Thursday, February 28, 2013

A House Full of Books

     Nicholas Basbanes' book A Gentle Madness is terrific.  I read it a few years ago.  I enjoyed it so much I hunted down a signed copy.  It's about bibliomania -- or as his subtitle reads, Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.   Eventually I stumbled upon an interview he gave for Book TV on CSPAN.  They interviewed him in his house and he showed off his library.  And most of us, when we picture a home library, we think of a single room, maybe two, full of bookshelves and books.  But no.  Not Mr. Basbanes.  His entire house is full of books, even the bathroom.  It's a long interview, clocking in at around an hour.  But you can scroll through the video to the tour through his house.  

Check it out here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fan Mail

     I can't say it enough: write someone your respect and admire. In 2009 I wrote journalist, author, speaker, anti-theist, and wit, Christopher Hitchens. I first heard him on a nationally syndicated radio talk show debating religion. Whether or not you agreed with this position, you quickly realized that he was an extremely intelligent man and a fantastic debater. He was also civil and composed (although there are plenty of interviews where he bares his fangs). He was also a great writer and literary critic. He read voraciously, smoked, drank, and as he once said, "burned the candle at both ends." He died from complications of esophageal cancer in 2011. I miss his great mind and I sometimes wonder what Mr. Hitchens would say about this/that major international or domestic political dustup, election, or personality. 

     Christopher Hitchens wrote prodigiously, published in many periodicals, and was a constant presence on television. So I wasn't expecting anything in response when I mailed a handwritten letter thanking him for an article about Army Lt. Mark Daily. It is an article about Lt. Daily's life and decision to join the military, in large part due to Christopher Hitchens' pro-war writings. Hitchens was that persuasive. He had a moral compass that pointed true north; and evidence of that was the quality and diversity of the friends -- Christian, Jew, Muslim, secular, Republican, Democrat -- that filled his life.  And his quest to defend liberty, equality, and to destroy the Islamic extremists that tried to impose their evil on the world through bloodshed and destruction.

A few days after he received my letter he wrote me a short e-mail:

Dear Lieutenant Nelson,
For the son of Commander Eric Hitchens of the Royal Navy it is impossible to decline an invitation from anyone named Nelson, let alone anyone named Nelson who is writing from Pearl Harbor.
I do not know how you picture the meeting between myself and a "group of young, impressionable officers" but if such a thing could be arranged I would be delighted to form a part of it.
As to Twain, I think his anti-Christian satires - some of which will appear in my Portable Atheist - are to be ranked with his anti-war polemics, most especially the one about the "victory" in the Moro Islands. But to my graduate students I always recommend the after-dinner talk on self-abuse that he gave to a meeting of the Stomach Club in Paris. It used to be hard to find, and available only in a volume called The Unknown Mark Twain or some such, but it can now be reaped from the web as well.
Thank you for your kind words on my little essay on Lt Daily. I have been very happy, on his family's behalf, at the slight success of that piece.
Christopher Hitchens

     I found the Mark Twain "dinner talk" he recommended. It is hilarious. I knew Twain was saucy, I had read a lot of his essays, but his talk on "self-abuse" knocked me out of my chair. You can indeed find it online.

     I was on the moon after I read that e-mail. Later that week I sent him a challenge coin (a small coin that represents a military unit or command) in gratitude. He wrote me back:

Just opened it: most grateful and appreciative. By all means let us consider ourselves in touch. Let me know if you ever come in this direction.

I always wanted to drop by his amazing apartment (it was FULL of books) in D.C. and chat about politics, philosophy, and literature. Unfortunately I never got to.  So don't wait.  Write someone you respect and admire.  They may just write you back and even might ask you over for a drink -- you never know.

I recommend you read his piece about Lt Daily over at Vanity Fair.  Linked Here.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Rapt / Absorbed / Engaged

      I'm reading a slim but excellent book called The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs.  It comes in at 150 pages.  Even reading it slowly -- which is how he recommends books should be read -- you'll still finish it in two or three days.  I've already underlined and starred and circled numerous paragraphs and sentences.   I'm up to page 107 and I know it will end soon, too soon.  And earlier I said "excellent book," but maybe, at the risk of sounding silly, I'd say it is a nutritious book: each page in this slim book is full of great observations; A lot in a little package.  So much, that I think this will be part 1 of a 2 part post on the book.  

     First, I want to share a fantastic poem by W.H. Auden that Mr. Jacobs uses to remind us that raptness, that being totally absorbed in a book is "deeply satisfying."  And it is this absorption Jacobs says that constitutes a vital part of life.  From W.H. Auden's Horae Canonciae (i.e., the Canonical Hours, or the times referred to as times of prayer):

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.


to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?
Feral still, un-housetrained, still

     I know I've been engrossed in a project or hobby before -- I've been "in the zone," as we like to say, and I remember coming out of it, well, happy.  

