The Lament of Books

If we lament our book-swamped age, it is because we sense that it is not by reading more, but by deepening and refreshing our understanding of a few volumes that we best develop our intelligence and our sensitivity.  We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

Alain de Botton.  Religion for Atheists.


How often do we reread books, especially “great” books that impart, if we’re open to receiving them, moral lessons or insights into how to live a more soul enriched life?  Alain de Botton points out that a wealthy English family in 1250 would probably have had only three books: a Bible, a collection of prayers and a compendium of the lives of the saints.  And that they would have read their few books every day, a ritual of belief and comfort.

I’ve read John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces eleven times, also for comfort, although I suspect not with the same intent as the Book of Common Prayer.  For me it’s a balm for anxiety.  It makes me laugh—laugh out loud reading in bed at night.  I love Ignatius J. Reilly and his outraged affront at the modern world.

In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.  Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offences against taste and decency.  Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

I love that my friend John Leonard introduced me to his own favorite book, and gave me his much-read, well-worn copy, a paperback rebound in half-calf by an Italian bookbinder.  John wrote, “My favorite book, once a tattered paperback lovingly bound in Milan, now battered anew.” It’s a treasure.  Perhaps it does have much in common with that twelfth century book of prayers.

My son David has reread The Lord of the Rings as many times.  Most Tolkien fans have.  Frodo’s journey is an endlessly entertaining, and emotionally moving, parable of hardship endured, questioned, and overcome.  When David was a child I could always tell when he was anxious and stressed because he would be rereading his collection of David Eddings.  (I thought it was a step up in rigor when he moved on to Tolkien, not understanding the relief the Eddings provided.)

There are other books to which I return for reasons often apparent, sometimes not.  Since high school I’ve read the Iliad over a hundred times.  I’ve read The Magic Mountain five times; Women in Love, three.  There are poems that I’ve read, for years, more times than I can count: Sunday Morning; Among School Children; Voyages; For the Union Dead.   Reading aloud Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful poem When We With Sappho to a woman I loved forged its meaning into my heart forever.  Words can do this.


At Bowdoin I took a course called Literature as Philosophy, taught by the incomparable C. Douglas McGee. These books we read back in the ‘70’s have remained with me ever since, all reread several times at different junctures in my life, times when I needed them.  Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus.  George Santayana’s The Last Puritan.  Moby Dick. The Brothers Karamazov.  Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

I think we reread books for specific reasons.  Some comfort us, not only with their plots and characters but with their warm familiarity.  (Movies, too.  I’ve watched the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of A Room With a View at least a dozen times because I like it; it makes it happy without the slightest uplifting message.  I’ve watched Ken Russell’s over-the-top adaptation of Women in Love as many times because the characters are so wonderfully acted. For years I wished I had been born Alan Bates as he played Rupert Birkin–who bore no comparison to the character in the novel. .  And only a few months ago I watched Gosford Park on five consecutive nights.)

I’ve read Brideshead Revisited several times to wallow in lost love, not to assuage it.  I read W. G. Sebald over and over because he only wrote four novels before he was killed in a car crash and their melancholy theme of memory haunts me.  He makes me think about my own memories and mortality.

“And yet, what would we be without memory?  We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past.”  The Rings of Saturn

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts sits at my bedside, as does M.F.K. Fisher’s Journals.  I understood immediately why Anthony Lane wrote in his New Yorker profile of P. G. Wodehouse that he reads “Uncle Fred Flits By” once a fortnight.  Some writing renews itself every time it’s read.


There are also books that are so well written, well constructed, with wonderful characters and high emotion, that I go back to them over and over for the sheer joy of reading: Wuthering Heights.  The Quiet American. The Turn of the Screw.  Billy Budd. Antony and Cleopatra. The Importance of Being Earnest.  Tom Jones. Howards End.

Rereading books, and the hope of rereading books, is my excuse for maintaining a “personal library.”  It’s obvious to me that this is a conceit, a vain imitation of some 19th century English gentleman.  I’ve used these physical books as a metaphor for me—I am what I’ve read and there I am on all those bookshelves!   The fallacy is that while I am, in part, a thinking adult as a result of all that I’ve read and absorbed, it’s not the physical evidence that counts.


I’ll never convert my books to a digital library.  Nevertheless, I don’t need two-thirds of the books I own (and we won’t even speak of the ninety-seven cartons of books languishing in a Westchester County storage facility.)  A critical, spiritually necessary, task for 2013 is to pare down my collection to only those books I treasure for their content, their beauty, their personal significance.  I already know which books they are.  I won’t sell my complete collection of H. V. Morton’s or my prized thirteen volume early edition–beautifully bound–of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.  I have, in fact, read all of it. I watched the row of green bindings sit unbought on the shelves of Bell’s Books in Palo Alto for more than a year, hoping against hope no one would buy it, as I saved up to purchase it myself.

