Friday, October 30, 2009

Essay. "Of the Art of Conversing" (1). Montaigne.

10-second review: Montaigne wanders all over the subject, using historical references and quotes, analogies and aphorisms.


“If I disclose and publish my imperfections, some will learn to fear them.”

“The horror of cruelty impels me to clemency than any model of clemency could draw me on.”

“The study of books is a feeble and languid action which does not warm us, whilst conversation instructs and exercises us at the same time.”

“I love to discuss and dispute, but in a small company of men, and in private.”

“Opinions than that are opposed to mine do not offend or estrange me; they only arouse and exercise my mind.”

“When a man opposes me, he arouses my attention, not my anger….”

“And, as long as it does not come with too overbearing a schoolmasterly a mien, I encourage criticism of my writing.”

“How frequently I make remarks and replies every day that appear foolish to myself; therefore how much more commonly and frequently they must appear so to others.”

“So in conversation the gravity, the gown, and the fortune of the speakers often gain credit for his empty and foolish remarks.”

“If their travels and their experience in office have improved them, they should make it apparent in the product of their intelligence.”

To be continued.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Essay: "To the Reader." Montaigne.

One-minute review: Wrote the essays so his relatives and friends can remember him as a person. The subject of his essays is himself.

Quote: “I intended it solely for the solace of my kinsfolk and friends: that, when they have lost me (as they must do before long), they may recover in it [his book of essays] some lines of my character and humors, and by this means more fully and vividly cherish me in their memory.”

Quote: So, reader, I am myself the subject of my book: it is not reasonable to expect you to waste your leisure on a matter so frivolous and empty.”

Great Essays. Ed. Houston Peterson. New York: Pocket Books, Inc. 1954.

What is an essay? “They are all prefaces. A preface is nothing but a talk with the reader; and they [essays] do nothing else.” Charles Lamb.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Essay: "The Disposable Rocket." John Updike. 1993.

One-minute review: The author reflects on the male body and in the process contrasts it with the female's. The man's role in reproduction is like the rockets that propel the space capsule into space then fall away into the ocean. An interesting metaphor.


“Inhabiting a male body is much like having a bank account; as long as it’s healthy, you don’t think much about it. Compared to the female body, it is a low-maintenance proposition: a shower now and then, trim the fingernails every ten days, a haircut once a month. Oh yes, shaving—scraping or buzzing away at your face every morning. Byron, in Don Juan, thought the repeated nuisance of shaving balanced out the periodic agony, for females, of childbirth.”

“From the standpoint of reproduction, the male body is a delivery system, as the female is a mazy device for retention.”

“His body is, like a delivery rocket that falls away in space, a disposable means. Men put their bodies at risk to experience the release from gravity.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Essay: "Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant." Gerald Early. 1990.

10-second review: An African-American father watches the Miss America Pageant with his daughter. Confronts the unspoken belief that white women are the image of the perfect American woman.


“I miss live TV. It is the closest thing to theater for the masses.”

“Everyone in our culture wants to win a prize.”

“We went, my wife and I [To Pose with Vanessa Williams, the newly-crowned and black Miss America], to celebrate the grand moment when white American popular culture decided to embrace black women as something other than sexual subversives or fat, kindly maids cleaning up and caring for white families.”

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Essay: "The Creation Myths of Cooperstown." Stephen Jay Gould. 1989.

One-minute review: The author believes that people prefer "creation myths" to the reality that most phenomena evolve. Baseball is an example. It was not started by Abner Doubleday, a man who didn't "know a baseball from a kumquat." It evolved from primitive stick-and-ball games played by working people even before America became a British colony.


“…you can, honest Abe not withstanding, fool most of the people most of the time. How else to explain the long and continuing compendium of hoaxes—from the medieval shroud of Turin to Edwardian Piltdown Man to an ultramodern array of flying saucers and astral powers—eagerly embraced for their consonance with our hopes or their resonance with our fears?”

