Tag Archives: Essays

An Insatiable Craving for Books

“One unquenchable longing has the mastery of me, which hitherto I neither would nor could repress; ’tis an insatiable craving for books, although, perhaps I have more than I ought.” —Francesco Petrarch

I had the chance today to visit one of my favorite bookstores in New England.  Located in a small, shoreline community, it actually has five different locations spread throughout the town.  I only managed to visit two of the five locations today and even that took me a few hours.  The main store is a large, old farmhouse with a series of barns on the property, all filled from floor to ceiling with books.  None of the barns are heated so it was a bit rough going on this cold, wet day.  But, in the end, (even though I was cold and drenched and looked like a wet poodle) it was totally worth the trip.  Here is my haul:


I’ve become quite fond of collecting the Library of America editions—they look rather handsome on one’s shelves. I have been making a concerted effort to read more American authors, so this LOA edition of 17th and 18th century poetry was a great find. I was also pleased to add more Michael Hamburger, Marianne Moore and C.P. Cavafy to my poetry collection. The “Diaries of Exile,” translated from the Modern Greek and published by Archipelago Books, was also a pleasant find.


I was so thrilled to find another George Steiner collection of essays that I don’t own, as well as another volume of Joseph Epstein essays.  The J.M. Coetzee essays look intriguing—topics include Cees Nooteboom, Translating Kafka, Robert Musil’s Diaries, Dostoevsky and the essays of Joseph Brodsky, just to name a few.  I already owned the paperback version of Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, and I was excited to upgrade to this hard copy edition that is in perfect condition.  Lord’s The Singer of Tales is a nice addition to my classics library as it deals with the orality of Homeric poetry.  And finally, the Hamburger and Colin Wilson essays will be a nice additions (or editions)  to my shelves.

Autobiography and Letters:

I am especially excited about this stack.  I’ve already started reading John Cowper Powys’s novels and I upgraded to this hard copy edition of his Autobiography.  My Powys reading project will take me into 2019.  I am also planning an Anthony Powell reading project for the new year and was exited to find this first volume of his autobiography.  I own a copy of the first volume of Flaubert Letters which is in tatters, so not only did I get a copy in perfect condition but I also found a copy of the second volume.  Finally, I found a wonderful early, hard copy edition (Yale Press, 1933, collected by Thomas J. Wise) of Robert Browning’s Letters.


Finally, I did manage to buy some fiction as well.  I want to read Anita Brookner in the new year.  I already have one of her books sitting on my shelves so these two will be nice additions.

Bonus: Today’s Book Mail

I’ve also become captivated by Andre Gide’s writing and these two gems arrived today in the mail.  (I thought my family was going to have a fit when I arrived home with all of these books and there were also more books waiting for me in the post!)  I am planning to explore Gide in the new year and I am also awaiting a copy of his Journals which I have already sampled and am eager to dive into.

As Petrarch says, perhaps I have more than I ought?

It doesn’t matter, I will still collect books and read them anyway.

(For what it’s worth I did cull three large bags of books from my shelves today so, overall, I broke even.)


Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Classics, Essay, Letters, Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

Chinoiserie and Invidia: My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

Each of the seven chapters in this book is an essay about a book that George Steiner did not write.  The first two chapters, “Chinoiserie” and “Invidia” are dedicated to Joseph Needham and Cecco d’Ascoli, authors whose works were just too large of a scope for Steiner to tackle.  But, in usual Steiner fashion, he uses the writings of Needham and d’Ascoli as a starting point to explore other ideas.  At times the level of erudition in his essays is astounding.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a British scientist, historian and sinologist whose body of writing, even to someone as erudite as George Steiner, is overwhelming:

So far as I am aware, there is no definitive bibliography of Needham’s opera omnia.  The catalogue of lectures, articles, monographs and books extends well beyond three hundred.  Their range is awesome.  It comprises technical publications in biochemistry, in biology and comparative morphology, in crystallography by one of the ranking members of the Royal Society.  There are voluminous studies, both monographic and summarizing, on the history of the natural sciences, theoretical and applied, on instrumentation and technology, from antiquity to present.

In addition, Needham published historical novels that dealt with the Cromwellian period.  And Needham’s largest work, begun in 1937 and carried on until his death in 1995,  is Science and Civilization in China.  Steiner discusses and tries to grapple with Needham’s difficult-to-categorize, massive work on Chinese science and culture:

By 1948, Needham had outlined seven volumes.  These were to range from Chinese contributions to physics and mechanical engineering all the way to Chinese medical botany, navigation and physiological alchemy.  Before long, the proposals for SCC, as it became known internationally, ran to ten monumental parts (some in double volumes).  Soon even this manifold blueprint was overtaken by the plethora of new materials and queries.  The eighteen volumes which Needham intended to write himself—several installments being simultaneously in the pipeline—would require an estimated sixty years of unbroken labor plus the immense task of preliminary research and bibliography.  Literally hundreds of sources, many recondite and difficult to locate, would have to be combed.

