Friday, April 29, 2005

Original interactivity ...

Glenn Reynolds over at Instapundit links to and comments on a piece by James Pinkerton over at TechCentral about the immense popularity of video games, in which Pinkerton wonders why Hollywood has failed to notice the lure of interactivity. Movies, comments Reynolds, “encourage passive titillation; videogames encourage active involvement.”
Which brings me to my favorite form of interactive entertainment: reading. Ever notice how often, when you see a movie based on a book you’ve read, you’re disappointed? That’s because you imagined it all differently. Reading is not at all a passive activity. It demands an active imagination, not only the part of writer, but also on the part of the reader. Not surprisingly, I’ve always been a reader, but never more than since getting this job. And I find that the more I read the less I enjoy movies and TV. To say nothing of a lot of other things that clamor for my attention.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The cover of Archipelago Books' selection of writings by Peter Altenberg. Posted by Hello

Peter Altenberg looking characteristically casual. Posted by Hello

Introducing Peter Altenberg

Peter Altenberg (1859-1919) was the pen name of Richard Englaender. He was the quintessential Viennese bohemian, pioneering a leisurely style of dress, who usually wore sandals and sported a great, bushy mustache (which did not make him look mean at all). His most characteristic writings are short, seemingly spontaneous pieces. Typical is his account of How I Became a Writer. He would have made a perfect blogger.
I first heard of him on the Jack Paar Show, back when I was in high school. One of Paar's regular guests, author Alexander King, a native of Vienna and quite a bohemian himself, often told stories about Altenberg. One of them I have never forgotten:
It seems that Altenberg -- who lived in a hotel room and gave the Cafe Central (a favorite hangout of Vienna's intellectual set) as his official address -- woke up one morning after a night of overindulgence and decided to spend the day in bed. But, just as he was falling back to sleep, he remembered it was the birthday of a woman he very much loved. So he roused himself, got dressed, and went to the florist's, where he bought a large bouquet consisting all different sizes, shades and varieties of yellow flowers, and sent it the woman -- but without a card.
Later that day, he stopped by the woman's house to pay his respects. Only she wasn't home. But her maid told Altenberg about the wonderful bouquet someone had sent the woman. The maid said she just hoped that the bouquet was from Mr. Spellmann, because her mistress was very much in love with Spellmann. Whereupon Altenberg assured her that it was indeed from Spellmann. He knew, he told her, because he had been with Spellmann when he bought it.
Still later in the day, Spellmann dropped by to pay his respects, and the woman showered him with kisses and thank-yous for the wonderful bouquet. Spellmann had no idea what she was talking about, but didn't want to spoil her joy either, so he took the maid aside and asked her about it. The maid told him what Altenberg had said, and Spellmann put two and two together and went out and bought a second bouquet, this one made up of all different sizes and shades and colors of different flowers -- and sent it to the woman with Altenberg's card.
That night, when the woman was retiring, she said to her maid, "You know, I just received another beautiful bouquet, this one from Mr. Altenberg. But you know, I like the other bouquet better, the yellow one, because it was sent by someone who really loves me. A woman can tell such things."
Thanks to Archipelago Books, you can read a representative selection of Altenberg's writings, very nicely translated by Peter Wortsman. It's called Telegrams of the Soul.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Of storage systems and form ...

One of the problems facing anyone who wants to blog is how to find the time. Obviously, successful bloggers have found solutions to that problem. But those of us just starting out have to find our own. Here's mine:
Most days I walk to work. It's a distance of 2.2 miles and takes about 35 minutes. A lot of ideas come to me then -- most of them, naturally, having something to do with my job -- and I've decided to make note of them on this blog when I come in.
The idea that hit me today -- and it hit me, actually, before I even left the house -- is that books, first and foremost, are a storage system. Before we had books, we had scrolls. And now, thanks to computers, we're back scrolling again. But, like a lot of people, I find find scrolling through and reading large chunks of prose on a computer screen tiring. I think that's why blog posts that are short and to the point work better than longer ones.
This made me think that the nature of the storage system must have some bearing on the form of the writing. And it leads me to suspect that a new form of the essay is already evolving out of the practice of blogging. In Vienna, around the turn of the last century, there was a writer whose style was ideally suited to blogging. His name was Peter Altenberg. I'll have more to say about him in a subsequent post.

