Monthly Archives: October 2012

Good-Bye, Jacques

Good-Bye, Jacques

This weekend I read of the passing of Jacques Barzun. It made me more than a little sad. Not because I was his biggest fan or have read all of his books (I’ve read one.) What made me sad was that another great mind and insightful thinker has passed from our world at a time when we can ill afford the loss.

Jacques Barzun was a historian but his interests were broad ranging. Music, art, teaching, the intellectual life, even detective fiction were the subjects of his writing. However, his observations and commentary on Western culture was where, to me in my limited exposure, he truly shone. He strongly believed that ideas greatly influence civilization. Take this example from “Darwin, Marx, Wagner,” which I read several years ago:

The Evolution which triumphed with Darwin, Marx, and Wagner . . . was something that existed by itself. It was an absolute. Behind all changes and all actual things it operated as a cause. Darwinism yielded its basic law, and viewed historically, its name was Progress. All events had physical origins; physical origins were discoverable by science; and the method of science alone could, by revealing the nature of things, make the mechanical sequences of the universe beneficent to man. Fatalism and progress were as closely linked as the Heavenly Twins and like them invincible.

Their victory, however, implied the banishment of all anthropomorphic ideas, and since mind was the most anthropomorphic thing in man, it must be driven from the field, first in the form of God or Teleology, then in the form of consciousness or purpose. These were explained away as illusions; those were condemned as superstition or metaphysics.

There, in eight easily understandable sentences, was Barzun’s analysis of the idea of Darwinism. That he wrote so clearly was another of his talents. He was an intellectual who wrote so that everyone could understand. He was a public intellectual in the best sense of the word.

His magnum opus, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present,” was published when he was 93 years old. Amazing. I hope merely to be breathing by then.

Joseph Epstein shared his memories of Jacques Barzun in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I can do no better than to leave you with his closing sentences:

He lived to 104, and his death scarcely comes as a surprise. Chiefly it is a reminder that a great model of the life of the mind has departed the planet. Not many such models left, if any.


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Posted by on October 30, 2012 in Authors, History, Ideas, In The News


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Score at the Thrift Store

Score at the Thrift Store

So by now, most of you know that I LOVE to shop for books at thrift and second-hand stores. One of the main reasons is because I just never know what I’m going to find. The element of surprise makes each trip an adventure and when I come across that special book or books, well . . .

Yesterday my wife and I went to the D.A.V. (Disabled American Veterans) Thrift in Prescott. This is one fabulous shop, with all sorts of nifty nic-nacs, old clothes, furniture and, of course, books. And I scored! I found some of the old “Companion Library” series of children’s classics published by Grosset & Dunlap back in the ’60s. What was wonderful about these volumes wasn’t just that they made available some of the all-time best stories for young people, but also the way they did it.

There were two tales per volume, but also two front covers. If you were looking at one cover and you wanted to see the second, instead of just turning it over, you would flip it upside down and THEN turn it over. Hard to explain with words, but if you saw one you’d understand. And these were the full versions of each story, not some abridged one.

So here’s what I snagged: The first volume has Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (it says “Revised and Slightly Abridged”. Oooops!) which was first published in 1727. along with Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The second volume has The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame sharing the covers with Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Finally, the third volume has The Adventures of Pinocchio by C. Collodi (in reality, Carlo Lorenzini, NOT Walt Disney) followed on the reverse side by the Howard Pyle version of The Story of King Arthur and His Knights.

There were several more of these wonderful books on the shelf when I left, but I didn’t want to be greedy. But if they’re still there next time, consider them gone. I’m going to build a nice library for my grandson and these books are a great way to do it!

