Twelve Great ReadingsIn each issue
since the very beginning,
this magazine has published
readings from some of the best books
under review or from the editors'
favorite works from the past.
Here are a dozen or so
of the best.
Dirty Artists &
The Clean RichWhat I like about the rich is the freedom and the friendliness. Christian atmosphere. Liberty hall. Everything shared because there is too much. All forgiveness because it's no trouble. Drop their Dresden cups on the fireplace and they smile. They are anxious only that you should not be embarrassed, and spoil the party. That's their aim. Comfort and joy. Peace on earth. Goodwill all round....For of course the rich do find it hard to get through the needle's eye, out of heaven. And to spend all your life in paradise is a bit flat. Millionaires deserve not only our love but our pity. It is a Christian act to be nice to them.
When Lady Beeder asked me if my tea was all right, I said, "Yes, your ladyship. Everything is all right. I am enjoying myself so much that you will have to throw me downstairs to get rid of me. I think you and Sir William are two of the nicest people I've ever met. You have lovely manners and lovely things, a lovely home, and very good tea. I suppose this tea costs four and sixpence a pound, it is worth it. Genius is priceless."
The Professor kept coughing and making faces at me, but I wasn't afraid of embarrassing nice people. I knew they would be used to unfortunate remarks. Rich people are like royalty. They can't afford to be touchy. Richesse oblige. And, in fact, they kept on putting me at my ease; and paying me compliments all the time. And when I told them how I had been turned out of my studio by the Cokers they said they hoped that I would come and stay over the week-end, to keep the Professor company while they were away.
"I'm sorry we can't offer you a bed beyond Monday, but we have only two bedrooms."
"I could sleep on the sofa," I said.
"Oh, Mr. Jimson, but we couldn't allow you to be so uncomfortable."
"Then why shouldn't Sir William sleep with the Professor and I'll sleep with her ladyship. You can count me as a lady --- at sixty-seven."
Alabaster turned green and coughed as if he was going into consumption. But I knew I couldn't shock cultured people like the Beeders. They get past being shocked before they are out of school, just as they get over religion and other unexpected feelings.
"A very good idea," said Sir William, laughing.
"I am greatly complimented," said the lady, "but I'm afraid I should keep you awake. I'm such a bad sleeper."Go to the complete
§ § §Pulling at
StringsIn trying to recapture the presence of my Mother I am pulling at broken strings. The years run back through the pattern of her confusions. Her flowers and songs, her unshaken fidelities, her attempts at order, her relapses into squalor, her near madness, her crying for light, her almost daily weeping for her dead child-daughter, her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man, her hysterical rages, her justice towards each of us children --- all these rode my Mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves. Equally I remember her occasional blooming, when she became secretly beautiful and alone. And those summer nights --- we boys in bed when the green of the yew trees filled the quiet kitchen, and she would change into her silk, put on her bits of jewelery, and sit down to play the piano.
She did not play well; her rough fingers stumbled, they trembled to find the notes --- yet she carried the music with little rushes of grace, half-faltering surges of feeling, that went rippling out through the kitchen windows like signals from a shuttered cage. Solitary, eyes closed, in her silks and secrets, tearing arpeggios from the yellow keys, yielding, through dusty but golden chords, to the peak of that private moment, it was clearly then, in the twilit tenderness she created, that the man should have returned to her.Go to the complete
§ § §
The Making of
FitzcarraldoThe cabin is now standing on its stilts in water, with swamp all around. Frogs, even small fishes around me. When I arrived at night, everything was deserted, not a soul anywhere, deathlike silence, the house abandoned. Suddenly the Indian night watchman came toward me, noiselessly, with his light. I looked through the office for signs of life. All I found was the telex machine, fried by short circuits, the upper plastic parts melted as if after a war without witnesses. The number dial is punched in, like an eye into its socket. I groped my way to my cabin and found myself surrounded by bog. Frogs swam away as I approached and dove down to the bottom. I found the ladder lying on one side, among the banana plants, and as I put it in place, I stepped into a hole originally intended for a differently positioned support post and now full of putrid water. I felt utterly out of place, the more so because I was still wearing the black pin-striped suit and black oxfords I had put on for meeting with lawyers in New York.
