The other day I was puzzling over how to get access to a friend’s mother’s thesis. I learned that it is in storage at a university library. No worries, you think, just request it at the desk. But that is a late-lamented custom. The problem is Covid: you can no longer enter this library without a student ID card, which you apparently insert into a robotic machine that has the power to approve or deny.
I desperately want to read her thesis, which is an analysis of the role of women in 19th-century literature, in a political context, and let’s face it, it may also shed light light on my literary education. My friend and I frequently borrowed books from her mother’s shelves, including 20th-century classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. One of my best T.A.’s also wrote a thesis on women in 19th-century novels, which I would love to read. And I imagine there are other brilliant dissertations there by former T.A.’s, the unsung heroes and heroines propping up university life.
And so I can’t get into the library. How has it come to this, I wonder. How very, very tired we are of all the Covid rules. Here we are, the gray-hairs and white-hairs, vaccinated and rule-abiding, but now too tired NOT to sit down in the cafe for a cup of tea. (It is the most exciting thing I’ve done in a year.) And the voice of reason asserts, If the vaccine is not adequate protection for drinking a cup of tea in an empty cafe, what is it good for? Naturally, I put on my mask after I finished. To the end we must be good role models, even after vaccination!
I am doing all the things I’ve done for a year–washing hands, wearing masks, and social-distancing-and I’ve lost the feeling of panic, which is a good thing. The number of cases is down here, perhaps because of the smooth roll-out of the vaccine. When I read about lockdown in other places, I am sad. Is the lockdown the only way to control the virus? I suppose it is. And so in and out of lockdown everyone goes. Think of it as a time to be peacefully at home…
In the year 2001, I acquired a Mac iBook clamshell laptop, and my work habits changed forever. I no longer felt the need to spread out Latin reference books reverently on the dining-room table. The nomadic laptop culture had made it possible to convert the bed into a home office, and there was plenty of room for Latin books as well. I frequently moved “the office” to various comfy pieces of furniture, depending on whim. Sometimes it was the couch, other times the comfortable chair, still other times the Cafe Diem (a perfect place to work or read Latin).
And so the other night was completely ordinary. I was reading Virgil, balancing the Latin dictionary against my scrunched-up knees in bed. The dictionary had looked a little worn lately, but it was not, I believed, beyond duct tape. I was looking up the word pecten in the dictionary, “comb,” but in this case it means “the sley of the loom,” when the dictionary made a popping sound.
And then the cover fell off.
Oh no! I was ineffably sad.
Lewis and Short is an old, old friend. We refer to it as Lewis and Short, though properly that appellation applies to the larger edition of the dictionary, and the small one bears only Lewis’s name. The Elementary Latin Dictionary was first published in 1889. Charlton T. Lewis writes in the preface: “The vocabulary has been extended to include all words used by Catullus, Tibullus, and Tacitus (in his larger works), as well as those used by Terence, Caesar, Sallust, Cicero, Livy, Nepos, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Phaedrus, and Curtius.” So many writers, so many examples from literature. I am always impressed.
My new copy of Lewis and Short arrived this week, but I cannot bring myself to throw out the old one.
I have a long history with my original copy. First, I wrote my name on the endpage, in my messy handwriting, in case I lost the book. What If I left it in the library? I carried so many books in my bag; it could happen. None of us could afford phones in those days, but I could go to a phone booth and make a call for 25 cents. And of course no one steals a Latin dictionary, so the librarian would have it waiting for me at the desk.
The Latin dictionary has lived in seven cities. In graduate school when my boyfriend visited for a weekend, we would get up early Sunday morning and drag ourselves and our classical paraphernalia to an enclosed-porch 24-hour library smoking lounge. It was always full, and God, did it stink of smoke. But there we sat, doing our work intensely, because he had a long drive home, and there was so much to do.
Classics has been a lifetime personal commitment. There have been many, many, many years when I have read Latin literature on my own. It is a quiet kind of fun, but I love it. And there is so much to read. The true classics I read again and again, but, of course, some are better than others. I do not recommend Lucan’s Pharasalia. Spare yourself.
The loss of my dictionary has made me appreciate the toils of Victorian lexicographers. More than a century later, Lewis’s Elementary Latin Dictionary is still an essential work.
And now I have two copies. Eventually, I’ll throw out the old one.
