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When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
– excerpted from Books I Wish I Wrote: On Writerly Jealousy, by Kaulie Lewis
St. Jerome and the Angel
Simon Vouet, oil on canvas, ca. 1622/1625
Do the work. The words will out.
From the sidewalk across from 40 Verandah Place, they could look past the bars on his window, which had no shades or curtains, and see him scribbling on loose typing paper or in a massive bookkeeping ledger—not sitting at a table but standing up, using the top of an old Frigidaire as a desk. If this posture made any sense, it was only because the man was enormous, about six feet six, “or maybe a little more” in his estimation, and no dieter either. While he concentrated on his work, his big, sulky lower lip puffed out and his eyes widened. If one of his stubby pencils wore down, he chucked it to the side and picked another one out of a coffee can. When he finished with a page—sometimes only twenty sprawling words would fit—he would push it to the floor with a meaty hand and go on. In the afternoons a young typist would come and pick the sheets off the floor, then try to put them in order and make some sense of the handwriting, which generally consisted of a first and last letter for each word, with a wavy line between the two (why waste time with the other letters?). All the while the writing continued, so that the typist would have to keep shuttling between the typewriter and the first floor around the writer’s feet.
The apartment cost sixty-five dollars a month including utilities and it contained barely more than a few busted-up pieces of furniture and haphazard piles of papers and books, with coffee cups and ashtrays dotting the landscape. It was a federally declared intellectual disaster area.
Looking at this giant who worked deep into the night, who paid no attention to personal comfort or social decorum, who drank sludgy coffee and lit cigarettes off the burning butt of the one before, those people on the sidewalk must have thought they were beholding the very image of the writer, the artist.
If they did, they were right. Thomas Wolfe fit all the stereotypes just about to a tee.
– excerpted from the chapter, A Long Way From New York: Thomas Wolfe, in Literary Brooklyn
1900 – 1938
…let’s get started…
illustration by Maira Kalman
from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules
Rome in the 1st Century CE was awash with the written word…and the libraries of the wealthy were stocked with books on history, philosophy and the arts. But these were not books as we know them – they were scrolls, made from sheets of Egyptian papyrus pasted into rolls anywhere from 4.5 to 16 metres (14.76ft to 52.49ft) in length.
…it took both hands to read a scroll properly…the only way to read a scroll was to unwind it carefully from the right hand and, passing it to the left, to roll it up again. Writers and copyists usually wrote in columns a few inches wide, so that the bulk of the fragile papyrus in the scroll could be kept safely rolled up.
Papyrus will also crack and tear if it is folded too often, leading naturally to the gently curved shape of the scroll itself – and so to the fact that most scrolls carried writing only on one side. Only if the text on the front of a scroll was no longer needed would its owner flip it over and use the other side; a double-sided scroll was just too difficult to read otherwise.
Sometime in or before the First Century CE a new kind of book appeared that promised to address the scroll’s shortcomings. The evidence is sparse but telling: archaeologists have discovered a few key scraps of papyrus whose text unexpectedly continues from the front to the back, and whose neat margins one might expect to find in a paged book. And that is exactly what these fragments are: they are leaves from the first paged books the world had ever seen. We know that the Romans called this new kind of book the codex…
Codices leant themselves to being bound between covers of wood or ‘pasteboard’ (pasted-together sheets of waste papyrus or parchment), which protected them from careless readers. Their pages were easy to riffle through and, with the addition of page numbers, paved the way for indices and tables of contents. They were space-efficient too, holding more information than papyrus scrolls of a comparable size:…Robust, efficient and accessible, the codex was literally the shape of things to come.
Nag Hammadi Codex VI opened at the center of the quire*
The Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of thirteen ancient codices
containing over fifty texts, was discovered in upper Egypt in 1945.
A model of a ‘Nag Hammadi’ codex, made in the style of a cache of 4th Century books
found in Egypt in 1945 (Credit: Irina Gorstein (book model), Adam Kellie (photography)
*Note – a “quire” can mean either 24 folded leaves, or any collection of leaves, one within another and stitched together in a manuscript or book. The center of the quire is essentially the center of the opened book.
[Special thanks to friend Jos who’s always sending me bits of bookishness..]
From Ian Brown’s, Sixty: A Diary of my Sixty-First Year:
The redeeming trait of old age—or of aging into old age as the gerontologists put it—is that finally, you can begin to look at the unlived life and appreciate it is still life. If you take the trouble to write down the details, paying attention to the truth, and not the official version, you get a second chance to live it. That is the real discipline of getting older: to force myself to pay attention to details, as if they matter still.
I’m not exactly sure where middle age is. I would guess that once they close the cover, they can take a total of your years and establish that mid-point. In our culture it’s been fixed close to the age of 50. If that’s true, then I appreciate the optimism.
Truth is, those of us who have reached this age, or beyond, have developed a history to look back on and we are very conscious of the context in which those details exist. And, if you’ve faced your mortality, and the trauma that comes with it, those details become very clear. If you’ve faced it twice, then they’re clearer still.
Yet, as clear to us the history, the more conscious we become of the present. Not only of where we are, but where we can be. Although the marketplace. and society, considers us done, we’re just not quite yet finished. And there’s still such an incredible amount to see.
Ian Brown has written a book about his own details. There is humor, observation, and sometimes melancholy. Some of his insights are common felt.
I would recommend the book to those of a common age although anyone can pick it up and enjoy his writing. But worth a read…and a bit of thought…
A Single Book Can Alter The Strongest Of Foundations
Installation artist Jorge Mendez Blake creates a powerful brick sculpture titled “The Castle”. The intimidating wall, formidable and erect, loses its symmetry and forms a rift at the point where a book it inserted at its root.
The potent power of knowledge, held in books, can fracture even the backbone of a monument if it’s foundation is formed from it. The brick wall signifies an obstacle against knowledge, the symmetry of its aligned bricks representing the faultless and exemplary laws, rules and regulations that at once come undone at the hands of a book.
– via The Design Dome
[h/t to Library Journal for the lead-in..]