Sunday, March 31, 2013

Military Reading Lists!

The National Defense University has links to all military reading lists on one page. Check it out here. Any on the list that surprise you? Interest you? I scanned the Army's suggested list a few days ago. I'm interested in reading, or at least skimming, Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II.   Take a look.  

A Poem for Sunday

Rudyard Kipling
I'll try to post a poem weekly.  I have mixed emotions about poetry.  I enjoy good poetry, really, but some poetry takes a good deal of time to read and understand -- particularly poetry laden with symbolism and religious or historical references.  Those can be a tough slog.  But after you've learned a really hard poem it pays off, you will feel that the effort was worth it.  In the spirit of blogging, however, I'll try to keep poems simple and sweet.  Something you can read once, maybe twice, something that rings good to your ear and gives you a few seconds of reflection.

Along the theme of my last post -- whimsical reading, that is -- I picked up an anthology on Rudyard Kipling.  Most know him for The Jungle Book, or maybe you've read what many consider to be his masterpiece, Kim.  Kipling, however, was also a prolific poet.  Flipping through the book today, I stopped and read his poem "The Verdicts [Jutland]."  

The short history is this:  Kipling covered the Battle of Jutland for the London Daily Telegraph in October of 1916.  And for those who forgot the details of The Battle of Jutland (understandable), it was the major naval battle of WWI between British an German naval forces.  And one of the few -- if only one, if I remember -- naval battle that was battleship vs. battleship.  Ultimately the Royal Navy lost more men and ships in the Battle of Jutland, but the German Navy also suffered significant losses as well, and wouldn't risk losing more of their fleet with further forays into the Northern Atlantic.  

Onto the poetry... so Kipling wrote a poem about the men of that infamous sea battle.  And when I finished the poem I realized two things: 

First, after 10 years of war, after Iraq and Afghanistan, I don't know of any published poetry about those wars.  Do you?  (I have seen some poetry blogs.)  There are numerous fantastic war memoirs out there, but no poetry.  Reasons why? I can only guess, but poetry's popularity has decreased -- people simply aren't reading it.  And another reason, poetry, well, good poetry, is difficult to write.  Not that some soldiers or sailors haven't written some fine verse, but good enough to move thousands of readers?  I just don't know.

Second,  Kipling's "The Verdicts" can be read now as it was when first published.  It is, for lack of better words, timeless.  I don't know if our recent wars have changed the future of the world or made us "saviors of mankind."  I think it is much easier to say that of WWII, certainly.  But for me, the poem is a reminder of all the heroic acts that we never see, even in our own services, the deaths and lives lost that we'll never know. 

Read it and decide for yourself.

The Verdicts [Jutland]

Not in the thick of the fight,
Not in the press of the odds,
Do the heroes come to their height,
Or we know the demi-gods.

That stands over till peace.
We can only perceive
Men returned from the seas,
Very grateful for leave.

They grant us sudden days
Snatched from their business of war;
But we are too close to appraise
What manner of men they are.

And, whether their names go down
With age-kept victories,
Or whether they battle and drown
Unreckoned, is hid from our eyes.

They are too near to be great,
But our children shall understand
When and how our fate
Was changed, and by whose hand.

Our children shall measure their worth.
We are content to be blind . . .
But we know that we walk on a new-born earth
With the saviours of mankind.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Funny 15 Minutes

I encourage whimsical reading. And by whimsical I mean grabbing a book from your shelf and dipping into it if only for 15-20 minutes. Subject matter doesn't matter -- read whatever strikes your fancy at that moment. Essays and short stories, or maybe a graphic novel, these are short enough that you'll be able to get through them from beginning to end within a short period of time. I'd flock to one of those first. So it is in that vein that I decided to grab a P.G. Wodehouse anthology from the shelf last night and spend 15 minutes with the comic master.