We are always looking for a good book. We read reviews, browse in bookstores, chat to friends, and join Goodreads groups. The critics reputedly have the best taste, but I also note what characters in novels read and books mentioned in poetry.
I have been racking my brain to remember what Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooke read but alas! I don’t remember. Here is a short list of specific books I learned about from bibliophile characters in books. Please add any you can think of!
1 The Oxford Book of English Verse. Manya, an actress in Madeleine L’Engle’s The Small Rain, reads aloud an anonymous 16th-century quatrain from The Oxford Book of English Verse to Katherine, her ward and the heroine of the novel.
There seem to be different versions of this poem, but here is one I found online.
O Western wind, when wilt thou blow That the small rain down can rain? Christ, that my love were in my arms, And I in my bed again!
Yes, I own a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse.
2 The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. The March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’sLittle Women not only read this allegory but act it out. I admit, I was more interested in the fact that Jo March reads and writes “blood-and-thunder stories,” but I don’t recall whether her favorite trashy reads are mentioned by title.
3 Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in Ryeis not only a rebel but a reader, and he he has a thing for Eustacia Vye, a dark, brooding, voluptuous character in The Return of the Native. This was the first Hardy novel I read.
4 Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. In Maud Hart Lovelace’s Heaven to Betsy, Betsy dutifully completes the freshman summer reading, Ivanhoe, and loves it. Some of her friends, i.e., the boys, never got around to it, though. After she tells them the enthralling plot, they get better grades on their papers than she does. The irony of being nice!
5 Chapman’s Homer. In John Keats’s sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the narrator realizes the power of Homer when he discovers George Chapman’s translations.
Here is Keats’s sonnet:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
6 George Gissing’s The Odd Women. I discovered this 19th-century classic when I read Gail Godwin’s 1974 novel, The Odd Woman. The heroine, Jane Clifford, an English professor, is a George Eliot expert but is also preparing to teach a class on Gissing’s The Odd Woman. Both of these “Odd” novels are brilliant.
7 Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho.The heroine Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbeyreads Gothic novels and starts to imagine spooky things. Catherine introduced me to the work of Mrs. Radcliffe. Unfortunately, i am not a fan!
What books have you learned about from characters in novels or poets?
I would love to travel to India. It is so exotic, so faraway, so impossible to visit during the pandemic, and when it was possible I had no interest.
Perhaps I would prefer the literary India anyway. I have been enjoying the books of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize for her 1975 novel Heat and Dust. I still have my original copy, which has a Booker Prize sticker on the cover and an exquisite, charming illustration by her husband Cyril Jhabvala on the endpapers. If ever a book should be bought for the cover…!
I wonder, Where did I learn about Jhabvala? I may have been impressed by the English literary prize sticker. But the most likely source would have been The Chicago Tribune, which had an excellent book review section then. I also loved The New York Times, but it took three days to reach my hometown.
Over the years, I have eagerly read Jhabvala’s fiction. And guess what? I recently discovered some early novels I’d missed out on. I just finished The Nature of Passion, published in 1956. Her early books are different: they focus on Indian characters, while her later books focus on the culture clash between the East and West.
There is a family culture clash in The Nature of Passion: Lalaji, a rich, successful contractor, loves family life and indulges his children. But education has been the impetus of the rebellion of his youngest son, Viddi, and his daughter, Nimmi: both want to go to a university in England. Viddi wants to be a writer and loathes the idea of business; Nimmi scoffs at arranged marriages and wants to find romance of her own in England. But Lalaji is not sure he wants another westernized son and daughter. His second son, Chandra Prakash, is an alumnus of an English university, and refused to work for his father, but ironically he needs money from his father to keep up his life-style.
In the first chapter, Jhabvala begins to delineate the differences between the past culture and present way of life.
Lalaji himself was the only one in the house to sleep outdoors. In the mornings it was almost chilly and he had to cover himself up with a sheet, but he preferred to wake up to sky and hedge and crows than to the loneliness of his expensive bedroom. He did not like his bedroom. Nor did his wife with whom he shared it. It seemed wrong that just the two of them should sleep there, no children, no babies, no relatives come to stay, only pieces of strange and unnecessary furniture.
