The Conversation Continues
|Welcome to Page 42 of my ďforum.Ē The subject matter here is anything to do with literature, books, reading, and writing, with a little philosophy thrown in, as well as other tangents and revelations that spring naturally from ďintelligentĒ conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. Thatís all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page ó unless, of course, it is rude or crude, in which case I retain the right to not post your message. The same goes for blatant advertising. Pertinent recommendations of reading material and related websites, though, are welcome within the natural context of our conversation. We all have plenty to gain from each otherís knowledge and experience. So, whether you are just reading or actively participating, enjoy your visit. I will post new messages as soon as possible after they are received. Be sure to check in often for the latest responses.
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Nope. Iím on Page 696. I suspect, though, that even after Iíve read both volumes, I still wonít be finished.
John Berbrich: An inspiring thought. Or was that perspiring? No matter. Are these tomes hardcover or soft, or both, in consecutive order?
William Michaelian: Yes. By which I mean no. I mean, theyíre hardcover ó thick, rugged, heavy books. A pair of Proust-bricks.
John Berbrich: Wow. Really, thatís an amazing feat, when you think about it, to write a story that long, in such great detail, & have the whole thing hold together & make sense. And then someone else translates it into another language, & itís all laboriously proofread & proofread, printed in brick form, distributed, purchased, & read. Wonder how many people have actually read the entire thing, cover to cover? And I wonder if the reaction is different, in France & America?
William Michaelian: And how it changes over the years. I donít know. Is Proust, in present-day France, highly regarded, a national treasure? Or is he even read at all? I think of Solzhenitsyn, a writer Iíve enjoyed and admired, and how he came to be viewed as sort of an old-school fuddy-duddy in the country he had to leave and which he so highly revered. But again, maybe that has changed some now that heís gone.
John Berbrich: Iíve read of authors, I canít think of any offhand, who were big in their day, very popular, bestsellers & all. And now, totally forgotten, or nearly so. See, Iíve even forgotten who they were.
William Michaelian: Well, the list is so long. I read about them all the time. But there is something about reading about them that makes you forget, almost by the time you finish reading about them. I feel bad about it, of course. Then again, if we can read about them, at least it means theyíre not entirely forgotten.
John Berbrich: Talk about irony. To be remembered only as a forgotten author. Rather inspiring. Iím sure itís been done before, but what a great topic for a book, writing about a dozen forgotten writers. That would really be a challenge. You could make people up & no one would know. In fact, you could make them all up. Hey, now Iím really interested.
William Michaelian: Reminds me of Rabelais, and the ďvery strange and magnifickĒ library the young Pantagruel discovers in Paris at the Abbey of St. Victor, which boasts titles such as The Pomegranate of Vice, The mustard-pot of Penance, and The bald arse or peelíd breech of the widows. Now, those sound like books worth reading.
John Berbrich: You know, Iíve read very little Rabelais. I have an old hardcover edition of his complete works, 700 pages in one volume. Translated by Urquhart & Motteux. Printed in England but of course thereís no date, & copiously illustrated by a fellow named Frank C. Pape. But that library reminds me of a story I read years ago by Borges, about some encyclopedia w/ a fictitious, fabulous entry about some made-up city or civilization, canít remember which. Entrancing, as I recall.
William Michaelian: I too have read little of Rabelais. But I was just reading about him in a book Iím about to finish by Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night. Iíve come across that list, or parts of it, a few times over the years. Apparently it goes on for five pages. Anyway, the Borges story you mention sounds like another by him, which is also mentioned in the Manguel volume, ďThe Library of Babel.Ē Thereís a page about it in Wikipedia. Hereís the plot summary:
ďBorgesís narrator describes how his universe consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival ó and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.
ďDespite ó indeed, because of ó this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviour, such as the ĎPurifiersí, who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they move through the library seeking the ĎCrimson Hexagoní and its illustrated, magical books. Another is the belief that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect catalog of the libraryís contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the ĎMan of the Bookí has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.Ē
What a mind. Of course, he was also the director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires.
John Berbrich: Wow. That library is a frightening concept. Itís like the team of monkeys banging away forever on typewriters, multiplied to the nth power. I have an image in my mind of a room in that library. Itís fairly terrifying, that vivid picture of eternity. Wow.
William Michaelian: Wow is right. Substitute elves for monkeys and itís an absolute nightmare.... Say, how about this for an idea... a hell, or circle of hell, in which one is condemned to a scene of strictly enforced laughter ó everyone is laughing constantly, even though they are suffering, and the greatest suffering of all stems from the laughter itself.
John Berbrich: Willie, you are one sick dude. And the Devil says, ďJokeís on you!Ē
William Michaelian: But really, the Devil is this shrivelled, paranoid guy afraid of losing his job. So he keeps coming up with new forms of torture, like putting enemas in the water cooler.
John Berbrich: Iím telling you, you are sick, you need counseling, medication, a good stiff drink. Okay, smart guy ó youíve got Hell figured out, what would Heaven be like?
William Michaelian: Well, for one thing, in Heaven, the elves would all use mouthwash.
John Berbrich: A significant detail. Assuming elves actually go to Heaven. Could be theyíre running the joint. Okay ó what else?
William Michaelian: Thereís no proof, of course, but Heaven is really a giant elevator in an infinitely large department store. It stops frequently, and people get on and off with their packages, smiling all the while, and everyone has an endless supply of good credit. And naturally, thereís elevator music, harps and angelic choruses. And on the wall is a telephone in case of emergency, although I canít imagine what emergency there could ever be ó unless the department store is Hell, and itís staffed by frustrated, exhausted, underpaid employees.
John Berbrich: Iím afraid youíre a victim of the rampant capitalistic consumerism ethos, that itís wonderful to shop but horrible to work. Elves, of course, know the truth, that itís better to work thanklessly than to shop, & it is better still to cause mischief. Iím sure Elf Heaven would be quite different from ours, although the region where they overlap could be somewhat dangerous. Spiked, pierced, pimped-up elves, looking for kicks, bumping into the mindless shoppers from Human Heaven. Not a pretty meeting.
William Michaelian: Sounds pretty much like present existence. You know, I have to thank you, because no one has quite spelled out my malady as you have here, when you said, ďIím afraid youíre a victim of the rampant capitalistic consumerism ethos, that itís wonderful to shop but horrible to work.Ē
John Berbrich: Well, now that weíve finally uncovered the malady, we need to work on the cure, which Iím afraid is beyond my meager powers. We need to consult a specialist.
William Michaelian: I agree. Who did you use? He or she seems to have worked wonders.
John Berbrich: I actually havenít consulted w/ anyone yet. If you show improvement, it must be due to your own amazing powers of self-healing. You should write a book about your time in the Hell of Consumerism & your slow return....wait a minute. It was the Heaven of Consumerism. Hold on. All of my theories may be wrong. But you should still write the book.
William Michaelian: Another book. Of course. Why didnít I think of that? And hereís a working title: Heavenís Deadly Curse.
John Berbrich: Hmmm. Not bad. Almost sounds like a Romance. Turns out Heaven is this guy, Joe Heaven, who has a really foul mouth &, well, you get the picture. Go ahead, write it.
William Michaelian: Sure. Got a match? I think Iíll set my beard on fire. You know, just to get in the mood.
John Berbrich: Willie, youíre so extreme. Why would you want to destroy that magnificent beard? Do you always do crazy things like this when you start a writing project? I figured you for the more urbane, sophisticated type.
William Michaelian: Yes, I noticed youíve been admiring my elbow patches for quite some time. And you saw, of course, my essay in Harperís. Hardly worth reading ó a mere trifle I dashed off as a favor to old whatís his name. I so hate it when people beg. Really, I must say, I would have given him the piece for half my usual rate, but before I could bring it up he insisted on paying me double, the extra coming out of his own pocket and cutting severely into his yatching funds.