If you don't know who P.G. Wodehouse is, well, I'll save the complete biographical rundown for another time and another post, but he was -- and arguably remains -- one of the funniest writers in the English language. He wrote over 50 novels, numerous short stories, plays, and letters.  Funny and touching, a new collection of his letters was recently released this year. What makes him great is his ability to fill almost every page with a fresh simile or metaphor, a well turned phrase, and great dialogue. Here's a small sample:

“Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, "So, you're back from Moscow, eh?” .... “A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle.”.... And this beauty: “Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”  You get the idea.  

I opened my copy of The Most of P.G. Wodehouse and read the first story of short stories collectively called "The Golf Stories."  The first story is called "The Coming of Gowf." 

 Imagine a King of a fictional kingdom discovering -- from a indentured servant, Scottish of course -- that there is some "savage religious" ceremony in which sticks are used to hit round objects.   Here we have the king's first introduction to this strange new "religion."

 "According to the admiral, the dunes by the seashore where he landed were covered with a multitude of men behaving just as this man is doing. They had sticks in their hands and they struck with these at small round objects. And every now and again----

"And every now and again," went on the Vizier, "they would utter the strange melancholy cry which you have just heard. It is a species of chant." "Fo-o-ore!" called a gruff voice from below.

Needless to say, the King is interested in this strange new "religion." I will not give away the ending, but reader, I'm sure you know a few people who have discovered the game of golf, or who play golf, only to realize that for them, it is a little more than a game. 

You'll find the "Coming of Gowf" online actually.  If you have a few minutes -- maybe only 15 or 20 -- then click here and give it a go.  


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Quote of the Week

A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out.

-- C. G. Lichtenberg

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

World's Smallest Book?

From UK's the Telegraph:

"Japan has created what it is claiming is the smallest ever printed book, with pages measuring 0.75 millimetres (0.03 inches) which are impossible to read with the naked eye. The 22-page micro-book, entitled Shiki no Kusabana (flowers of seasons), contains names and monochrome illustrations of Japanese flowers such as the cherry and the plum. Toppan Printing, who have been making micro books since 1964, said letters just 0.01 mm wide were created using the same technology as money printers use to prevent forgery."

Check it out here.

On Bookplates

George Washington's Bookplate
I've never been fond of bookplates.  Before I started building my library and collecting my favorite authors, I didn't believe books should be marked up and I certainly didn't think foreign objects should be put on the board of a book.  But times are changing -- or rather,  I've changed my mind.  I realize now, that if I want inscriptions and signatures from my favorite (living) authors, then I'm going to have to use bookplates.  It's simply not cost effective to send packages of your favorite books to an author in the hopes that they will inscribe the book and it get back to your mailbox in good condition.  My recent success in contacting one of my favorite authors has encouraged me to write more of the men and women whose books fill my shelves.  But what to send them to sign?  A blank piece of nice stock paper?  Something with a personal design? 

Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks
Traditionally bookplates are small decorative labels that are pasted onto the inside of the book indicating the books owner.  Some are simple, and some, well, some are miniature works of art with intricate designs and fonts.  They are collectors items themselves. Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks -- British Museum administrator and antiquarian collector extraordinaire -- had 35,000 bookplates in his collection.  Yale apparently has around 250,000 bookplates in their collection.  That's a lot of bookplates.

Bookplates have been around for hundreds of years (the earliest known use as a printed book label is in Germany during the 15th century).  And years ago, when books were rare, aristocracy -- because they could afford books -- often had their coat of arms imprinted on the plate and placed inside each book.  

Still the question remains:  what type of bookplate should I use?  

Ernest Hemingway's Bookplate
This isn't an easy decision -- well -- it isn't an easy decision for me.  You can't remove your bookplates if you change your mind; you can't say "nah, I liked it without the plate, let's pull that sucker off."  If you do, your inner board will look like a bad case of road rash.  And while I don't own any books that are of any great monetary value, I'm aware that some bookmen believe attaching anything to a book will devalue it.

