A Library Miscellany

A miscellany is a group or collection of different items. The Bodleian Library at Oxford University recently published a small miscellany devoted exclusively to snippets of information about libraries, enticing bibliophiles with the promise of arcane information pertaining to those repositories usually of books or manuscripts, but at times of items other than written material.

A French suffix denoting “repository” from Ancient Greek θήκη (thḗkē) is -thèque; thus bibliothèque = library, discothèque = collection of recorded music, cinemathèque – of films, etc.

The Library Miscellany includes a reference to the Osmothèque (from Greek osmē “odor”), the world’s largest scent collection, “a leading international research institution tracing the history of perfumery, based in Versailles with conference centers in New York City and Paris.”

A glyptothèque (from from the Ancient Greek verb glyphein (γλύφειν), meaning “cut into stone.” is a museum devoted to stone and sculpture like the Glyptothèque of Munich and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.

A museum is a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance, suggesting a more focused collection than a miscellany. An archive is an accumulation of historical records, or the physical place they are located. The Internet Archive however is a San Francisco–based non-profit digital “library”, with the grandiose mission of “universal access to all knowledge”.

This little book of miscellany meanders through the structures of libraries from Alexandria in 300 BCE to contemporary virtual compilations. Public and private libraries are included, ranging from the vast holdings of the US Library of Congress to the tiny swap boxes in residential neighbourhoods inviting passersby to “take one and leave one”.

An extensive glossary of library terms is presented, the effect of censorship on library holdings is assessed, book theft is reviewed, decor and decorum in libraries are described, and even the furniture provided for readers rates a page. Imaginary libraries appear, along with national and presidential libraries, though the author doesn’t speculate on the possibility of an unlikely future Trump Library, for the current US president tells us he doesn’t read books.

The history of lending libraries includes penalties for the non-return of borrowed items. “Special collections” and restricted access to items deemed precious or unique blur the distinction between the library and the museum, and some ancient manuscripts are only exhibited rather than circulated. Private libraries often form the nucleus of a future public library and there are specialized libraries such as those of medicine and law.

The author omits mentioning a bar in Helena, Montana named “The Law Library“, for after trial drinks by thirsty lawyers, hoping to sound decorous when unexpected callers were advised of their whereabouts and temporary unavailability.

February 15, 2019

Punctuality

On Being Late, an elegant short essay by Andrew O’Hagan appeared recently in the London Review of Books. He noted, “The person who is late and the person who is early have one thing in common: they are equally unlike the person that is just on time.”

Mexico is famous for saying mañana (tomorrow) rather than a specific time the next day, but the Argentines are worse, for there you are told la semana que viene (next week). Argentina has a unique expression for being punctual: hora inglés or “English time”, perhaps dating from when the railways were operated by the Brits and, as in fascist Italy, the trains did run on time.

The Swiss Federal Railways provide an exemplary and predictable service for making connections, as I discovered once upon arriving at the Zurich airport. I bought a train ticket to Kandersteg, a village in the Alps, and the agent advised me of the need to change trains at Bern. I queried whether there was enough time to change and was rewarded with the slightly smug reply of “natürlich”. The first train arrived in Bern precisely on time, and on an adjacent platform, the connecting train departed five minutes later.

The “Viennese delegation”, as Nabokov mocked the Freudians , would doubtlessly identify psychopathology in the persistently late (hostile!) or early (fearful of rejection!) arrivers, but then those who are invariably punctual are also dismissed as “anal”. You can’t win.

There is a price to be paid for being punctual however—being on time assumes one’s appointment will take place at the assigned hour, but if this is delayed for any significant amount of time, one is obliged to patiently wait. It is thus desirable to bring reading material to use if needed. Forgetting to do so invariably results in unanticipated waiting around, but remembering to bring a book often turns out to be unnecessary.

A negative consequence of being habitually punctual is feeling guilty in circumstances when one is unavoidably delayed. But departing early to avoid delays en route will often just lead to early arrivals, and therefore more waiting around.

