books reflections

A Time and a Place for Everything

Meiji-era Wooden Squat Toilet M—— often reproves me for a habit she finds reprehensible: reading while in the bathroom. I shall not be moved. The mind can be engaged even as Nature is answered.

Most modern American houses draw the functions of their rooms from a strictly limited palette: the kitchen for cooking and eating, the bedroom for sleeping, the bathroom for ablutions and elimination. Most residences cannot support a library, a room strictly for reading. And why should they? Some of us feel no compunction about reading while eating, while in bed, while in the bath, and (dare I add) while on the toilet. Neurotic mysophobia aside, why not?

After our return from an evening excursion to the local independent bookstore, M—— was aghast when I did not refrain from taking a newly-purchased volume with me for perusal. In my defense, I pointed her to Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows. One must move beyond the automatic cultural associations of the toilet with all that is unclean, unspeakable, and unthinkable.

The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kanto region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste.

Now, I have to mention that during the time I lived in Tokyo, most of the traditional-style toilets I encountered were not exemplars of absolute cleanliness, nor were they surrounded by the contemplative silence of nature. One would be extremely unlikely to encounter one of Tanizaki’s wooden “morning glory” urinals, filled with cedar boughs and allowing “not the slightest sound.” At the other end of the spectrum, in a private home I encountered a high-tech suupaa toire of the sort with electronically-controllable, integrated bidet. The soft, heated seat was certainly much more suited to a pleasant experience than the Western wooden or plastic oblong.

Henry Alford, writing for the New York Times, considered the history of reading in the loo (quote lifted from Bibliobibuli):

In the mid-18th century, Lord Chesterfield wrote that he knew “a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the call of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments.” . . . Most scholars contend that bathroom reading is largely a modern pursuit: the chamber pots and outhouses in use prior to the 1920’s and 30’s were not ideal for perusing texts. Yet Roman baths contained libraries wherein one could pore over scrolls, and “The Life of St. Gregory” (1296-1359) recommends the isolated retreat of the medieval fortress toilet — located high up in towers, close to heaven, so as to offset the perceived baseness of the act being committed — as a place for uninterrupted reading.

Cogitation and reflection need not cease when we visit the bathroom; reading and contemplation should be woven through the fabric of our lives.

(Image of Meiji-era wooden squat toilet courtesy Wikipedia.)

books computer science reflections

Italo Calvino on Computer Science

Railroad Bridge in Coatesville, PA(Never fear, part 2 of “Towards a New Salon” is in preparation, and should be posted soon.)

Wishing to refresh my memories of its contents, I have been trying to locate my copy of Six Memos for the Next Millennium—without, alas, success. The vagrant book yet wanders.

With a bit of wandering on my own, I managed to scrape up a copy for immediate reference. The public library system in my county has eighteen libraries. While you can request a volume from another library, I typically prefer to visit them in person. Often, the smallest locations will have the only copy of some surprisingly obscure volume. Over the years, I’ve found an excuse to visit thirteen of them. That number has now increased by one, as the library computer system indicated that the Coatesville library had the only copy of Memos.

Coatesville is disheveled, depressed city, wounded by the withering of the steel industry; the downtown looks beaten and nearly abandoned. The atmosphere of the library is close and depressing, almost dank. I was happy to locate the Calvino and depart.

I had never driven Route 82 before, and as I headed out of the city to the north I was struck by the massive stone arches of the railroad bridge. I’ll have to head back with my camera one of these days. (I did find a lovely photo of the bridge’s reflection on flickr, which illustrates this post.)

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Memos the first time I read it. This time, I was quite surprised to come across a passage about computer science in the essay on “Lightness.”

I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. Today every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities, such as the messages of DNA, the impulses of neurons, and quarks, and neutrinos wandering through space since the beginning of time . . . . .

Then we have computer science. It is true that software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is software that gives the orders, acting on the outside world and on machines that exist only as functions of software and evolve so that they can work out ever more complex programs. The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with “bits” in a flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.

And so the library’s computer system led me to a city vitiated by the departure of the steel industry.

(Photo of the Coatesville railroad bridge courtesy Cyber Insekt.)

books organization

The Vagrant Book

I know it’s here somewhere.


It’s been nearly three years since the move.

Really, everything should be in order by now (and by everything I mean, of course, the books). That’s hardly the case. The shelving is haphazard and volumes of recent interest trace my path through the house like intellectual bread crumbs.

Before the move, I’d long since resorted to double-shelving. This is a reprehensible practice, but not as bad as piling books on top of shelves or around the bed. Or on the piano. And the desk and dresser. And under the bed—I’m sure you understand.

