Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Me: At the 826 Valencia pirate supply store, I got a book of epitaphs.

Maggie: A book of epithets?

Me: No, but I would have bought that book, too.


Me: At the 826 Valencia pirate supply store, I got a book of epitaphs. But Maggie thought I said it was a book of epithets. I told her I would have bought that, too.

Luke: A book about the Tafts?

Me: No, but I would have bought that book, too!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Conversations and anecdotes

From River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (2005)
He was, [Colonel] Rondon wrote, “the life of the party.” In contrast to the reserved, taciturn Brazilian colonel, Roosevelt must have seemed peculiarly fun and lighthearted. Rondon himself was stunned by his loquacious co-commander. “And talk!” he wrote, “I never saw a man who talked so much. He would talk all of the time he was in swimming, all of the time during meals, traveling in the canoe and at night around the camp fire. He talked endlessly and on all conceivable subjects.”

From Tolstoy: A Biography, by A. N. Wilson (1988)
In society, shyness still tormented [the young Tolstoy] unless he was drunk. It is hard to think that the rules which he formulated for social behaviour necessarily made him the most charming of companions. “Rules for society. Choose difficult situations, always try to control a conversation, speak loudly, calmly and distinctly, try to being and end a conversation yourself. Seek the company of people higher in the world than yourself.”

From “The Evils of Spain,” by V. S. Pritchett , collected in Essential Stories (2005)
Caesar did not speak much. He gave his silent weight to the dinner, letting his head drop like someone falling asleep, and listening. To the noise we made his silence was a balance and he nodded all the time slowly, making everything true. Sometimes someone told some story about him and he listened to that, nodding and not disputing it.

From a review by Anthony Powell in the Daily Telegraph of John Skelton: Poet of Tudor England, by Maurice Pollett (1971). Collected in Some Poets, Artists, and ‘A Reference for Mellors’(2005).
Admitting that [John Skelton (c.1400-1529) had] a contemporary reputation for wit and eccentricity, we find also a mild anecdote about Skelton included during his own lifetime in one of those collections of jokes popular at the time, A Hundred Merry Tales. Shakespeare took some of his funny stories from this particular anthology.

So far so good, but hardly was Skelton in his coffin before further stories began to pour out about him, in which he was confused with a friend of Chaucer’s called Scoggin—also, as it happened, a poet and royal tutor—who had lived about a hundred years earlier.

That was bad enough, but worse was to come. Scoggin, as has been said, was an earlier personality, but one who, from his career, might be judged to possess a somewhat similar line of wit to Skelton’s. Unfortunately, on this already muddled situation descended an avalanche of chestnuts, many of a bawdy sort, told about another Scoggin, who almost certainly never existed, but was said to have been court fool to Henry VII.

Simply as regards confusion of identity, it was rather as if a story told about Evelyn Waugh was then said to refer to P. G. Wodehouse, and, as a result, not only were Waugh and Wodehouse anecdotes impossible to sort out, but they also could not be distinguished from those about Bertie Wooster, believed by many to be a real man.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

On, as usual, books--but at greater length than usual

I've been asked by a couple of people whether writing this blog has altered my reading habits. It hasn't, but writing it has altered the way I think about not just my reading, but everything I experience, making me see more clearly how thoughts and events and situations interconnect. It's one of the most pleasant side effects of regular nonfiction writing, a seemingly subconscious ordering of experience and grouping of ideas, a hoarding of questions and thoughts until a critical mass emerges into a full-blown essay.

That sort of hoarding has made me repeatedly return in my thoughts lately to a conversation I overheard on the L a month or two ago. Two women of about my age were on their evening commute. One was bound the next day for another city on a business trip. She asked the other woman whether she had any suggestions of a book she might want to read on the plane.

It was a casual mention, a bit of conversation as much as a request for suggestions. But the second woman's response was anything but casual. She positively erupted with suggestions. Had her friend read The Life of Pi? How about The Kite Runner? Memoirs of a Geisha? She might try In Her Shoes, although she should be warned that it opens with a very hot sex scene. But she'd like it if she'd read Candace Bushnell's Four Blondes—had she? What about The Devil Wears Prada? Or if she wanted non-fiction, she could try the memoir by Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or A Million Little Pieces, the Oprah book. Speaking of Oprah, an old book that she might really like is East of Eden; once you get into it, you can't put it down. Bel Canto is like that, too.