We studied the dailies of the Rio Camisea. Still many uncertainties. I found a frog under my pillow. In town a policeman stopped me on the motorcycle on some pretext and wanted to extort money from me, but I stepped on the gas and sped off. Now it is evening and the sky has opened up. Rain is streaming under the door and into the office, collecting along the wall on the garden side. In no time the stream has grown to a width of two meters, and in a matter of minutes the room will be under water. The water is pulsing under the door in bursts. Polyplike eddies of swiftly flowing water snake around the legs of my chair and reach for each other, soon combining to form a single surface. Around the pathetically small drain in the middle of the room cigarette butts are swirling. The screens at the windows have turned into walls of water, pulsing downward. With a push broom and other tools we tried to direct the flood onto the vacant lot next door. From the thicket over there lightning flashed toward us, raining down from the sky.
As I was walking to my hut I observed some disturbing creatures that resembled eels, reddish brown; presumably they are a kind of very large blindworm, though they seem to dry when exposed to the air, I saw two of these weird animals, looking as though they had slipped out of an enormous cadaver. One of them was trying, with swimming movements, or perhaps they were also drowning movements, to burrow, to snake its way under a dissolving strip of pona bark in the water. I cannot imagine a more deadly, naked, wormlike eelish parasite to have in my own innards.Go to the complete
§ § §
CheesesI took my ticket, and marched proudly up the platform, with my cheeses, the people falling back respectfully on either side. The train was crowded, and I had to get into a carriage where there were already seven other people. One crusty old gentleman objected, but I got in, notwithstanding; and, putting my cheeses upon the rack, squeezed down with a pleasant smile, and said it was a warm day. A few moments passed, and then the old gentleman began to fidget.
"Very close in here," he said.
"Quite oppressive," said the man next to him.
And then they both began sniffing, and, at the third sniff, they caught it right on the chest, and rose up without another word and went out. And then a stout lady got up, and said it was disgraceful that a respectable married woman should be harried about in this way, and gathered up a bag and eight parcels and went. The remaining four passengers sat on for a while, until a solemn-looking man in the corner who, from his dress and general appearance, seemed to belong to the undertaker class, said it put him in mind of dead baby; and the other three passengers tried to get out of the door at the same time, and hurt themselves.
I smiled at the black gentleman, and said I thought we were going to have the carriage to ourselves; and he laughed pleasantly and said that some people made such a fuss over a little thing. But even he grew strangely depressed after we had started, and so, when we reached Crewe, I asked him to come and have a drink. He accepted, and we forced our way into the buffet, where we yelled, and stamped, and waved our umbrellas for a quarter of an hour; and then a young lady came and asked us if we wanted anything.
"What's yours?" I said, turning to my friend.
"I'll have half-a-crown's worth of brandy, neat, if you please miss," he responded.
And he went off quietly after he had drunk it and got into another carriage, which I thought mean.Go to the complete
§ § §
Boy Meets GullThe first couple of days out of the Golden Gate were uneventful. I spent them stretched out in the lower tier of my double berth, gritting my teeth to prevent my tongue from escaping and making a minute study of the plywood ceiling above me. Approximately every fifteen seconds, the Marine Flier rose with the speed of express elevator, shivered deliciously, and lurched steeply forward into the trough. As it reached the bottom of the curve, all the bureau drawers flew out, the locker doors opened, suitcases slid halfway out of the top bunk, and our toilet articles teetered toward the washbowl. The moment the ship began its ascent, the process reversed; with a salvo like the bombardment of Port Arthur, drawers and doors banged shut, suitcases smashed into the wall, and bottles splintered the shaving mirror.
It was pikestaff-plain and Doomsday-certain to me, a deep-water sailor since boyhood, that the Marine Flier was little more than a cheesebox on a raft and would momentarily founder with all hands. Even the veriest landlubber could perceive that the man whose duty it was to drive the ship --- the chauffeur or the motorman or whatever you call him --- was behaving with the grossest sort of negligence; more than likely he was asleep at the tiller or tickling the waitress, abandoning the craft to any, caprice of wind or wave. But Hirschfeld, who had an answer to everything, irritatingly persisted in minimizing the gravity of our plight.
