Shooting stars

“Ordinary books are like meteors.  Each of them has only one moment, a moment when it soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame.  For that single moment we love them ever after, although they soon turn to ashes.  With bitter resignation we sometimes wander late at night through the extinct pages that tell their stone-dead messages like wooden rosary beads.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)

Clarity

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — Tolstoy (from The Big Short, by Michael Lewis)

Scribal motivation

“My subject had taken me up, drawn me on, and absorbed me into itself. It was necessary for me, it seemed, to write the book I had been thinking much of, even if it were destined to fall dead from the press, and I had no inclination or interest to write any other.” — John Lothrop Motley (quoted in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XVI, Book II, Ch. 18)

Animals!

“Animals! the object of insatiable interest, examples of the riddle of life, created, as it were, to reveal the human being to man himself, displaying his richness and complexity in a thousand kaleidoscopic possibilities, each of them brought to some curious end, to some characteristic exuberance.” — Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (trans. Wieniewska)

Separate but equally clueless

“There are actually people who do nothing but invest in European mid-cap health care debt.  I don’t think the problem is specific to finance.  I think that parochialism is common to modern intellectual life.  There is no attempt to integrate.” — Charlie Ledley (from The Big Short, by Michael Lewis)

One size fits all

“Our lives, the big and magnificent lives we can just barely make out beneath the mere facts of our lifestyles, are always trying to occur.  But save for a few rare occasions–falling in love, the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a revelatory moment in nature–they don’t occur; the big magnificence is withdrawn.  Stories rub at the facts of our lives.  They give us access–if only for a few hours, if only in bed at the end of the day–to what’s beneath.” — Jonathan Safran Foer (from his foreword to the Penguin Classics edition of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (emphasis in the original))

Where we are and what we do

“We live on the surface of our planet.  Human life happens on a shell as thin, relative to the size of the earth, as an egg’s, or as thin as the paint on a wall.  We have lifestyles on the surfaces of our lives: habits and culture, clothes, modes of transit, calendars, papers in wallets, ways of killing time, answers to the question ‘What do you do?’  We come home from long days of doing what we do and tuck ourselves under the thin sheets.  We read stories printed on even thinner paper.  Why, at the end of the day, do we read stories?” — Jonathan Safran Foer (from his foreword to the Penguin Classics edition of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories)

How it can be done

“A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.” — Edgar Allan Poe (quoted in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XVI, Book II, Ch. 14)

Keeping things balanced

“Patriotism is a curious passion. It does not seem possible to love one’s own country except by hating some other country.” — Archibald MacMechan (from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XVI, Book II, Ch. 10)

The next level

“As an explanation of the mystery of existence the transcendental philosophy makes little appeal to our own hard-headed and scientific generation; but no one, assuredly, with any measure of spiritual and poetic perception can give himself sincerely and unreservedly to one of the literary masterpieces of the transcendental school, to one of the greater essays of Emerson for example, the Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, or The Over-Soul, without a consciousness, as he puts down the volume, of having passed for the time into a higher sphere of being, without a deepened conviction of the triviality, the relative unreality, of material concerns, without a sense of spaciousness, of clarity, of nobility, of power, a feeling that that much abused word ‘eternal’ has suddenly put on a very real and concrete meaning. Against such an actual experience no mere argument can avail. Nor does the emotion thus evoked end in vague mystical exaltation. It leaves, rather, whether the reader profit by it or not, a distinct sense of its bearing on the daily conduct of life.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Book II, Ch. 8

Just close your eyes and choose

“We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us.  But that’s often not the case.  Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved.  And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.  When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.” — Jonah Lehrer, “The Truth Wears Off”

Get back to work

“After the Revolution the novel-reading habit grew, fostered by American publishers and cried out against by many moralists whose cries appeared in magazines side by side with moral tales. Nearly every grade of sophistication applied itself to the problem. It was contested that novels were lies; that they served no virtuous purpose; that they melted rigorous minds; that they crowded out better books; that they painted adventure too romantic and love too vehement, and so unfitted readers for solid reality; that, dealing with European manners, they tended to confuse and dissatisfy republican youth. In the face of such censure, native novelists appeared late and apologetically, armed for the most part with the triple plea that the tale was true, the tendency heavenward, and the scene devoutly American.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Book II, Ch. 6

