Tuesday, April 8, 2014

When "Famous Authors" Bite the Dust

I've written about this before.

But I'd like to put my hand to the plow again.
The Last Bookstore

At the Last Bookstore in downtown LA, a magnificent 2-story's worth of used books, jammed-packed  tighter than a pickle jar, with treasures and also-rans.

It's the also-rans that intrigue me - because, at the time, they were all celebrities of one sort of the other - lots of newscasters had their day in the sun, and then Hollywood types with their "reveal all" memories, along with famous or infamous clergy pronouncing the latest list of who's in and who's out, and why you better watch out, and perhaps the saddest of all, the politicians, who, like a dandelion sprung up with color and pizzaz, only to fizzle out and blow away in the next wind.

Their books sold like hotcakes, and like uneaten hotcakes, got cold quickly maybe could be saved a day or so, but for what purpose? The next day, the next meal - oh well, so into the garbage can with yesterday's cold cakes.

So, here they sit on these fine shelves - if they had a voice, would they be clamoring to be taken in hand and taken home, an orphan no more? Or would they hang their metaphorical heads in shame and apologize for taking up so much paper and space to blather a message that no longer has any relevance, and even at the time, when the writer was "hot," had the seeds of irrelevance sown throughout the text?

Which begs the question:

What endures?

The historians do ... I mean, the women and men with credentials - who've been to school, who've paid the price of learning, with degrees - if not formal, at least the school of hard knocks, who've been around the horn a few times, who've weathered terrible storms in a decade-spanning career, who've asked the tough question, who enjoy a cocktail or two, who entertain friends with their wit and wisdom, who passionately engage the quest for truth, who care about The People - the folks who ride subways and buses and till the soil, folks who work for a living in the mines and mills of the land, who teach our children and rinse out bedpans. Care for The People is what dignifies the soul of the scholar and lends gravitas to their writing, the kind of writing that endures.

Even older historians eclipsed by later works have lasting value. Their's is not some grandstanding effort to gain attention (though everyone hopes to make a living by their pen), but to find the hidden meanings of history, the subtle connections, the mortar between the bricks, the stuff that holds it all together, and to find lessons - not the simplistic stuff of pulpit pounders, but the subtle stuff that's hard to grasp, yet there for taking. Life belongs to those who love, and love much; who learn constantly, who give themselves to the big ideas, who weigh things in the balance of history, often having to make hard decisions filled with flaws, yet willing to risk the approbation of friends and colleagues, in order to chart the clearest course through the thicket of competing ideas.

And autobiographies of writers and soldiers and political-insiders with decent intellectual credentials.  I think it's terribly hard to tell one's story well. But those who do so are always worth the read, because therein we all find bits and pieces of ourselves. After all, we all are human, and in spite of our many differences, we're not all that different after all. Our blood is red, our tears are salty, we all enjoy a good laugh and a bawdy joke; we love good food and fine drink, and sometimes can't sleep a wink because of worry and fear.

I won't name names, so you can guess for yourself who I might mean as an enduring author, or, for that matter, you can fill in the blanks with your own names - those who have been a companion along the way, and who will entertain and enlighten fifty or a hundred years from now, because their words are suffused with life, even if they were wrong a time or two, even when they're all-too human with ill-temper, vanity and spitefulness; when their follies and foibles trump the game.

At the time, they might not have been "famous" - likely, they were not. But they were serious writers, women and men who thought deeply about their lives and the times in which they lived, the people they knew and lived with, and their author's legacy is a simple one - a mirror in which we find ourselves reflected, even as we search our own times and experiences for meaning and hope and reasons to live.

But whatever their name, these things seem to be the descriptors of those who endure, even when they bite the dust.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fear ... beware!

Where fear is preached, beware.
Where security is offered, be alert.
Where high-flown reasons are touted, be mindful.
Power always seeks its own welfare.
Racism is rarely far beneath the surface.
Fear is the handmaiden of injustice.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Haunted by "Casino" - Auden, 1936

Only their hands are living, to the wheel attracted,
Are moved, as deer trek desperately towards a creek
   Through the dust and scrub of a desert, or gently,
   As sunflowers turn to the light,
And, as night takes up the cries of feverish children,
The cravings of lions in dens, the loves of dons,
   Gathers them all and remains the night, the
   Great room is full of their prayers.
To a last feast of isolation self-invited,
They flock, and in a rite of disbelief are joined;
   From numbers all their stars are recreated,
   The enchanted, the worldly, the sad.
Without, calm rivers flow among the wholly living
Quite near their trysts, and mountains part them, and birds,
   Deep in the greens and moistures of summer,
   Sing towards their work.
But here no nymph comes naked to the youngest shepherd,
The fountain is deserted, the laurel will not grow;
   The labyrinth is safe but endless, and broken
   Is Ariadne’s thread,
As deeper in these hands is grooved their fortune: 'lucky
Were few, and it is possible that none was loved,
   And what was god-like in this generation
   Was never to be born.'
-W. H. Auden, 1936