     Jacobs, as the title of his books implies, is trying to remind us to step away from life's distractions, away from all the Twitters and Facebook, the cell phones and the multi-tasking (which by the way, did you realize we are terrible at multitasking?  We simply execute each task worse then if we were to execute each task singularly). 

   Jacobs goes on to say that "there is something more beautiful, perhaps, when we achieve this "eye-on-the-object look" not because we have found our vocation but because we have found our avocation -- when the reason for our raptness is sheer and unmotivated delight.  This is what makes "readers," as opposed to "people who read."  To be lost in a book is genuinely addictive: someone who has had it a few times wants it again, and wants it enough, perhaps, to hide the damned BlackBerry for a couple of hours, please." [italics mine]

     First things first -- I'm going to finish this book, but I'm going to do so slowly and without distraction....I hope.


Link of the Week

     Author Steven Pressfield is probably best known for his book about the ancient battle of Thermopylae -- The Gates of Fire.

   But before he was a best selling author and writer he struggled.  He lived out of his car, and it took him 17 years before he received his first paycheck for a novel.  A former Marine and son of a sailor, he wrote and wrote until he published his first book, The Legend of Bagger Vance.  (Made into a motion picture starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Matt Damon).  That was 1995.   Now he has many more titles to his name.  Most of them are historical fiction.  I've read The Gates of Fire, I own a first edition, and it deserves a book review of its own.  Maybe it is time to read it again...
     Pressfield, however, began a blog to help aspiring writers publish, write, and to write well.  In his own words: 

     "My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call "Resistance" with a capital R (in The War of Art). The technique for combating these foes can be described as "turning pro."

     "I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists."

     This is a fantastic blog if you are interested in publishing that first novel.  Or if you simply need just a little motivation to get those stories out and on the page.  Check it out.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

And the winner is...

          The Oscars are on tonight.  Daniel Day-Lewis better take Best Actor for Lincoln.  His performance was fantastic.  I  recently discovered DDL's -- as he is sometimes referred to -- father was Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate for the U.K. from 1968 until his death in 1972.  I've never read any of Cecil Day-Lewis' work.  But if there is a shred of evidence that proves great artists bread great artists I would put money on that father and son.  I've been impressed with DDL ever since I saw Last of the Mohicans with my father when I was a teenager.  I later learned he was a method actor, and apparently he spent weeks living in the woods preparing for his role as Nathaniel Chingachgook.
     So in the spirit of Lincoln, here are three books (in addition to Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which the movie is loosely based on) for anyone who is interested in Lincoln, and particularly his writing:

1.  Lincoln At Gettysburg by Garry Wills

     It is hard to only pick three.  There are so many great books about Lincoln, thousands in fact, that you can divide them into their own categories, e.g., Lincoln on law, on writing, on politics, biography, emancipation, and so on.  


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Courage and Death

     Lieutenant Colonel Mark Weber is dying.  Prior to deployment, he decided to have a doctor look at an ulcer that had given him problems in the past -- just to be safe.  An endoscopy uncovered a lesion in his stomach, and then a CT scan uncovered something worse.  Stage IV Cancer.  Mark Weber -- husband and father of three young sons -- was not even 40.
     I first heard about Mark Weber while drinking a cup of coffee in a waiting room, waiting for my car to be fixed.  A television was on, set to the news, and General David Patraeus was asked what has given him strength following the extramarital affair that ended his illustrious career and tarnished his legacy.  I looked up at the television, expecting to hear him say something like prayer or friends, and then maybe he would elaborate a bit about either one.  But no.  He immediately mentioned Lieutenant Colonel Mark Weber's book, Tell My Sons.  He said it had helped him put life into perspective, and that he should be grateful for what he had.  Something like that.  No, it wasn't groundbreaking, but I was interested.  I wanted to read it.   I went home and bought a copy for my Kindle.  I finished it in three days.  

     The "dying man's memoir," if written well, is a good read; and it sells  (e.g., Tuesdays with Morrie).  Randy Pausch, a computer science professor who died from pancreatic cancer in 2008 made a huge splash with the publication of his book The Last Lecture.  Before he died, Mr. Pausch's book (which is about achieving your childhood dreams) had sold thousands of copies, made the NY Times bestseller list, and the lecture that started it all, has -- as of now -- 15 million views on YouTube.   Tell My Sons is cut from similar cloth -- it is written as an open letter to his three children.  He writes about beginnings, dreams realized, leadership aphorisms, significant impressions of people and places; and as a man who spent many years as an army officer, a large part of the book is about his time in service.  He uses all these to paint a picture for his children about what made him the man he is today, the men he hopes his sons become, and the life best lived in the time we all have on this earth.