John Berbrich: Thatís the sort of suave urbanity I expected. So whoís your alma mater ó Princeton, Yale, Harvard, all three? Oxford, perhaps? Youíve done them proud, Sir William.
William Michaelian: How funny you should mention those names. They were four of the best dogs I ever had. And they all had diplomas, of course.
John Berbrich: From Obedience School, you mean? Already trained when you got them, I see. But what of the Elves, whatís their story?
William Michaelian: Burnt. To a crisp. I still feel bad about it.
John Berbrich: That is too bad. I was waiting for that first issue.
William Michaelian: I can still hear their cries. And curses. Would you like to have one of their little pointy hats? I have several that were, quite miraculously, only partly singed.
John Berbrich: Sort of a relic, eh? We can perform miracles & exorcisms & the like w/ them, I assume? For a reasonable price.
William Michaelian: Of course. Unless we can get more. After all, the hats wonít last forever.
John Berbrich: Awful. Elves w/ Pointed Hats ó wasnít that an 80s band?
William Michaelian: Quite possibly. But I was underground in the Eighties ó so far underground, in fact, that elves ó but certainly you donít want to hear about that. You do realize, of course, that the hats of elves are shaped that way because their heads are shaped that way. In fact, a round-headed elf is considered an abnormality, a freak of nature, an affront to elf society.
John Berbrich: Actually I didnít know that. Well, how come Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies doesnít have a pointed head?
William Michaelian: That, my friend, is show business. It was also a veiled attack on round-headed elves, in my opinion. Someone, somewhere, had an agenda.
John Berbrich: Oh, so it was politically motivated. Iíve read Tolkienís trilogy many times, & I donít think he ever really specifies if Legolasís head was round or pointed. So, I assume that all of your elves, the ones that regrettably were burned to a crisp, had pointed heads, of course. Did the elves sharpen their points, do you know, before the, uh, accident? Did they ever joust? Tell me if this is simply too painful to talk about?
William Michaelian: My elves. You know, not until now has it occurred to me that my elves might not be the same as ordinary elves, that my elves, in fact, might really be a product of my own imagination. And yet the smouldering curtains, the little tarnished belt buckles, the singed hats ó well, they seem mighty real. But then so does everything else.
John Berbrich: It can be pretty hard to tell, I admit it. But of the reality of The Antique & Junk Poem Shop thereíll be no doubt. Perhaps the elves will turn up there w/ new hats & brightly polished belt buckles. Can they brew beer?
William Michaelian: Can they brew beer, he says. Did they sharpen their points. Did they joust. Yes, yes, yes! And I just realized something: the points could have been artificial extensions, in order for the elves to seem more intimidating.
John Berbrich: Clever little chaps. Quite a bit like people, actually, manipulating nature for their own betterment. Iím looking forward to this elf beer. I wonder if theyíve perfected the art of making the beer head foam to a point?
William Michaelian: If so, the sales will skyrocket. And what a great label Burnt Elf beer will be.
John Berbrich: So, howís the first batch coming? One might say the drunken burnt elves are really toasted.
William Michaelian: Wow. I thought Iíd lost you there for awhile. You were looking pretty toasted yourself. I was just handed a very small envelope, with an even smaller note inside that says, ďNeed more bottles.Ē Sounds pretty hopeful to me.
John Berbrich: Well, as Emily Dickinson said, Hope is the thing w/ feathers. So your elves are brewing beer w/ feathers? That must be the light beer.
William Michaelian: One thing I havenít pictured, until now, is Emily Dickinson sitting at a bar and drinking light beer with elves.
John Berbrich: Yeah, thatís a new image for me too. For some reason, it makes more sense to picture her drinking w/ elves than to picture her drinking w/ people. I can hear a country band playing. Thereís sawdust on the floor. The lights are low. Itís a scene right out of the Junk Poem Shop.
William Michaelian: A plaintive fiddle, the banging of a horseshoe on an anvil in a nearby blacksmith shop. Emily gazing intently at her beer, the slightest foam mustache on her upper lip.
John Berbrich: Meanwhile the elves are trying to puzzle out the meaning of her latest manuscript. They are trying to make sense of her line: ďTell all the truth, but tell it slant.Ē The big elf w/ the rococo shoes buys the next round, hoping to improve his companionsí powers of literary analysis.
William Michaelian: And, as luck and fate would have it, a butterfly lands on the edge of Emilyís glass.
John Berbrich: She whispers, ďMy cocoon tightens,Ē then is stumped for the rest of the line. ďColors tease,Ē suggests a drunken elf w/ an orange mohawk, & Emilyís eyes sparkle. The rest is history.
William Michaelian: Aye, that it is. And yet, the next morning, battling an uncharacteristic hangover, she canít help thinking, ďDefrauded I a butterfly.Ē
John Berbrich: And something about an ďawful hair,Ē but she isnít quite satisfied w/ her efforts.
William Michaelian: Which only goes to show, even Emily had her bad heir days. Wow ó all this time, I could have been consulting my Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. It says here on the dust jacket that itís ďthe only one-volume edition containing all of Emily Dickinsonís poems.Ē Letís see... Little, Brown and Company, copyright 1960, eleventh printing ó well, who knows what other volumes might have been released since then. But itís a nice hardcover, another inexpensive find at Goodwill. I guess Iíve had it a couple of years by now. Hereís No. 1233, circa 1872:
Had I not seen the Sun
I could have borne the shade
But Light a newer Wilderness
My Wilderness has made ó
John Berbrich: Nice one. She crams a lot of dynamite into a small package. My Dickinson is also a hardback, a Modern Library edition from 1924. Still in good shape, it doesnít have all the poems but does include an introduction by Conrad Aiken, as well as a different numbering system than yours. Hereís one:
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!
William Michaelian: Lovely. Itís a miracle, really, when you consider how little known she was in her lifetime, that we now have these treasure-volumes.
John Berbrich: Yes.
Itís a shame
She missed her fame.
Itís almost terrifying to think of someone becoming a world-famous author & never knowing it. Itís like a colossal injustice, or something. Somebody ought to do something about it. But what, I donít know.
William Michaelian: Itís as if it takes time for certain kinds of genius to take root, to spread from mind to mind.
John Berbrich: Thatís for sure. Wonder how many of todayís writers will be considered geniuses 50 years from now?
William Michaelian: And how many who wonít, but will be in a hundred. And how many geniuses will never be known or recognized as such. And how many considered as such arenít really geniuses. Man, it looks like weíre going to need a score card.
John Berbrich: And a drink. Howís Proust coming?
William Michaelian: And a cigar. And a racing form. Proust? Iím now on Page 1,040 ó only 101 pages to go in the first volume. And a fine book it is, layer upon layer upon layer.
John Berbrich: Like an onion. How many volumes? Three?
William Michaelian: Two. Iím almost half done. Unless thereís a sequel we donít know about. I wonder if Proust remembered everything. I wonder if anyone ever has, or does.
John Berbrich: Youíd go nuts if you did. Has this monumental literary achievement been made into a film, do you know?
William Michaelian: Well, a quick look on Google suggests there have been a few attempts made for film and stage. Weíll have to look into that. Of course, even if you remembered everything, you wouldnít necessarily know it. But sometimes, you only have to remember one thing to go nuts.
John Berbrich: True. I remember once reading about this guy in Russia who couldnít forget anything. He developed some esoteric methods, which I canít recall now, for deleting info from his brain. What a strange & horrible affliction.
