My reads in 2016

Books I read this past year, listed in chronological order:

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

James Baldwin: A Biography by David Leeming

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities by Cornella Homburg

That Man Is You by Louis Evely

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (4th read)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (2nd read)

We Are All Brothers by Louis Evely

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian (4th read)

HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian (4th read)

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (4th read)

True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney by Lawrence Weschler

Hopper by Mark Strand

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (4th read)

A Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

One-Way Street by Walter Benjamin (2 times)

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian (4th read)

The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian (4th read)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Just Above My Head by James Baldwin

Rousseau: The Dream, ed. by David Frankel

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Sionuf

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-Four Books that Can Change Lives by David Denby

Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I by Peter Ackroyd

1776 by David McCullough

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton

The Rise of Totalitarianism by Hanna Arendt

The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty by Timothy Sandefur

American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750 – 1804 by Alan Taylor

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David L. Kertzer

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell

The James

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When home, I walk along a beach or seawall and sometimes think of a conch shell. I hear the Atlantic’s breakers in the James’s soft laps, and I know the river hears the same thing.

Faulkner’s father once offered him a cigar. A teen at the time, Faulkner thought about it, accepted it, broke it open, dumped its contents into his pipe, lit the pipe, and, puffing, thanked him. Faulkner never outgrew his delight at telling this story.

Note: this post appeared first on Instagram @peterstephens

De tail

A day of trailing glories. A wonderful, critical review in this morning’s Post of the Phillips’s new Paul G. Allen exhibition sent us there. A Microsoft cofounder who’s worth just over or under $18B “depending on which side of the bed the market got up on today,” Allen collects art like souvenirs, Philip Kennicott writes. Allen visits the Grand Canyon, but instead of taking snapshots of it, he collects paintings of it, and several are here. Same with Venice: Canaletto, Turner, Manet, Monet, Moran. Allen also has a thing for volcanoes. Philip Kennicott calls him a cypher whose comments in the catalog interview are “disturbingly inarticulate and jejune.” But these big, bold paintings are fun.

Finally got to see Avery’s Dancing Trees. Victoria saw me weeping from across the gallery. Couldn’t hold it in, either, before Hopper’s Clamdigger, which I didn’t know existed. Victoria loves to find things in paintings, and Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Five Senses series occupied her a great deal. But I stumped her when I asked her to find the doggie in Klimt’s Birch Forest. Hint: it’s in the base of a tree trunk on the worthy catalog’s dust cover (image #6 in the press release). Really more of a coyote. Above: Detail from Paul Signac’s Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto)

Note: this post appeared first on Instagram @peterstephens

And now?

The cars at 8:30.  35 inches, more or less, and it looks like it’s about over. The most I’d seen from a single storm up until the past two days was around 30 inches.

I graded yesterday and today, and I hope to get caught up over the next two days. Then lots of planning and some administrative work I’ve put off since the fall. I also want to take a long walk in the snow tomorrow morning. And to read more Walter Benjamin and the Baldwin biography I’m almost through. And to be with Victoria.

Against my ruins

Our cars at 10, 1, and 5.

430. V. Gerard de Nerval, Sonnet El Desdichado.


432. V. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.

 434. Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. “The peace which passeth understanding” is our equivalent to this word.

The end

637px-El_sueño_de_Jacob,_por_José_de_RiberaGot to page 13 today, and Evely’s That Man Is You is living up to its title’s promise of mistaken identity. After all this Christianity, he says, I don’t know God when I see him.

Evely quotes Saul of Tarsus: “Who are you, Lord?” An embarrassing question. Yet to find the Lord in such a place, at such a time, taking on such a tone, walking in such a skin, is to find also that I don’t know the Lord.

It is comedy. Jacob: Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. Jesus: Surely the Lord is in this face, and you know her not.

It is the path to humility, to resolution, to the last curtain. Eschatology is comedy: Then shall I know even as also I am known. Life is a play inside a play inside a play. But living is dying: stepping out of one playhouse and onto the dark streets of another.

Eternity unfolds in unmaskings. During the play, it makes sense of the past. (The embarrassment of dramatic irony: it was laughter I heard: everyone knew but me.) And I find myself in a role I hate; only faith, that faintest smile, assures me I’m on the right stage. New lines come as the scenes change — or do I improvise? — and I discover my true character.

I am practiced, by the play’s end, in facing my unknown, and I trust that my unmasking will continue.

Saul to Damascus is two unmaskings. Saul doesn’t recognize the Lord, and neither does Ananias:

The Lord said to him, ‘Go to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. You will find him at prayer; he has had a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him to restore his sight.’ Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have often heard about this man and all the harm he has done your people in Jerusalem. Now he is here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord replied, ‘You must go, for this man is . . . (Acts 9:11 – 15, REB)

For this man is . . .

It’s the age of masks, the putting down and sorting out by the simplest codes and slurs. It is a tragedy. One hopes for the end, when all will be revealed.

Image: “El sueño de Jacob” by José de Ribera

Per cola et commata

3PictureTwachtmanWinterSmFinally finished volume one of Luke. My chief devotional was Joseph Fitzmyer’s part of the Anchor Bible, but for me over several months it was my anchor text, the text I’d pick up and drop daily so the currents of other texts wouldn’t get me lost.

The chief candidate for my new anchor text was last owned by Rev. Ed Coleman of Nashville’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was first owned by Tom — his last name doesn’t appear in the book — who received it as Christmas gift from John and (I think) Teasie in 1966, the year the book was published. I don’t know how Rev. Coleman got the book or if he knows Ed. And I? I got the book from a bookseller. The book itself is a hardbound copy of Edmond Bonin’s translation of Louis Evely’s That Man Is You. Besides the handwriting that informed me about the previous owners, the book had no marks before I started in on it today.

I discovered the work on my mother’s devotional shelf when I visited my parents over Christmas. One page I randomly turned to spoke to me in my discouragement about my writing. The discouragement felt vaguely productive. It felt like a winter field with the plow and scythe put up somewhere in the shed. Kind of like a Twachtman painting, or at least of the one I enjoy at the Phillips. It’s as if Twachtman in all that snow couldn’t farm; all he could do was paint.

God alone knows
………..what He expects of us,
………..what response He’s looking for
………..and how many people’s destinies depend on ours. (128)

Evely’s book is sharpening that picture.

Bonin puts Evely’s prose in verse. Bonin says, though, that he has disposed the text in “sense lines”:

Based on the ancient method of pronging prose per cola et commata, this sense-line arrangement throws into greater relief the development, co-ordination and subordination of ideas, emphasizes significant parallelism and antithesis, and permits one to isolate key words. (v)

According to Dianne Tillotsonper cola et commata facilitates reading out loud:

Instead of filling up the page with continuous text, the line breaks reflect the way in which the text should be read aloud.

Tillotson describes other devices in medieval texts to the same purpose, and then says of them all:

This text is not designed for the mindless recitation of spelled-out syllables and words. It is coded for he projection of meaning.

Bonin’s approach is a step past John Anthony McGuckin’s in his Book of Mystical Chapters. McGuckin breaks monastic aphorisms into verses, but by aligning all lines to the left margin, he relies only on line breaks to augment sense and reflection. Bonin’s work appears more like the sentence mapping middle school teachers often require to learn syntax.

Per cola et commata may give me a new way into Charles Wright’s poetry. His lines are even more loosely anchored to the left margin than Bonin’s take on Evely, and the placement does seem “coded for the projection of meaning.” Wright’s verse sails on a spirituality that, even more with his unmoored lines, carries an ancient salt in its spray.

Image: John Henry Twachtman’s Winter at the Phillips Collection.