We can speculate about synchronizing clocks, but as theoretical physics tells us, this is not possible with different reference frames. Time is not a universal constant, but being late to an appointment is unlikely to be forgiven if this explanation is invoked. To blame time itself is silly, you may as well blame gravity for weight.

In his short story of the same name, Somerset Maugham characterizes the “tendentious” Lord Mountdrago as regarding punctuality to be “a compliment paid to the intelligent and a rebuke administered to the stupid.”  Witty, but what does it mean?

February 11, 2019

From the Cave of an Urban Hermit

In a Chinese story about a solitary lifestyle, the narrator observes that anyone can go up a mountain and live in a cave, but a genuine hermit can still live an isolated lifestyle in a city.

Living in seclusion is often a religious practice, yet not incompatible with atheism. Solitary prayer and meditation may be an adequate substitute for regular contact with others for those so inclined, but hardly a necessary adjunct to a secluded lifestyle.

Seclusion does not imply loneliness when one’s interpersonal life includes written material found in books & journals both now and in the past, before the availability and wide use of internet resources and social media in this century. When one’s primary companions were books and not the seductive enticements of instant electronic contact, public and private libraries provided access to the minds of others.

To rely on one’s own life experiences and what past authors have written may now seem archaic, given the flood of information available electronically, yet a library allows one to have as companions in thought those that have inspired us: Goethe, Nabokov, Borges —the list seems endless. Many remain enjoyable companions, like Jan Morris and Alberto Manguel, others, less sources of delight but still meriting attention, such as Marx or St.Paul.

The level of direct social contact can be adjusted to reflect one’s degree of comfort with others, for a hermit, urban or rural, has the ability to limit interpersonal contact. Living alone permits one to regulate this level as needed—one can be cheerful and gregarious with one’s neighbors, yet retain the option of being alone with one’s books when desired.

My two closest friends are currently in Europe and Southeast Asia, and I am in periodic contact with them by email, though I eschew social media like Facebook. Having no desire or requirement for continual contact with anyone, it is nevertheless reassuring to retain the ability to do so.

Gazing from the window of my study, I regard a variety of people passing by: some walking their dogs, others jogging or running, geezers and crones shuffling along with their sticks or walkers, children trudging toward or bouncing back from school, and those between puberty and middle age, moving along like zombies, ignoring their surroundings, fixedly staring at and fiddling with their little handheld “devices”.

These latter remind me of a cartoon seen in the New Yorker magazine: the scene was that of a group of primitive “cavemen” wearing animal skins and strolling aimlessly about a desolate area, each holding in one hand and staring at a single rock. Perhaps what they needed was an alien monolith, as seen in that first part of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

February 10, 2019

Writing as Therapy

In the introduction to a collection of short stories by Graham Greene, the author is quoted saying, “Writing is a form of therapy: sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.”

The passive acquisition of scientific knowledge yields satisfaction in terms of understanding the human condition, but doesn’t console. Knowing about the laws of thermodynamics and entropy hardly provides any comfort. Religions may provide solace for those who accept their doctrines, but not for those who abjure supernatural belief.

Great music may engender a sense of peace even though inspired by religious belief. The ninth symphony of Anton Bruckner was dedicated to God, and Bach’s Mass in B Minor is a celebration of Christian belief, but one needn’t adhere to the Christian religion to appreciate these profound works.

Those more sensitive to visual input than myself may derive benefit from creative art involving the ordering of space rather than of time or sound, as in painting and sculpture.

These artistic endeavours and others like cinema, dance, or opera involve some kind of creative activity, imposing order of some kind. This brings us back to writing, using words or language to create, not a concrete object like a painting or a symphony performance, but something more abstract — ideas and feelings.

A poem is not the printed symbols on a page, nor the words read or recited, but an idea, a feeling, something intangible, using language to convey both information and mood states from the writer to the reader or listener.

Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that one should speak clearly of that which can be said, but of that which cannot be said, one must remain silent. This aphorism has always troubled me in that it seems to refer only to the communication of information, but not of mood states.