Monday, April 25, 2005

An anniversary ...

Walter de la Mare, one of my favorite poets, was born on April 25, 1873. Here's a link to his best-known poem, The Listeners. And here's another, to The Walter de la Mare Society.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The blogging saga ...

On Friday I got an email informing me that Blogit, which describes itself as "the first blog-for-pay community," and which features 25,000 blogs on its site, had reached the 1 million mark in terms of writers' posts and readers' commentaries. The way Blogit -- which only started up three years ago -- works is that readers subscribe and half of the money from the subscription fees is distributed to the writers of the blogs proportionally -- the more people read a given blog, the more money that blogger gets.
We hear all the time that reading is in decline. But anyone in my position has to be aware that there's something funny about that -- because more people than ever, it seems, want to write. And people who write are usually people who read.
We also hear a lot about the public's disaffection with tradional journalism. But I have the distinct impression that there is just as much disaffection with traditional publishing. Computers and the Internet have given the gatecrashers around the gatekeepers.
Back in 1997, I wrote a piece for The Inquirer about how the Internet had completely revolutionized the second-hand book business. It's now in the process of revolutionizing both publishing and journalism. At least Rupert Murdoch seems to think so.
What is interesting about Blogit is that it is a community of writers and readers. In fact, it is precisely the relationship between reader and writer that blogging can bring about that makes blogging worthwhile.
Which brings me to what I hope becomes the point of this blog, which has as much to do with what's going out there, among the consumers of books and other reading matter, as it does with anything else. If this blog works out the way I hope it will, it will become the cyberspace equivalent of an 18th-century coffee house.
Charles Mandel at Books, Booze and Bikes posts a few observations that have some bearing on this.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Happy birthday ...

J.P. Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man ,The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B., and other books celebrates his 79th birthday today. You can see an interview with him here.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Orange Prize

Lionel Shriver, who has reviewed frequently for The Inquirer, is among three Americans -- out of six finalists -- nominated for the 2005 Orange Prize. She was nominated for her seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Here's the story in The Times of London.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Even older was this black oak, which is now 300 years old. Posted by Hello

This cucumber tree was already more than 50 years old when Charles Brockden Brown wrote his novel "Wieland," set in the Wissahickon Valley, in 1799. Posted by Hello

A literary setting ...

My wife and I spent the afternoon in the Wissahickon, the setting for Charles Brockden Brown's 1799 novel Wieland. Brown's novel was the original American Gothic, just as Brown was the original American novelist. Brown was much admired by Keats, Shelley, and Walter Scott. He exerted considerable influence on James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks to Brown -- a birth-right Philadelphia Quaker who ran into trouble with the Society of Friends (his "having accomplished his marriage by the assistance of an hireling minister" was thought improper)-- the woods and hills above the Wissahickon helped form in European minds the image of "wild America." Some of the trees that were standing when Brown wrote about the place still stand, as the photos attest.

Hair, hair!

Ann Althouse throws down the gauntlet on the subject of mustaches.

Words to ponder ...