     Weber's ordeal is horrific. I can't think of a better (or worse for that matter) word for it.  After going through a procedure called a whipple -- in which parts of the cancer are removed but along with it, large parts of vital organs as well (i.e., his liver) -- he battles the constant side effects: leaking puss (into and out of his body), sepsis, fevers, and constant pain -- and that's just a few of them.  But he has the heart of a stoic and a solider.  He names the various abscesses and open wounds.  He finds humor in little things; he remembers to laugh.  And eventually he goes back to work.  As a naval officer and expecting father of a baby boy, If I'm half the man Mark Weber is, then I'll be just fine.
     In an interview with the NY Times, the writer George Saunders talked about the time he almost died in a plane crash.  They had hit a flock of geese, smoke was billowing into the plane, but somehow they made it back to Chicago O'hare intact and alive.  He said "for three or four days after that it was the most beautiful world.  To have gotten back in it, you know?  And I thought, if you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it's actually going to end..."
     My guess is he's living everyday with that awareness.  His book is a reminder for you to live your life.  We will all go, and maybe not on our own terms.  Mark Weber knows his time is coming, and his ability to face death on his terms, and to talk about it, well, it is a beautiful and courageous thing.

I recommend you read it.

Visit his webpage and view more pictures here.
Finally, here's his "last lecture" -- Army Style.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Writing Rituals: Stephen King

       Writing rituals are fascinating.  All writers have them.  Here are some of Stephen King's from Lisa Rogak's Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King:

     “There are certain things I do if I sit down to write,” he said. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon."
     “It’s not any different than a bedtime routine,” he continued. “Do you go to bed a different way every night? Is there a certain side you sleep on? I mean I brush my teeth, I wash my hands. Why would anybody wash their hands before they go to bed? I don’t know. And the pillows are supposed to be pointed a certain way. The open side of the pillowcase is supposed to be pointed in toward the other side of the bed. I don’t know why.”

      I'll blog about it next month, but Stephen King's book, "On Writing," has to be on my top ten list on books about writing.  Actually, I'd put it up there in the top five.  In it he talks about the evolution of his writing space:

     "For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room -- no more child's desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house.  In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study.... For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship's captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere"....

"A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity.... I got another desk -- it's handmade and beautiful and half the size of the T. rex desk.  I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave....remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room.  Life isn't a support-system for art.  It's the other way around."

And where a writer should write:

     "You can read anywhere, almost, but when it comes to writing, library carrels, park benches, and rented flats should be courts of last resort....Your writing room doesn't have to sport a Playboy Philosophy decor, and you don't need an Early American rolltop desk in which to house your writing instruments....The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut."

     He says he listens to AC/DC and Metallica while banging away on the typewriter.  Something I can't do.  I need silence or some soft ambient noise or music in the background, maybe some jazz or classical, never blues or rock.  And with our writing rituals we also have writing spaces.  I don't have a writing space yet.  I'm writing on the couch with a computer and a dog, both on my lap, which is challenging -- trust me.  A simple wish, but a wish nonetheless, is the day I have my own small, yet modest writing room.   My books, a simple wooden table, and a comfortable chair.  Oh, and a door, of course. Until then I pine over pictures of beautiful private home libraries and in my mind I design the perfect writing room. 

      What do you put in your writing space?  What pictures sorround your desk and motivate you?  What writers look back at you in the pictures and challenge you to write well?  Ah, more ideas, more posts to come.  Until then, try to find a quiet place, or maybe it's loud, but make it a place you can write, and write well. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


"I'm willing to go along with any innovator so long as I am convinced that he is making a sincere effort to arrive at the truth.  But the moment I suspect his desire for the truth is corrupted by an itch to sell something I quit him."  

                                                        -- H.L. Mencken

Link of the Week

     I'm starting with some probably better known reader aggregates. First up, Arts and Letters Daily

      Full of links to Book Reviews, Articles of Note, and Essays, it is a place to stop by once or two times a week. They update daily and have a ton of links on the left hand side to pretty much any newspaper or periodical worth a read, and a list of columnists, all worth clicking on to see if they might interest you. They keep it fresh; you won't see reposts of the same article over and over again.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Staff Officer

Back in December, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the US Navy Chief of Information, shared his favorite 15 books on journalist and author Tom Ricks' blog.

Field Marshall Archiblad Wavel
I've read some of the books he recommends.  One that I had not heard of was Field Marshall Lord Wavell's Other Men's Flowers.  A collection of his favorite poems, it contains some of the better known names in poetry: Browning, Yeats, Kipling, Burns, and Poe.  But I confess, if forced to say, I read less poetry than any other genre.  It takes time, focus, and patience, frankly.  With good poetry you inevitably have to go back and read lines over and over again until you understand it -- well, at least I do.  And sometimes, even then, I stare at some verse like it is a sudoku puzzle.  