There were villages in the land then

“Duty, as well as inclination, urges the Lay Preacher to sermonize, while others slumber. To read numerous volumes in the morning, and to observe various characters at noon, will leave but little time, except the night, to digest the one or speculate upon the other. The night, therefore, is often dedicated to composition, and while the light of the pale planets discovers at his desk the Preacher, more wan than they, he may be heard repeating emphatically with Dr. Young, ‘Darkness has much Divinity for me.’  He is then alone, he is then at peace. No companions near, but the silent volumes on his shelf, no noise abroad, but the click of the village clock, or the bark of the village dog. The Deacon has then smoked his sixth, and last pipe, and asks not a question more, concerning Josephus, or the Church. Stillness aids study, and the sermon proceeds.” — Joseph Dennie, The Lay Preacher (1796)

It’s a zoo out there

“To better imagine zoo life, you might picture yourself living with your brother (if you are male) or sister (if you are female) in a department store’s window display that looks like a luxuriously furnished home.  Satin drapes shroud the French doors, white woolen upholstery encases the armchairs and the sofa, and a thick silk Oriental carpet covers the parquet floor.  But the doors lead nowhere, the books on the shelves are fake, the TV doesn’t work, the radio has no innards, and the only magazine, a copy of House Beautiful on the coffee table, is dated 1980.  Anyway, you have read it so often you now know it by heart.  Long ago you and your sibling have resolved all your differences.  You have little to say to one another and you no longer think of escape.  You have forgotten your freedom and have accepted your fate.  The building is your prison, and both of you realize that you will never leave it alive.  To forget the boredom and the crowds of people going freely wherever they please, who gather each day outside the glass window, oohing and aahing at the luxury that surrounds you, you and your sibling lie down behind the sofa, where you escape into dreams.  You don’t wake up if you can help it, not even when people in the crowd notice your feet poking out beyond the sofa and bang on the glass to rouse you.  You dream of the night, which you spend with three or four other prisoners shackled to the chairs in the employees’ lounge.  At least you and your fellows can talk all night without wild-looking faces staring at you.” — Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Tribe of Tiger

Make it maybe not so new

“Of all the criticisms that have been passed upon the Declaration of Independence, the least to the point is that it is not original. The material was at hand, the argument had been elaborated, the conclusions had been drawn. For originality there was as little opportunity as there was need. What was required now was a concise summing up of the whole matter, full enough to give a clear impression of completeness, vigorous and bold enough to serve as a national manifesto, and polished, dignified, and incisive enough to catch the ear, to linger in the memory, and to bear endless repetition.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Ch. 8

Mutatis mutandis

“No history of the American Revolution, or of the political literature to which it gave birth, would be complete without consideration of the loyalists. That independence was in fact the work of a minority, and that the methods by which the loyal majority was overawed and, in part, expelled were as high-handed and cruel as they were active and vigorous, must be freely conceded. Weighty as was the colonial argument, force and violence were freely employed to give effect to it.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Ch. 8

Kindling was different then, but pickles were the same

“Advertisements of merchandise in all the colonies throw a good deal of light on the customs of the time, and, incidentally, also on the popular taste in reading. We find that Peter Turner has ‘Superfine Scarlet Cloth, Hat Linings, Tatlers, Spectators, and Barclay’s Apology’; that Peter Harry imports ‘Head Flowers in Boxes, Laces and Edgings, Psalm-books, Play-books, the Guardians in 2 vol., Women’s Short Cloaks, Men’s Scarlet Great Coats’ and other apparel. The ship Samuel, from London, brings over ‘sundry goods, particularly a very choice collection of printed Books, Pictures, Maps and Pickles, to be Sold very reasonable by Robert Pringle.'” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Ch. 7

Plato’s ghost

“An old-time classification of the human faculties will serve to explain the development of American thought in the eighteenth century, a development which led to the overthrow of high Calvinism. As there were three divisions of the human mind—intellect, sensibility, and will, so were there three divisions among the enemies of orthodoxy. Those who followed the intellect were the rationalists, or deists. Those who followed sensibility were the “hot” men, or enthusiasts. Those who followed the will were the ethical reformers, who emphasized the conscious cultivation of morality rather than a divinely wrought change in man’s nature.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Ch. 5