William Michaelian: Definitely. And somehow, he was probably only hiding it, rather than deleting it. And then remembering what heíd hidden, so he wouldnít have to hide it again. I guess in a manner of speaking, his whole consciousness was like a camera. Imagine, though, recording every detail, every leaf that falls, every sound, every conversation.
John Berbrich: Stop! Youíre scaring me.
William Michaelian: Am I? I wonder, though ó does imagining it mean itís possible?
John Berbrich: No. Can you imagine a 12-headed zebra w/ flippers sucking down a dark Elvish homebrew?
William Michaelian: No, but if I were William Blake, I could. As it is, Iíll have to settle for imagining myself imagining it.
John Berbrich: Which means ó what? Willie, youíre losing me here.
William Michaelian: As a matter of fact, you are beginning to fade. Itís only a guess, but one or the other of us might be slipping into a parallel universe. Or maybe we both are. Weíd better adjust our Elf Receivers before itís too late.
John Berbrich: But mineís on the blink. Perhaps thatís the problem. I havenít loaded my RAM w/ enough SPUME to integrate my DIODE into the node of the x-ray FLASH. You get my drift? We could be incommunicado for awhile.
William Michaelian: Well, thatís not so bad. I hear itís sunny down there this time of year.
John Berbrich: Well, it certainly is tonight.
William Michaelian: Somehow, I sense this is the perfect time for a Mencken quote. And since the elves are still busy brewing beer, and since on this date in 1919 Prohibition was launched, I give you a taste of his own homebrewing experience:
Last Sunday I manufactured five gallons of Methodistbrau. It turned out to be very tasty ... but I bottled it too soon, and the result has been a series of fearful explosions. Last night I had three quart bottles in my side yard, cooling in a bucket. Two went off at once, bringing my neighbor out of his house with yells. He thought that Soviets had seized the town. I have lost about 12 good Apollinaris bottles, but still trust in God. Next time I shall wait until fermentation is finished. Just now another blew up in my cellar. However, I have the bottle covered with bags, and there is no damage. I invited two beer fanatics to test the stuff last night. I opened the bottle wearing heavy automobile gloves and with bagging and a fire-screen to protect me. When the stopper was thrown back, all save about two gills blew out. But the fanatics pronounced the two gills very soothing.
Inspiring, isnít it?
John Berbrich: Yes, it is. Whereís my bottle-brush! Iíve got to whip up another batch, & soon! Iím pretty sure Iíve read that Mencken piece before. The man had a delightful prose style, good sense delivered w/ humor & a feeling of adventure.
William Michaelian: He wasnít shy, thatís for sure. You know, I think we might have discussed this very quote once before. A great answer to Prohibtion. Well ó I finished the first volume of Proust awhile ago. Youíve probably read a dozen books since I started.
John Berbrich: When did you start? This month Iíve read: Naked in Death by J.D. Robb; a translation of Gilgamesh by David Ferry; Picasso by Gertrude Stein & her weird yet curiously effective prose style; Air Pocket, a collection of poems by Kimiko Hahn; Trouble and Her Friends, a sci-fi cyberpunk novel by Melissa Scott; Alan Whiteís Within Nietzscheís Labyrinth; The Clash by David Quantick; & The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Working on a couple others right now. Looking right now at all of these titles, I can say that I donít find a theme or common thread. Pretty much random acts of reading.
William Michaelian: Delightful. And thatís the way I proceed, as this or that title leaps into my hands in used bookstores. Just yesterday, for instance, I brought home Josh Billings, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Bill Shakespeareís Pericles, Prince of Tyre. I posted the details and a photo of them here. As for Proust, I started reading on the first day of August.
John Berbrich: I like it. Billings is one of those quotable guys. You see his name everywhere in compendiums (or is it compendia) of sage & witty sayings. Okay, so you started August first. In August I read: The Western Canon by Harold Bloom; Traveling through Glass, a sweet poetry collection by Beth Copeland Vargo; The Rolling Stone Interviews, edited by Jann Wenner & Joe Levy; a poetry collection by James Babbs, Another Beautiful Night; I Touch The Earth, the Earth Touches Me by Hugh Prather; Selected Poems 1943-1996 by Philip Lamantia. September: Against the Grain by Robert Dana; The Doors by Ben Fong-Torres; Heavy Rotation, edited by Peter Terzian; Tony Gloegglerís excellent collection of poetry, The Last Lie; & Still Searching, a book of poems published by Gabeís Poets, a group of poets from Dallas, Texas. Thatís it.
William Michaelian: Almost a cool dozen. Well, right off, I see you do something I donít do, namely, you keep track of what you read. Let me see if I can reconstruct what else Iíve read in roughly that time frame. Dylan Thomas in America by John Malcolm Brinnin; Love is a Dog from Hell by Bukowski; The History of Reading and The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel; Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; John Brownís Body by Stephen Vincent Benťt; Selected Poems by Georg Trakl; parts of three collections by Ferlinghetti; and other miscellaneous odds and ends. Not too disgraceful, I guess.
John Berbrich: Heavy on the poetry. Of course Proust helps to balance the scales. Yes, Iíve kept track of my reading since 1981. I just write down a few particulars ó title, author, date published, number of pages ó then write a paragraph or so of my general impression. Fun to look back through. The old ones are in spiral notebooks. The most recent eight years are on the computer; every January I print the previous yearís reading list, usually a booklet 18-20 pages. Some day these journals will be valuable.
William Michaelian: They will definitely have a story to tell. Really, I admire your approach. And it probably shows, at least in part, some of the differences in our thinking. Iím more apt to let things overlap, as if what I read is destined to become part of some sort of mental quilt, each patch drawing strength from the other. Or maybe we have different ways of arriving at the same thing.
John Berbrich: If I let a book lapse for too long I start to lose the thread. I usually have a book of poetry going & a book of essays or articles. Then w/ a longer book that requires frequent reading, a novel or something on say history or philosophy, I concentrate on that, but read an essay or poem from the other books if I have a few minutes. I try not to confuse myself. Iím confused enough in my natural state. There are many paths to the center of the universe.
William Michaelian: I just did the math ó not on how many paths there are, but on how many pages of Proust I averaged per day: 12.8. It pays to chip away. I also find it easier to read certain types of material at different times of day. The whole time I was reading Benťt, for instance, I never once read him in the morning. It was always late in the afternoon. Proust, though, I read quite early, usually starting around five-thirty. Sometimes I pick him up again late in the day, but more likely than not itís another book. And of course if I have an appointment somewhere, I take something to read while I wait. I remember reading Beckett once in an auto shop, and almost losing my mind when the employeesís voices crept into my head, and I imagined they were speaking from inside garbage cans.
John Berbrich: Easy to do. Of course, each garbage can was really a complete void, symbolizing manís place in the cosmos. Beckett was quite a joker, & one of the most serious.
William Michaelian: Indeed, and I tried explaining that to them during the rehearsal. But they started clanging their lids.
John Berbrich: A simple case of indoctrination. They were trying to convert you, Willie. Let me check the book to see what the clanging of lids symbolizes. Hold on...they must have an index....
William Michaelian: Ah, you must be referring to Beckettís Guide to Trying, Failing, and Failing Better.
John Berbrich: Yeah, itís the 14th edition, ghostwritten by some Benedictine monks. These guys have been studying failure for their whole lives, & itís finally paid off.
William Michaelian: Wow ó fourteen editions already. And Beckettís been gone how long? Twenty, twenty-five years? Monks in garbage cans... another intriguing image.
John Berbrich: Dumpster diving is not exactly deprivation, but itís close to the basic idea of non-ownership & socialist blah-blah-blah. Beckett saw that coming. Did he write a play about a guy living in a garbage can?