I've given you the short version. She overflowed with enthusiasm, recommending more than a dozen—maybe even two dozen—books that she'd enjoyed in the past year or two, covering, it seemed, most books that spent time on the front tables at Barnes and Noble. She described the books, and she linked them to one another, noting similarities, probing her friend for what she had read and enjoyed the way a good bookseller does, trying to find links to new suggestions.

Her friend, meanwhile, was clearly overwhelmed. She listened politely, and she may even have appreciated the effort. But it was without a doubt much more than she'd bargained for. She had been looking for a temporary distraction, something to make her time in the air pass—a book that, if it didn't grab her during her flight, she might not even finish. What her friend had supplied instead was the equivalent of a love letter to books themselves, almost embarrassing in its frank excitement. I imagine that almost none of the titles registered with her—unless her friend emailed her the next day, which seems likely—and she probably bought The Da Vinci Code at the airport and didn't think about any of this again.

But I did. I told Stacey about the conversation when I got home, and I kept thinking about it. The second woman's enthusiasm had been so infectious, had made me so happy, that I couldn’t forget it. No, the books weren't, for the most part, books that I was interested in. They weren't particularly daring or difficult choices, and in a hundred years, they'll probably all be forgotten. But they—and other books like them—were clearly an important part of her life. Books mattered to her, meant something to her, the way they mean something to me and my family and friends.

But why do they matter? What do I get from them? I hope that the early days of this blog have given you some idea of my answer to that question. When put on the spot, professional book people, from librarians to teachers to writers themselves, tend to point to the utility of books. The very genre of the "Why Read Literature?" essay lends itself to the pedagogical and improving. Books teach us things. They help us understand other people. They make us better people.

Those aren't bad answers. They're all, to some extent, true. But focusing on the utility of books tends to privilege books with something specific to teach, makes them a means rather than an end. I think there's more to reading than that—that's why, to some extent, I don't care what people read, so long as they're reading. The act itself, the focusing of the attention that it forces, is powerful and important, making possible an unmatched inwardness that is, at the same time, not self-centered.

Good writing, fiction or nonfiction, has an effect on me that's almost mystical. It gets deep inside my brain; if I'm reading late at night, I tend to carry the cadences of the writer's style, his very language, into my dreams. I dream in words and sentences. Books open up time for me, repaying my actual investment of time a hundredfold. They temporarily negate the self, take me away from my being and my surroundings like no meditation I've ever come across. In doing so, they open worlds of experience that are closed to me, either by my temperament or my era or my luck, good or bad. They make me think, and rethink, assumptions, make me question my understanding of people, history, myself.

When I try to boil down Iris Murdoch's fiction to one sentence, it's the injunction, "Pay closer attention!" At their best, that's what books force on me, a habit of thought that is open to the oddity of the world, its patterns, recurrences, and novelties. Does it matter to my life to learn that Robert Graves, after watching his mistress Laura Riding say, "Toodle-oo, chaps!" and leap out a third-floor window, raced down the stairs to help her, decided he couldn't live without her, and threw himself out the second-floor window? Or that both survived the fall and were ministered to by Graves's wife? Or that the candiru, an Amazon fish, has been known to swim up the male urethra, with disastrous results? Or that Tolstoy wrote Hadji Murat even as he was denouncing all fiction as a waste of time?

Of course it doesn't. But I wouldn't give back the time I spent discovering those nuggets. The world is a strange place, and people have responded to it in uncountable ways. In the midst of a long, gray winter workweek, reading keeps that fact constantly in front of me. Somewhere in the 3,000 pages of my favorite book, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, the narrator relates a moment when, describing a book to another character, he watches the person's mind more or less glaze over, clearly not understanding why the book—or any book—might be worth discussing. Books, the narrator reflects, are unconvertible assets. You can only give them to those who have them; they're of no use to those who don't understand their value already.