Despite the demands of a program of thorough Austerity, the books kept creeping in. It’s not enough to stay out of the used bookstores almost all the time; a surprising number of book-feet can be acquired in the fit that follows six months of asceticism.


Before the move, there was a semblence of categorization; indistinct, perhaps, but with logical nuclei. In the grand game of Tetris, everything was packed into boxes as it would fit, an orgy of gleeful bin-packing heuristics.

A month after closing, the walls are painted, the floor refinished. I’ve been eyeing the walls, trying to figure out how many additional bookcases might be slipped in. I fantasize about building barrister bookshelves into the ceiling, spines facing downwards, with shelves that rotate down by a hinged edge. M——. tells me that this is foolhardy and would be courting death. It’s a nice thought, though. How about a shelf around the top of the room, just for the mass markets? They’re impossible to store.

Three months later. The number of bookshelves has been augmented by a half-dozen or so. For convenience, some of the boxes have been unloaded directly onto the shelves, with very little sorting. There’s no double-shelving, so far. What virtue! But the bookcases are now full; what do with these, er, several dozen other boxes? [Update: M——. just told me sternly that once you pass forty-eight, you can no longer say ‘several dozen’.]

Six months later. All right! I agree they should probably go into the attic. Just for a bit . . . when I get some spare time, I’m quite eager to get everything sorted out.


Yes, I have checked the office. Thoroughly? Well, not that thoroughly, perhaps. I searched it last week, looking for a different volume, and I’m sure this would have leapt to my attention. I know it was sitting on my desk before the move, and there was something I wanted to reread.

You really think you saw it there? Excuse me. Perhaps I’ll check just once more.

books languages

Latin Children's Books

Cover of Cattus Petasatus A major story on today’s NPR Morning Edition was the fiftieth birthday of The Cat in the Hat. Personally, I’ve never been much of a fan of Dr. Seuss. (When I was that age, I much preferred Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel.) Still the mention of Cat reminded me of a Dr. Seuss I can really get behind: Cattus Petasatus, a translation of the original book into Latin by Jennifer and Terence Tunberg.

Some alterations to the meter were required, but the spirit remains intact:

Imber totum diem fluit
Urceatim semper pluit.
Taedet intus nos manere:
Numquam potest sol splendere.

The result is disconcertingly similar to authentic medieval Latin verse.

Primo pro nummata vini;
ex hac bibunt libertini;
semel bibunt pro captivis,
post haec bibunt ter pro vivis,

Thoughtfully, the publishers provide a guide for using Cattus to teach grammar.

This is certainly not the only children’s classic that has been translated into the language of Virgil. The Tunbergs have also tackled two other Seuss volumes: Virent Ova! Virent Perna! and the euphoniously-named Quomodo Invidiosulus nomine GRINCHUS Christi natalem Abrogaverit.

Moving beyond the basic readers, we have one of my favorites: Winnie ille Pu.

Ecce Eduardus Ursus scalis nunc tump-tump-tump occipite gradus pulsante post Christophorum Robinum descendens. Est quod sciat unus et solus modus gradibus descendendi, nonnunquam autem sentit, etiam alterum modum exstare, dummodo pulsationibus desinere et de eo modo meditari possit. Deinde censet alios modos non esse. En, nunc ipse in imo est, vobis ostentari paratus. Winnie ille Pu.

I recently happened across a mention of Aliciae per speculum transitus (quaeque ibi invenit). Sadly it looks like it’s been out of print for many years, along with its predecessor, Alicia in terra mirabili. Happily, the text of this latter is available online.

Itaque cogitabat (nempe ut lucidissime poterat, nam tempestate calida torpebat semisomna) num operae pretium esset surgere et flosculos carpere, modo ut sertum nectendo se delectaret, cum subito Cuniculus Albus oculis rubris prope eam praeteriit. Neque in eo erat quidquam magnopere dignum memoria: neque Aliciae valde insolitum videbatur ut Cuniculum sibi loquentem audivit: ‘Vae, vae! Sero perveniam!’

And you still want more? If you’re one of those people who actually likes the loathsome original, you might try Regulus. Do you prefer Beatrix Potter? Then Fabula de Petro Cuniculo would be more to your tastes. A final pair to mention (by Andrew Needham, who also translated Ursus nomine Paddington) is Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis and Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum. No samples from these, I’m afraid . . . they’re both on the to-purchase list.  Still, see the Times review of Camera . . . in Latin, no less.

books miscellanea religion

A High Weirdness Update

J. R. “Bob” Dobbs It’s been eighteen years since the publication of that auxiliary tome of Subgenius sacred aesthetics, High Weirdness by Mail. It was a perfect core sample of the peculiar, and still makes for bemusing, slackful reading.