Needham would have had to live to the age of one-hundred and seven to finish SCC according to this schedule.  It is said that he worked on it up until two days before his death at the ripe, old age of ninety-four.  Steiner compares the literary style and scope of the SCC to a number of authors whose work is equally as erudite, comprehensive and voluminous as Needham’s magnum opus.  Pieces of A.E. Housman’s body of work, Nabokov’s four volume translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, Proust’s Recherché and Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy  are all discussed in relation to the SCC.  But none of these other narratives in their entirety, however, is exactly like the SCC.  Steiner concludes, “SCC, however, belongs to a more special genre.  One that has not, so far as I can tell, been properly identified, let alone elucidated.”  It is no wonder why this project defeated Steiner.

The other author whose writing that Steiner felt was too daunting a task to analyze is Francesco degli Stabili (Cecco d’Ascoli) (1257-1327).  The only pieces of d’Ascoli’s writing that has survived is an incomplete epic entitled l’Acerba, two astrological treaties, and a handful of sonnets.  Steiner says of d’Ascoli’s literary reputation: “During the sixteenth century, the theme which surfaces is that of Cecco’s intellectual boldness, of an unyielding proto-scientific integrity which makes of him a true predecessor to Giordano Bruno and Galileo.” In later centuries De Sanctis, Carducci, Petrarch and Goethe all praise Cecco’s intellectual and literary merits.  So why, then, was Cecco burned at the stake along with all of his writings in 1327 and why has he not obtained the same level of fame as Dante, his literary contemporary?

Steiner speculates that invidia (envy) was at the core of Cecco’s failures and he uses Cecco’s life as a starting point for a fascinating discussion of invidia as it has been portrayed in mythology and literature.  Steiner argues that Cecco’s fate, when matched up against Dante’s, was doomed from the start:

What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante, as it were, in the neighborhood?  To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch?  ‘How can I be if another is’ asks Goethe.  Outside my door at the Institute for Advanced study in Princeton I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand, ‘You are so young and already have done so little.’ After which, the logical option is suicide.  Themes of rivalry, of jealousy, of envy have been perennially cited and dramatized.  They are as ancient as Saul’s rage of David’s meteoric ascent and the venomous derisions spat out by Homer’s Thersites.

Steiner ends his essay on Cecco’s life and the theme of invidia on a personal note and gives us the reason for not writing this book: “I did not write the study of Cecco d’Ascoli.  It might have been of some interest.  But it came too near the bone.”

I’ve only highlighted the first two essays in this collection; Steiner’s level of knowledge and scholarship is astounding.  My favorite passages are those in which he inserts personal anecdotes.  His chapter on sex, eros, and language are intriguing, to say the least.  I have to gather my thoughts first and process his writing if I am going to write about that chapter…


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Filed under British Literature, Essay, Nonfiction

Errata by George Steiner

Errata is a Latin perfect passive participle, neuter, nominative plural that means “these things having been done in error” or “these things having been done by mistake.”  Errata are oftentimes issued as corrections to a published text and are not a usual part of a book.  George Steiner’s Errata, an usual book itself being part memoir and part essay,  is a reflection of and commentary on those accidents of fate that launched him on the path of being a teacher, polyglot, critic and scholar.  There is an underlying tone of gratitude for the fortuitous errata that have made up what he humbly considers to be happy accidents in his life.

Steiner was born in Paris in 1929 to Jewish Viennese parents who escaped Austria just as Nazism was taking hold.  His words about his father’s perceptions of Austria in the early twentieth century are chilling:  “With gram clairvoyance, my father perceived the nearing disaster.  A systematic, doctrinal Jew-hatred seethed and stank below the glittering liberalities of Viennese culture.”  Steiner’s father, whom he fondly calls “Papa” in his narrative,  moved the family once again to America in 1940, one month before the Germans invaded Paris.  Of the many Jewish children in Steiner’s Lycee in Paris, there were only two that survived.  Steiner’s parents not only had the foresight to save his life, but they also had a profound effect on his education and his passions.