He's overstating for effect, but he's not terribly far off the mark. As someone who compulsively buys and reads books, I frequently hear, when people enter our house, "Did you really read all these?" The answer is, of course not—there will always be more books on my shelves than I've read. And there will be many that I've read more than once. That extravagant plenty is part of the nature of reading: there's always another book waiting.

The question itself is often a sign that books are not central to that person's life. And if they're not by the time one is an adult, they're unlikely to become so. There are times—when they're children, even teenagers or college students—when you can truly give someone books, when books are, temporarily, a convertible asset. It's a brief window, but it's there, and we're the richer for those people who knew us at those times and handed us a book, read aloud to us, or simply read to themselves, with pleasure, in our presence.

Those people didn't just change my life; they really and truly gave it to me. Nothing would be as rich without what I've read. If I can convey even a tiny fraction of that on this blog, I'll be satisfied.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Presidents and dissent

From Candice Millard's River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey:
When [Roosevelt's] train pulled into Chile's capital, Santiago, in late November [1913], he was greeted by a crowd that at first seemed to mirror the friendly masses that had welcomed him to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. But the moment he leapt from his Pullman to the train-station floor, with the triumphal strains of the American and Chilean national anthems echoing around him, his welcoming party suddenly transformed into an angry protest rally. "The human multitude, showing marked hostility, shouted with all their might vivas!--to Mexico and Colombia, and Down with the Yankee Imperialism!" a journalist for Lima's West Coast Leader excitedly reported.

The Chilean government went to great lengths to shield Roosevelt from the demonstrations, even buying and destroying newspapers that covered anti-Roosevelt rallies, but their guest had no desire to hide from any assult on himself or his country. On the contrary, he took every opportunity to face down his attackers, ready to explain in no uncertain terms why he was right and they were wrong. At a state reception welcoming him to Chile, he vigorously debated Marchial Martinez, a former Chilean ambassador to the United States, about the continuted relevance of the Monroe Doctrine. Days later, in an electrifiying speech, he gave an impassioned, utterly unapologetic defense of the Panama Canal.

And that was when Roosevelt was a private citizen, no longer president. Not quite the same as George Bush's scripted press conferences and talks before hand-picked, pre-screened audiences.

This passage also reminds us that not much has changed: an American president could today go to South America and hear that same chant, and he'd still deserve it.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Accounts receivable, or thoughts of life and death

Andrew Delbanco, Herman Melville: His World and Work
In one of [Melville’s books], Isaac Disraeli’s The Literary Character, [Melville’s widow] Lizzie marked the following passage by Disraeli’s widow: “My ideas of my husband . . . are so much associated with his books, that to part with them would be as it were breaking some of the last ties which still connect me with so beloved an object. The being in the midst of books he has been accustomed to read, and which contain his marks and notes, will still give him a sort of existence with me.”

On Herman’s desk she placed the precious bread box containing his unpublished manuscripts, from which she would extract a poem or two, or a few pages of [the then unpublished] Billy Budd, to show to some interested guest.

Ecclesiasticus 41:1-3
O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man that liveth at rest in his possessions, unto the man that hath nothing to vex him, and that hath prosperity in all things: yea, unto him that is yet able to receive meat!

O death, acceptable is thy sentence unto the needy, and unto him whose strength faileth, that is now in the last age, and is vexed with all things, and to him that despaireth, and hath lost patience!

Fear not the sentence of death, remember them that have been before thee, and that come after; for this is the sentence of the Lord over all flesh.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile

Is death so fearsome that it must be undone? Is this life so poor a thing? Is not eternity somewhat too long?
Theirs is a niggardly faith, withal. Parishioners believe only as much as will save the humans among them. Never mind the rest of creation. Unwilling to distinguish the dead from the living. But eager to set apart the rest of creation.

He rises to the pulpit. God’s family, he says, is numberless. “comprehending the whole race of mankind.” And only the race of mankind. Thereby cutting off most of creation.

But numberless is not the race of mankind. Numberless is the race of beetles. Numberless are “the most insignificant insects and reptiles.” Flying ants that swarm by millions in this garden. Armies of aphids falling in showers over the village. Palmer-worms hanging by threads from the oaks. Shoals of shell-snails. the earthworms. Mighty, Mr. Gilbert White avers, in their effect on the economy of nature. Yet excluded from the family of god.