I'm leaning toward the classical bookplate: simple lines around the edges, lots of white space.   I don't think I will have "EX LIBRIS" printed on them (latin for "from the books," often meaning "from the library of").   I'd rather leave plenty of space for an author's signature or inscription.  I don't need the art.  I'll keep it simple. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Writing Devices

Every writer has his/her own particular writing device.  I've had a thing for pens since I can remember.  I'm always looking for the perfect pen -- it is elusive, this perfect writing device.  Does it feel good in my hand?  Is the ink flow too strong?  The nib too wide?  So many factors to consider when you are purchasing the perfect pen.  I use different types of pens for different types of writing.  I'm fond of fountain pens for letters and journal entries.  And then for everything else, I'll use a gel ink pen.  I usually prefer a small nib or small point to a large one.  And for gel pens I prefer one that clicks, not one with a removable cap.  

I'm also looking for the best pen for the best price.  If you are in the market for a fountain pen, you'll probably never go wrong with a Lamy.  Lamy is a German pen maker and they produce a very high quality pen at a reasonable price (less than $100 for most in their line).  The trouble is finding a Lamy retailer in your local area.  In Germany they are everywhere.  So if you are stateside, you can find them on E-bay and, which  carries some of the Lamy line on their website.  For about $20 you can purchase one of their fountain pens -- their Safari -- which writes smoothly, is reliable, and at that price point, is affordable.  But it is not a heavy metal build, it's plastic and light.  So if you like a heavier pen look elsewhere (Lamy does have a stainless steal version that is heavier and quite nice.) 

If you want more of a calligraphic look to your writing, you can plop down $7 at your local Michael's craft store for a Scheaffer calligraphy pen.  They work well and are inexpensive.  I prefer a fine nib, but they come in three sizes -- fine, medium, and large -- for whatever writing style you prefer.  Finding the perfect pen should not prevent you from sitting down to write.  (It can, however, frustrate you enough to stop mid-sentence.)  But try out some different brands.  

Finally,  if you are looking for the nice fountain pen that is reliable and feels good in your hand, then you probably can't go wrong with a Waterman.  You'll be looking between $100-$200 for one of their nicer pens, but it is something that you'll have with you for many years.  And like old guitars, whose wood ages gracefully and tone matures with age, a fine fountain pen will do the same.  Over time, the pen's nib will bend and form to the amount of pressure you use when writing.  It will become your pen -- responsive to your writing style.  And it might make a nice gift to a son or daughter many years later.

There are plenty of great fountain pens out there.  You don't have to spend too much money for a good fountain pen.  But you should try writing with one.  It will, I believe, remind you how much writing can be an art and a pleasure.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

On Writing: Elizabeth Gilbert

I never read Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller Eat Pray Love.  Nor have I seen the movie of the same name,  with Julia Roberts in the lead role.  I had read somewhere that it wasn't her first published piece of writing.  And her concern -- which she discussed during a TED talk -- that she would never write something that would eclipse the success of that novel, has proved true to date.  But like many writers, it took her some time and many rejections before she started getting published. Her words about writing are a great reminder that for all the succesful writers we see published, they also have stories of failure and rejection. Books sitting on shelves in Barnes and Noble or on, or in a small private bookstore, is possibly the one book from tens or hundreds of tries or submissions, and the one sitting on the shelf is due to sheer hard work, talent, skill, and perseverance.

From Elizabeth Gilbert's blog:

"It has never been easy for me to understand why people work so hard to create something beautiful, but then refuse to share it with anyone, for fear of criticism. Wasn’t that the point of the creation – to communicate something to the world? So PUT IT OUT THERE. Send your work off to editors and agents as much as possible, show it to your neighbors, plaster it on the walls of the bus stops – just don’t sit on your work and suffocate it. At least try. And when the powers-that-be send you back your manuscript (and they will), take a deep breath and try again. I often hear people say, “I’m not good enough yet to be published.” That’s quite possible. Probable, even. All I’m saying is: Let someone else decide that. Magazines, editors, agents – they all employ young people making $22,000 a year whose job it is to read through piles of manuscripts and send you back letters telling you that you aren’t good enough yet: LET THEM DO IT. Don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s their job, not yours. Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest."