Lalaji is lovable but a bit of a crook: he and his lawyer are trying to prevent the newspaper from unearthing his role in a business scandal. But somehow we lare fascinated by Lalaji and the family intrigues. The drama includes a comical feud between Lalaji’s wife and the mother of her daughter-in-law; Nimmi’s illicit dates with a young man she meets at a friend’s tennis club; Viddy’s whiling away his time at a bar where other artistic types try to wheedle money out of him; and Chandra’s nagging wife’s determination to sever ties with Lalaji and make their children speak English.
Jhabvala subtly illustrates the effect of Western culture on India, whether for good or bad, in this comedy of Indian life. A great pleasure to read. She was such a great writer, and we miss her!
I am spending much of my leisure with Emily Dickinson this month. I am a constant reader of Latin poetry, but when I get into the American or English poetry-reading mood, I become obsessed with a single author. I enjoy Emily’s company exceedingly, and lines of her poetry pop into my mind at the oddest moments. What does she mean by this exactly, I wonder while staring at the broccoli at the grocery store. Quite often the line is about a bee. Emily is so bright, arcane, and witty that she sometimes stings–like one of her famous bees!
Here are two of Dickinson’s poems about fame, one of them with her favorite insect–a bee!
Fame is a bee.
Fame is a bee. It has a song— It has a sting— Ah, too, it has a wing.
Fame is a fickle food.
Fame is a fickle food Upon a shifting plate Whose table once a Guest but not The second time is set Whose crumbs the crows inspect And with ironic caw Flap past it to the Farmer’s corn Men eat of it and die
“George Eliot is the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, and Middlemarch THE greatest novel of the 19th century.” So said an intense but lazy English professor given to sweeping generalizations and assignments to write a “journal” instead of essays. Yes, yes–I had read all of Eliot’s novels–but I could not agree with her about Middlemarch. Much as I love Eliot’s strong-willed heroine Dorothea Brooke and pity her disastrous marriage to the dim-witted scholar, Mr. Casaubon, I am uninterested in the other characters–I’m sorry, but Middlemarch is a dull town!
No, I much prefer The Mill on the Floss, a double bildungsroman that follows the fortunes of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. Of the two, Maggie is the more appealing, a quick-witted girl who adores her very average older brother, enjoys boys’ games, reads widely, and has, according to her mother, deplorable “brown” skin and tangled hair. When she is scolded for lack of femininity, Maggie retires to the attic and punishes her “fetish,” a wooden doll, by driving nails into its head. Tom, of course, is allowed to be unruly, and his antics, however muddy, are tacitly approved as masculine.
But perhaps Tom suffers even more than Maggie, due to–yes–the study of Latin! He is sent away to be educated privately by a curate, who imparts only two subjects, Latin and geometry. Poor Tom! The more mistakes he makes, the more Latin lines he is given.
When Maggie visits Tom for a few weeks, her curiosity helps him with Latin. Not that she has a chance to learn it, mind you, because Mr. Stelling informs the siblings, much to Maggie’s humiliation, that women only have a “superficial” intelligence. Still, she asks so many questions that Tom makes an important discovery.
…she had asked Mr Stelling so many questions about the Roman empire, and whether there really ever was a man who said, in Latin, “I would not buy it for a farthing or a rotten nut,” or whether that had only been turned into Latin, that Tom had actually come to a dim understanding of the fact that there had once been people upon the earth who were so fortunate as to know Latin without learning it through the medium of the Eton Grammar.
I would probably love the Eton Grammar: I learned Latin out of a similar book! But Eliot preaches against a classical education that befuddles or fails to inspire average students like Tom, or perhaps I should say students who do not care for languages. Maggie would have benefited from Tom’s education, and Tom from something more practical. Eliot’s attitudes were certainly progressive: she was a linguist herself (and a Latinist), but opposed the idea that a classical education was appropriate for every student.
Tom is not the only confused Latin student. Years ago, an English teacher informed me that one of my best students had referred to the Aeneid as a play.
“Close enough,” I said cheerfully.
The student was an excellent translator and could sight-read–and that was good enough for me! I had told them it was an epic, but there is much dialogue, so I understood her confusion (they were not reading epics in English class). I did mention the word “epic” several times in the next few weeks, hoping that the students would absorb it.
Happy National Poetry Month! Pop off the cork and enjoy the metaphorical champagne. Here are two of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson. More to come.