I’ll keep my collection of books about and published by Bowdoin College, and hope that David or Adam will someday want them.  I’ll keep all the Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent art books because I think they inspire my watercolor painting (vanities of vanities.)

I have a plan for dispersing all of these books. I’ll sell all the art books at Russian Hill Books—this being a sneaky plan because I get 25% more in trade than in cash, so I have my eye on two rare and expensive books that I hope to get in exchange.

(I previously sold more than fifty cookbooks to Russian Hill. My test was if I hadn’t opened the book in five years it had to go.)  The owner of Russian Hill Books, Carol Spencer, is one of my neighborhood saints.  Her store is like a station of the cross: I can’t walk by without reverence and awe.  It’s an addiction.  I really need Book Buyers Anonymous!

Other books will go to Friends of the San Francisco Library.  Some will be, with luck, sold on eBay.  I hope to give my collection of Jargon Society books to Bowdoin College.  Some will be given to friends and to my sons.  I think the Pleasantville Library will benefit from the books in storage.

After all of this book reduction is accomplished, my spirit will be free, the chi will flow unencumbered through my apartment, artifice will be banished—and I’ll for sure have to take to my bed with The Confederacy of Dunces and reread it for the 12th time.  I’ll need my friend Ignatius more than ever.


All photographs by my Bowdoin friend Abelardo Morrell.

Deutsch lernen

Following my recent travels in Mannheim, Cologne and Berlin, I’ve decided to teach myself German.  There are unquestionably better, more useful, choices, but German suits me right now.


Despite nine years of Latin, five of French, and five–oddly progressive for a small school in Pittsburgh–elementary school years of conversational Spanish, I am notoriously bad at languages.  Whenever I carefully construct a sentence in French, most Frenchmen look at me with that Parisian look of contempt and puzzlement and, after professing to have no idea what I said, answer in English. In Rome with my children I had a difficult time translating the words on the base of columns. Surprisingly, when I lived in Barcelona, from somewhere deep in my crocodile brain I was able to resurrect 4th grade Spanish and make myself understood in shops and restaurants.

I’m beginning my German self-instruction by attempting to dissect the German original from its English translation of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The late Sebald is one of my two favorite contemporary novelists, and this is my favorite of his novels. (Haruki Murakami is the other top novelist, but I concluded that side-by-side Japanese-English is way, way beyond my abilities. Most would say Sebald is, too.)


There are several motivations to this undertaking.   I’d love to understand the words to Schubert lieder. I’d like to be able to walk through a German museum and read the wall descriptions.  I have friends in Germany and Austria and it would be a sign of respect and affection to be able to comprehend a bit of what they are saying rather than resorting exclusively to English. And does Lodenfrey in Munich being my favorite store in the world count as a good reason?  Or sauerbraten? Currywurst?


Another reason is brain stimulation: I think I need it.  I forget where I put things five minutes ago. Or I know where I put something and fail to find it all the while it’s right in front of me.  Just last night I asked my son if he knew where my glass Chinese teapot was and he pointed to it on a shelf literally in front of my nose.  Earlier I had asked him if he had seen the latest James Bond movie Skyfall and he—kindly—pointed out to me we had seen it together. I’m worried.

Years before when I was married my wife would berate me at 6:00 am for filling our birdfeeders during the winter, rather than, for example, studying algebra.  She thought my mind had withered from reading too much Yeats. Learning a language as structured as German surely will be as therapeutic as math (math being a more hopeless mission.)  Since my former wife speaks German, and doesn’t read Yeats, I hope this recent undertaking has no Freudian implications.Bird-feeder-in-snow-low-res

In a college French class we had to translate the beginning of “Swann in Love,” checking, and comparing, our work against the Moncrieff translation. While I didn’t progress more than four or five pages, the exercise was enlightening.  Not only did it provide a window into the beauty and construction of the original French—and thereby helping to inform all remaining reading of Proust in English—it by design illustrated the qualities necessary to translate anything, an art in itself.


Unlike, however, the French class assignment, I have zero knowledge of German grammar.  This is an impediment…duh! —as my boys would say. I’ll have to go beyond the German-English/English-German second hand dictionary I picked up yesterday at Russian Hill Books.  The best approach for me would be to find a German tutor.

Ancient Greek was another option.  I own fourteen different translations of the Iliad and often enjoy comparing one to another. Two years ago I took a Continuing Studies course at Stanford on the Iliad, taught by the chairman emeritus of the classics department. We simultaneously read the Robert Fagles and Richard Lattimore translations, each complementing the other.  It was one of the finest classes I’ve ever taken, in no small measure due to Professor McCall’s deep knowledge and lifelong passion for Homer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the class as we read Priam’s plea to Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body.  No parent could read this without crying.


