Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sortes Thoreaianae

I cracked open I to Myself, an annotated selection from Thoreau’s journal, for a random bit of wisdom last night, little thinking it would lead to an intriguing form of divination. That’s right, fortune-telling.

I chanced on page 116, which included an entry from December 12, 1851, in which Thoreau recounts a conversation (argument?) he had with Emerson over Margaret Fuller’s “whims and superstitions,” which apparently included the belief that randomly opening a certain text and placing one’s finger on a passage could result in an oracular reading pertinent to forthcoming events. One of her favorite texts for this purpose, presumably, was Virgil’s Aeneid, thus Sortes Virgilianae. Thoreau scoffed at the notion, but Emerson held that her experience “warranted attaching importance to such things”. An annotation to the passage included the following remark about Fuller from a memoir Emerson wrote concerning her: “I think each new book which interested her, she was disposed to put to this test, and know if it had somewhat personal to say to her.”

I must confess the idea holds a certain amount of charm. Emerson didn’t argue divination of the sortes sort would be effective for all, but required a certain aptitude or orientation. I couldn’t help remarking the passage which immediately preceded this account, written by Thoreau on the same day.

I wished to ally myself to the powers that rule the universe. I wished to dive into some deep stream of thoughtful and devoted life, which meandered through retired and fertile meadows far from towns. I wished to do again, or for once, things quite congenial to my highest inmost and most sacred nature, to lurk in crystalline thought like the trout under verdurous banks, where stray mankind should only see my bubble come to the surface. I wished to live, ah! as far away as a man can think. I wished for leisure and quiet to let my life flow in its proper channels, with its proper currents; when I might not waste the days, might establish daily prayer and thanksgiving in my family; might do my own work and not the work of Concord and Carlisle, which would yield me better than money.

Could this be an oracle favoring Sortes Thoreaianae? Further investigation seems warranted...

Kate in Italy

Our niece Katelyn, an art history major at KU, is spending a semester in Italy and France this winter — an opportunity of a lifetime. She is an accomplished photographer and her brother Miles has created a ShutterFly account for her so she can share pictures with family and friends.

Here is one of Kate’s pictures, taken I believe in Florence or Sienna. (Hint: This statue looks remarkably like Kate, only, somewhat less lively of course.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Oceanic References

The following are a couple of interesting references I came across in Google Books. The first item includes a detailed discussion of the correspondence between Freud and Romain Rolland which Comte-Sponville refers to in his comments about oceanic feeling, a term apparently coined by Rolland.

The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling by William B. Parsons.

Mystical Encounters with the Natural World by Paul Marshall.

The Book of Lost Things

I finished reading The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly last night, Tuesdays being one of our dedicated reading nights in 2008 (a New Year’s resolution). The story, which takes place in England during World War II, concerns an adolescent boy named David whose mother dies of cancer. Shortly thereafter, books begin talking to David, literally, and he starts having blackouts which prompt his father to send him to a psychologist. Psychology manuals in the doctor’s office give a running commentary on his analysis, which, of course, only David can hear. The commentary devolves into insults when they believe the doctor is wrong. A book by Jung literally hurls itself from a bookcase in disgust at one point, startling the doctor, and providing the single humorous episode in an exceedingly grim story.

David soon finds himself drawn into a world of fairy tales given dark, and one must say, adult interpretations. Once there he is pursued by man-wolfs (hint: Red Ridinghood gets a significant rewrite), and an even more sinister character, the Crooked Man. The story proceeds predictably, ending with an anticlimactic and oddly saccharine conclusion.

The characters are flat and uninteresting excepting only David’s father and his second wife, who are peripheral to the tale. David himself is neither believable nor engaging. Apparently casting the story as a tribute to lost innocence and entry into adulthood, the author seems to have missed the obvious point that a mature understanding of the world involves years of real life experiences, not something generally accomplished by a young boy during a sojourn of several weeks in a fairy tale. No matter how twisted.