Be that as it may, creative writing focuses one’s thinking on specific issues, giving one a respite from what Greene laments about the vicissitudes of the human condition.

Like composing or painting, writing is an active rather than a passive occupation. Coming across Greene’s remarks quoted above sparked an “aha moment”, realizing abruptly that I was engaging in self therapy by writing — first the memoir/autobiography, and subsequently this series of short essays or “blogs” about topics that provoked reflection.

February 4, 2019

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

This slim volume (BDLF for short) was assembled by C. D. Rose in 2015. It is a collection of 52 alleged lost works, alphabetized by author and describing how each came to be lost. Every entry is accompanied by a short sketch of the writer’s life, and accompanied by a thumbnail portrait.

It is subtly similar to The Catalog of Lost Books (1989) by Thaddeus F. Tuleja, but the BDLF listings purport to have been written or at least planned, unlike the Catalog offerings, books that “should have been written but weren’t.”

One senses a whiff of the overripe in this collection of curious names and occupations, each one illustrating the loss of a treasured manuscript intended by the author to be a masterpiece, but which no longer graces the literary canon due to unfortunate circumstances, ranging from the psychological to the frankly criminal.

Having conjured this ghostly parade of supposedly lost works, Rose enhanced his illusory literary landscape by citing it several times in a later work of fiction, enticingly called Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else? This gem is a tour de force of wit and erudition masquerading as a novel, set in an unnamed Central European city and involving an unnamed visiting Anglophone academic, invited to give a series of ten lectures at an unnamed university by an unnamed professor.

Individuals from the earlier work surface in the novel. Hartmut Trautmann is described in the BDLF as born in 1948 in the German Democratic Republic and though enamoured of English, his command of the language was limited to terms associated with the field of electrical engineering in which he was trained. Nevertheless his surname appears in the novel, quoted by a literary critic with the maxim “Truth is always laden with its other.”

One assumes Rose is not referring to an actual Hartmut Trautmann, proprietor of a trailer park in Erfurt, Germany.

Also appearing in both books is to a bizarre individual named Fausto Squattrinato, characterized as a poet and performance artist, deemed untrustworthy and an “inveterate liar,” referenced in two of the BDLF biographies. He is mentioned in the account of political activist Jürgen Kittler as having taken part in the kidnapping of Aldo Moro in 1978, “but is a known liar.” He also claims to have met J. D, ‘Jack’ Ffrench in the latter’s entry in the BDLF in the context of organized crime involving New York and Sicilian mafias, “but his evidence is always unreliable.”

These two sophisticated and witty creations of C. D. Rose are replete with references to real and imaginary authors. literary movements, and academic controversies. The BDLF is a mock reference book, but the novel has a discernible plot, in an imaginary setting. Each of the lectures of the visiting professor are themselves mini essays on literary topics.

February 3, 2019

The Old Patagonian Express

The Old Patagonian Express (1979) is a written account of a journey taken by novelist Paul Theroux. In February 1992, after having read his account of the experience riding the line, I had the opportunity of undertaking the same trip at the time of a visit to Argentina, where I had lived and worked in observational astronomy and teaching from 1955 to 1963.

What follows is a transcription from the travel notes kept during my journey.

The (so-called by Theroux) Old Patagonian Express was a mixed passenger/freight, steam-hauled, once weekly train operating over a 415 kilometer narrow gauge (75 cm) track along the eastern foothills of the Andes, from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel in Northern Patagonia.

Getting there however was not half the fun, for the town of Ingeniero Jacobacci lies some 1500 Kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires, on the Roca division of the Argentine State Railway system, an organization that compares unfavourably, say, with the Swiss Federal Railways.

The early evening departure of the Lagos del Sur (“Southern Lakes”) was delayed for several hours from the cavernous, British-built Constitución station in Buenos Aires. I shared the dimly lit, odoriferous platform with several hundred perspiring passengers in the 35 degree humid heat until 22:30, when the consist finally backed in.