William Michaelian: Endgame. Of course I havenít actually read the play. But hereís a synopsis from Wikipedia:
ďThe protagonist of the play is Hamm, an aged master who is blind and not able to stand up, and his servant Clov, who cannot sit down. They exist in a location by the sea, although the dialogue suggests that there is nothing left outside ó no sea, no sun, no clouds. The two characters, mutually dependent, have been fighting for years and continue to do so as the play progresses. Clov always wants to leave but never seems to be able. Also present are Hammís legless parents Nagg and Nell, who live in rubbish bins downstage and initially request food or argue inanely.Ē
John Berbrich: Sounds like a comedy. I thought I had read Endgame years ago but I donít recall anything of the synopsis. But I like what youíre telling me. Iíve got to find it.
William Michaelian: Shouldnít be too hard. Meanwhile, speaking of comedies, you should probably take a look at this.
John Berbrich: Hilarious. You kind of look like a cameo blend of Walt Whitman & Gandalf. I can imagine you stumping through the countryside w/ a backpack & a walking stick ó or better yet, a staff, the kind you stir up magic with. Singing wild poetry to the trees & clouds. One or two hobbits at your feet, trying to keep up. Amazing that Dollface was able to get all of that into a single photograph.
William Michaelian: Well, like you, Dollface is a genius. In fact, youíve both made something out of nothing, and if that doesnít prove it, nothing will. I love the life you describe. What could be better?
John Berbrich: Perhaps anticipating quaffing a good long drink of beer at the Antique Junk and Poem Shop when itís all over, while listening to Ernest Hemingway & Richard Brautigan argue over who caught the largest trout. Perhaps.
William Michaelian: A state of heightened expectation and awareness, to be sure. Donít you find it interesting that ďJunkĒ precedes ďPoemĒ in the name of our establishment?
John Berbrich: Itís a marvelous juxtaposition. And while weíre speaking of marvelous, how about them San Francisco Giants?
William Michaelian: Yes, how about them? Wasnít that World Series a treat? Iíve been waiting all of my life for this. And that Proust ó what a great pitcher.
John Berbrich: He takes his time on the mound but gets the job done, though he really needs to develop a better fastball.
William Michaelian: In his memoirs ó ghost written, of course ó he says that although his career is long over, he can still remember each strike and ball heís thrown. But the real question is, can you imagine this man as a star pitcher in little league?
John Berbrich: Isnít there, like, an age limit in little league? Iíd like to know who this rascal paid off to be able to take the mound against 12-year olds.
William Michaelian: By gad, sir ó this rascal can still thrash you with his cane if you... there ó a step closer, now.... Wait! What do you mean, balk?
John Berbrich: Youíre over the hill, sir. Itís time for a relief pitcher to take over. Weíre sending in the Irish lad, James Joyce, whoís all warmed up by now. Come along quietly now, Marcel. Relinquish the mound. Thatís it, thatís it. Put the cane down....
William Michaelian: But those sycamores shading the bleachers, the shadows they cast on the right field wall.... surely youíve seen them. And the festering pustule on the umpireís nose.... with my next pitch I can lance it and he wonít even know....
John Berbrich: Be reasonable, Marcel. Youíll get tossed out of the game & fined if you hit the ump w/ a pitch. Go on, go on. Donít worry about the sycamores; theyíre coming down when they build the new stadium next season. Youíll love it; it will have a dome & everything. And weíre jacking beer prices up to $15 a cup. Youíll be able to retire in style.
William Michaelian: In a cork-lined room? Because that would have its merits. You know, I just noticed something: you look kind of funny in a tuxedo.
John Berbrich: Itís my Halloween get-up. Iím supposed to be a penguin. Now keep going, keep going, thatís it, one...big...step...good job! See you after the game.
William Michaelian: Years later. Itís not that I refuse, mind you. But your little speech has given me so much to think about. Even more so the patience of the boys in the dugout, who now seem like elderly men bobbing in a canoe. How innocent they look, waiting for their rootbeer floats! And to think I have pitched to only one batter. Perhaps you remember him, a year younger than the rest, his first time in the league, timid, standing at the outside edge of the batterís box without a single scuff mark on his shoes, wobbling on his cleats, his smooth face scarcely with a trace of fuzz.
John Berbrich: I can see that it all has had quite an effect on you. Wonder where he is now, that smooth-cheeked lad in cleats? Itís no surprise that youíve come in for a little therapy. Again...watch...that...step. Good. Here, have a seat. Tell me all about it. Go way back to the beginning, the very first pitch....
William Michaelian: So, then, itís just as I suspected: you are crazy. If anyone needs to sit down, itís you. And you call yourself a coach?
John Berbrich: Look, gramps. Youíre being yanked. Now come along quietly or Iíll have to ask for help. The game is over for you.
William Michaelian: Not to change the subject ó for I know youíve always preferred that Irish lad Sunny Jim and think him a remarkable long reliever ó what can you tell me (in your penguin suit) about the Brooklyn Dodgers? Is it true that they were once known as the Trolley Dodgers?
John Berbrich: That is true. At least, thatís the story Iíve heard. I recall being a little kid in New York, playing stickball in the street, when I heard the older guys talking about the Dodgers & Giants moving to California. Listening to those guys, it seemed to me like the end of an era.
William Michaelian: That was a big, big thing in those days. Two leagues, no divisions, the pennant at the end of the season and then the World Series. And it was the beginning of an era for us on the West Coast, the Giants and Dodgers being such bitter rivals. And where I grew up, we lived halfway between the two cities, so you can imagine the ďdiscussionsĒ that went on between Dodgers and Giants fans.
John Berbrich: Iím sure many of those ďdiscussionsĒ were concluded w/ fists. Nothing better in sports than a hot rivalry. So, after the Dodgers & the Giants split west, we had only the Yankees for a few years, until the Mets (actually the Metropolitans) began to play. They were such a joke. The Amazing Mets. There wasnít any rivalry cuz the Mets were so terrible & the Yankees superior.
William Michaelian: By far. And then, after being a laughingstock for many years, the Mets, led in part by Fresno boy Tom Seaver, won it all in 1969. But for the life of me, I canít remember which American League team they beat.
John Berbrich: I canít either, but I know it wasnít the Yankees, who had fallen on hard times by then. Yes, Tom Seaver. Great pitcher. And who was that other pitcher they had? Jerry Koosman. But Seaver was one of the best Iíve ever seen. I remember other great pitchers from that era: Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, all National Leaguers.
William Michaelian: Drysdale was another, although we hated him bitterly. Okay ó I just looked up the 1969 World Series. The Mets beat the Orioles. The Mets had been in existence for eight years, and that season they had their first winning record. Seaver won twenty-five games and the Cy Young Award that year. Three pitchers for the Orioles, meanwhile, had combined for sixty-three victories: Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer. Isnít it something how we forget these names? Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Don Clendenon.
John Berbrich: Oh, Willie, these names are like poetry. I remember when Frank Robinson came to the Orioles from the Cincinnati Reds. His presence seemed to inspire Brooks Robinson, always an amazing third baseman, to greater heights as a batter. The Robinson boys were a potent one-two punch. And Palmer was another great pitcher, still remembered for his underwear ads.
William Michaelian: A nobleman in tights. Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Sudden Sam McDowell.... for that matter, there were some great baseball names on the 2010 Giants roster, Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff among them. You just donít see names like that in basketball, for instance. Then again, maybe you do. But they ring differently from the diamond. Which is another way of saying they have a diamond ring. Heaven knows, they can afford it.