For a similar, but more adroitly told and compelling story, try Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. Barker’s tale, unlike Connolly’s, is suitable for younger readers.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Oceanic Feeling

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville. I spent a good deal of time with this book in the first week of 2008, yet have hesitated to post an entry about it and the reason why gets at the difference between a blog and a personal journal. Or at least the difference to me.

I keep a personal journal, a habit I picked up when I started in seriously with astronomy. This at first was simply a means to record the objects I found and observed with my telescope, but from the beginning also included bits of this and that, like who my observing companions were and what antics they displayed. From there it was a natural step to record observations about birds, trips to state parks, our Grand Canyon vacation, and the like. I have occasionally included illustrations, at first astronomical sketches, which seems an unlikely thing to do at the telescope, in the dark, but is surprisingly rewarding and encourages one to look more carefully and enables one to recall specific detail even years afterward. But these journals are for myself. “I to Myself” as Thoreau said it, and while a few others have glanced at them, I never felt self-conscious about the contents, or felt inhibited about my expressions. And, to be honest, as time has passed, I have become reserved about permitting anyone, other than Elly, to look through them. Not that they contain anything to hide, but simply because they have become a private preserve to pursue my own thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

Blogs, on the other hand, are anything but private. Their intent is to immediately share the content with anyone on the planet who cares to take a peek. One puts oneself on display, which also puts one on guard, sacrificing a certain amount of spontenaity and freedom easily exercised in solitude.

Posts about books often read like reviews, rather than journal entries. It’s easy to adopt this style of writing, considering that your audience is likely to include your circle of friends and anyone else with similar interests and a slight knowledge of search engines. It seems necessary to include an overview of the book’s contents, an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, and finally a recommendation whether to pick it up or pass it by.

After considering the matter for some days, it has occurred to me that I don’t want to review André Comte-Sponville’s book, but rather explore some of the ideas he presents and my own response to them, to delve into particular points that resonate with me.

Before continuing, I'll add that this is not the sort of book I read once and set aside. Instead, I find myself rereading passages and pondering them, dipping into a page or two here and there, being reminded of something in another book and digging that up, having some experience or fleeting thought or idea that brings me back to the book later for more reflection. In short, Comte-Sponville has joined a small group of writers whose ideas I value and respect and find inspiring. Having said that, I might as well refer to the author as André.

André discusses what he calls “oceanic feeling” in a topic of that name which is included in the book’s third section, “Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?”. It follows a closely related topic, “Immanensity.” Throughout his book, André engages in word play, intended one supposes to be amusing and thought-provoking, which often takes the form of combining several words, as, in this case, "immensity" and "immanence." (I do find it amusing and thought-provoking.)

Spirituality has more to do with experience than thought; this is what distinguishes it from metaphysics. And whereas we have a conception of the infinite, we have no experience of it. We have an experience of the unknown (knowing we do not know), which itself is part of spirituality (the part I have chosen to call mystery). However, we also — and first, and especially — have an experience of immanence and immensity, which, following the poet Jules Laforgue, we can call immanensity. We are in the All, and whether it is finite or not, it surpasses us (goes beyond us) in every direction; its limits, if it has any, are permanently beyond our reach. It envelops, contains and exceeds us. Is it a transcendence? Not at all, since we are inside of it. It is an inexhaustible, indefinite immanence, whose limits are both undefined and inaccessible. We are inside it — we live within the unfathomable.

“We live within the unfathomable.” What an evocative and brilliant statement, acknowledging at once that the limits of the universe, which may or may not be infinite, nevertheless lie forever beyond our reach, and that experiencing the All and accepting its essential mystery without attempting to explain it, without, that is, God and religion, is a profound basis for spirituality.

I started this post intending to discuss André’s notion of “oceanic feeling,” but find now that I have said all I care to at present, so I’ll have to pick the subject up in a later post, which is something I never hesitate to do in my personal journal.