You may have looked sadly at your copy and said to yourself, “My, I sure do wish that someone would update this book for this modern era of email and those new-fangled hyperlinks.”

You, my friend, are in luck:

  • The Church of the Subgenius has made available the research of Friar Synapse as “The Return of High Weirdness by Mail.” It’s a “where are they now” of the organizations mentioned in the original book. Happily, the “where” seems to be largely Internet-accessible, so you’ll have plenty of oddness to enliven your weekend. (I just found out Factsheet 5 may publish again. Huzzah!)
  • Reverend Modemac’s High Weirdness Project wiki extends the mission of the original work into an “interactive directory of the differently-saned,” and includes a Bulldada Newsblog.  This latter often burbles up topical oddities that might be missed if you aren’t following alt.slack as closely as you should.

Remember: JHVH-1 is a space alien, and still threatens this planet!  Praise “Bob”!

books miscellanea

Casanova's Fiction: Color-Coded Hermaphroditic Dwarves from within the Hollow Earth

Giacomo Casanova in 1788, the year Icosameron was publishedOver my last few lunches I’ve been reading Hollow Earth, by David Standish. It’s a nice overview, tracing the the idea of habitable lands inside the Earth from Edmund Halley through modern fiction. I was particularly pleased by this passage on Giacomo Casanova’s Icosameron, a peculiar utopian tale published in 1788. I quote Standish’s description:

The novel recounts the experiences of a teenage brother and sister who fall into the earth’s interior through a watery abyss. There they find an inner world inhabited by many-colored hermaphroditic dwarves called Megamicres, who live in a color-coded social hierarchy with the red ones at the top of the heap. Their primary method of eating consists of sucking on each other’s breasts. They’re also nudists. Edward and Elizabeth promptly rip off their own clothes, declare themselves married, and set about propagating as fast as they can. Each year during their eighty-one year stay, Elizabeth gives birth to twins, who in turn marry at age twelve and begin having twins. Finally Ed and Liz make their way back to London, leaving behind millions of offspring. Not only do they cause a population glut down there, they screw up a previously balanced society in other ways as well, introducing gunpowder and war, among other things.

I’ve never read Casanova, but this certainly makes me want to look up a copy.

(Portrait of Casanova at age 63 by Johann Berka is courtesy of Wikipedia. The portrait is from 1788, and was used as the frontispiece of L’Icosameron.)

UPDATE: I’ve scared up a link to an online version of Icosameron (in French, I hope you don’t mind).  The interface is unconscionably dreadful; it’s a scan of the original text (all five volumes totalling more than 1,800 pages) with each page as its own PDF. Tome 1; Tome 2; Tome 3; Tome 4; Tome 5.


Twenty-five Years of Little, Big

Cover of the first edition of Little, Big (Bantam, 1981)I recall an afternoon from the time when I was living in Ann Arbor, in that dank basement apartment with the teddy-bear-skin carpeting. Victoria and I were having a conversation about favorite books. I held that trying select a single, favorite book was a futile task. Her position was that her favorite book was Little, Big. When I expressed surprise that she was able to make a choice just like that, she told me that Little, Big was a very good book, and had as good a claim as any other for the title of ‘favorite’.

I certainly can’t disagree with that logic, for it is a very good book indeed. It pulls together a wonderful assortment of ideas and influences, from the Art of Memory and Sylvie and Bruno, to Thornton Burgess and Shakespeare, to theosophy, an alternate Tarot, and Frederick Barbarossa as President. I was a bit impatient with the book during my first reading, but I began to understand and appreciate it more with the second and third, and it entered my own circle of favorites It’s been a few years, and it’s probably about time to pull it down from the shelf and travel again to Edgewood and The City.

I dearly wish that I had $100 lying around that I could in good conscience put toward the purchase of the new twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Little, Big. It’s being published by Incunabula and printed by the Stinehour Press. The edition is to be illustrated using details from the prints of Peter Milton. I wasn’t familiar with his work previously, but it looks to be an excellent match to the mood of Crowley’s story.

If you haven’t read it before, I recommend it highly. Be warned, though: it’s not for everyone. The pace is slow, and the fantastic elements are usually hidden, winking from behind the curtains.

The farther in you go, the bigger it gets . . .