William Hazlitt, "The Fight" (1822), collected in On the Pleasure of Hating
Even a highwayman, in the way of trade, may blow out your brains, but if he uses foul language at the same time, I should say he was not a gentleman.

Don't worry, folks. These selections aren't signs of a creeping morbidity or melancholy. I just happened to come across all of them yesterday and thought I'd group them.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A book I probably won't be reading

Saturday, Stacey had me read the first paragraph of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, by Harry Stephen Keeler, an oddball mystery novel from 1934 that's been returned to print by McSweeney's. It doesn't strike me as something I'll want to read, but I'm looking forward to hearing about it from Stacey, if only because of the author's liberal use of exclamation marks.

Anyway, here's the opening:
I knew full well, when the Chinaman stopped me in the street that night and cooly asked me for a light for his cigarette, that a light for his cigarette was the last thing in the world he really wanted! I knew, in short, that he was up to something! For Chinamen, even in Chicago, that London of the West where most anything can happen, do not stop white men on the street and ask for lights—even though the said Chinaman was garbed in American apparel, as this particular one was when I first had dealings—of a sort—with him.

Can any of you tell me what he means by calling Chicago "that London of the West"?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Some Melville for your weekend

From Herman Melville: His World and Work, by Andrew Delbanco (2005)
When [the Reverend J. M.] Mathews came to the Melvill[e] house on Pearl street in August 1819 to baptize the new baby, he asked both parents to acknowledge the hard truth that "children are . . . born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself," and to promise that they would instruct their child "to the utmost of your power" in the shame of its sinfulness.

From Moby-Dick (1851)

Now and then such unaccountable odds and ends of strange nations come up from the unknown nooks and ash-holes of the earth to man these floating outlaws of whalers; and the ships themselves often pick up such queer castaway creatures found tossing about the open sea on planks, bits of wreck, oars, whaleboats, canoes, blown-off Japanese junks, and what not; that Beelzebub himself might climb up the side and step down into the cabin to chat with the captain, and it would not create any unsubduable excitement in the forecastle.

From The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857)
With some minds, truth is, in effect, not so cruel a thing after all, seeing that, likea loaded pistol found by poor devils of savages, it raises more wonder than terror—its peculiar virtue being unguessed, unless, indeed, by indiscreet handling, it should happen to go off of itself.

From "The Lightning-Rod Man," collected in The Piazza Tales (1856)
"And now, since our being dumb will not help us," said I, resuming my place, "let me hear your precautions in traveling during thunder-storms."
"Wait till this one is passed."
"Nay, proceed with the precautions. You stand in the safest possible place according to your own account. Go on."
"Briefly then. I avoid pine-trees, high houses, lonely barns, upland pastures, running water, flocks of cattle and sheep, a crowd of men. If I travel on foot,—as to-day—I do not walk fast; if in my buggy, I touch not its back or sides; if on horseback, I dismount and lead the horse. But of all things, I avoid tall men."
"Do I dream? Man avoid man? And in danger-time too?"
"Tall men in a thunder-storm I avoid. Are you so grossly ignorant as not to know, that the height of a six-footer is sufficient to discharge an electric cloud upon him? Are not lonely Kentuckians, ploughing, smit in the unfinished furrow?"

From Moby-Dick (1851)
It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case may be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.
Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.

From Amazon.com, on Moby-Dick
Far from being either enjoyable or enlightening, Melville's novel was tolerated as just another unpleasant aspect of high school life, like being hassled by the upperclassmen or the macaroni and cheese in the lunchroom or acne.

I HATE this book. Why? It's BORING!

This book is HORRIBLE! Classic, my eye! I would love to know what's so great about this book. I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!

"Moby Dick" has such an iconic place in American literature that anyone with a serious interest in the subject will want to read it. Please do so unprejudiced by the conventional view that this is a masterpiece. Ask yourself honestly; is it really any good?