"It's only the Japan Current," he said perfunctorily. "Every ship to the Orient has to pass through the Japan Current." Japan Current indeed; as if dereliction of duty deserving of a court-martial, aboard a mere cockleshell with one measly funnel, in the worst typhoon in the history of navigation, could be fobbed off with a few glib words about a current. The man's fatuity made my blood boil.Go to the complete
§ § §
BoilsI heard him turn on the machinery. It made a whirring sound. I could smell oil getting hot.
"Ready?" he asked.
He pushed the electric needle into my back. I was being drilled. The pain was immense. It filled the room. I felt the blood run down my back. Then he pulled the needle out.
"Now we're going to get another one," said the doctor.
He jammed the needle into me. Then he pulled it out and jammed it into a third boil. Two other men had walked in and were standing there watching. They were probably doctors. The needle went into me again.
"I never saw anybody go under the needle like that," said one of the men.
"He gives no sign at all," said the other man.
"Why don't you guys go out and pinch some nurse's ass?" I asked them.
"Look, son, you can't talk to us like that!"
The needle dug into me. I didn't answer. "The boy is evidently very bitter."
"Yes, of course, that's it."
The men walked out.
"Those are fine professional men," said my doctor. "It's not good of you to abuse them."
"Just go ahead and drill," I told him.
He did. The needle got very hot but he went on and on. He drilled my entire back, then he got my chest. Then I stretched out and he drilled my neck and my face.Go to the complete
§ § §
Meet General GrantHis imagination was the imagination of a respectable hay and feed dealer, and his virtues, such as they were, were indistinguishable from those of a police sergeant. Mr. Woodward, trying to be just to him, not infrequently gives him far more than he deserves. He was not, in point of fact, a man of any great competence, even as a soldier. All the major strategy of the war, including the final advance on Richmond, was planned by other men, notably Sherman. He was a ham as a tactician, and habitually wasted his men. He was even a poor judge of other generals, as witness his admiration for Sheridan and his almost unbelievable underrating of Thomas and Meade. If he won battles, it was because he had the larger battalions, and favored the primitive device of heaving them into action, callously, relentlessly, cruelly, appallingly.
Thinking was always painful to Grant, and so he never did any of it if he could help it. He had a vague distaste for war, and dreamed somewhat boozily of a day when it would be no more. But that distaste never stayed his slaughters; it only made him keep away from the wounded. He had no coherent ideas on any subject, and changed his so-called opinions overnight, and for no reason at all. He entered the war simply because he needed a job, and fought his way through it without any apparent belief in its purposes. His wife was a slaveholder to the end.Go to the complete
§ § §
Ticks, Blackflies, and
God's Other PunishmentsIf you don't live in the north woods, you won't understand what I mean by this. Vacationers who come for a week in August have little idea that the year-round folks have just survived plagues rivaling those visited on Pharaoh's Egypt. From early May to late July, the in-crowd's exoskeletal. Ticks make an early go of it: climbing to the tips of grass blades, they will hitch a ride on any passing mammal but seem to prefer me. After a half hour's walk in the field I find a dozen crawling up my legs. They hide in clothes, in sheets. I wake to the sensation of one plodding up my back, seeking a place to burrow and bloat.
Luckily, we have black flies to take our minds off the ticks. Black flies look like mouse droppings with wings. Outdoors in late May, each of us travels with his or her own swarm. Around town you see gardeners shrouded with olive drab bug-net helmets, as though ready to handle plutonium. Black flies don't sting, they bite, leaving us pocked with scabs that we tear off when scratching. The flies crawl up sleeves and noses, burrow into ears. If New Hampshire people are tight-lipped, perhaps it's that black flies have taught us the cost of opening our mouths.
All nature clamors for our blood, and who can blame it? Bugs seek nothing we don't seek for ourselves: to eat before being eaten, to be fruitful and multiply. But what designing genius fashioned the mosquito? Who decided that it needed seven mouth parts --- no more, no less --- to grip and drill and pump and suck? And who developed the tag-team format whereby, just as the mosquitoes tire in July, the deerflies arrive to burrow through our sun-warmed hair and chew our scalps?Go to the complete
§ § §
The Last Trip
Of the Time MachineI stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight.
The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt-pink under the lurid sky. There was a sense of oppression in my head, and I noticed that I was breathing very fast. The sensation reminded me of my only experience of mountaineering, and from that I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.