Lewis Carroll, Sylvie, and Feet of Clay

The Beaver kept looking the opposite way / And appeared unaccountably shy. I have loved Alice for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how many times I borrowed The Annotated Alice from the public library when I was in grade school; I read it so many times that I knew Gardner’s humorous, thoughtful commentary nearly as well as the text. (His multi-page, ramified analysis of “Jabberwocky” is particularly fine).

One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received, even better than the Lego Galaxy Explorer, was my own copy of AA. Even now, it sits on a bookshelf with the rest of my Carroll collection, between the lesser-known More Annotated Alice and a not-particularly-complete, leatherbound Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. Despite its sentimental value, its place on my bedside bookshelf has been supplanted by the magnificently-produced Definitive Edition. When arriving home late, the clock approaching midnight, I’ll often read a chapter or two after climbing into bed.

My mother, mercifully, did not approve of Disney movies. My first encounter with the horrible, horrible thing that those bowdlerizing bastards did to poor Alice was a Disneyized picture book at my cousins’ house. I recall well that surge of shock and contemptuous, righteous wrath at the inane perversion of a wonderful story.

But back to Carroll: the library also had a copy of the Complete Works, which I explored as I grew older. I was quite interested in the handwritten manuscript of the original Alice’s Adventures Underground, but the rest seemed thin and unappealing. I tried Sylvie and Bruno several times, but it was distressingly boring, and I felt strongly that Carroll shouldn’t be boring. The one redeeming feature was the recurring Gardener’s Song, stanzas of which are woven through the text.

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said,
‘Extinguishes all hope!’

This year, I determined to read all the Carroll in my collection, and it’s been quite an interesting experience. The poetry is largely dreadful, with occasional flashes of wit. Wonderland and Looking Glass retain their depth, whimsy, and charm, and Snark is as superb a piece of meaningful nonsense as has ever been written in English.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best-
A perfect and absolute blank!”

The piece I have found most affecting, though, is Sylvie and Bruno.

It’s awful.


I wanted to like it . . . but it’s a horrible conglomerate of cloying sentimentality; Carroll’s idosyncratic, obtuse, Christianish moralism; and miserable poetastery. What little story exists is tedious and poorly plotted, and the “Tottles” poem is almost physically painful to read. The least unpleasant aspect of the books is the Victorian conversations, which at least have some elements of interest.

If Alice is a fairy-tale for everyone, Sylvie and Bruno is a fairy-tale for Lewis Carroll.

Carroll’s prefaces to Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded only compound the distasteful impressions: above, I compared Disney to Dr. Bowdler, but Carroll actually proposes bowdlerizing Bowdler!

. . . A “Shakespeare” for girls: that is, an edition in which everything, not suitable for the perusal of girls of (say) from 10 to 17, should be omitted . . . Neither Bowdler’s, Chambers’s, Brandram’s, nor Cundell’s ‘Boudoir” Sharespeare, seems to me to meet the want: they are not sufficiently ‘expurgated.’ Bowdler’s is the most extraordinary of all: looking through it, I am filled with a deep sense of winder, considering what he has left in, that he should have cut anything out!

Alice is timeless, despite all her references to Victorian culture; Sylvie and Bruno come through as the fantasies of a particular, not very happy man who is very much clamped by the mental shackles of his own time.

I’m not sorry to have read it, but Carroll’s infatuation with Sylvie and his loving portrayal of the unpleasant Bruno have left a bad taste behind. Perhaps in a few years I will give it another try. For the moment, though, I’d rather re-read Little, Big; John Crowley uses S&B as one of many threads in his weft, and I’m curious to see what new facets might be revealed upon a new reading.

books organization

Book Disposal . . . The Horror!

During the previously-mentioned reorganization of my office, I was faced with a difficult quandry: what to do with a large stack of outdated computer books.  I’m not sure if I’ve every actually thrown away a book in my life.  Even heinous offences against nature (such as the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that somehow materialize in every book collection) typically get donated to Goodwill rather than simply chucked.  This time, though, I really did it.  I threw books away.

Sure, these weren’t books that I (or anyone else) would ever use again, even if four or five of them were O’Reilly titles.  Books from 2000 on the Windows registry or NT event logging are not exactly hot properties, and any information they contain can now be found more efficiently and more reliably on the Internet.

In the berzerker frenzy of cleaning, the volumes went straight into the recycling bin.  I barely even felt it at the time.  In retrospect, though, I feel more than a few pangs of guilt.  It was the right thing to do, but . . . .

It will take some time to reconcile this with my self-image.