Link of the Week

The New York Review of Books, along with the NY Times Sunday Book review are two of the best book reviews published today.  You'll get about 10 views a month before the NY Times asks that you subscribe.  Assuming you don't read too many other NY Times articles, you'll be able to scan every Sunday review and then click on any that interest you.   If you are a voracious reader, I recommend you check out the subscription options.   The Washington Post book review, particularly, Michael Dirda and Jonathan Yardley are worth taking a  peek at as well.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Writer's Cabin

From the NY Times, "The Lure of the Writers Cabin" by David Wood:

"Who has not fantasized about the books they would write if only the right conditions could be found! I have carried around just such a dream, sparked by a weekend alone in an austere mountain cabin in the Austrian Alps when I was a boy. Rumination was unstoppable, and poetry just poured out.

For the most part, these buildings are small, plain, unprepossessing and sparsely furnished."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Words in Stone

Robert Louis Stevenson
I've been thinking lately about short poetry and last words. And I stumbled, interesting enough, on famed author Robert Louis Stevenson's epitaph which is etched on his tombstone. It is titled Requiem:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

A beautiful poem. We know Stevenson -- Scottish novelist, essayist, and poet -- mainly for his adventure stories. Namely, Treasure Island. He apparently wrote Requiem long before his death and knew he wanted it on his tombstone. He was sickly, and died of tubercolosis on the island of Samoa in 1894, where he is buried.

Is it macabre to think about our last words?  To consider what we want etched into the stone that will mark a man's final resting place? And before you go and say, "well yes, when you are old, that's when I'll think about it."   But aren't we always assessing our lives?  How will others know how we lived our lives?  Regardless if you are young today, or old tomorrow, aren't we thinking about our legacies, and the words -- sometimes short -- we want to use to capture our lives.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Please Return to Sender

My wife thinks I'm a little weird.  But I'll get to that in a minute.

My favorite living author -- Mr. Michael Dirda, book reviewer for the Washington Post, author of such greats as Classics for Pleasure; Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments; and Bound to Please (which earned him the Pulitzer) -- recently responded to a letter I wrote him.  My first letter, however, never made it.  But he was very gracious and responded to me via e-mail  reconfirming his address.  I sent a second letter.  In it I asked if he wouldn't mind signing a few bookplates for my copies of his works.  He said of course, no problem.
The "Return" Care Package

So I went and tried to find some bookplates that would suffice.  They had to be roomy enough for him to be able to inscribe something on them, and look a little better than your standard mailing label.  Alas, no joy.  On to Plan B: Enter the return care package.  I bought a small box and decided that I would send a few of my copies of his books for inscription. I placed two padded mailing envelopes in the box as well; self addressed and paid postage was included on each envelope, so all he would have to do is inscribe the books, seal them, and then leave the packages for USPS to pick-up.  I even included a few Sharpies (fine and broad point) so if he choose to do so, he could open the package and do everything in one shot -- open, sign, seal.  No hunting for a pen required.  

So call me over prepared.  Fine.  I accept that.  (Sweetheart) Say I'm a little weird.  Fine.  I accept that.  But what would you do if someone you admired and whose work you've read and respected over the years extended a similar courtesy?   Would you pass up an opportunity?   I'll get back to you reader, and tell you how my care package turns out.  Either way, I'll continue to read and write authors or individuals I respect and admire.  Someday my son will know who his father's favorite authors were.  He won't have to guess.  

I believe writers want to put thoughts and ideas out to the world.  They want us -- readers -- to hear their voice through the printed word.  And I'm willing to bet they don't mind hearing back from their readers -- in moderation of course -- because how else would they know if they make it through the ether?

If you are interested in knowing more about Mr. Dirda's books, check them out here.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sage Advice

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing."

   -- Benjamin Franklin

How Do You Write?

The website The Daily Beast has a reoccurring post called "How I Write," in which they interview authors, asking them about their daily writing routine. From The Daily Beast, here is an excerpt of author Erik Larson's routine:

"I’m an early riser, for one thing. This started back when our kids were small. My wife and I would get up at 4 a.m. so that we could have a couple of peaceful hours before they woke up. That pattern has continued. I get up, make coffee, and while it’s brewing I do 50 sit-ups. Then, with a cup of coffee in hand, I go into my wife’s home office to the secret Oreo drawer, where I grab a single Double Stuf Oreo (yes, that spelling is correct) and then I sit down either to write or, if I’m in the research phase, to read documents or other relevant materials."