Far away up the desolate slope I heard a harsh scream, and saw a thing like a huge white butterfly go slanting and fluttering up into the sky and, circling, disappear over some low hillocks beyond. The sound of its voice was so dismal that I shivered and seated myself more firmly upon the machine.
Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennŠ, like carters' whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.
As I stared at this sinister apparition crawling towards me, I felt a tickling on my cheek as though a fly had lighted there. I tried to brush it away with my hand, but in a moment it returned, and almost immediately came another by my ear. I struck at this, and caught something threadlike. It was drawn swiftly out of my hand. With a frightful qualm, I turned, and saw that I had grasped the antenna of another monster crab that stood just behind me. Its evil eyes were wriggling on their stalks, its mouth was all alive with appetite, and its vast ungainly claws, smeared with an algal slime were descending upon me. In a moment my hand was on the lever, and I had placed a month between myself and these monsters. But I was still on the same beach, and I saw them distinctly now as soon as I stopped. Dozens of them seemed to be crawling here and there, in the sombre light, among the foliated sheets of intense green.Go to the complete
§ § §
PurchaseEven the all-time American champion of historical irony, Henry Adams, acknowledged that the Louisiana Purchase, in the end, was a triumph on a par with the winning of independence and the adoption of the Constitution. Frederick Jackson Turner, the founding father of western history, also described the Purchase as the formative event in the national narrative: "Having taken the decisive stride across the Mississippi, the United States enlarged the horizon with other views, and marched steadily forward to the possession of the Pacific Ocean. From this event dates the rise of the United States into a position of world power."
At least on the face of it, this triumphal tone seems wholly justified. For $15 million --- the rough equivalent of $260 million today --- the United States doubled its size, adding what is now the American midwest to the national domain, all the land from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. At less than 4 cents an acre, the Purchase became the most lucrative real estate transaction in American history, easily besting the purchase of Manhattan for $24. Without quite knowing it, the United States had acquired the most fertile tract of land of its size on the planet, making it self-sufficient in food in the nineteenth century and the agrarian superpower in the twentieth.
There was more. Politically, the Louisiana Purchase was the most consequential executive decision in American history, rivaled only by Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb in 1945. The fact that the man who made the decision, Thomas Jefferson, was on record as believing that any energetic projection of executive power was a monarchical act only enhanced the irony. Strategically, the Purchase opened a new chapter in American national security by removing, in one fell swoop, all British and French imperial ambitions in North America.
Spain remained the only European power blocking American expansion to the Pacific, and Spain was not so much a threatening power as a convenient presence, in effect a holding company awaiting an American takeover at the appropriate time. Although the term "manifest destiny" had not yet been coined, the Purchase made the idea itself another one of those self-evident Jeffersonian truths. A colossal and fully continental American empire was now almost inevitable. If the Mississippi ends at New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, the story of the Purchase (at least its triumphal version) ends at the Pacific.Go to the complete
§ § §
The Effects of
Large BuildingsJane Jacobs was a brilliant student of urban life, and her theories have hypnotized many readers. But while plausible, those theories have not always been easy to put to the test. Two economists, Ed Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote, have now managed to put together data to test whether these big apartment buildings really do cause crime.
Some of the subtleties of architecture are simply impenetrable to a number-crunching approach, but Glaeser and Sacerdote studied nearly fourteen thousand city dwellers and were able to examine Jacobs's thesis with surprising precision. Comparing high-rise public housing with high-rise private housing, low-rise public with low-rise private, and using statistical tools to adjust for other factors such as race and poverty, they found that Jacobs seems to be right. They discovered that residents of big apartment blocks were more likely to be victims of crime and were more likely to fear becoming victims. And it wasn't because large blocks are often for public housing: The size of the building itself was the problem.
You might think the reason for this is not rational but psychological: Perhaps big apartment blocks squeeze people into small spaces and make them angry and more likely to commit crime. Or perhaps the problem is purely physical, as it would be if high-rise apartments were more vulnerable to burglary.
