Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Archive for January, 2008

January 31st, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

No Wonder Plato wanted to Ban the Poets

Speaking of totalitarianism and why Martin Amis is exercising free speech: this from the Associated Press (thanks Joseph):

RANGOON, Burma-A Burmese poet known for his odes to love was arrested after penning a Valentine’s Day poem that carried a hidden message criticizing the leader of the country’s military junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, colleagues said yesterday.

The poet, Saw Wai, was arrested Tuesday, a day after his poem "February 14" was published in the popular weekly entertainment magazine A Chit, (Love), according to colleagues who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals.

The eight-line poem in Burmese is about a man broken-hearted after falling for a fashion model, whom he thanks for having taught him the meaning of love. But if read vertically, the first word of each line forms the phrase: "Power crazy Senior General Than Shwe."Than Shwe, 74, who has headed the junta since 1992, has little tolerance for criticism. He keeps himself sequestered in his remote, newly built capital, Naypyitaw.

The junta regularly arrests dissidents and critics, and drew the world’s condemnation after turning its troops on peaceful anti-government protesters last September.More than 30 people, including Buddhist monks who led the protests, were killed in the crackdown. Saw Wai regularly writes innocuous love poems for Burmese-language magazines and journals. He is also a member of an organization of local artists and actors called White Rainbow, which helps HIV-infected orphans.

"You have to be in love truly, madly, deeply and then you can call it real love," reads the poem for which he was arrested.The verse ends with a call for unity in the name of love: "Millions of people who know how to love please clap your hands of gilded gold and laugh out loud." The Burmese word for million is "Than" and the word for gold is "Shwe."

News vendors in Rangoon, the largest city in Burma, also known as Myanmar, said authorities had removed the magazine from their newsstands. Saw Wai’s poem is the latest attempt by artists and others to circumvent the junta’s muzzle on expression. Associated Press

January 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Marx on Book Reviewing; Prose on Muses.

"From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it." Groucho Marx

Listen to Francine Prose talk here with Michael Silverblatt about "The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired",  a series of brief lives of women who inspired famous men—from the real-life Alice of Alice in Wonderland to Mrs. Thrale, to Yoko Ono. It’s delightfully lovely. Go ahead. Expand your definition of love.

January 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Earth to Thought Thugs: Amis is not a Racist.

Candid, chippy conversation between Mark Steyn-hating/diet Coke drinking Johann Hari and great "diet coke is the least cool of all drinks" novelist  Martin Amis in The Independent this morning here. Hari, after countless irritating references to the author’s well known smoking habit (good guys don’t inhale?), concludes that Amis’s brain is at war with itself, and wonders "if the Steyn-hugging round-’em-up impulses will deliver a knock-out blow to the other Martin: the nuclear-disarming multiracialist who remembers his Muslim girlfriends with a sweet smile."

As I’ve said before, Amis’s public musings strike me as coming not from a racist, as many thought-thugs seem so keen to label him, but from a brilliant writer who is honestly grappling with a serious, sensitive topic that demands intelligent public debate.

Not that the impetus is necessarily entirely pure. Martin may just be bored, as this, the best passage in the piece, suggests:

"Yet there are other descriptions of Kingsley that keep flickering past my mind as possible explanations for Martin’s metamorphosis. Kingsley’s closest friend, Philip Larkin, suspected that Kingsley "felt nothing deeply". One of Larkin’s girlfriends said: "Kingsley wasn’t just making faces all the time, he was actually trying them on. He didn’t know who he was."

This seems like a working hypothesis, at least: that Martin has always been a great prose writer with nothing to say, casting around for a transcendent cause. He has flicked through the moral Rolodex of the concentration camps (with his novel Time’s Arrow), environmental destruction (London Fields), nuclear weapons (Einstein’s Monsters) and the Gulags (House of Meetings), and now alighted on the rubble of the World Trade Centre. Could it be this numbness that draws him time after time to apocalyptic scenarios? Is the global jihad just the latest apocalypse to lend gravity to his burning but hollow prose?"
January 29th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with Antiquarian Bookseller Patrick McGahern by Nigel Beale.