John Berbrich: Yeah, letís not get started on that subject. I remember reading a story about Babe Ruth. He was asked if he deserved his salary, which was something like $80,000 a year, more than the $60,000 the president earned. ďWell,Ē he said. ďI had a better year than the president.Ē Now the players make more than the president & 20 congressmen combined. Do they deserve it? I donít know. They certainly have nothing to whine about. More great names: Galen Cisco, Harmon Killebrew, Ron Swoboda.
William Michaelian: I remember that Ruth quote. The perfect answer. But youíre right. Letís not get started. Dizzy Dean. Ty Cobb, also known as ďThe Georgia Peach.Ē Whitey Ford. Connie Mack.
John Berbrich: Daffy Dean. Tony Oliva. Catfish Hunter. Rocky Colavito....
William Michaelian: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Mario Lanza....
John Berbrich: Mr. Ed, Harry Houdini, Groucho Marx....
William Michaelian: Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice, Wolfie Mozart and Humphrey Bogart and Genghis Khan and on to H. G. Wells.
John Berbrich: John Glenn, John Smith, John Doe. I think that covers it.
William Michaelian: Well, it doesnít, but letís say it does. So tell me ó have you heard anything about that Twain volume that was supposed to be out this fall?
John Berbrich: Only that itís another autobiography & that two more volumes will follow over the next three to five years. Should be ready for release soon but I donít know when. Tantalizing.
William Michaelian: Hey, wait a minute. The book is out. It weighs 4.1 pounds and has 760 pages.
John Berbrich: Wow. Itís a big book, almost a fraction of the size of Proust. I really need it.
William Michaelian: We both do. Maybe what we should do is buy copies for each other for Christmas. And then, to save the postage money, you can keep mine and I can keep yours. So our inscriptions to each other should actually be to ourselves.
John Berbrich: Deal. Say, that reminds me. Do your elves get a little restless during the Christmas Season, seeing as how theyíre not involved w/ the construction of useless toys for kids, like their brethren at the North Pole?
William Michaelian: Restless, hell. They get drunk, and spend hours mocking their sold-out cousins. Batteries not included. That gets them every time.
John Berbrich: You must have a great time out there on the West Coast, w/ your beard, Proust, & all the elves. Always sounds like such fun. Here itís mostly winter, & dark. Havenít seen an elf in months.
William Michaelian: Thatís no way to live. Come West, my boy, come West. Meanwhile, the least we can do, since we failed to mention Robert Louis Stevensonís birthday recently, is pay our respects to the passing of M. Proust, who left us this day in 1922. Or maybe heís busy working on Volume 3.
John Berbrich: If he is, itís gonna be a long book. Heís been working on it for nearly 90 years. Speaking of which, have you completed volume 2?
William Michaelian: Iíve not only completed it, Iíve written a daring sequel, which I expect will sell at auction for at least a million dollars. In other words, Iím on Page 292.
John Berbrich: Oh. So youíre just getting started. I wonder if Proust had a real plan when he began the first book, or did he simply start describing minutiae & suddenly find himself drawn in?
William Michaelian: Well, one thing thatís interesting, and which might be a clue, is how many times during the course of the story he refers to something that he will write about in detail later, at the proper time. Also, certain details prove their importance hundreds of pages after they are first introduced. On the one hand, he could not, at the beginning, have known where this or that memory might lead. But he knew his story, and he knew the people involved; he knew the times; he was widely read and an acute observer of society. He thought a great deal about the nature of memory, sleep, and dreams. And yet the work isnít strictly autobiographical, or wholly fictional.
John Berbrich: Do you find that difficult, realizing the significance of details hundreds of pages after theyíre introduced? So much to keep in that head of yours. Do you find your own writing affected by Proust?
William Michaelian: Somewhat. Not that Iíve taken to writing eight-page paragraphs and sentences a mile long. The influence is more in what the text suggests, what it reminds me of, and then I find myself going off in those directions. As for details and difficulty, the way he weaves and reweaves his story, like a self-diagnosed neurotic hypochondriac who takes joy in the knowledge of his discoveries ó hmm. Maybe he is affecting my writing. Anyway, no. It isnít difficult, really. Just time consuming.
John Berbrich: Does it ever feel like a chore?
William Michaelian: No, definitely not. More like a nice glass of brandy.
John Berbrich: Hmmm, I like the sound of that. Although to finish both books youíd need at least a vat of brandy. Thatís a soothing image ó someone sipping on glass after glass of brandy, curled up in a comfortable chair, reading Proust, but, more than merely reading, sinking into Proustís world, deeply, perhaps irrevocably, then, finally finished, putting down the second of the giant tomes & returning, blinking, to the waking world. Only to find that your footís fallen asleep & that all your clothes are out of style.
William Michaelian: And heís thinking in French, even though he doesnít know the language, and was reading the English translation. Then he hears a strange sound outside: itís a vintage motorcar, turn-of-the-century, waiting at the curb. And he watches as the driver opens the door and a man gets in, only to realize that he is that man. They speed away. He never sees himself again.
John Berbrich: I still think it would make a great film. And weíd start w/ the ending, the scene youíve just described, then start over where Proust begins, & run it for like 14 hours until we hear that motorcar again. Weíll need a soundtrack by John Cage. Starring Johnny Depp as the vat of brandy. They call him vat man.
William Michaelian: Clever. And very workable, even in this short version. Cage, blowing whistles and dropping hammers into boiling water, just as a train pulls up to the platform and several princes disembark. By the way, hereís a nice picture of Proust, who said, ďAll our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.Ē
John Berbrich: Profound. I like it much. And Iíll say one thing for Proust, he looks so French. Iíve seen photos of him as a younger man, & really he was quite strikingly handsome. I wonder how youíll feel when you finish his book. Relieved, or wanting more?
William Michaelian: You mean it ends? I suppose it depends on future developments. But relieved only in the sense that I can then take on another major work. You know, of course, how hard it can be to part company with certain books. I was dazed for a week after finishing Don Quixote, for instance, and I was caught up in exquisite waves of emotion at the end of Les Misťrables. Perform an autopsy on me and Iím sure youíll find traces of countless others residing in my tissues. Wait, however, until after Iím dead.
John Berbrich: Which itself depends on future developments. I know what you mean. Certain books soak into your DNA. When I was a kid it was Bradburyís short stories & Tolkienís classics. In my 20s, Philip K. Dick & his insane (though eerily accurate) visions of the future. At one point it was Whitman, the poetic giant. And then Nietzsche. Lately, Iíve had trouble focusing on large enduring works. Too many distractions clamoring for my time. But one of these days, Iíll settle into that chair by the woodstove, gallon-jug of brandy on hand, & sink into something miraculous.
William Michaelian: You might begin with The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Or, and I know Iíve suggested this before, Wolfeís Look Homeward, Angel. Our youngest son finished that one recently, and is currently over 500 pages into the book that came immediately after it, Of Time and the River, which Iíve yet to read. Heís deeply impressed by both. Not that there arenít countless others from which to choose, many, Iím sure, already on your groaning shelves.
John Berbrich: Yeah, different books yelp at me from the bookcase, in fact from every bookcase, so choosing one can be a challenge, although walking through the house is always an interesting journey. By the way, The New Yorker ran an article on the new Twain book. Want me to mail you a photocopy?
William Michaelian: That would be great, if itís not too much trouble. And send me a box of cigars, if you would; an article like that should be enjoyed in the proper atmosphere.
John Berbrich: No trouble at all. But the cigars though, Iím getting low on them. So low, in fact, that they are completely gone, disappeared, vanished. I can send you a box though, folded up, like cardboard. Actually it is cardboard. Today is your lucky day!
William Michaelian: Great! Come to think of it, I used to keep marbles and other assorted treasures in cigar boxes. I love cigar boxes. But, over the years, I lost my marbles.