There is a beautiful passage in Errata that I’ve already written about which describes Steiner being introduced to Ancient Greek and the Iliad by his father.  An enthusiasm for learning that goes even deeper is instilled in Steiner by his father from a young age:

I accepted, with unquestioning zest, the idea that study and a hunger for understanding were the most natural, the determinant ideals.  Consciously or not, the skeptical ironist had set out for his son a secular Talmud.  I was to learn how to read, how to internalize word and commentary in the hope, however chancy, that I might one day add to that commentary, to the survival of the text, a further hint of light.  My childhood was made a demanding festival.

Steiner’s mother was also a great influence on him as he was brought up in a truly trilingual household: “My radiant Mama would habitually begin a sentence in one tongue and end it in another.”  He uses this as a background for a beautiful discussion on language.  These are some of my favorite passages about Steiner’s observations on the errata of language:

It is my conviction that these liberations from the constraints of the physical, from the blank wall of our own death and a seeming eternity of personal and collective disappointment, are in crucial measure linguistic.  Bio-socially we are indeed a short-lived mammal made for extinction, as are all other kinds.  But we are a language-animal, and it is this one endowment which, more than any other, makes bearable and fruitful our ephemeral state.  The evolution in human speech—it may have come late—of subjunctives, optatives, counter-factual conditionals and of the futurities of the verb (not all languages have tenses) has defined and safeguarded our humanity.  It is  because we tell stories, fictive or mathematical-cosmological, about a universe a billion years hence; it is because we can, as I mentioned, discuss, conceptualize the Monday morning after our cremation; it is because “if”-sentences (“If I won the lottery,”  “If Shubert had lived to a ripe age,” “If a vaccine is developed against AIDS”) can, spoken at will, deny, reconstruct, alter past, present, and future, mapping otherwise the determinants of pragmatic reality, that existence continues to be worth expecting.  Hope is grammar.

One final thought I had about Errata is that the Latin verb Erro also means to wander or to roam  Steiner’s life also involves a lot of wandering, not just between languages but between countries.  He has a wonderful chapter that describes his favorite places in France, England and The United States.  He also discusses the many teachers and memorable students he has met in the various places he has taught and held academic chairs.  When Steiner says, “I have scattered and, thus, wasted my strength” he is, in my opinion, being humble to the extreme.


Filed under British Literature, Nonfiction

The Early Essays of Virginia Woolf

I am making my way through the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays that she composed between the years 1904 and 1912.  In “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1904) she gives us some insight into her motivations behind writing her personal essays.  She teaches us how to read her essays with a bit of a rant about the way in which writers in her day have approached the personal essay:

But though it seems thus easy enough to write of one’s self, it is, as we know, a feat but seldom accomplished.  Of the multitude of autobiographies that are written, one or two alone are what they pretend to be.  Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes.  And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity.

I wonder what Woolf would think of the personal essays written  in the 21st century?  In the age of the Internet and social media, have we gone too far the other way with oversharing?

Much of the first volume is taken up with reviews of books that Woolf did for the Guardian and the TLS in order to earn some money.   I am in awe of the wide range of books that she read.  Just as a sample, for the year 1905 she read:

Fiction: The Golden Bowl by Henry James; Arrows of Fortune by Algernon Gissing; A Dark Lantern by Elizabeth Robins.

Non-fiction: The Women of America by Elizabeth McCracken; The Thackeray Country by Lewis Melville; The Dickens Country by F.G. Kitton.

Even when her reviews are not flattering, she still makes me want to read a book.  I want to read what she read and replicate her literary experience.  Her review of James, for example, is not positive but she still inspires me to take another look at his novels:

‘She rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine iron-work, eighteenth-century English.’ These are trivial instance of detail which, perpetually insisted on, fatigues without adding to the picture.  Genius would have dissolved them, and whole chapters of the same kind, into a single word.  Genius,  however, is precisely what we do not find; and it is for this reason that we do not count Mr. James’s characters among the creatures of our brains, no can we read his books easily and without conscious effort.  But when we have made this reservation our praise must be unstinted.  There is no living novelist whose standard is higher, or whose achievement is so consistently great.


Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction, Virginia Woolf

Soul as the Prison of the Body: The 2016-2017 Seagull Books Catalog


Seagull Catalog 2016-2017

The diverse offerings of thought-provoking and interesting literature in translation from around the world has made Seagull Books one of my favorite publishers.  Naveen Kishore, Sunandini Banerjee and their staff at Seagull publish a catalog each year that not only tempts us with descriptions and photos of their books, but they also include pieces of writing from authors and translators around the world.  This edition is very special to me because Naveen invited me and a few of my favorite bloggers to be contributors.