Patrick McGahern has been selling books in Ottawa, Canada since 1969. His store specializes in used and rare books: Canadiana, Americana, Arctic, Antarctic, Travel, Natural History & Voyages, Illustrated & Plate Books, Irish and Scottish History and Literature. More than 30,000 titles are stocked at the Glebe store. Thousands of rare, scarce and interesting books are offered through their Catalogues which are published six times a year. Almost 10,000 titles are featured in their online database through ILAB (International League of Antiquarian booksellers).

I talked with Patrick recently in his store about the book trade: how it was, how it is, how it will be. About idiosyncrasies, obsessions, buses and booksellers playing psychiatrist and priest; about ILAB and AbeBooks, and finally, about simply doing the work.

January 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

The Unbound: Access to Hitchens, Great Essays, Original Reviews of Classics

For those of you who revel in Christopher Hitchens, here thanks to the newly unbound Atlantic magazine Website is a healthy selection of his reviews and essays from the past seven odd years. 

Here are highlights from the past hundred years of The Atlantic, including essays by W.E.B. DuBois, William James, John Muir, Robert Frost, Rebecca West, Albert Einstein, Robert Moses, Pablo Picasso, Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. X, James D. Watson, and more.

And check this out, Original Atlantic reviews of literary classics dating back 150 years

January 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Helvetica, Books, Transparency and Meaning


I watched the documentary film Helvetica last night. It illustrates how ubiquitously this typeface lives in our visual culture, and argues that typography plays a crucial role in conveying and influencing meaning. Wrong, I’d say on both counts when it comes to books. Open virtually any volume and nowhere will you find Helvetica. Read almost any novel and the meaning you retain comes not from type style, or block, but from the words themselves, what they connote and denote. Though Helvetica might well dance on many attention stopping dust jackets, look inside, and almost every time you’ll find Times New Roman or
something closely akin to it.


Clear, legible, and ordered, Helvetica was developed in 1957 at the Haas Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland. "Like crawling through the desert, having your mouth full of dust and dirt, and suddenly being presented with a cold, clean glass of water" That’s how using the Helvetica sans-serif typeface felt for the first time to a whole generation of graphic designers in the 1950s, according to one commentator in the film.

It gained immediate, worldwide acceptance among typographers and design folk. Today it is everywhere. All over London and New York, on storefronts, street signs, subways, planes and trains, income tax forms, postboxes and BMWs, print and television ads, billboards, letterhead, everywhere. And there are no half measures, designers either love it or hate it.

Gary Hustwit’s artful film points this out, tracing the typeface’s decenders back 50 years through a series of edgy interviews which skillfully summarize the rift that has raged in graphic design circles now for decades. In one corner is Massimo "The life of a designer is a life of fight, fight against ugliness…just like a doctor fights against disease." Vignelli. He stands for typeface that is legible and unobtrusive, that doesn’t interfere with communication of what the words mean; it’s not about the notes, but about the space in between them. He delivers the first and best blow against those who, like David Carson, former graphic designer of Ray Gun magazine, "feel that when they write ‘dog’ it should bark."

Carson, author of "The End of Print" suggests that just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates, and heaps scorn on words written in Helvetica. "That doesn’t say ‘caffeinated’ it just sits there. Nothing caffeinated about it."

Designers line up behind these two, punching with surprising ardour given how banal the topic. Helvetica is both praised as conceptually perfect, its curves, dimensions, strokes, inherently right, unfixable; and demeaned as dull, like Nazi soldiers marching in a line, devoid of character, of life, as shit.

But this is beside the point. Regardless of its characteristics, Helvetica is not, as this film suggests, ubiquitous. In the world of books, it’s surprisingly absent. Of the fifty odd I checked on my shelves, only two were printed in serif-less, Helvetica-like type. Both were artsy. One on Art Deco book design, the other on French ventriloquist, and originator of the concept of the modern library, Alexandre Vattemare. The rest contained typeface identical or very close to Times New Roman.