John Berbrich: I hope you at least kept the boxes. I myself have a problem w/ keeping things like cool boxes. At least, other people, unenlightened people, say I have a problem. In truth, I simply see art & profundity where others see mere functionality. It all depends upon what one values. So in opening closets around here, one must be careful.
William Michaelian: We have one or two we canít open. Well, I guess thatís a bit of an exaggeration. But when we were shuffling things around in order to move, I ended up turning one closet into a family archive, which contains everything from papers to seventy-year-old shoe polish, and even my uncleís Purple Heart.
John Berbrich: Everyone needs a junk closet or junk room or junk poem shop. We accumulate so much stuff, & so much of it is useless but not worthless. Of course, we require a balance in these things. Have you ever heard of the Collyer brothers? They lived in New York City & accumulated so much stuff that they couldnít leave the house. They reportedly hoarded over 100 tons of junk in their place. Books, magazines, furniture. Donít let this happen to you.
William Michaelian: I donít intend to. But I do know that there are many more used books in my future. Maybe only fifty tons, though. Iíve never heard of the Collyer boys. When did all this happen? And did they die in there?
John Berbrich: Yeah, they were both found dead in there. I think this was in the 40s. Check it out online. Itís quite a story. I read a novelization by Marcia Davenport based on the story, which is how I found out about it.
William Michaelian: Amazing. Well, here it is, on Wikipedia. Hereís an excerpt from the House Contents section:
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyerís hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a childís chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T with which Langley had been tinkering, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old. Near the spot where Homer died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks, with a total of $3,007.18 (about $40,000 in 2008 dollars).
Hmm. Twenty-five thousand books. And human organs pickled in jars.
John Berbrich: And 14 pianos. According to the article, one of the brothers had been partially eaten by rats. What a weird story. And they set traps to catch any intruders, as if anyone might break in. If they had dragged it all outside for a yard sale they could have made a fortune.
William Michaelian: I suppose so, but obviously you donít part with treasures like those. Did you ever go by there? Or was the dwelling razed? How was the Davenport book?
John Berbrich: Letís just say that when I lived in New York that was not a safe neighborhood to walk around in. The book was okay. Unremarkable, told straight in functional prose. I was kidding about selling all that stuff. It is so weird how people get fixated on certain things. I mean, this was just a bunch of stuff, junk, trash by the sound of it ó yet these guys couldnít part w/ any of it. They actually had to crawl from one room to another through tunnels excavated amidst the debris. Did the thought ever occur to either of them that what they were doing was completely weird & totally unnecessary? Wonder if it was some genetic thing? I hesitate to call it a flaw.
William Michaelian: Heavens, no. They were just well focused. I do like the fact that there were two of them, though. At any point one or the other could have said that what they were doing was ridiculous, and that it was time to clean up the joint. Maybe each thought that, but was afraid of hurting the otherís feelings ó since the other, after all, was the one that really had the problem.
John Berbrich: Thatís an interesting angle. They were sort of humoring each other. ďI hate spinach; I thought you liked it.Ē ďAnd I thought you liked it; I hate spinach too.Ē That sort of thing. Iíll tell you this: if either of them had had a girlfriend, that would have been it for their kingdom of junk. Speaking of junk, weíre not going to allow that sort of mess to happen to the Junk Poem Shop, I hope?
William Michaelian: Absolutely not. Personally, I abhor messes, unless theyíre well organized.
John Berbrich: Well, I suppose we could appoint someone to be in charge of messes. That way we can make sure they never get out of hand. Almost sounds as though youíre volunteering.
William Michaelian: Almost. But I wonder if we could live with the results. Anyway, Iím still working on the universe, so that will be good practice. Because the Junk Poem Shop, as we know, is much, much bigger than that.
John Berbrich: Oh, absolutely. I imagine it will take eternity to explore the place, & that doesnít include the outbuildings & the grounds. And then I wonder whatís on the other side of that good fence. Good neighbors?
William Michaelian: A vast uncharted realm, known simply as Elf Land. At least there are elves peeking through the knot holes. The rest is just a guess.
John Berbrich: Wow. I canít wait to check this place out. And I expect the homebrew to be amazing.
William Michaelian: Iím counting on it. In the meantime, I want you to know that Iíve read the first fifteen or so pages of the October Yawp. Really excellent so far ó well, I suppose if you donít count my two pages of blather.
John Berbrich: Yeah, I think I said itís a pretty strong issue. Possibly the best this year. Love that cover.
William Michaelian: Me too. And when you think about it, the covers have changed quite a lot over the years, ranging from sparse visual haiku to some that are more complex and abstract, involving both front and back. I like the addition of the Mailbag, too, and the ďOpen LetterĒ that follows it in this issue is great.
John Berbrich: Yes. Dave actually did not intend it as a submission. He sent it as a letter to me, but I liked the piece so much I got his permission to publish it. Havenít gotten any hate mail yet, which he was halfway expecting.
William Michaelian: I donít think you will. Yawp readers are Yawp readers because they understand these things. But if Daveís piece were published online in the ďpoetryĒ circles where these matters are routinely discussed, it might lead to a barrage of negative comments, and certainly a lot of posturing. All too often, such is the response to simplicity and common sense. I liked the reference to Vonnegut not hiding his ideas like Easter eggs. The fact is, people with genuine ideas donít hide them.
John Berbrich: Why would you need to? Why mystify a perfectly good idea. Ritual smoke & incense I donít mind. But please give me something to hold onto if weíre going for a walk in the dark.
William Michaelian: Exactly. And if I had any courage at all, Iíd say we should end our conversation right there, so perfectly have you expressed the matter. Then, in its place, we could put up a video of the two of us chopping wood on a cold afternoon, our breath visible in the crystalline air. Which I suppose is better than porcelain air. There was about him a porcelain air. Tell me ó are you still using your ancient woodstove?
John Berbrich: Funny you should mention that. I got rid of it & bought a new woodstove about three weeks ago. The new one is a Timberwolf. It has a pretty big firebox, & is an airtight so of course we use a lot less wood. The Timberwolf doesnít crank out the BTUs quite like the old Round Oak, but the heat is more than satisfactory & wood lasts a whole lot longer. Iím pleased w/ the new stove, & the dogs seem to like it too, having taken up residence right behind it, in the niche between the stove & the wall. Itís like a warm little nest for dogs.
William Michaelian: A beautiful scene. No wonder you donít mind ritual smoke and incense ó you live with it all winter. Well, on the one hand, I hate to hear about the exit of your 1896 model, but this sounds like an inspiring addition to the home. And now maybe your sixteen cords will last you two winters, or at least a winter and a half.
John Berbrich: Thatís about right. I have a stack (& a pile) of firewood that I expected would last this year but now itíll go for two. Plus this stove has a glass door, so we can turn out all the lights & watch the flames dance. Itís a delightfully primitive pleasure.
William Michaelian: Without a doubt, thereís something ancient in us that responds to that sight and sound and smell. Fire awakens and heals at the same time.
John Berbrich: Like so many natural things, fire contains a power. We must respect that power, celebrate that power, & learn to compromise w/ it. Hence, we can keep fire in our home, but we must recognize & obey certain rules. Which reminds me: Have you given much thought to writing your autobiography?
William Michaelian: Letís see... fire, power, respect, celebration, rules. I guess that adds up to autobiography. I havenít, but it seems to a large extent thatís what Iím doing, or have been doing these past few years. How about you? Oh ó I received the copy you sent of that New Yorker article.
John Berbrich: I actually have started an autobiography. I forgot about it, then discovered like 25 pages I wrote several years ago. But Iím putting it off for now. Like Twain, I might write several.