Something Cool at the Library

At the Kansas City Public Library (Plaza Branch) the other day I noticed a display of what are called Playaway books. These are unabridged books that come in a prepackaged MP3 player small enough to fit in your pocket. The library sells ear buds (the only thing not included) for $1.00. The controls are easy to use, enabling listeners to control volume, playback speed, flip between chapters, fast forward and reverse, and set a bookmark so the next session starts from that point. The video cassette style case the library bundles the player into even includes an extra AAA battery in case the battery in the player runs down. A librarian told me the Playaway audio books have just been added to the library holdings.

What a wonderful idea!

I checked out 1776 by David McCullough and Muhammad by Karen Armstrong. These are perfect for use in the car. Lots of titles are available. The Playaway site includes a catalog of titles, plus more information about the player. It appears that the Playaway site catalog is not comprehensive: it did not list Muhammad by Karen Armstrong, for example.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Thank you, Susan and Rob!

Our new year resolution to visit with friends more often got off to a terrific start when we spent Wednesday evening with Susan and Rob Esson. Rob volunteered to cook an Indian dinner and made sure that all of the dishes except one (Nepalese fish) was vegetarian so that Elly could enjoy them. He cooked Aloo Gobi, dahl, eggs cooked over a delicious base of I’m not sure what, rice, the aforementioned fish, and a Rob speciality — exploding aubergine curry. Susan provided a tasty fruit crumble for desert. Elly and I supplied the wine.

Rob even braved the frigid conditions to cook the fish on their outdoor grill, putting on a fiery, pyrotechnic display with his wok.

Susan, Elly, Rob, and myself at the dinner table.

Susan, we learned, has illustrated a children’s book, One Heart with Two Homes, that will be available on Amazon January 8. Congratulations, Susan!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Dangerous Reading Commences

I began my Year of Reading Dangerously challenge like a good lad on January 1, making a start on Rob Roy. In all fairness, what I am really doing is more of a TBR challenge, but a few of the books might be considered dangerous. :-) I have a lovely Folio Society edition of the book, and have read the Introduction by Alan Massie (quite interesting and well written) and the first seven chapters thus far. I must say I find the book quite easy going compared with Waverly, which I read in January 2007. Scott’s imagery is a treat, and the characters are thus far interesting. Much has been said, from a critical perspective, concerning the unreality of the characterization, which may well be, but the book is still fun.

I was anticipating something like the movie with Liam Niessen, but have quickly realized Scott’s novel and the Hollywood production have about one thing in common: the title.

One difficulty with Scott are frequent topical references to historical figures, events, art, literature, and the like which are not part of the common idiom today. I look on these as interesting research subjects and have been keeping track of them with the assistance of a note form in the shape of a bookmark.

I made these with Microsoft Word by setting up a landscape page with three columns, adding a 1/2 point border under all the paragraphs ( I inserted enough paragraphs to fill all three columns). The top two lines in each column include space for the author's name and book title. The rest of the lines in the column are divided into three parts (for page number, phrase, and date) using two thin vertical autoshapes set as solid white with no border. This last bit is not intuitive, but is a quick way to create separate entry fields.

I set the margins to 1/2 inch on all sides. The column gutters automatically size at 1/2 inch. I checked the option for a line between each column to make an easy cutting guide. The lines won’t actually appear until the paragraphs are inserted. I made these wide enough to accommodate phrases of a few words or more, which makes it easy to recall the particular idea that presented itself while reading. Making a quick reference like this doesn’t interrupt the narrative flow significantly, which is another advantage.

Here is an image of one bookmark. They print three per sheet and are then cut apart.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Going Like a Bomb

I can’t resist posting another little bit from A Book Addict’s Treasury. This is a quote from Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, and is included in the “Buying Books” section (p 100).

Today one of those women who never know titles came into the shop. They are the source of Knightsbridge lady soup and they ask for a good book for a nephew or something new on roses for a gardening husband. This one wanted a novel, “something for a good read at the cottage”. I offered her Procurer to the King by Fallopia Bothways. Going like a bomb with the menopausal set. She gasped, and I realized that I’d actually spoken the thought aloud: “Going like a bomb with the menopausal set.”

