There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'
Thus spake literary critic Isaiah Berlin in a famous 1951 essay about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who he considered a classic hedgehog: a writer with a singular vision and a focused intensity. Berlin continues:
... there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel -- a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance -- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.
(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has a deep history, including many excellent and unusual autobiographies that are now out of print. I'm launching a new Litkicks series called "The Great Lost Rock Memoir" designed to occasionally unearth these rare treasures. We start with a personal favorite of mine -- hah, as if they aren't all my favorites ... -- Levi)
It's a stunning loss to USA culture that we don't know anything about the Small Faces, a British "Mod" band of the 1960s. Well, I know about them, and a few of my music freak friends do, but through some accident of history this band was super-popular in Britain but never managed to cross the ocean.
There were four Small Faces: the theatrical Steve Marriot on guitar and vocals, pensive Ronnie Lane on bass and vocals, snappy drummer Kenney Jones, and artistic keyboardist Ian McLagan, who in 2000 wrote a wonderful memoir of his long music career, All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History. It's a revealing sideman's view of the hilariously warped hippie-era rock scene and lifestyle.
The news that the remains of England's King Richard III have been positively identified in a car park in Leicester is a big deal for historians. It's an even bigger deal for Shakespeareans.
A great Shakespeare character has been found! Richard III was one of the playwright's most infamous villains, along with Iago and Edmund. The ancient rivalries between the House of Lancaster and the House of York are long forgotten, but the historical King Richard's reputation has been completely sealed: he is the smarmy, sarcastic hunchback who hisses "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York" to open his eponymous play. For centuries, Richard III has been one of the major Voldemorts of the popular imagination.
I've just thoroughly enjoyed (and learned much from) a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth was written by Apostolis Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitrio, illustrated by Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna and published in 2009. It was recommended to me by a young and voracious reader of comic fantasy/adventure novels who thought the subject matter would appeal to me. He was absolutely right.
This book breaks my pattern of slight prejudice against Bertrand Russell, which was grounded in two things. First, like many enthusiastic Wittgenstenians, I've been all too aware of Bertrand Russell's role as the straight man to the curvy-thinking Ludwig Wittgenstein during the height of the analytic philosophy craze at Cambridge University just before the First World War.
Russell was the hard-headed mentor, according to this well-known narrative, and Wittgenstein was the brash young student who surpassed the teacher, blowing Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's pretentious Principia Mathematica apart by revealing the naturally obvious fact that, all blackboards of incredibly complex scribbled formulas aside, logic is actually not based on deeper foundational truths at all, but simply is. (I'm sure Wittgenstein would have said it better, but it was Wittgenstein's revelation that turned Russell's years of hard work from a live theory into a museum piece.)
If there is such a thing as a typical volume of letters, The John Lennon Letters edited by Beatles expert Hunter Davies is certainly not it. John Lennon didn't write the kinds of letters that Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov did.
Though he wrote many hundreds of songs, John Lennon was not a prolific letter-writer. He tended to keep it short, and his impatient, impulsive epistolatory style, packed with half-puns and gutteral utterances, indicates some proto-form of A.D.D. But Lennon had a strongly visual and artistic mind, and he always took the time to illustrate his chaotic notes and scribblings with cartoons and diagrams. He also wrote in a cheerful, loopy hand, and this is why editor Hunter Davies made a smart decision to create the complete volume of John Lennon's letters (the first serious volume of collected letters, as far as I know, of any rock musician) as a facsimile collection, with high-quality photographic reproductions printed on thick, good paper.
Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.
The movies are over, J.K. Rowling has moved on to adult fiction, and yet here I am, lying curled between the couch and the heater, pinching the fat inner spine of The Goblet of Fire between my thumb and forefinger. This is my fifth time. As a teenager, I used to read by closet-light, flipping back to the first chapter immediately after finishing the last, as if expecting something new to happen. Only in Harry’s world could such an enchanted book exist ...
"One cannot read a book: one can only reread it." -Vladimir Nabokov
There is something akin to magic in reading a novel for the first time: the first brush with a new world of characters and creatures is thrilling to imagine; each turn of the page lures us deeper into the mystery of the dream; and, by the end, we arrive at a catharsis of completion and knowing.
Once the mystery is solved, however, the story does not lose its power. In rereading, one can explore the text for hidden delights tucked into each book, free from the burden of mystery and with a keener eye for dramatic irony. Throughout the series, nods and winks to future happenings and cross-textual connections shape the rest of Rowling’s ever-expanding, ever-darkening fantasy world. With a world so vast, it’s difficult to catch it all in one take.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the funnest play William Shakespeare ever wrote. It winds down, after several twisted noctural love stories resolve themselves, with a usually hilarious (if performed well) play within a play, staged by several "rude mechanicals" from the local forest who've been enlisted to enact the legendary story of Pyramus and Thisbe before the court of Athens. A charming video has just emerged of the Beatles in 1964 performing this segment of A Midsummer Nights Dream for a British television show -- and handling their Shakespeare surprisingly well.
The video may look like pure chaos if you're not familiar with the play, but in fact this section of Midsummer Night's Dream is meant to be a moment of theatrical anarchy, as the rude mechanicals break character, mumble their lines and stumble over each other just as the Fab Four do here. Paul McCartney has the most lines to speak as Pyramus, the male lead (he also utters the words "Now I am dead", echoing later conspiracy theories). John Lennon wears a gown and gets in touch with his feminine side as Thisbe, the female lead (the role is typically played by a man). Ringo is deft as the Lion, managing a very subtle roar, and even the quiet George Harrison grows into his role as Moonshine. Based on this evidence, all four of the Beatles could have been Shakespearean actors if they'd wanted to be.
The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more—except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.
The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
This unforgettable scene from Oliver Twist, first serialized in Bentley's Miscellany -- where exactly in the imagination of Charles Dickens did it take place?
Ruth Richardson, a British historian and preservationist, stumbled upon an amazing answer to this question while advocating against the demolition of the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of many extant London workhouses like the one described in Oliver Twist. This old building turned out to have a special significance, unknown at the time to the entire world. Charles Dickens, she discovered, had lived on the very same block during several of his turbulent childhood years.
I considered going dark today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (along with Boing Boing, Reddit and Wikipedia), but I decided not to for two reasons. First, I don't think little sites like Litkicks will make much impact at all by going dark. You've got to be pretty huge to pull something like this off effectively. Second, my favorite President has already signaled that he will veto the bad bill, so I'll save my protest for the next good cause. And here are some literary links, many of which seem to revolve around the classics:
1. We were with her a quarter of an hour before Eliz. & Louisa, hot from Mrs Baskerville's Shop, walked in; -- they were soon followed by the Carriage, & another five minutes brought Mr Moore himself, just returned from his morn'g ride. Well! -- & what do I think of Mr Moore? -- I will not pretend in one meeting to dislike him, whatever Mary may say; but I can honestly assure her that I saw nothing in him to admire. -- His manners, as you have always said, are gentlemanlike -- but by no means winning. Most of the letters in the new collection by the genius of Steventon, England, Jane Austen, are not this juicy, but the mundanity of the writer's daily routine is also valuable to read about, and the sickness-to-death letters towards the end are quietly, tragically moving. Jane Austen's Letters, the Fourth Edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye.
2. James Franco, who was pretty good as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, has made another film based on the life of a 20th Century poet: The Broken Tower, about Hart Crane. Slate isn't impressed, but I'll give it a chance.
3. Ezra Pound's daughter Mary De Rachewitz is trying to make sense of her father's fascist past while protesting an Italian neo-fascist party that has attempted to adopt his name.