German scholars and archeologists have had a long association with ancient Greek culture. Heinrich Schliemann identified the site of Troy, and a week ago I was able to view at the Altes Museum in Berlin some of the Trojan treasures he and his team excavated.  It’s unknown whether Homer’s epic recounts actual events, but that’s beside the point. Troy existed.


In my dreams I’ll read all of Sebald.  I’ll read Goethe’s Italian Journey in the original.  I’ll read The Magic Mountain.  I’ll read Alexander von Humboldt’s accounts of exploration in the Amazon.  It’s said he was the last man to know everything there was to know at the time he lived.

About ten years when I was at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, we had a partners meeting in Lenox, Massachusetts. Futurist Ray Kurzweil was invited to spend the weekend with us.  Among the many scientific predictions Kurzweil proffered, the one I most longed for was his vision of implanted microchips that give a person the ability to speak any language.  In Russia?  Switch on the Russian chip. Reading Murakami?  Turn on Japanese.

It’s a beautiful vision, though one not yet realized.

I’ll have to learn German the old fashioned way.

Alone. Not Lonely.

We plan trips two ways: consciously and subconsciously.  We plan itineraries, destinations, sights to be seen, events to attend, people to visit.  Then there’s what we experience inside, unanticipated, sometimes welcome, sometimes not, the things that are planned by the heart somewhere in the universe.  If we listen, we can hear the universe speaking.


I returned to San Francisco last night having spent three weeks traveling to Finland, Estonia and Germany.  I planned this trip months ago, centered on Sam and Saga’s wedding in Turku, Finland on December 22nd.  Being grounded by this date and place, I mapped a journey both before and after the wedding.  Beyond wanting to visit a friend in Mannheim, Germany on my way to Finland, I didn’t have any objectives other than to see places I had never seen before.  After setting the dates for the beginning of the trip and its end—again, an arbitrary decision—I planned each day in advance, booking all hotels and inter-city travel.  I traveled on five airlines, two trains and one ferry.  There were to be no random decisions, or mid-trip change of plans, or serendipitous off the route adventures.  I considered many options.  I’m not sure what the motivations were for me to select the places I wanted to visit; they presented themselves as a hand unconsciously moves across a Ouija Board.  Once settled, I knew they were right.  I would fly to Germany, proceed to Finland for the wedding, spend Christmas in Finnish Lapland, take the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia and end up a week over New Years in Berlin.


What I didn’t realize was that I had mapped a journey that would unfold in sequential chapters of ever-increasing self-awareness, insight and awakening.  And I couldn’t have realized any of these had I not been traveling alone.

Trips taken with others, whether one’s family, a friend, or a lover, provide their own special pleasures and perils.  With the exception of a week spent on my own in Puerto Rico during the depths of my divorce, feeling miserable the entire time, I had never traveled on vacation by myself.  I had always been with my parents, a friend, my family.  Since moving to San Francisco in 2008, all of my vacations had been with my former girlfriend, providing another kind of happiness.  I was afraid that on this trip I would miss the shared intimacies, the private space that exists when you travel with someone you love. Other people don’t exist then. My fears proved to be groundless.  What I experienced on this trip, by myself, was different, of course, but different in good, life-affirming ways.

Since ancient times, travelers have written about the joys of the open road when traveling alone. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of walking alone from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, begun in A Time of Gifts, remain the most deeply personal, and cherished, writing I know.

Traveling alone with an open spirit means never exactly traveling alone.  “Alone” is a choice.  It’s when we choose never to engage not only with other people, but with our heart.  If we’re closed to those possibilities there’s little point to setting out at all.  And we are guaranteed to be lonely.

I was fortunate that my trip began with a visit to my friend in Germany.  We walked the paths of Neanderthals in the cold, wet Neander Valley; we visited Christmas Markets in Cologne, Laudenburg and Speyer; we ate pig’s knuckles as big as our heads.  I also got to share my friend’s happiness being in love with his beautiful girlfriend, a love that had been saved over many years before blossoming to the reality that had always been there from the beginning.  I’m grateful he opened his own door to me at this time of turmoil and joy in his life, and, in so doing, giving me the gift of his insight into conditions of my own heart.

From Germany I moved on to Helsinki where I stayed three days with Sam’s fiancé Saga’s brother Jani.  We had met before in Boston and New York.  Getting my first impressions of Finland from a Finn turned out to be a special, significant treat.

Jani took me on what had to be the coldest, windiest, snow-filled day of the year to the old fortress island of Suomenlinna. We were virtually the only tourists and together, and as we walked throughout this UNESCO World Heritage site in its winter isolation, often in deep snow and whipped by the wind off the frozen coastal water of  the Bay of Finland, we formed a bond of lasting friendship.  I didn’t know then that the cold, white, unforgiving landscape was to set the foundation for insights to come later in my trip.  Winter turned out to my season.