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Posted by on October 27, 2012 in Book Hunting, Children's Books, Old Books


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A Quotation and a Recommendation

First American edition, 1906

First American edition, 1906 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

London was a trove of the magic of childhood, for anyone who had read as obsessively as Winnie had done before the age of twelve. Pull back just a bit, and more of England became implicated: a bit of river out toward Oxford, on which a rat and a mole were busy messing about in a boat. Peter Rabbit stealing under some stile in the Lake District. Somewhere on this island, was it in Kent, the Hundred Aker Wood, with those figures who have yet to learn that sawdusty toys die deaths as certainly as children do. The irrepressible Camelot, always bursting forth out of some hummock or other. Robin Hood in his green jerkin, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill . . .

The person who would become a lifelong reader should stumble upon very rich stuff first, early, and often. It lived within, a most agreeable kind of haunting.

From “Lost” by Gregory Maguire


This weekend, The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from Joe Queenan’s new book, “One for the Books,” which will be published this Thursday, October 25. They titled the excerpt, “My 6,128 Favorite Books.” If you absolutely LOVE books (I mean real books!) and reading, you must read this. Really, honestly, truly. I can’t remember the last time an article put such a huge smile on my face. Do yourself a favor and follow the link above to read this marvelous piece.

This what the love of books is all about.


Posted by on October 21, 2012 in Ideas, In The News, Quotations


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Further into The Hobbit with jubilare. Beautiful Mirkwood!


My first contribution to The Hobbit Read-a-long!

Ah, Mirkwood.  Stop for a moment to bask in the deep shadows and fill your lungs with that heavy, still air.

Mmmm. It has been too long. There are some places I reach through books to which I return again and again out of sheer love and awe. Mirkwood is one of my favorites. I wonder how many of you who read this, if any, feel the same.

Even in this book, brimming with some of the best fairy-tale elements, this chapter stands out.  We have:

  • Dark enchanted forest
  • Instructions not to stray from the path
  • Water that puts one into an enchanted sleep
  • Enchanted dreams
  • Fey lights in the darkness, luring travelers off the safe path
  • Elven hunt and white deer
  • Eerie voices and laughter echoing in the woods
  • Vanishing faerie banquets
  • Giant spiders

The makings of a fantastic folktale! And…

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Posted by on October 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


The Hobbit Read-Along: Chapter VII, Queer Lodgings

WARNING: I fully intended to write a straightforward reflection on chapter VII of The Hobbit. Really. But something happened as I started writing and I couldn’t stop myself. So I went with it, for good or ill. You have been warned.

So I’m reading chapter VII of The Hobbit, called “Queer Lodgings,” and I’m thinking to myself, “Didn’t Bilbo and

Bilbo Baggins

Bilbo Baggins (Photo credit: Dunechaser)

Thorin and the boys just have a rest three or four chapters back?” In fact they did, and the chapter was even called “A Short Rest.” Well, not that short really. They spent two weeks in Rivendell as guests of Elrond, for crying out loud! Sure, they had just escaped from some nasty trolls, but don’t you think three or four days would have sufficed?

So here we are four chapters on and the gang is taking another rest. Honestly, is this an adventure or a bed and breakfast tour? (Oh, but wouldn’t The Last Homely House be a great name for a B&B?) I guess I should cut them a little slack. After all, they did just escape lots of goblins and Wargs, and we all know how stress inducing THOSE can be! Besides, who can complain about free airfare?

This time the accommodations, and the host, are a bit, ah, different. Unlike Elrond, the new proprietor is large, hairy, gruff, easily angered and somewhat rude. Did I mention he’s also a skin-changer? Some cultures might call him a shape-shifter. He can transform himself into a bear. At will, evidently. His name is Beorn, which comes from Ye Olde English and means “bear.” So our heroes are holed-up with a werebear berserkr. (See, if I were writing a serious analysis of this chapter, I would tell you how the word “berserkr” comes from the Old Norse words, bjorn bear + serkr shirt. But I’m not so I won’t.) Guess there’ll be no “O, tra-la-la-lally here down in the valley!” during THIS stop.

Thank you very much, Gandalf! Did any of the traveling party think to check this guy’s references?