William Michaelian: Quite logicial, considering oneís many selves. Finally lapsing into delirium dications. What did you think of Mr. Gopnikís article, ďThe Man in the White SuitĒ?
John Berbrich: Well, he doesnít say much about Twainís new book, other than to mention that itís not really new, although he does hold Twain in high regard. Van Wyck Brooks comes off as a sourpuss, the way he wrote of Twainís works. Iíd like to see him do any better.
William Michaelian: No kidding. The whole article, really, struck me as so much blather, as if there were nothing to say but he said it anyway. Turns out the University of California also has a massive edition of Huck Finn available.
John Berbrich: You mean like a brand new Huck Finn, or the same old one we all love?
William Michaelian: I mean a 616-page 125th anniversary edition thatís ďexpanded with thoroughly updated notes and references, and a selection of original documentsóletters, advertisements, playbillsósome never before published, from Twainís first book tour.Ē Here ó
see for yourself.
John Berbrich: Whoa, I almost dropped it. Thanks. This is a lovely book. Nice hardcover, of which I always approve, appealing artwork, & all those extras. Do you want this back?
William Michaelian: Nope. As we say on the playground, you touched it last. Really, I think a nice chunk of print like that would look great right about... there, on the corner of your desk. But youíll have to move that beer bottle first.
John Berbrich: Hold on. Seems Iím developing quite a bottle collection. Most of these are empty. Let me move them... Okay, thereís a spot for the precious tome. And hereís a bottle for you, thanks for the delivery.
William Michaelian: We aim to please. But Iím not about to put a brand new book in a cold wet bottle ring. Or an old book for that matter. Say, have you ever heard of a poet named Antoinette Scudder? She was from New Jersey, I believe. I just found one of her books, Out of Peony and Blade, published in 1931. I made note of it here.
John Berbrich: Lovely. ďQueer little mummies of thought.Ē Never heard of her. I love coming across old books like that one, neglected, & forgotten. Itís best when thereís marginalia to peruse, the thoughts of someone from a half-century ago, or more. I donít write in my books, so no one in 2068 will read my thoughts in the margins of a paperback.
William Michaelian: Or mine, for the same reason. This particular volume has no notes. But Iíve bought many that do, and sometimes thatís why I bought them ó not for what they say, necessarily, but for their style of handwriting. I certainly love the penmanship in nineteenth and early twentieth century books. Some inscriptions look like miniature Gettysburg Addresses.
John Berbrich: In my early years I attended some Catholic schools ó & you couldnít move into the next grade without the proper penmanship. Content and form. Totally lost art now.
William Michaelian: So it seems. And itís a lament I hear from time to time online, ironically. I remember reading on someoneís blog a few weeks ago how the author was making a point of writing every day with proper pen and paper, to combat that very thing ó to not forget how to write, and to do it well, and to keep the physical feeling of it present in his mind.
John Berbrich: It sure is a different activity. You use different muscles, obviously, & different portions of the brain. Tapping on keys is always the same. But printing or writing in script has such variety, every letter being a new swirl & cross & dot. Each is stamped w/ individuality.
William Michaelian: And then how handwriting changes with age. We have letters stored away from long ago, written by friends of my parents and other family members, which begin with bold strokes and end years later in spidery script that threatens to fade away altogether.
John Berbrich: And then of course thereís the bold scrawl of children, w/ their backwards Es & so forth. Yup, no doubt about it, keyboard writing is a whole different animal.
William Michaelian: Now and then you do come across an interesting script-like font, but of course itís not the same, with its built-in repetitive peculiarities. Personally, I always enjoyed writing with a stick in the dust. Thereís a fellow I know of whoís quite adept at writing on surfaces like that which change and disappear ó frost, for instance. Basically anything that presents itself as a usable surface. A fogged-up window. Sand.
John Berbrich: We used to write on sand, forming gigantic letters w/ seaweed. Perhaps some god w/ keen vision could see them from his castle in the clouds.
William Michaelian: Not only that, he probably used them in a poem. Celestial plagiarism.
John Berbrich: Not much you can do about that. Copyright laws donít apply.
William Michaelian: True. And now for some reason Iím picturing a god with thick round spectacles, hunched over the beach, trying to read every line, every grain of sand.
John Berbrich: Wait a minute. Does this guy have a beard? And really long hair?
William Michaelian: As a matter of fact, he does. And theyíre wreaking havoc on the coastline.
John Berbrich: That guy in the cloud castle w/ the thick round spectacles, beard, & really long hair ó Willie, thatís you.
William Michaelian: It is? You mean Iím a god and didnít know it? Then again, maybe we all are.
John Berbrich: Exactly. We possess more power than we know. And more potential, for both benevolent & hideous acts. Think of it ó billions of gods, or at least billions of potential gods. Sounds crowded.
William Michaelian: In fact Dollface and I were just talking about this. Not the crowded part, but regarding the untapped power and potential of the human mind. We sense it at times, I think, but are afraid of what it might really mean.
John Berbrich: You mean we fear the responsibility of having that much power?
William Michaelian: No, I mean we fear the power because we donít know what it is, and because in recognizing it or embracing it our very identity might be erased or blurred.
John Berbrich: Oh. Yeah, I think that could be true. So fear is the big killer. If youíve ever read Dune by Frank Herbert, that was one of the themes: Fear is the mind-killer.
William Michaelian: As in, ďI must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.Ē I was afraid youíd say that. I did read Dune, back when I was eighteen years old. Much of it I read outside, in the late-October sun. I confess, I remember more about the sun and successive Octobers than I do about the book. Except that the thought of it still makes me thirsty.
John Berbrich: I read it when I was about 18 also. And several times after. Herbert wrote about five sequels, & his son & another guy wrote like a dozen prequels. But the original Dune is by far the best, in my humble estimation. One of the best books Iíve ever read.
William Michaelian: Really? Wow. And when did you read it last?
John Berbrich: Good question. Itís been a while, maybe 10 years. Iíve read the book at least three or four times. I keep thinking about reading it again, but there are so many others clamoring for my attention, most for the first time. And I hate to disappoint them.
William Michaelian: Thatís just it ó theyíre waiting for you. Say, just a few hours ago, I found a Peter Pauper Press edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. A lovely little volume, undated as so many of them are, and similar to the haiku editions we both have. It isnít Fitzgeraldís First Edition, which I prefer ó in fact it doesnít say which edition it is. Probably the Fourth. But for fifty cents I wasnít about to pass it up.
John Berbrich: Ah, thereís another treasure, & another good book I havenít read in a while. I have an old edition of that one, bound in leather. Somewhere downstairs, which I could find if I needed to. Iíll go look.
William Michaelian: Excellent. I did purchase another copy earlier in the month. Not leather, but one of those lovely soft flexible books. It was published in 1898 by John C. Winston Company in Philadelphia. You can see it here.
John Berbrich: That is a totally beautiful book. I found my copy. It was published by Barse & Hopkins, New York, NY, in 1917, the fourth edition, w/ a copyright of 1899. In the front of the book is an inscription written in blue ink to Hugh B. Lancaster from Doris, March 23, 1926, Rochester, New York. I also have a book called the Life of Omar Al-Khayyami written by J.K.M. Shirazi, published in 1905 by T.N. Foulis, Edinburgh & London. The book was printed in Scotland by Turnbull and Spears. In the front, it says that only 250 copies were printed on this homemade paper. Mine is #104. The paper is very thick, maybe 120 lb. So this 108-page book is quite stout.
William Michaelian: And Iíll bet it smells heavenly. Hugh and Doris ó another story for the ages. I love each and every detail. Speaking of handmade paper and limited editions, take a look at my copy of Aucassin and Nicolette. And then, for good measure, I know youíll get a kick out of my Uedaís Daijiten. Thin pages, not thick.