Best of all, Jani introduced me to the warmth—literally and figuratively—and pleasures of a traditional Finnish sauna. This was the beginning of three unforgettable experiences of the common fellowship of men, the unabashed freedom of enjoying this fellowship and the hot wet body penetrating heat from the wood fired sauna completely naked, the shock of jumping from that heat into the snow and ice, and the deep satisfaction of relaxed and happy muscles that comes at the end.  I bet there’s not a word for “up-tight” in Finnish.


Later, in Tallinn, I sought out a similar experience on my own, finding another 1920’s wood burning sauna just a few blocks outside the Old Town.  Once the other guys discovered I wasn’t Estonian, they were surprised and delighted that an American had found his way to their local sauna, firing questions at me as fast as I could answer (of course in English.)  They wanted to know how their sauna was different from ones in America; they wanted to know all about my son’s wedding in Finland; they asked whether I thought Finnish girls were prettier than Estonian girls (there being only one politically correct answer;) one guy asked me whether I thought it would be a good idea for Estonia to become the 51st American State!  When I answered it would be a very bad idea, they all burst out laughing telling me it was just a joke, though not such a silly one since Obama had been re-elected.  Would any group of working class guys in the States regale a visiting Estonian, in Estonian, about a recent presidential election in his country?

Before I left, one of the men offered to give my heated body a beat-down with the birch leaf branches used by everyone to stimulate and relax their muscles.  I couldn’t refuse, so proceeded to be whipped and pummeled from head to toe, front to back.  Smelling like a birch tree, I jumped into the ice-cold pool outside the sauna.  I couldn’t have possibly felt any better.  Throughout the evening I also had to politely decline endless shots of vodka, washed down with bottles of beer.

Is this traveling alone?  I would never have sought nor experienced these evenings of friendly fellowship traveling with another person.

Sam’s wedding in Finland, together with the deeply emotional experiences with all three of my sons, was not only the centerpiece of my trip, but coming when it did, was also in many ways the late-blooming centerpiece of my life.  This time we had together at the wedding became the catalyst to the realization—truly a spiritual awakening—that I had when snowshoeing too far out on the treeless, frozen Arctic tundra in the remote north of Finnish Lapland.  What I understood in those three very cold hours was that I had everything I needed, right now, and would ever need, in my life.


We don’t know where we’re going and we know only a little of where we’ve come from.  We know dates and places, biological and genetic details, events and relationships.  We know all about evolution. We may even have a sense of time passing.

Where we are going always remains a mystery.  That is what, I think, traveling alone can be about if we are open and free of projected outcomes.   It’s not only about the routes and destinations, but more crucially it’s about the unraveling of that future mystery, of seeing a possibility that hadn’t existed before.  We usually don’t see these possibilities living our day-to-day ordinary lives

After Tallinn, my subconscious could not have planned my next, and last, destination better; but then it’s my subconscious. There’s always a reason when the universe speaks.

Berlin amazed, and moved me in ways I hadn’t expected, although coming after the spirit opening experience in Lapland, I was primed for the transformations so literally evoked in this startling, exciting, transformative city.  I saw my own life reflected in the unification of this cruelly divided city, turning it from a landscape of ruin to one of the most vibrant, life-affirming capitals in the world.  You can’t help being here and not be filled with anticipation and possibility.


Earlier in December I met a journalist from Berlin in San Francisco who was on his own journey of self-renewal.  It was happenstance that we met—but not a coincidence.  It became another chapter in my story.  We met up in Berlin for coffee and another day for lunch, and shared stories of our lives, our loves, our families, our problems, challenges and solutions, our joys and miseries.  We would never have met, in either city, had we not both been traveling alone.


While I was dazzled by Berlin’s great museums, the Pergamon, the Altes, the Neues, the Bodes and Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Island; the splendid Gemaldegalerie, which took my breath away; the old and quirky Museum of Natural History with its tallest mounted dinosaur in the world and 233,000 eerie specimen jars stored in one dark huge room—and was astounded that all of these museums have been rebuilt from the ravages of WWII over the past twenty years—it was my friendship with my new friend the journalist that stands out as the most meaningful highlight of my week in Berlin.  Like Jani in Helsinki, these friendships were possible because I was on my own and open to letting them happen.

Along the way I met up with two Norwegians for dinner on New Year’s Eve; stood in a crowd of thousands of all nationalities in front of the Brandenburg Gate to watch the fireworks herald the New Year 2013;  joked with taxi drivers, flirted with one particularly attractive waitress at Lutter & Wengen, tried my best to engage with the many Japanese tourists in Lapland, struck up a conversation with the couple next to me at the Berlin Staatsoper, who just happened also to be from San Francisco.

Is this traveling alone?