It’s all I have to bring today – (26)
It’s all I have to bring today— This, and my heart beside— This, and my heart, and all the fields— And all the meadows wide— Be sure you count—should I forget Some one the sum could tell— This, and my heart, and all the Bees Which in the Clover dwell.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind —
You probably imagine that my home library burgeons with dusty classics and is overrun by cats and dogs. And you would not be completely wrong. The shelves are full of Victorian novels and Latin poetry. Yet I am also a fan of pop culture, and have resolved this year to read more pop fiction.
In many ways we feel more distant from the culture (what is left of it) during the pandemic, even though we have Zoom and live-streaming. And so I want to know, What do people read for fun, or more important, What is pushed on them?
After consulting national book club selections, I picked three titles, the first published in 2019, the other two in 2020. Two are fantasy novels and one is a best-seller that doubles as literary fiction. Oddly, it was the pop literary novel I didn’t finish!
Are these books worth reading? Yes, in different ways.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, a Barnes and Noble Book Club pick. The popular Y.A. writer Leigh Bardugo’s first adult novel is a page-turner. The heroine, Alex Stern, a lost-soul drop-out and drug user in L.A., is the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. She wakes up in the hospital, with a very dubious future: she is a suspect in the crime. And then Yale recruits her because of her ability to see ghosts (a long, complicated story). Her main job is to join Lethe, one of the magical secret societies at Yale, and monitor it for the Dean so the magic will not spill over and contaminate New Haven. She is, needless to say, trapped in the Ivy League and resentful of the rich students: she is also unprepared academically, and because of her Lethe activities, has little time for homework. This smart, deftly-written novel is character-driven, with sharp, witty dialogue. You will empathize with Alex, who makes a niche for herself at Yale, but not without enduring tragedy and loss.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, a Good Morning America Book Club pick. This is an enjoyable middlebrow read, driven by, of all things, philosophy and quantum physics. The down-and-out heroine, Nora Seed, takes an overdose, but somewhere between life and death wakes up in the Midnight Library, presided over by Miss Elm, her elementary school librarian. Every book in the library contains an alternate life for Nora, and she is supposed to find one that suits her. As she samples many lives, we become afraid for her. The problem with the book? Haig’s simple style is adequate, but a bit dull. Nonetheless, the idea for this self-help book in the form of a novel is intriguing.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. A Barnes & Noble Book Club pick and a Readers’ Digest Book Club pick. Donoghue is a powerful writer, but this slight novel, set in Dublin in 1919 in a maternity ward during the Spanish flu pandemic, is disappointing. I admit, I picked it up to read about the flu epidemic, and had no idea it was set in a maternity ward for patients with influenza. Even the intelligent observations of Julia Power, a nurse and midwife at work under trying, unsanitary conditions, could not get me into the book. Alas, like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.” I didn’t finish this.
Have you read any good pop fiction lately? What do you recommend? And if you’re a snob about pop fiction, let me know, because I’ve been there. I’m trying to find my balance in the culture.
I love Daylight Saving Time. I metamorphose from a hibernating mammal into an exuberant human being. Changing the clocks (spring forward!) is a hallmark of spring. The worshippers of rosy-fingered dawn lament losing an hour but we see light overcoming darkness. Some states do not, or at least used not, to observe Daylight Saving Time: they were on “God’s time” all year round. But when twilight steals the sun at five o’clock, I histrionically mutter, “I wish I were dead,” and go to bed at eight. As long as I use the subjunctive of to be (were), I am fine. But if I mutter, “I wish I was dead” (the indicative), please ply me with healing subjunctive exercises.
ARE YOU VACCINATED? According to the Atlantic, the U.S. is in good shape with the vaccination rollout, and the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against the new strains. So let us hope we get on top of the fourth wave soon (though isn’t it really just one big wave?). Yes, I have been vaccinated, and I feel more secure. There’s a long way to go, though, with so many, many new cases every day.
MY NO. 1 PROBLEM WITH MASKS: The mask earloops recently got tangled up in my headphones. A delicate disentangling operation had to be performed single-handed in a store.
And now here are three Literary Links.
I recommend Gal Beckerman’s interview with Paul Theroux, “Would the Pandemic Stop Paul Theroux From Traveling?”, in The New York Times Magazine. His new novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, will be published in April.