I won't pretend it's not an absolute mess of a book. And I'm unlikely to recommend it to someone without knowing their tastes pretty well. And it boggles my mind that it is sometimes assigned in high school. I won't even pretend that a lot of what these people say isn't true.

Regardless, it's a favorite, and I overlook its faults as if it's a weird friend, and I'll be reading it again and again my whole life.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Two more volumes to go

I'm going to take a break between volumes of Taylor Branch's America in the King Years, if only because the intensity of the events described is wearing. There are times in Parting the Waters—the siege at Ole Miss and the first of the Freedom Rides in particular—when Branch's narrative is so immediate and compelling that the tension is almost too much to bear. Such sections make clear the value of the many interviews of participants that Branch weaves into the story: they give not only weight and corroboration to other sources, but also nuance. They let us understand what being in the heart of these events felt like.

As an example, here's Branch's account of a dramatic moment at the 1962 Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention:
King’s convention was dull by comparison, as the three hundred SCLC delegates passed resolutions at a closing session late that Friday afternoon. One called upon the Justice Department to correct lapses in the protection of constitutional rights around Albany, George. Another commended James Meredith for courage in seeking to enroll at Ole Miss. King, in the lolling drone of closing announcements, was reminding the audience of major SCLC events ahead—such as Mrs. William Kunstler’s gala December fund-raiser in suburban New York, starring Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter Lawford—when one of the white men in the audience walked to the stage and lashed out with his right fist. The blow made a loud popping sound as it landed on King’s left cheek. He staggered backward and spun half around.

The entire crowd observed in silent, addled awe. Some people thought King had been introducing the man as one of the white dignitaries so conspicuously welcome at Birmingham’s first fully integrated convention. Others thought the attack might be a staged demonstration from the nonviolence workshops. But now the man was hitting King again, this time on the side of his face from behind, and twice more in the back. Shrieks and gasps went up from the crowd, which, as one delegate wrote, “surged for a moment as one person” toward the stage. People recalled feeling physically jolted by the force of the violence—from both the attack on King and the flash of hatred through the auditorium.

The assailant slowed rather than quickened the pace of his blows, expecting, as he said later, to be torn to pieces by the crowd. But he struck powerfully. After being knocked backwards by one of the last blows, King turned to face him while dropping his hands .It wa the look on his face that many would not forget. Septima Clark, who nursed many private complaints about the strutting ways of the SCLC preachers and would not have been shocked to see the unloosed rage of an exalted leader, marveled instead at King’s transcendent calm. King dropped his hands “like a newborn baby, “she said, and from then on she never doubted that his nonviolence was more than the heat of his oratory or the result of his slow calculation. It was the response of his quickest instincts. This impression struck a number of others, including perhaps the assailant himself, who stared at King long enough for Wyatt Walker and some of the others to jump between them.

“Don’t touch him!” cried King. “Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him."

We see nonviolence in breathtaking action, nonviolence bred in the bone, nonviolence taken farther than I, certainly, can imagine being able to take it. King truly acted in the spirit of Matthew 5:39:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And the image of King on stage facing down his accuser with love is, in a nutshell, King's understanding of Gandhi and his break with Reinhold Niebuhr's literal interpretation of "resist not evil." King argued that one must resist not evil with violence, but with love. It's so counterintuitive as to beggar understanding—but so is the injunction to resist not evil itself.

Yet King lived it, worked through it, created change with it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Last night, Stacey and I attended a reading at the Newberry Library by Julian Barnes. Barnes, who was promoting his new novel, Arthur and George, which is about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, began his presentation by saying, "I approached this evening with some trepidation, and that trepidation has greatly increased now that I understand there are likely to be Doyle fans, or even Sherlockians, in the audience."

Right after Barnes said "Doyle fans," a man sitting two seats down from us raised one finger in a humble gesture of self-recognition and said, "Expert."

Monday, February 06, 2006

America in the King Years

Friday night, I started reading the first volume, Parting the Waters, of Taylor Branch's enormous three-volume life-and-times biography of Martin Luther King, American in the King Years. After reading the 26-page introductory chapter about King's predecessor at Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, I called Bob, ecstatic, and told him that if he never read another word of the biography, he needed to at least read that part.