Mr. Larson is the author of The Devil in The White City, Isaac's Storm, and most recently, In The Garden Of Beasts. I read In The Garden of Beasts on my electronic reader.  I should purchase a hard-copy for my library.  
From Amazon: "In the Garden of Beasts is a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign, brought to life through the stories of two people: William E. Dodd, who in 1933 became America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s regime, and his scandalously carefree daughter, Martha."

Erik Larson is a fantastic writer of narrative non-fiction.  Start with In The Garden Of Beasts and then try his other books.

I've been reading other bits about writer's rituals and many of them I've discovered do a fair amount of writing first thing in the morning.  Is it because the mind is fresh?  Many writers have a minimum number of words they want to reach before moving on with their day.  They must write so many words or their day is ruined.   

Friday, March 15, 2013

What Has Your Journal/Diary Been Through?

Tim McGaughlin's Diary
     Foreign Policy Magazine has published a fantastic article (with pictures) about then - 1st Lt Tim McGaughlin and the diary he began during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The pictures of the diary really add a lot to the piece. For you military types, you'll recognize it as one of the small government issue notebooks that you'll find in a supply room at any command. The small book ceartinly looks like it faced the war as well.

   From Foreign Policy Magazine: "On Feb. 21, 2003, 1st Lt. Tim McLaughlin, a 25-year-old Marine platoon commander deployed to the Kuwaiti desert, wrote his initial entry in what would become a remarkable diary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that spring. "The best writing advice I have been given is just to write," he began. "There will be plenty of time to edit and stylize it later."  

     How true.  I tried but failed to get words on paper during my last deployment. My single success, however significant, was to write my wife every evening. Even if it was only a few sentences.  

   One of the entries made me laugh outloud, and its something only a deployed service member would relate to.  In one of his entries he wrote a letter to Victoria's Secret thanking them for creating such a beautiful magazine, and telling them it was the only beautiful thing that he had seen while sitting in the desert for days and days.  Even on a Navy ship, today, during deployment, the arrival of a Victoria's Secret magazine is exciting for the women and the men.  

    If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to click through the slide-show. There is also a short article posted here, at the NY Times blog "At War".

Follow Up: I just finished his entries about 9/11.  He was working at the Pentagon that fateful day.  From the NY Times: [he recounts] "his effort to get through its smoke-filled corridors to find his brother, who also worked there, and the flashing emergency lights and emergency warning to evacuate the premises immediately." Wow.  Powerful stuff.  Read it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jefferson's Desk

     This past weekend I popped into my favorite used bookstore in San Diego.  A few stores down is a small but quaint antique store. I decided to stop in and take a look.  It is packed -- jam packed -- with old signs, art, dressers and desks.  The items were all priced reasonably ("and an additional 10% off!" the owner said). I left empty handed and told them "I would be back with the boss" (i.e., my wife).

     They had a few nice wooden desks -- small and in fine condition.  The desks had a few drawers and were large enough to store a few pieces of paper and a pen or two, but their simple form and small size reinforced their primary purpose -- a surface to write on; not a land to get lost in.  It is a completely romantic notion, but I always wanted a desk like Jefferson's.  I had thought, probably from glancing at a picture of Jefferson's study in Monticello, that he had a slanted desk near his bookshelves.  Maybe even a stand-up desk.  What I didn't realize is that his desk -- or at least the one he used to write the Declaration of Independence on -- was a portable lap desk.