Now the actual facilities are pretty nice. A large lodge made of wood, clean and warm, with straw mattresses and woolen blankets. Plenty of food served by magical white ponies, grey dogs and white sheep. Most important, there is lots of mead! This is a very good thing. Trust me. I’ve had mead.

So Bilbo, Thorin and the gang have a grand meal with Beorn and listen to him tell tales of Mirkwood forest, which is a dark and terrifying place and which happens to be their very next destination. Cheery. But wait, there’s more! Not long after the meal is finished, the door to the lodge slams shut and Beorn is gone and Gandalf tells them, “you must not stray outside until the sun is up, on your peril.” So do you think a dwarf or two regretted drinking that sixth bowl of mead?

OK. Maybe this stop isn’t really much of a rest.

So after two nights away, Beorn returns in a very jovial mood. Nothing lifts the spirits like decorating your property with goblin heads and Warg pelts. Just in time for Halloween, too. He’s in such a good mood that he tells our company even more about the wonders of Mirkwood: “your way through Mirkwood is dark, dangerous and difficult. Water is not easy to find there, nor food. . . in there the wild things are dark, queer and savage.” Yes! On the plus side, Beorn does supply them with food, water and ponies to ride, but they have to send the ponies back when they reach the gate of the forest. (Forests have gates?)

Not to be outdone, Gandalf decides now’s the time to leave. He leads the company right to the forest’s gate and then says: “And good-bye to you all, good-bye! Straight through the forest is your way now. Don’t stray off the track! – if you do, it is a thousand to one you will never find it again and never get out of Mirkwood; and then I don’t suppose I, or any one else, will ever see you again.”

In a touching group farewell, the dwarves reply to Gandalf: “O good-bye and go away!”

Now I don’t know about the dwarves, but Bilbo evidently didn’t learn his lesson about Gandalf. He didn’t even bother to warn his cousin, Frodo, about getting involved in any adventures with this guy. Sure enough, guess who doesn’t show up at the Prancing Pony? Maybe someone should give Gandalf’s cousin Radagast a try.

One last thing. Frodo and his traveling buddies have an encounter strangely similar to the one Bilbo and Thorin had with Beorn. They accept lodging with a strange character in an amazing place in the middle of nowhere. And get this: both incidents happen in CHAPTER VII!

Coincidence? I think not.


The Hobbit Read-Along continues on Thursday with Chapter VIII, Flies and Spiders, over at Don’t miss it!


Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Book Review


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Were You Educated By A Loose Canon?

The Great Books of the Western World is an att...

The Great Books of the Western World is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I asked “What kind of reader are you?” Now I want to know, “What books did you read when you were in school?” I’m not talking about elementary school here. More like middle or high school. What books did your teachers expose you to?

I’m curious about this because I’ve been perusing Harold Bloom’s wonderfully eye-opening book, “The Western Canon,” (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994). Most of us these days think of the Bible when we hear the word canon, but it does have a broader application. A canon is basically an authoritative list. Thus Bloom:

Originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon’s true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?

What Bloom is getting at here is that there are far too many books for people to read, even in several lifetimes. Choices need to be made. There are certain books that are definitive of our Western culture, the core if you will. We’re talking about such authors as Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, Goethe, Milton and, Lord, I’m barely scratching the surface here. Are we, or our teachers, choosing the books we really need to truly understand our culture?

How many of these seminal writers were you exposed to during your high school years? Or even college? The odds of today’s students having the opportunity to read these great minds grows ever slimmer due to what Bloom describes as “the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”

I’ll attempt to grapple with more of the details later, but for now please ruminate on this: Can a person understand Western civilization, or even be a part of it, without some minimum knowledge of its greatest writers and thinkers? How would one choose the Canon?


Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Authors, Education, History, Ideas, Old Books, Worries


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The Numinosum

It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole.

C.G. Jung from Memories, Dreams, Reflections


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Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Quotations


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