Scrambling aboard, I found my assigned compartment and began to organize my effects for the two night journey in the lower bunk, when my travelling companion popped in through the sliding door like a cork from a wine bottle.

Sebastián was a very pleasant young Argentine athlete-in-training. He had no bad habits, no noisy radio, was well-groomed, clean, friendly, and not a compulsive talker. I had but one major concern regarding this fellow though: faced with the the prospect of sleeping two nights in the lower bunk below him, in a swaying and decrepit sleeping car, lurching and bouncing over uneven track and a poorly maintained roadbed —he explained that he was in training to become a sumo wrestler.

The attendant appeared at the door and taking a look at us asked which one had the upper bunk. “Yo,” admitted Sebastián. The wooden access ladder was quickly whisked away and replaced with a sturdy metal one. Sebastián eased his bulk into the upper storey and began working on his caloric intake with a two liter bottle of pop.

I excused myself to the dining car for the 23:30 sitting, where I gorged on beefsteak as the southern suburbs of the Federal Capital slid past and we plunged south across the flat, dark pampas. My table companion was a clothing merchant on the single night journey to Bahia Blanca. He was of North Korean origin and had come to Argentina as a refugee via the former German Democratic Republic where he was a student. He spoke Spanish, German, and Korean.

I slept fairly well in spite of the fear of being crushed by 200 kilograms of Argentine adiposity and upon awakening the next morning found us to be crossing the low hills north of Bahia Blanca in driving rain.

Returning to the diner I grabbed the only table with an intact window, remaining there all day musing on the constantly expanding difference between the published timetable and the times of arrival at the stations. We were four hours late into Bahia Blanca and six hours late as we crossed the Rio Negro into Patagonia proper.

We trundled past mean villages in a cloud of dust, greeted by scrawny curs and thin looking children. Towards midnight I retired to my lower bunk once again and slept like a log.

The following morning I realized why: we had been stationary all night on a siding called San Antonio Oeste. The engine had broken down and a replacement had been summoned  from Ingeniero Jacobacci to rescue us, nine hours distant. The other passengers appeared not to be surprised by the delay, and I was comforted by the knowledge that the Old Patagonian Express would be held for our arrival at Ingeniero Jacobacci, for the main line express Lagos del Sur was the only connection to the Esquel branch line.

We arrived there eleven hours behind schedule, at 16:00. The connecting train it seemed, had not been prepared for our departure. The engine had to be fired up, manually turned on an ancient turntable, and the consist assembled. All this took another hour and a half as I watched the Lagos del Sur vanish in a cloud of dust into the west.

By then I knew I would never get to my reserved room at the hotel in Esquel that night and was resigned to sitting up until the next day, but the flight out of Esquel back to Buenos Aires wasn’t until 16:30 in the afternoon, so wasn’t overly concerned. I should have been.

We eventually departed Ingeniero Jacobacci at 17:15, hauled by a Belgian built, oil burning steam locomotive with tender, followed by two petroleum cars, a box car, a guard van, one second class carriage with wooden slat seating, one first class carriage with upholstered seating, and the dining car-cum-guard van at the end.

The ancient passenger carriages each had a wood burning stove in the middle to provide warmth, for even in summer the nights are chilly in Patagonia. The windows were all intact for once and even could be opened. Sebastián plopped down in the seat in front of me and immediately broke it.

We initially headed west paralleling the main line, turning south after about 45 minutes. At this point the engine broke down, leaving us stranded and unable to move forward or backward. The fire in the locomotive then set fire to the oil drippings between the rails and the crew with passengers frantically shoveled dirt onto the line to extinguish the blaze. This was initially unsuccessful so we uncoupled the entire consist car by car, pushing the diner, the passenger carriages, and the freight cars back down the line away from the conflagration.

The driver opened the smoke box to cool the engine. Finally the fires were all extinguished as the sun set behind the massive dark peaks of the Andes and we waited patiently for another replacement engine to arrive from Ingeniero Jacobacci. The southern sky blazed with stars and a gibbous moon rose around 22:00.

