Saturday, June 25, 2005

"When I was visiting the monastic republic of Mount Athos on the Chalkidiki Peninsula of northern Greece in 1998 to learn what I could about the manuscript collections that have been maintained there for a thousand years, I ran across a lovely word, idiorhythmic, which describes a kind of relaxed monasticism no longer in favor in which adherents could more or less follow their own rules, not those of an inflexible abbot. Translated from the Greek, idiorhythmic means "living by one's own life patterns," and it suggests for me a way to go about the business of scouting out books."

-- Nicholas A. Basbanes, Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century.

Such is the philosophy of a good book browser, literary flaneur, the one more disciplined people would call peripathetic?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Often when I begin to read the work of a writer I find difficult I pause and go to something that will introduce me to his or her life and work, usually a biography or collection of essays about them. This is how I started with Joyce, Auden and other poets.

Recently, I decided to go back to Borges, who I haven't read in 25 years. Instead of plunging into the two collected volumes of his ficciones and non-fiction essays, both labyrinths of learning and satire, I started with Edwin Williamson's new biography, Borges: A Life. That was a mistake. Biographies are only as interesting as the lives of the person they are about, and a librarian who was a life-long momma's boy with a confused political world-view (anti-Peron, but pro-Pinochet) is not exactly an example I would select of someone whose development is worth learning from. So skip it and instead go to Richard Burgin's Conversations with Borges (first person to ask gets my copy) and the work itself, starting with the slim volume, a Universal History of Infamy.

I hear that Hollywood is continuing to mine Philip K. Dick for movie plots. Next year, they are expected to come out with another based on the ultraparanoid cop-narc, A Scanner Darkly.
Anyone who has "been experienced" will appreciate antihero Bob Arctor's struggle with a double life in which his warring double personalities include narcotics agent "Fred," whose job is to spy on and entrap suspected drug dealer Bob Arctor. The man's mental disintegration under the influence of the insidious Substance D is genuine tragicomedy. It's gonna be interesting to see how they pull this off in film.

On the topic of Empire, I just finished Gabriel Kolko's breezy book, Another Century of War.
Kolko is touted as our "leading historian of war" by some Guardian reviewer on the cover, a dubious claim given how saturated the field is, but it is the case that he is a wise and superbly accessible writer. An easy, vigorous read.

If you want something even more morally challenging, I recommend Revolutionary Nonviolenceby Dave Dellinger who, you recall, was one of the Chicago 8, along with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Dellinger was arguably more mature and wise in his behaviors, without being judgmental: he had a good appreciation for the Yippies' antics while keeping his eye on the big picture. These essays really stand the test of time, for their clarity and vision. E.g. in his essays on the assassination of King and RFK, he manages to link them seamlessly to the ongoing war in Vietnam and the broader system of corporate capitalism without appearing to rant. A Yale grad turned community organizer, he writes with a confident voice less imbued with self-serving ambition than many who today seek the mantle of progressive punditry. Is that what corporate control of the media and blogging have done to us?

(btw, blogging creates the same kind of short-sightedness in public figures pressured to respond to just about any news event that "the number" and Wall Street pressure and stock options create for corporate executives to manage their companies for short-term gain at the expense of long-term planning. that's why I don't feel the need to get online and update this site on a regular basis.)