The book's in the form of an eccentric encyclopedia, which could, in the hands of a writer like Julian Barnes or Richard Holmes, be stimulating & provocative. Instead one gets the sense that Rollyson has swept all of his off-handed musings of the past few years into a manuscript. In the midst of a pedestrian discussion of Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – maybe the single most penetrating meta-biographical study of recent years – he comes to the lovely conclusion that Malcolm's animus against much Plath biography – and the genre in general – can be traced to "her obviously romantic attachment to Ted Hughes, her Heathcliff, who has been done dirty by a legion of biographers."

Maybe it's a sign of general Spenglerian cultural decline that Rollyson's major competitor in the field of "books about biography for general audiences" is Nigel Hamilton, author of the dreary but beautifully designed couple Biography: A Brief History and How to Do Biography: A Primer, both inexplicably published by Harvard UP. To get an idea of how classy Hamilton's own sensibility is, reflect that the 2001 augmented reissue of his massive "official" life of Field Marshall Montgomery got retitled – yes – "The Full Monty."

The biography seminar is headed into the vast shoals of Johnson & Boswell. On the home front, I'm rereading Ray Monk's Wittgenstein (with even more admiration than the first time around), and tackling the various essays he's published on philosophical biography over the past few years. Smart guy. And Robert Richardson's William James, a splendid book indeed. Once again, my own book on biography begins to take shape in my head – I only hope I don't head off my own writing impulses by bogging myself down in too much preparatory reading, as I did last time around.