     The only concern with using a portable desk, which let's face it, this is the first laptop ever created (you can write on it and it stores stuff), is trying to take advantage of its portability by writing in front of the television (which you should never do).  I'm simply excited that while I may never find the perfect Jefferson writing desk at the local antique store,  I now know I can pay for the plans at Fine Woodworking magazine and just make it myself.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Final Letter

     I sometimes read, from time to time, Abraham Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby of Boston. It is believed to be written after Mrs. Bixby lost five of her sons in battle during the civil war -- yes, five. You may remember it from the movie Saving Private Ryan. The actor playing General George Marshal pulls it out of his desk and reads it before issuing the command to go find Private Ryan. It is a short but beautiful condolence letter. The original was apparently destroyed, but likely copied and reprinted. Historians debate if Lincoln wrote it or if he delegated it to John Hay, one of his personal secretaries. Most agree that Lincoln probably wrote the letter.  In greatness, it follows the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural.

Here it is:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

     I also read, for the first time, FDR's letter to the mother and father of the Sullivan brothers. These were five brothers who all served on the light cruiser USS Juneau in the Pacific during WWII. A Japanese submarine sunk the cruiser, killing them all. I've never had to write a last letter. Thankfully. But reading these letters reminds me that thousands, yes, thousands of letters have been written in the past 10 years alone. I am amazed -- particularly with Lincoln -- that a man can write something so beautiful, so short and so concise, about something so devastating. 

  And this, the day after a fatal crash of a Navy jet outside of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.  Three aviators lost their lives.  From the Navy Times: Lt. j.g. Valerie Delaney, 26, from Ellicott City, Md.; Lt. j.g. William McIlvaine, 24, from El Paso, Texas; and Lt. Cmdr. Alan Patterson, 34, from Tullahoma, Tenn., were killed when the Prowler crashed into a field around 50 miles west of Spokane, Wash., during a routine training mission.

Enter Lincoln.

"I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Hemingway's Library

     I've always been interested in home libraries.  I dream about the library I'll have for myself when I settle down in one place long enough.  During a short work-up cycle off the east coast in 2002 we stopped briefly in Key West to relax and do what most sailors do when we invade a small coastal town -- eat, drink, and be merry.  Key West is famous of course, not only for fantastic Key lime pie,  Duval street, and excellent deep sea fishing, but also, it is where Ernest Hemingway lived from 1931-1939.  I went in, took a tour of the house (which is apparently the second highest piece of land in Key West and the first house to receive indoor running water). In a small cottage behind the house, upstairs, is where his library is located.  
     On the walls are big-game trophies, a typewriter sits on an old wooden table in the center of the room.  Simple and small.  If I asked, and you had to guess, which famous writer called this his library? I'd bet you would get it right in two, maybe three guesses. I didn't ask if the books were his personal books or if his personal copies were held in a museum or library (the books, however, do look like old first editions; but today you can order old books to decorate a restaurant or house).  Nevertheless, he wrote some of his famous works in that little room.   

     Me, well, I need a little more art on the walls and a few more comfortable reading chairs, maybe a globe.  And more books.  If those are his books, his library wasn't impressive; they certainly didn't dominate the room.  My first impression, if I recall correctly, is that Indiana Jones lived and worked there.  Maybe Hemingway was a bit Indiana...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Small But Powerful Stories

      I'm almost finished with an excellent biography about Lieutenant General Victor Krulak.  This morning though, I caught something that fascinated me.  Mr. Coram argues throughout the book that LtGen Krulak tried to hide his Jewish ancestry.  To illustrate how hostile the mid-1900s was to African-Americans, Jews, and Catholics, he throws out a small but powerful story of Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn.  
     When the Battle of Iwo Jima was over, the Marine Division's head chaplain -- a Protestant -- chose Rabbi Gittelsohn (the first Jewish rabbi to serve) to give the "single, nondenominational service to honor the Marines who had died on Iwo Jima."  But apparently several of the chaplains objected to a Jewish rabbi presiding over the service.  But he did it anyway.  And he gave a beautiful and brief sermon that was later broadcast around the world.  I few of the sentences remind me of Lincoln, particularly the last few:

"Here lie officers and men, negroes and whites, rich men and poor–together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy....
     Whoever of us lifts up his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the rights of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them here have paid the price[....]
      We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come–we promise–the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere. "

     And I found this after a short search, my shipmate and retired Navy Captain over at I Like The Cut Of His Jib, blogged about the last chaplain who served in the Battle of Iwo Jima -- he apparently passed away in 2010.  You can read about him here.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Lincoln On Writing

"Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination . . . great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space."

- Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, March 7, 2013

If We Fail

     D-Day was a success -- Thank God.  But if it had gone poorly,  Eisenhower had a statement ready to release just in case.  What is fascinating is that it appears to be quickly scribbled on a piece of paper.  It is short, precise, and in it he accepts any and all blame.  Here's the entire transcript:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

*He accidentally dated the letter July 5. It should have been June 5. 

     I think it is interesting that he had the courage to accept the possibility that they may fail, and realize any failure would be his, and his alone.  He didn't publicize that, of course.  Troop morale was critical in the coming landings.  I also wonder how other leaders collect their thoughts "just in case."  Do they quickly scribble something out and put it somewhere private, never to be read until many years later?  Destroy it if not necessary? (And feign self-confidence, "yes, I knew we would succeed.")  Playing the "what if" game is not my thing, but we can say with some degree of certainty that in response to the question, "what would Eisenhower have said if D-Day failed?" 

66 words.  That's what he would have said.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Write the Letter

     Clive Staples Lewis, better known simply as C.S. Lewis -- the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia and author of numerous books on theology -- was a prolific letter writer.  So many letters in fact, that there is a book  titled C.S. Lewis' Letters to Children.        

     Following the success of his Narnia chronicles, thousands of young fans wrote Lewis.  Their letters are full of admiration and questions.  He tried to respond to each and every one.  And apparently, he kept up his correspondence with some of his young fans for many years.  Many of the letters discuss the land of Narnia, while others are full of practical advice about writing and telling a good story.  From Letters to Children, here are some fantastic writing tips to a young American fan:

"What really matters is:–

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don'timplement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."

4. In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."

5. Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you'll like your new home.

With love
C.S. Lewis"

     I can only imagine how many lives he touched by responding to each and every letter. And we can all -- regardless of age -- read those words and work everyday to become better writers.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Up Next

     I've ordered two books this week.  One is P.W. Singer's Wired for War, the other is Max Boot's Invisible Armies.  Boot's book is a door stopper, so I've heard.  I'll probably blog about individual chapters.  P.W. Singer's book is on the Navy's reading list.  I need to read more about cyber and UAVs and how they are being used in today's battlespace.  Those are both weak spots for me.

     I finished Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male yesterday.  I came upon Household's fantastic thriller/psychological adventure tale by one of my favorite readers and writers -- Mr. Michael Dirda.  There's something to be said about a great book critic.  Mr. Dirda has written for the Washington Post for over 30 years, reviewing books weekly. He has made me a broader reader.  His book recommendations are wide and varied.  And what makes him so special is his ability to make reading seem so exciting, so fantastic.  He is a great salesman for used bookstores.  And frankly, he is a great salesman for any book he enjoys -- new or old.  He enjoys, thankfully, reviewing and reading some old titles that are fantastic, but that most people don't know about.  Many people still get caught in the top 100 titles of the day -- the 50 Shades of Grays and the James Pattersons --  the mass market paperbacks.  Many of which, yes, might be great reads.  But there's so much more.  So I have to give credit where it's due.  Thank you Mr. Dirda for the book recommendation.  A book review will follow soon.

     I'm also reading a short biography on Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak.  I don't know anything about the man.  I've only heard his name a few times, and I'm aware he wrote a short book on the history of the Marine Corps.  But I saw the book, Brute, on top a stack of books at my favorite used bookstore this past weekend, so I grabbed it and placed it on the counter with my other finds (i.e., a book on introverts and a book of criticism by John Updike).  Lots of reading to get to.  Should be exciting.  I'll tell you how it turns out.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Link of the Week

      The New Yorker is one of the few periodicals I subscribe to.  It's expensive, but worth it, particularly if you enjoy good writing. You can still access a lot of their content online.  Their blog about reading -- Page-Turner -- is a great place to begin. 

You'll find it here.