The carriages were cozy with the stoves keeping us warm, and the diner supplied beefsteaks and beer to assuage hunger and thirst. Around midnight we heard the distant puffing of our rescue engine. The disabled locomotive was shunted onto a siding, the line cleared, the consist reassembled, and we started off once more as I fitfully dozed, hoping that Sebastián, now seated in front of me, didn’t collapse his chair and land on my lap.

I awoke to a brilliant sunrise, painting the distant mountains with splashes of orange and magenta. But we were not yet even halfway from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel, and it became increasingly obvious I wouldn’t make my flight that afternoon. I considered possible alternatives like hiring a car and driver to take me to another town five hours distant from Esquel, from where there was a daily flight to Buenos Aires. I was due to fly back to Vancouver the next day.

We slowly trundled along bleak, semi-arid hills, covered with hemispheric clumps of coarse vegetation resembling in the the middle distance a bad case of smallpox, where the pustules all run together. Up close however they seemed like mossy hedgehogs and quite attractive. We stopped periodically for the engine to replenish its water supply and there were no further breakdowns, but by now we were running twenty hours late.

At 15:00 a passenger abruptly exclaimed, “Look, there’s Esquel airport!” I explained my situation and was told a tourist van regularly meets the train near the airport and loads passengers to ride down into town, and said that I should ask the driver to take me over to the airport.

The van was indeed there, and I arranged the trip for a small sum, bid a hurried farewell to fat Sebastián, and climbed aboard the van as the old Patagonian Express chugged off into the distance, still an hour away from the station in Esquel.

A half hour later I was on an Aerolineas Argentinos jet out of there and a couple of hours after that back in Buenos Aires, then a much needed bath at the hotel, clean clothing, and to a nearby cafe for a nourishing meal and a pint of Quilmes beer, with time to reflect on the wonders of the Argentine State Railways.

A few days later in Vancouver, softened by time the experience remained a memory of mixed discomfort, apprehension, and delight.

Now after another 27 years and periods of privatization and renationalization, the entire line appears to be defunct, though a portion of it near Esquel is operated as a tourist attraction.

January 28, 2019

Evolving Usage

One of the consequences of living to a ripe old age is the realization that one’s language is also living and constantly undergoing shifts in previously familiar meanings and usages.

Among the list of contributors to the London Review of Books issue of 3 January 2019, the writer Alan Bennett is described as one who “can’t tell if he’s woke or not”.

I initially thought this must be a spelling error, but on investigating further found it to be a recent neologism — an adjective meaning “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice” deriving from american racial minority slang.

It is interesting to observe language evolve, to note how words are sometimes coined anew, or used in ways different from their erstwhile meanings. Woke for example suggests awakening from sleep, thus becoming a code word for understanding of the attitudes it represents. It obviously arises from the past tense of wake to create a new adjective.

That can go in the opposite direction too, using the adjective gay — a word once meaning merry or cheerful has now become a noun indicating same-sex erotic attraction.

The same process is seen in other living languages such as Mandarin Chinese, in which the word tóngzhì (literally, thinking the same way) previously meant comrade (fellow member of the Communist Party), but now has come to mean gay in the current English sense.

Portmanteau words are another variety of neologism, combining parts of two different words to form a new meaning, such as breakfast + lunch = brunch or Britain + exit = Brexit.

The latter is often subjected to further neologizing by appending the suffix -eer to denote one who engages in some particular activity, such as auctioneer or pamphleteer. Thus we have Brexiteer, one who favours Brexit.

Spanish does the same trick with the suffix -ero so that one who works in a kitchen (cocina) is a cocinero and one who looks after cows (vacas) is a vaquero, or cowboy.

Two recent verb forms now in vogue are to call out meaning to strongly criticize, and to double down The former usage sounds like the German separable verb ausrufen (wer ruft uns aus? = who is calling us out?).

To double down means to insist vehemently, as in “The president doubles down on building a wall!”.

All of the above belong to the area of recreational not academic linguistics, but hey, why not have a little fun with words in one’s dotage —it keeps you out of the bars.

January 24, 2019