After a weekend of almost nothing but reading, I'm 600 pages into the book—two-thirds of the way through volume one, in other words—and my enthusiasm hasn't flagged a bit. This is some of the best history I've read. Branch manages to tell a compelling story that doesn't just focus on King, but, rather, manages to encompass seemingly all civil rights activity in the entire United States. He juggles hundreds of characters and dozens of locations while still keeping everything clear and compelling. He explores the ideas and forces that shaped King's thought and his life, and he shows both the strong, eloquent public King and the care-worn, questioning private King.

But despite King's centrality to the story, the progress of civil rights in the period encompassed far more than just King, and Branch gives everyone his due. He brings the reader right into the thoughts and words and actions of everyone from Bayard Rustin to Harry Belafonte to Bobby Kennedy. The nuanced portrait he draws of Kennedy alone would be worth reading the book. King leaves the scene for dozens of pages at a time, and his absence does nothing to slow the book's momentum. The movement was too big for one man, and Branch presents facet after facet, event after event, and he makes us understand how the pieces fit, pushing and pulling with and against one another, making up a whole.

In the midst of all this, there's horror and drama, honor and dishonor. Reading about the all-night meetings of black activists in Montgomery after Rosa Parks was arrested, I could feel the energy and fearful excitement. And reading later about the firebombing of King's house, I felt the astonishing calming power of the words he spoke from his porch to a worried, angry crowd:
Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. "Don't get panicky. Don't do anything panicky. Don't get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love." By then the crowd of several hundred people had quieted to silence, and feeling welled up in King to an oration. "I did not start this boycott," he said. "I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. I f I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us."

Branch reveals people engaging in repeated acts of bravery and integrity in situations where none of us should be confident we'd be willing and able to do the same. Over and over, people acted on their beliefs in the face of hardened, violent opposition. That staggering courage means that, despite all the depravity and hatred on display, the overwhelming effect of the book is one of awe at human capacity to persevere and struggle towards the good. I don't expect I'll read a more astonishing or inspiring book this year.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hard Case Crime

I was in the outer office, standing by the files, doing some research on a blackmailer, when he came in, all six feet of him.
He wore a plaid coat, carefully tailored, pleated slacks, and two-tone sport shoes. He was built like a secondhand soda straw, and I heard him say he wanted to see the senior partner. He said it with the air of a man who always demands the best, and then settles for what he can get.

Erle Stanley Gardner, Top of the Heap (1952)

"All right," she said. "I have to take a chance on somebody if I'm ever going to do anything about it, because I can't do it alone—and I think you're the one. It'll take nerve and intelligence, and it has to be somebody without a criminal record, so the police won't have their eyes on him afterward."
"O.K., O.K.," I said. I knew what she meant. Somebody who wasn't a criminal but who might let a little rub off on him if the price was right. It was a lot of money, but I wanted to hear about it first.
She studied me with speculation in her eyes. "There's a reward for the return of it."
She was sharp. I could see the beauty of that. She was showing me how to do it. You thought about the reward, first; when you got used to that you could let your ideas grow a little. You didn't have to jump in cold. You waded in.

Charles Williams, A Touch of Death (1954)

Ah, Hard Case Crime. These were the first two books sent in my new subscription, and both are excellent examples of the hard-boiled detective story.

The Gardner features a private eye, while the Williams features my favorite noir hero, the ordinary guy who gets in over his head. That's the kind of main character who naturally limits the frequent tendency among mystery writers to make the protagonist an idealized version of the writer himself. Instead, you get an ordinary Joe who is forced to find hidden reserves of strength, resourcefulness, and cunning—or hidden depths of dishonesty, cravenness, and violence.

And all because, as always in such books . . .
I'd had plenty of warning about her. But I didn't realize it in time.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

On paying close attention

From The Acceptance World, by Anthony Powell
I reflected, not for the first time, how mistaken it is to suppose there exists some "ordinary" world into which it is possible at will to wander. All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.

From "The Mortals in the House," by Charles Dickens
I will not say that everything was utterly commonplace, because I doubt if anything can be that, except to utterly commonplace people—and there my vanity steps in . . .