John Berbrich: Wow. Lovely finds. Iím not sure that I approve of libraries stamping their name in the text of a book. I mean, itís right there on the title page. But this quibble aside, what beautiful old books to peruse, & I use ďperuseĒ in both of its contradictory meanings. Youíve got to be careful while reading these old tomes, a reminder perhaps that some things are fragile & sacred.
William Michaelian: I agree, and I winced when I first saw that stamp ó and there, of all places. I donít mind the little penciled notes of a librarian as to a bookía category and Dewey designation, but stamps are another matter. One that really bothers me is when they stamp, crudely and in all capital letters, DISCARDED. In any case, I do have to be careful with Aucassin and Nicolette, because the binding is quite feeble.
John Berbrich: Go gentle, my good man. Thatís something you donít hear much about nowadays ó gentleness. Thereís plenty of bleating over equality & funding. But who mentions handling things w/ a gentle touch?
William Michaelian: No kidding. Anymore, itís use it, abuse it, and move on. Or maybe itís always been that way, stampedes and the clattering of swords.
John Berbrich: Itís rather discouraging, if you stop to think about it. Well, jingle my bells ó speaking of stampedes, itís nearly Christmas. Bet your elves are busy.
William Michaelian: Funny you should mention that. Theyíve all taken to smoking cigars. After being away for awhile, approaching the house the other day, the cloud of smoke was impressive. The neighbors complained, of course. Amazing what jealousy does to some people.
John Berbrich: Jealous of what ó the smoke or the elves?
William Michaelian: Jealous of all three ó the smoke, the elves, and me. At least thatís my interpretation. The perfect Christmas gift: a cigar band for the one you love.
John Berbrich: I would imagine a cigar band would play Hank Williams & mebbe some early Johnny Cash. That would be a great Christmas gift.
William Michaelian: Funny ó I knew youíd say that. And I agree. A little ďOrange Blossom SpecialĒ and youíve got something. Two harmonicas, one for each hand. An elf shining each of your boots, spitting and snapping his rag.
John Berbrich: I would also imagine that elves drinking liquor could get seriously out of hand. I see them dancing on tables, sprinting across the ceiling, yodeling at the moon. It must be quite a trip to take them out for a night-on-the-town.
William Michaelian: They love the arcade. They put coins in the machines as fast as their hands can dig them out of their tiny pockets. But Iíll tell you something ó thereís nothing quite as sad as when, the morning after, you see their little shoes lined up by the door, and outside on the front step, and along the walk leading to the street, and scattered out long the curb, leading off around the bend, and in the chill air you hear the bark of a dog in the distance.
John Berbrich: Willie, youíre breakiní my heart. Sounds as though youíve experienced this sort of thing before w/ your little brood. Do they wash their own clothes?
William Michaelian: Once a year, whether they need it or not. You should see their clothesline and those little wooden clothes pins. But you should not seem them in their underwear. No one should.
John Berbrich: Iíll just look the other way. Some things are simply a private matter. Tell me something: w/ all of those elves running around, smoking cigars, drinking, having a hilarious time ó are they all males? Do you have any girl elves? Just curious.
William Michaelian: Interesting. I donít know. All along, I guess, Iíve assumed they are males. And weíve talked about them what ó a dozen times? Maybe two dozen? Creating entire scenarios. And in all those instances, have either of us ever referred to female elves? Whatís going on here? If you meant to confuse me, you have completely succeeded. And on Christmas Eve, no less.
John Berbrich: I was just following up a random thought I had, wondering if baby elves (if there even is such a thing) are born live like mammals, or in eggs, or perhaps in bottles. I thought that you might have the answer, seeing as how youíre swamped w/ elves. Oh, Merry Christmas.
William Michaelian: Yes. Yes indeed. Merry Christmas. Thereís an immense cabbage patch about two miles from here. Suddenly it takes on a strange significance, as do the storks that keep flying over the house. Heaven help us all.
John Berbrich: Indeed. This sounds like the beginning of a rancid horror movie. In fact, I can hear the weird symphonic music just starting....
William Michaelian: A nightmare comedy, riddled with philosophical questions.
John Berbrich: ...and half-naked elves running about....
William Michaelian: This is rapidly becoming The Dark Side of Christmas.
John Berbrich: Itís a story that needs to be told.
William Michaelian: But donít you, at the same time, resent these elves for insinuating themselves into our lives as they do? Itís clear that their mission is to take over completely. And then where will we be?
John Berbrich: Well, itís like this. Theyíve insinuated themselves into your life, not mine, so thatís okay. And they donít sound organized enough to take over anything. And if they were able to take over, well, they sound as though they have a lot more fun than the folks running the show now, you know? So I might vote for an elf next time.
William Michaelian: I hate to say it ó I relish it, actually ó but you are in a classic state of denial. ďYour life, not mine,Ē when, all along, I have refrained from telling you how these elves youíre ready to vote for have you wrapped around their little little finger. But thatís fine. Believe what you want. In saying ďour livesĒ I was just trying to be nice. Obviously, itís you theyíve been after all along.
John Berbrich: As far as I know, these merry elves are like 3,000 miles away, tormenting you, not me. And speaking of psychosis, youíve convinced yourself that theyíve somehow got me by the short hairs, which is exactly the opposite of the truth. Their busy little fingers are tangled up in your beard, Willie, leading you around like a...like a...well, like a....
William Michaelian: Stop right there. Youíre making me dizzy. What strikes me now, and I suppose I shouldnít be surprised, is how defensive you are. But at least you said, ďAs far as I know.Ē That tells me that you do, on the surface, have your doubts, which further suggests that deep down you know the truth. But I wonít beat it to death. Instead, I will quote the first paragraph from the first of two letters written by Mark Twain to Olivia L. Clemens on 9 December 1884, from Toronto, Canada:
ďI ate a hearty breakfast at 9 this morning. On the hotel car at 1 p.m., I took a sirloin steak & mushrooms, sweet potatoes, Irish ditto, plate of trout, bowl of tomato soup, 3 cups of coffee, 4 pieces of apple pie (or one complete pie), 2 plates of ice cream & 1 orange. But I stopped then, on account of the expense, although still hungry.Ē
John Berbrich: Wow. Iíd think twice before inviting Mr. Twain to Thanksgiving dinner. Iím noted for my capacity at the table, but I believe heís defeated even my best efforts.
William Michaelian: True, nothing like a little snack to hold one over. But what the heck, if youíll pardon my ignorance, is Irish ditto?
John Berbrich: I think he means Irish potatoes, referring to the sweet potatoes that preceded the ditto. If you get my drift.
William Michaelian: I believe I do. And itís just like you to see things so clearly, in such a simple, straightforward manner. I was hoping for something complicated and exotic, a dish rare even then, and now almost completely unheard of.
John Berbrich: Oh, you mean like the ditto, a type of freshwater fish popular in the 19th century, particularly in the region directly north & south of the Mason-Dixon Line, & known as the blitto by the Confedrate Army during the Civil War, & generally eschewed by the Northerners as a lower-class trailer-park sort of meal, fit for dogs & cats. You mean that sort of thing?
William Michaelian: Exactly! By gad, sir ó you are a character. Such a fund of knowledge. And so well spoken too. Were there really trailer parks in those days?
John Berbrich: Absolutely, but they only had them down South. I canít remember the name of the guy who invented trailer parks (3rd grade was a long time ago) but itíll come to me if I stop thinking about it.
William Michaelian: As so often the best things do. Well, being New Yearís Eve, Iíd say itís time to stop thinking anyway. Out with the old and in with the new, eh?