And here is a short passage from the article:
For six days, Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer, dined on hard-boiled eggs, microwaved dal and wine.
He had set out cross-country in a rented Jeep Compass on the day before Thanksgiving, driving from Cape Cod, where he has a house, to Los Angeles, where he delivered boxes of his papers to his archives at Huntington Library, and then flying on to Hawaii, his other home.
Theroux said he observed a landscape largely emptied out by the coronavirus pandemic, from deserted motels in Sallisaw, Okla., and Tucumcari, N.M., where he stopped to sleep, to a rest area in Tennessee where he had his solitary Thanksgiving meal, and the In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Ariz., on his last day on the road. Every night, as is his habit, he wrote out in longhand all he had seen.
2 At Tor, Melissa Baharddoust, author of Girl, Serpent, Storm, writes about “Persian Legends and Their Western Counterparts.” Here is a short passage:
While poring over Persian myths and legends for my novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, I was always delightfully surprised whenever I came across a story that sounded familiar to me from my western upbringing. While I don’t have the expertise to speak to exactly how these stories found their way from one culture to another, or whether any of these stories were directly influenced by each other, I hope you’ll join me in marveling at the way some stories speak to and create common threads in all of us.
On one thing, at least, we were all in agreement: we wanted to be free. The problem was that we couldn’t agree on what that freedom looked like, or who should enjoy it. Even as new horizons of collective action and mutual support seemed possible, the urge to do whatever we wanted, free from the inconvenience of consequences, took hold with renewed force. Set against the freedom from infection was the freedom to endanger others by leaving lockdown; the freedom to do away with masks and sow airborne death in the supermarket; the right, via “unmuzzled” speech across high-profile platforms, to spread dangerous, divisive fictions. When finally the halls of US government were stormed and occupied, it wasn’t civil rights activists or eco-warriors posing for a selfie in the chamber, it was a loose conglomeration of angry and often baffled conspiracy theorists, splinter Republicans and Nazis, freely subverting the democracy they claimed to defend.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the late 1960’s, my bourgeois family was killing me. While I lounged on the couch and read Charlotte Bronte, J. D. Salinger, and D. H. Lawrence, they sat in the finished basement watching Mission Impossible and The Big Valley. While I learned to read Tarot cards, they played cards. And there were the usual arguments about clothes: I hid my army jacket with the embroidered peace sign in the garage, because my mother thought it too tacky to wear to school.
I was critical of the educational system. I begged Mom to send me to Summerhill, a progressive school in England, but it was not going to happen when there were perfectly good public schools in town. At school I passed the days writing a journal and scribbling quotes from poetry and rock song lyrics. One day a music teacher busted me for not paying attention, and read aloud what I’d written about the meaninglessness of school. I was a hero for a day–a popular boy told me he admired my writing–but I was still humiliated. Once home I slammed into my room, cried a little, and picked up one of my comfort books, probably I Capture the Castle or Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes. And I looked for inspiration from a poster with a quote from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
There was a lot of noise and haste to filter out in those days. Poetry and rock songs helped. There was Emily Dickinson: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” There was Charlotte Bronte: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Perhaps Edna St. Vincent Millay was my favorite:
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light!
Rock music was the glue that held my generation together. I adored the Beatles and was devastated when they broke up. I remember how excited I was the first time I heard “Hey Jude.” I would half-listen to the radio for hours just to hear that song. My favorite Beatles album, Rubber Soul, was frequently on the turntable. I loved “Nowhere Man,” though I was never, never, never, never going to be a “Nowhere Woman.”
Doesn’t have a point of view Knows not where he’s going to Isn’t he a bit like you and me? Nowhere man please listen You don’t know what you’re missing Nowhere man, The world is at your command Ah, la, la, la, la
I have begun to feel rather like Nowhere Woman, though. It has been a monotonous year of wearing masks, and I admit I don’t recognize my friends and acquaintances in their masks. I also seem unconsciously to have depended on lip-reading in conversation. Now I hear, “MUMBLE MUMBLE MUMBLE MUMBLE.” And that’s what they hear from me, too.
As for self-expression, we can’t see each other’s faces. This is a small complaint, but it’s time to get out the Emily Dickinson and the Beatles.