"A real book-lover looks with infinite indulgence upon the simplest person's choice of books. He has the wit to know that this flood of second-rate invention upon which so many feed their fancy and by which so many endure the monotony of their lives is something quite different from what it seems to the person who just glances at it as he passes by. He has the wit to know that every page of these second-rate books as it impresses the mind of the living reader is transmuted by the alchemy of the imagination into something beyond the literal meaning of the words. All readers are imaginative readers. They wouldn't be readers at all otherwise."
This is from The Enjoyment of Literature by John Cowper Powys, one of my favorite writers. It expresses well my own latitudinarian critical stance. One of the things that most prevents people from enjoying great literature is that they have it shoved down their throats at the wrong time and under the worst circumstances. I first encountered Jane Austen when I was a 15-year-old working-class kid going to Father Judge High in Northeast Philly. Pride and Prejudice was required reading. But the world portrayed therein was so far from the world I knew that it could have been written in Martian. To this day I have yet to warm to the charms of Miss Austen.
Readers should, like water, follow their own course and reach their own level. Nothing does literature greater harm than snobbery.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Portrait of the first tulip of the season. Posted by Hello

Whereabouts ...

I took a week off, I told myself, so I could hunker down and do some blogging on a regular basis. As it happened, I spent most of my time getting my South Philly patio garden in shape. Hard to believe such a tiny space could require so much work. The tulip in the photo has been the star of the garden so far.
I also spent a good deal of time thinking about what I wanted to concentrate on in this blog and figured I'd go with what people who have read it have said they liked best: shop talk. And I figured I'd resume blogging by giving some idea of the role I see for myself as a book review editor.
I certainly don't view myself as some Grand Poohbah of criticism. First of all, though reviewing has a critical component, there are differences between reviewing and criticism. When you write a critical essay you can pretty much assume that your readers are familiar with the work you're writing about. You can assume the opposite when you're writing a review.
The overwhelming factor is the overwhelming number of books and the underwhelming amount of space in which to review them. I prefer to review books that aren't being reviewed everywhere else. I also like to review books by lesser-known publishers, off-beat authors, and the like. And I don't like to waste space with negative reviews. Sometimes, they're unavoidable. Some books are news, and I work for a newspaper. If the newsworthy books turns out to be bad, then space has to be devoted to saying so.
But I'm really an advocate for reading. For me, book reviewing has more to do with bringing to people's attention something you've found worthwhile and telling them why. I've written some negative reviews and will certainly write some more. But on the whole I prefer to pass on the thumbs up/thumbs down business.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A play by Mr. Maugham ...

Last night, my wife and I went to the Walnut Street Theatre to see The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham. I’m a Maughan fan. I know that many, especially academic, critics look down on him and his work, but I always find myself, after reading Maugham, better able to tolerate the weaknesses and foibles of my fellow humans — and even my own. I think his short stories are marvelous.
The Constant Wife proved to be a constant delight. If more plays like it were staged I’d go to the theater more often. As it is, just about the only contemporary playwright who can get to cough up the price of a ticket is Tom Stoppard.
The production at the Walnut, directed by Malcolm Black, is first-rate. Especially good were Nancy Dussault as Mrs. Culver, Alicia Roper as Constance Middleton (the wife of the title) and Greg Wood as her husband, John. Constance’s sister and mother and a friend have just learned that John is having an affair with Constance’s best friend. The sister especially feels Constance should know. Turns out, though, she already does.
Except for the manners and dress, the play could have been written last week. The dialogue sparkles from start to finish. It makes fun of social conventions, but never sermonizes (unlike so much contemporary drama).
If the Walnut stages more Maugham, they may rest assured that I’ll be there. Wouldn’t mind seeing some Terence Rattigan, either. And something by Ibsen besides Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. Actually, I’d love to see The Master Builder.

The American Dream (cont'd)

Tono Rondone, in comments to my original post about Arthur Miller and the American Dream (see below), takes a dim view of America. I've been around for quite a few decades and have traveled a bit throughout our fair land and I honestly don't recognize the place Tono describes. Maybe he should take a look at what Portuguese poet Paulo Jose Miranda has to say on the subject. Here are some excerpts courtesy of Citizen Smash.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Robert Creeley (1926-2005)

Poet Robert Creeley died Wednesday, age 78. Here's an obituary from the Times of London and a link to a Robert Creeley Web site, which has a selection of his poems.