Glaeser and Sacerdote don't think so. They found that buildings do not create an environment that encourages crime in general. They don't, for example, facilitate petty larceny (say, lifting a purse from your bag) or even burglary. Big buildings encourage only street crime, such as car thefts or robberies with violence. That suggests that the big buildings are exerting a sphere of malign influence over the streets around them --- or, perhaps more accurately, they are failing to exert an aura of safety, which smaller homes naturally do.
The architectural effects on crime were all about eyes on the street. Glaeser and Sacerdote found, for example, that it was tall buildings (rather than simply large ones) that really failed to keep the streets around them safe. Each additional floor in your building increases your risk of being robbed in the street or having your car stolen by two and a half percentage points --- if your building has twelve stories rather than two, your chance of being mugged rises by a quarter. The higher the building, the more people are lifted away from the stoop and the street. Since Glaeser and Sacerdote adjusted for poverty, public housing, and many other factors, that is a big effect coming from mere steel and concrete. Jane Jacobs was right: The architecture of city neighborhoods isn't just about what looks nice. It's about whether the neighborhoods themselves live or die. And the pernicious effect of the tower blocks falls unevenly. In the United Kingdom, for example, whose population is 92 percent white, racial segregation is vertical: Whites are in the minority of those who live above the fifth floor of a tower block. The British ghettos are up in the sky.Go to the complete
§ § §In the
HomeHe slipped a hand under my arm and directed me towards a staircase that ascended steeply to a landing overhung by a broad window with gaudily coloured panes that seemed to be somehow menacing. I had begun to feel hindered, as if I were wading through thick water; I also had a sense of a suppressed, general hilarity of which I felt I was somehow the unwitting object.
As I was about to mount the stairs I caught a flurry of movement from the corner of my eye and flinched as a delicate small woman with the face of an ancient girl came scurrying up to me and plucked my sleeve and said in a flapper's breathless voice, "Are you the pelican man?"
I turned to Haddon for help but he merely stood gazing off with lips pursed and pale hands clasped at his files, biding and patient, as if this a necessary but tiresome initiatory test to which I must be submitted.
"The pelican man?" I heard myself say in a sort of piteous voice. "No, no, I'm not."
The old girl continued to peer at me searchingly. She wore a dress of dove-grey silk with a gauzy silk scarf girdling her hips. Her face really was remarkable, soft and hardly lined at all, and her eyes glistened.
"Ah," she said, "then you are no good to me," and gave me a sweetly lascivious smile and wandered sadly away. Haddon and I went on up the stairs. "Miss Leitch," he murmured, as if offering an explanation.Go to the complete
§ § §The Book of
The GrotesqueThe writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.
Quite a fuss was made about the matter. The carpenter, who had been a soldier in the Civil War, came into the writer's room and sat down to building a platform for the purpose of raising the bed. The writer had cigars lying about and the carpenter smoked.
For a time the two men talked of the raising of the bed and then they talked of other things. The soldier got on the subject of the war. The writer, in fact, led him to that subject. The carpenter had once been a prisoner in Andersonville prison and had lost a brother. The brother had died of starvation, and whenever the carpenter got upon that subject he cried. He, like the old writer, had a white mustache, and when he cried he puckered up his lips and the mustache bobbed up and down. The weeping old man with the cigar in his mouth was ludicrous. The plan the writer had for the raising of his bed was forgotten and later the carpenter did it in his own way so the writer, who was past sixty, had to help himself with a chair when he went to bed at night.
In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay quite still. For years he had been beset with notions concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he would some time die unexpectedly and always when he got into bed he thought of that. It did not alarm him. The effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but something inside him was altogether young, was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn't a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.
The old writer, like all of the people in the world, had got, during his long life, a great many notions in his head. He had once been quite handsome and a number of women had been in love with him. And then, of course, he had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people. At least that is what the writer thought and the thought pleased him. Why quarrel with an old man concerning his thoughts?
In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.
You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.
The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion.
For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.
At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called "The Book of the Grotesque." It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.
The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.
And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
You can see for yourself how the old man, who had spent all of his life writing and was filled with words, would write hundreds of pages concerning this matter. The subject would become so big in his mind that he himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He didn't, I suppose, for the same reason that he never published the book. It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.
Concerning the old carpenter who fixed the bed for the writer, I only mentioned him because he, like many of what are called very common people, became the nearest thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the grotesques in the writer's book.---from Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson
©1919, B. W. Huebsch