Naveen begins by sending out a provocation and asks each person to write a response or a reaction to his provocation.  As you can see from this year’s provocation Naveen is a master of creating poetic prose that is beautiful and thought-provoking:

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

For my own response, I wrote what I know and what I experience every day—Ovid, teaching and my daughter:

Ovid, in Book XV of his epic poem the Metamorphoses, lays out the stoic vision of the transmigration of the soul. Ovid challenges the human race not to fear death because the underworld is merely a transition, a brief holding place until the spirit takes on another form. Animae semperque priore/relicta sede novis domibus vivunt habitantque receptae: And our spirits, with an old place always being left behind, and having been received by new homes, live and dwell in them.

In my Latin 2 course when I teach the passive voice I give my students this passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with which to practice their translations. This is always one of the most animated and lively classes of the year for my students as they decipher the Latin as well as the Stoic argument that the soul is never destroyed but that it is the part of us that always lives on. As a contrast, I also give the class an explanation of the Epicurean view of the soul, which is quite the opposite; the Epicureans believed that this life is all there is for us and once we are gone there is nothing left, neither a physical body nor a spirit.

Every year, without fail, my students unanimously reject the Epicurean idea of the afterlife and embrace the Stoic notion that our souls, the very essence of who we are, survive in some form. Out of the dozens of lines of Latin prose and poetry I translate with my students over the course of their five years of study in my program, this is the one passage that they always remember; this is the passage that they quote back to me long after they have graduated and this is the passage that a few of them have even had tattooed onto their bodies. Morte carent animae: Our spirits lack death. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit: All things are in flux, nothing is lost. Ipsa quoque adsiduo labuntur tempora motu, non secus ac flumen: Time itself glides in continual motion, not differently than a river.


We were recently translating another passage of the Metamorphoses in an upper level Latin course, the suicide death of Pyramus. The students were horrified by Pyrmaus’ impulsive decision to take his own life because his soul will be stuck in limbo for eternity. The Romans believed strongly that the punishment for taking one’s own life hastily because of what Vergil calls a durus Amor (a harsh love) or unrequited love was that the soul would forever wander in the Underworld. Even though Ovid tries to take away the fear of an afterlife, it is the fear of the unknown that still lingers. Will we come back into a body as something better than before, will we come back as human or beast, or will we come back as anything at all?

Ovid’s writings about the soul are the very things that keep his work relevant and immortal even in the twenty-first century. It is his discussion of the human soul that saves the literary soul of the Metamorphoses for generations to come. Ovid’s own words can be applied to each new class, each new year, each new generation of students’ interaction with his writings. Nova sunt semper. There are always new things. Momenta cuncta novant: All moments are renewed.

The optimism of believing in an undying soul reaches even farther back into the spirits of children. When my daughter was three or four years old she started asking questions about death and dying. We are not raising her under any particular religious doctrine, so my husband explained to her what various religions believe about the soul and what might happen to us when we pass from this world. Her favorite explanation was the idea that we are reincarnated and that the soul lives on and takes on new forms. Even today, as a fourth grader, she is still a Stoic in her belief that some part of our spirit remains even when we pass from this life. It is my hope that she will learn Latin so I can translate Ovid with her and witness her reaction to Ovid’s writings about the soul.

My interactions with my students and my daughter have led me to believe that there is a youthful optimism and hope that the soul, the spirit, the very core of who we are, lives on and on. Do we retain this same optimism as we grow older? Is this an extension of the idea that young people think they will live forever? Or is this even a faint hint of a memory from some life in the past?


Anthony, one of my favorite bloggers, whose site is aptly entitled Times Flow Stemmed, takes a deeply philosophical approach and reaches all the way back to Aristotle for his inspiration. He responds:

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Was and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

Joe, who blogs at his site Rough Ghosts , provides a response that is, like his book reviews and essays,  poetic and contemplative:

Literature as liberator, you suggest.

     I am, I want to reply, inclined to agree.

     But I would caution you that words can confine us, as readily as they set us free.  We can become entangled in meanings, lose ourselves in definitions, search in  circles for explanations when all we know is that the words we hear don’t seem to touch the heart of what or whom we seem to be.

And Tony Malone, who blogs at Tony’s Reading List concludes the collection with a meditation on existential angst:

So, what to do with all this, the soul of literature, the literature of the soul, existential angst and the compost of the day?

I think I’ll just delete it and go to bed.  Sleep’s supposed to be very good for your soul.

Finally, a word must be said about the beautiful and stunning art work in the catalog that is done by Sunandini Banerjee.  She is the graphic artist for Seagull Books and does the art work for their catalog and their book covers.  I did a post about her art and the piece that has been featured on my blog.  The poetry, essays, photography and book descriptions are always amazing, but it is Sunandini’s art that puts that truly unique finishing touch on this spectacular literary catalog.



Filed under Literature in Translation, Seagull Books