In it I came across this excellent excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry IV, titled Staff Officer (Hotspur, a regimental soldier is speaking): 

When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress'd,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap'd
Show'd like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk'd,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call'd them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He question'd me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so pester'd with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and my impatience,
Answer'd neglectingly I know not what,
He should or he should not; for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds,-God save the mark!-
And telling me the sovereign'st thing on earth
Was parmaceti for an inward bruise;
And that it was great pity, so it was,
This bayoneting salt-petre should be digg'd
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good tall fellow had destroy'd
So cowardly; and but for these vile guns,
He would himself have been a soldier.

Amusing.  Reportedly written no later than 1597, I don't think these impressions have changed much in over 400 years.  Still today, staff officers and soliders look at one another and each believe that there is no possible way the other can understand the troubles and challenges they face.  Both believe they are vital to any war effort -- and rightly so.  Empathy helps, but it's difficult to master; having done their job, having been in their position helps, but not always.  Frustration -- "when I was dry with rage and extreme toil" -- has a way of pushing anything else -- empathy, patience, sympathy --  down, down into our gut.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Only One Life to Live...How Unfortunate

"As I grow older I am unpleasantly impressed by the fact that giving each human being but one life is a bad scheme.  He should have two at the lowest -- one for observing and studying the world, and the other for formulating and setting down his conclusions about it."  -- H.L. Mencken

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Forgers and Scoundrels

     This past January, my lovely wife and I piled into the car and drove two hours up to Pasadena, California to explore Los Angeles, Hollywood, the Whitney Museum, and watch -- in person -- the beautiful floats in the Rose Bowl Parade. But my favorite part of the trip was the Book Alley Bookstore. Located off Colorado Blvd, a mere three miles from our hotel, it boasts a stock of over 50,000 titles.  I managed to convince my wife that I should have a few hours over a few evenings to browse the store.

     When you enter the store and navigate around a few stacks of books on the floor, you realize your stay might be a while. I went in looking for W.H. Auden's The Dyers Hand, a book of essays, reviews, and collections of aphorisms and notes written by Auden from the early 1950s through 1962.  I had finished his book of essays, Forwards and Afterwords, enjoyed it, and wanted to read more.  Alas, they didn't have it in stock.

   Near the front of the store I did find something, though.  In their "books on books" section I picked up a copy of Charles Hamilton's Scribblers and Scoundrels.  Published in 1968, Hamilton a WWII vet and consummate autograph and manuscript collector, and later dealer, tells stories of the men and women who tried, often unsuccessfully, to sell him forged manuscripts and letters.

  The stories are fascinating.  There's the "weird man with the German accent" who tries to sell a classified Soviet document signed by Premier Khrushchev addressed to the recently deposed president of Bolivia, Victor Paz Estenssoro. An extremely rare letter written by Edgar Allen Poe to John Pendleton Kennedy -- novelist and soon Secretary of the Navy -- soliciting contributions for a magazine Poe wished to start.  It was stolen by a 14 year old boy who gained access to a rare book room in the Peabody Institute Library. And then there's the boy forger -- 17 year old William Henry Ireland.  "A scallawag with a long sharp nose and inquisitive face..."  He, like his father, wanted one thing more than all others: to possess an authentic copy of Shakespeare's signature.  Unfortunately, only five authentic signatures exist, so the young Ireland had to forge his own.  Which he did.  And now his forgeries of Shakespeare's signature are on their own worth thousands of dollars.  

There's more...but you'll have to read it yourself.

     My favorite story, however, was not one about forgery or theft, rather, but of Mr. Hamilton's opportunity to sell an authentic copy of Abraham Lincoln's letter to eleven year old Grace Bedell.  Little Grace wrote Lincoln and suggested he grow a beard. "I've got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you." 

     Lincoln replied in a short letter dated Oct. 19, 1860, that "as to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now."   But only two months later, on his way to the White House, Lincoln had a full beard.  And to think, when we hear the name Abraham Lincoln, a sharp relief of honest Abe comes to mind, a black and white image of a man staggered by time, but with a full beard on his face.  All because of little Grace Bedell. 

Lincoln's letter fetched $20,000 in 1966 -- in today's dollars that's around $142,000.00.  That must have been an exciting piece of history to pass through his hands.

   Mr. Hamilton's stories are fresh, even though they are over 40 years old.  His style is crisp and clear, never droning on, his book is full of interesting portraits of people who have the courage and skill and unfortunately, the lack of morals, to imitate or steal words written by the greats.

You can still find a used copy here.