Read and Worn

     The other day I looked up at my bookshelves and noticed my worn copy of Gore Vidal's United States: Essays 1952-1992.  After multiple readings, eventually the spine broke. This is always the curse of the thick book.  Half-way through, at about page 400, the weight of both sides is simply too much for the book to handle.  And it splits.  I hang on to it though.  I plastered the spine with packaging tape to hold it together.  It also has plenty of pencil markings, marginalia and post-it notes to mark favorite essays.  In every sense of the word, it is "my" book.  A used bookstore wouldn't buy it or trade it, and I doubt that the local Goodwill would put it on their shelf and sell it for a buck.  
     Eventually I realized I wanted a hardback version of his essays. I try -- although I'm not always successful -- to purchase a hardback version of my favorite books, and if possible (i.e., if I can afford it and there's room) a first edition.  My hardback version is spotless, save for a small mark on the dustjacket, which I've protected from further damage with a clear laminate.  But I've never read it.  I'm still attached to my old worn paperback copy with packaging tape.  It is my working copy, my reading copy.  And I realize something after staring at the two books for a few seconds. That I bought the hardback copy as a backup.  I enjoy the book so much that I'd hate the idea of not finding a another copy if "mine" couldn't be held together by packaging tape.  

     But this is foolish.  Vidal's Essays aren't rare.  I realized however, that if you enjoy a book enough, you know others will discover its strength and beauty.  The fear of never reading it again because it is no longer available is irrational -- particularly in the age of electronic readers.  So when I bought that second copy a few years ago, I knew then, through some slow process, that I cared about developing and building my personal library.  There's simply some books that I had to have on my shelf, for myself...always.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

More Than A Reading List

Unfortunately it's only available to subscribers...but if you subscribe to Proceedings magazine, check out my article published in this month's issue, titled, We Need More Than A Reading List.

UPDATE: You'll find the Navy's reading list here.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Rapt / Absorbed / Engaged pt2

     Alan Jacobs'  The Pleasure of Reading in the Age of Distraction deserves a long, glowing book review.  I needed two posts just to do some justice to this slim work.  There's many topics that taken by themselves fill entire books (e.g., Gutenburg's printing press ushering in the age of information overload and more reading, not necessarily closer reading).  So here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights:

  •  Readers and Humility.  Jacobs introduces us to the Abbot of "the great monastery of St. Victor in Paris."  The Abbot Hugh.  The Abbot reminds us that as readers we need be mindful of intellectual snobbery; to mind our pride.  "For the reader there are three lessons taught by humility that are particularly important:  First, that he hold no knowledge or writing whatsoever in contempt.  Second, that he not blush to learn from any man.  Third, that when he has attained learning himself, he not look down upon anyone else."  Jacobs then says, "armed with this humility, the reader can safely pursue the wisdom to be gained from reading, the reader can become a true student." 

  • Solitude.  Essential for reading closely and reading well, for reflection and thought.  As Jacobs says, "imaginative engagement can only come through the written word when the reader possesses, or is possessed by, deep solitude -- whether that solitude is given by circumstance or created, even in the midst of a crowd, by force of will sharpened by habit."  We have to create our solitude, or we have to shut others out and create our "cone of silence."  Or sometimes we have to "unplug" from the world.  This is something I think that is extremely difficult for many of us to do today.  And it reminded me of a excellent lecture presented by William Deresiewicz to the West Point class of 2009.  Published in the American Scholar and titled Solitude and Leadership, it's worth reading as well.

  • Reread.  Most of us probably don't pick up a book a second time and read it again.  I struggle because I know I have stacks of books that I want to read.  I know my time is limited, but I can't read everything. So wouldn't you just read as widely as possible?  Finish a book and pick a new one up, and so on?  Jacobs however, reminds us that "some books hold more value, more counsel perhaps, or simple insight, that we can receive at a single reading."  

    There's so much more.  Jacobs closes with a great clarion call  worth repeating here:  "nonreaders outnumber us -- always have and always will -- but we can always find one another and are always eager to welcome others into the fold.  May our tribe increase."

 Indeed. Well said Mr. Jacobs. Well said.