Helvetica may be everywhere: on the street, in the boardroom, around advertisements, but its nowhere on the bound printed page. It seems that serifed type has been deemed easier to read by the publishing industry than by advertisers and designers. Perhaps the serifs somehow aid in hurrying our eyes along the horizontal plane. Helvetica may be more legible at a distance, hence its use outdoors. Close up, serifs may help; further away, maybe not. Who knows?

Then there’s the impact that typeface and layout have on the reading process itself. If you listen to designers, from Vignelli to Carson, all tend to agree that it is significant. While this may well be the case in the slippery alleys of advertising and design, in the pages of books I’m not so sure. For instance, last week I was in Montreal interviewing Neil Smith, author of Bang Crunch, an acclaimed collection of short stories. The ten page title piece is written without any paragraph breaks. Do you think I noticed? No. Neil had to point this out to me. Not only was I oblivious to typeface, I couldn’t even see the absence of great big indentations. Perhaps this is a testament to absorbing content, but my sense is that it has more to do with transparency.

Robert Bringhurst, in his poetic, elegantly written and designed book, The Elements of Typographic Style, calls typography a craft that clarifies, honours, shares, or knowingly disguises, the meanings of a text. "In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn." Typography with anything to say, he continues, aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency, a creative non-interference. In a well made book the letters are legible and alive. They ‘dance in their seats.’ The typographer’s essential task is to understand, interpret and communicate the text…its tone, tempo, logical structure, physical size…just as a theatrical director interprets a script, or a musician the score.

In short, Bringhurst says that typographers, like other artists and craftsmen, must as a rule do their work and disappear. This goal is largely achieved in the serifed, functional world of publishing. Ironically, it is not in a visual culture dominated by ‘clear, transparent’ Helvetica: a fuzzy, egotistical universe that elevates the importance of appearance to the level of content in the task of conveying meaning.

January 27th, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

Books, Coincidence and the Grace in Your Life.


It could be argued that one way God or a higher power makes itself known to us is through coincidence. Not surprisingly, given the amount of time I spend around them, books are closely connected to  happenings of this nature that have occurred in my life.

 I had one such happening this afternoon at Chelsea Books in Chelsea, Quebec. I’d been talking to owner Frances Curry about James Wood as I worked my way alphabetically through the fiction section, recommending that she read him. Told her I was looking for some of the lesser known authors he mentions: Bohumil Hrabal, Joseph Roth, Svevo, Verga. Minutes later, as I hit the Ws, I found a copy of Wood’s only novel The Book Against God. Signed. For $8.00. (Incidentally, if you are into book covers, check this site out)

Joining the karmic buzz, Frances recounted how, so often, when calls for books she doesn’t have come in, they mysteriously show up the next day as new arrivals.

I recall several years ago being ticked at how expensive signed first editions of Ondajee’s English Patient were at the Ottawa Antiquarian Book Fair. I vowed, before returning the next day to drop by the Book Market, a four story used book store several blocks from where the Fair was being held, to search for a better deal. Wouldn’t you know it, a signed copy…the signature is basically a straight line – for $9.95 in Very Good to Near Fine condition.

Then there was that early morning walk, during which I’d been musing about how God makes himself known to us, suddently a light breeze hit my face, and I realized that this was it. Several blocks along, I came upon a seniors’ home. I volunteered to help cart some boxes out from the underground parking lot up to the sidewalk. They were preparing for a garage sale. One of the boxes I carried contained books. On top lay one about God. On the back was listed six ways in which he communicated with man. Number one was through the wind.

Once, whilst visiting my father, whom I hadn’t seen in ages, I found a book (The Ragman’s Son by Kirk Douglas) that he’d forever been recommending I read. I’d been searching for it for years. It was in the book section of the Salvation Army about two blocks from where he lived in North Vancouver.

Mere coincidences perhaps. But for me, proof that my connection with books is spiritual.

How about you? Any book-related examples of grace in your life?