She went quite red. “What did you say?” she said.

“Going like a bomb, it’s the best she’s written yet,” I said, and looked very dim.

Congratulations, Rob!

Although Rob tells me he did not start his New Year with 24 resolutions, he did start it with a signal accomplishment — his third astronomy sketch selected as an Astronomy Sketch of the Day. Way to go, Rob! What a great way to start the New Year. What will you accomplish next?

For those of you who are interested in astronomy, but haven’t discovered the fun of sketching at the eyepiece, in addition to the Astronomy Sketch of the Day website, don’t miss Jeremey Perez's Belt of Venus blog. Jeremy has also co-authored a book on the subject published by Springer-Verlag titled Astronomical Sketching.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

2008 New Year’s Resolutions

As usual, I have a long list of New Year's Resolutions. I like to make an ambitious start each year. This is the first time I have published a resolution list where others could see it, though. Did that affect me in any way? Well, yes. I removed the target weight from item 2 (but I still know what it is). Item 3 might conflict with item 2, especially considering the ingredients called for in The Art of French Cooking(!). But I made my first recipe from the book, which we got from CostCo last month, a crab quiche, and it was heavenly. The best quiche I have ever made. Anyway, I’m hoping item 4 will compensate...

Putting this on my blog will also help me keep track of it during the year. One problem with a resolution list is that the list itself tends to get lost in the shuffle. This way I won’t lose it.

Oh, a comment on item 1, which may seem like an odd resolution for an avid reader to make. I spent several hours the other day trying to make space for recent book additions in one of our bookcases. I ended up having to box some books. The whole experience reminded me of an A.N.L. Munby quote from A Book Addict’s Treasury by Julie Rugg & Lynda Murphy, which title alone sounds a cautionary (though humorous) note.

The will-power necessary to get rid of books must be maintained at all costs. Even if one buys on a modest scale — say, one book a day on average — they fill room after room with the inevitability of the rising tide. I once visited a house in Blackheath after its owner had died. It was solid books. Shelves had been abandoned years before; in every room narrow lanes ran between books stacked from floor to ceiling, ninety per cent of them utterly inaccessible. In one of the bedrooms there was a narrow space two feet wide round the bed, and there the owner had died, almost entombed in print. This macabre glimpse of the ultimate excesses of bibliomania has always been a warning.

Elly is more than slightly skeptical I will accomplish this resolution, and also pointed to the fact that I have added half a dozen books to our inventory during the last few days in preparation for my self-imposed moratorium. Oh, well. A Book Addict’s Treasury kept its rightful place on the bookshelf and was not consigned to a storage box. It is one of the more charming additions to our home library in 2007, chock full of amusing quotes on the habits of bookish folk. I recommend it highly to fellow addicts. My one regret concerning the book is the authors are too self-effacing: other than a few fascinating pages in their introduction, the book consists entirely of quotes from others. Still, a wonderful accomplishment.
  1. Not buy a single book in the month of January.

  2. Lose weight!

  3. Cook more – especially French dishes (Julia Childe’s The Art of French Cooking)

  4. Exercise at least 30 minutes every day. (Morning exercise bike.)

  5. Read at least two hours each day.

  6. Keep a reading journal on my blog.

  7. Do some sketching or watercolor painting at least 4 days a week.

  8. Finish laundry room.

  9. Finish day room.

  10. Build library.

  11. Finish staircase and hallways.

  12. Hang the two doors we bought last October.

  13. Make and install kitchen threshold.

  14. Get my workshop organized.

  15. Remove hedge from hell in front yard and plant garden instead.

  16. Plant shrubbery for birds in backyard.

  17. Build water feature between hackberry trees.

  18. Plant vegetable garden.

  19. Make a stained-glass project.

  20. Build nightstands for Sherlock Holmes bedroom.

  21. Build 221b Baker street diorama S.H. bedroom.

  22. Reserve Tuesday and Thursday evenings for reading.

  23. Get together with friends more often.

  24. Start practicing the guitar again.