January 24th, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

Heath Ledger, Nick Drake and Clinical Depression

I find the death of Heath Ledger particularly tragic and upsetting. If reports are true, some six different types of sleeping and anti-anxiety pills were found in the apartment where he died. These pills are typically used to treat the symptoms of clinical depression. Although autopsy reports are to date inconclusive, it seems apparent that an overdose of sorts,  intentional or otherwise, was responsible for Ledger’s death. It’s probably no coincidence that he spoke recently of a desire to make a film about the influential English singer-songwriter Nick Drake who suffered from depression and died tragically at the age of 26 in 1974 from an overdose of the prescribed antidepressant, Amitriptyline. As part of this project Ledger had directed and appeared in a music video set to Drake’s recording of "Black Eyed Dog" a song about depression.

I know about the hell clinical depression causes. The way it can destroy careers, marriages …lives. Early childhood trauma or deprivation, genetic predisposition, life events, typically involving loss of love (in a 2005 interview, one Sophia Ryde revealed that a week before Drake died, she had sought to end their ‘unconsumated’ relationship), all coincide to cause clinical depression in those unlucky enough to be susceptible. There was a time when I thought suicide was a selfish act. Knowing what I now know, I think otherwise. It’s a symptom of disease, a disease that unfortunately continues to carry stigma with it.

Given that clinical depression is now at epidemic proportions in the Western world this stigma is surprising. I imagine it will dissipate as the number of people affected increases, and more start to realize that it’s a chemical imbalance, akin to diabetes, not a sign of ignorance, or an affliction visited solely upon Arkham House crazies. " Experts" (ignorance still reigns rampant) say that depression is caused by multiple factors, biochemical and environmental /circumstantial. I tend to believe that effective treatment resides on the biochemical side, cause on the environmental, cure on the societal. If our culture did a better job of allocating wealth, of creating environments better suited to the stress-free raising of children, of helping mothers nurture and love their babies, then perhaps as grown-ups these children would be less susceptible to crisis-causing events and triggers. Large extended families and ‘villages’ of caregivers are largely a thing of the past. Young parents these days either choose or are forced to make it on their own.

I suppose we should be grateful that for the most part depression is treatable. One can only hope that, despite capitalism’s incentives to produce treatment not cure, a solution will be found to better address this plague. But drug, or talk or any kind of therapy can only go so far. It may be that capitalism itself is the problem. But maybe not. Look at the ‘socialist’ Scandinavian countries. Depression and suicide tends there to be much higher than in  Caribbean countries for example. Perhaps a bit more heat and sunshine, thanks to global warming, wont be such a bad thing.

While I understand that platitudes are of no help to those in Ledger and Drake space, I’ll nonetheless exit here with Tolstoy, but not before saying that I think those who commit suicide tragically and mistakenly believe that there is no use continuing to live because no one on earth will ever love them. It is incumbent on friends and loved ones to let them know in the clearest terms possible that the truth is otherwise: "Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here."
January 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Role of a Literary Archives Dealer: John Wronoski audio interview with Nigel Beale.

John Wronoski is a rare book dealer who specializes in literature, and primary works in the history of ideas in English, German, French, Spanish, and Russian. His shop,
Lame Duck Books, contains the most significant selection of 19th and 20th century Spanish language literature in the world, and important originals of 17th and 18th century English poetry. In addition to performing the traditional role of bookseller, John has served as agent in the institutional placement of archives for some of the 20th Century’s most important authors, among them three Nobel laureates. 

It is in this capacity, as literary archives dealer, that we talk here about, among other things: the importance of recognizing value in the rare book trade, paper production in the lives of writers, evident spiritual input in the process of creation, the evaluation, cataloguing, packaging and marketing of manuscripts, the comparative value of long-hand versus typed documents, the compatibility of pen and paper with the flow of thought, the value of hand written/type-written correspondence versus email, rich book dealers getting richer, Frederic Tuten’s Tin Tin in the World, loosing $1 million manuscripts and adoption agencies.

(Please note the interview was conducted before the British Library purchased the Pinter archive)

Copyright © 2007 by Nigel Beale

From one great to another: "A very good overview from one of the great dealers of our time," says Steven Temple, Proprietor, Steven Temple Books, Toronto.

January 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Where the Penguins roost


Incidentally, if you’re into Penguin paperbacks, you may want to flock over here