“Abner Doubleday, as we shall soon see, most emphatically did not invent baseball at Cooperstown in 1839 as the official tale proclaims; in fact, no one invented baseball at any moment or in any spot.”

“This is an essay on the origins of baseball, with some musings on why beginnings [origins] of all sorts hold such fascination for us.”

Comment: This debunking is right up there with Washington’s cherry tree. RayS.

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Essay: "Heaven and Naature." Edward Hoagland. 1988.

10-second review: Reflections on committing suicide. One man stands back from a subway train when it comes into the station because he is afraid of throwing himself under it, or pushing someone else in front of it. Another is afraid to have a gun in his house for protection for fear that some day he will shoot himself with it. “More than thirty thousand Americans took their own lives last year, men mostly, with the highest rate being among those older than sixty-five.”


“What are you so sick of? The rest of us keep going.”

“I’m tired of weathermen and sportscasters on the screen. Of being patient and also of impatience. I’m tired of the president, whoever the president happens to be, and sleeping badly…of breaking two eggs every morning and putting sugar on something. I’m tired of the drone of my own voice, but also of us jabbering like parrots at each other.”

“Death’s edge is so abrupt and near that many people who expect as short and momentary dive may be astounded to find that it is bottomless and change their minds and start to scream when they are only halfway down.”

“Nobody expects to trust his body overmuch after the age of fifty.”

“That close to retirement, some of them harbored a deep-seated contempt for the organizations they had been working for, ready to walk away from almost everybody they had known, and the efforts and expertise of whole decades with very little sentiment.”

“But because we live in our heads more than in nature nowadays, even the summer sky is a mine field for people whose memories are mined. With the sky no longer humbling, the sunshine only a sort of convenience, and no godhead located anywhere outside our own heads, every problem may seem insolubly interlocked.”

“Man is different from animals in that he speculates, a high-risk activity.”

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Essay: "Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All." William Manchester. 1987.

One-minute review: Manchester vividly describes the conditions under which his company of marines fought on Okinawa, the island from which, if there had been no atomic bombs, the invasion of mainland Japan would have been launched. This essay should help Americans to understand why it was necessary to use the atomic bomb. The statistics of loss are staggering, more Japanese than at Hiroshima, more Americans than at Gettysburg. He pleads for Americans to remember those who died in war on Memorial Day. And he makes it clear that he has not forgiven the Japanese for what they did to his friends and fellow marines and to him personally. I think this essay should be read aloud at Memorial Day ceremonies. Americans need to understand the realities of war. They need to appreciate the conditions under which those who gave their lives--and those who survived--fought. At the end of this essay, Manchester, who was supposed to join his Japanese counterpart, tells why he cannot do so and walks away.


“On Okinawa today, Flag Day, will be observed in an extraordinary ceremony: two groups of elderly men, one Japanese, the other American, will gather for a solemn rite…. They are really united by death, the one great victor in modern war.”

“More than 200,000 perished in the 82-day struggle—twice the number of Japanese lost at Hiroshima and more American blood than had been shed at Gettysburg.”

“Americans still march in Memorial Day parades, but attendance is light. One war has led to another and another and yet another, and the cruel fact is that few men, however they die, are remembered beyond the lifetimes of their closest relatives and friends.”

General MacArthur: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

“There is an old soldier’s saying: ‘A man won’t sell you his life, but he’ll give it to you for a piece of colored ribbon.’ ”

“And Napoleon had formed mass armies, pressing every available man into service. It was a long step toward total war, and its impact was immense.”

Winston Churchill: “War, which was cruel and magnificent, has become cruel and squalid.”

“The mud beneath our feet was deeply veined with blood. It was slippery. Blood is very slippery.”

“During those ten days I ate half a candy bar. I couldn’t keep anything down. Everyone had dysentery, and this brings up an aspect of war even Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Ernest Hemingway avoided. If you put more than a quarter million men in a line for three weeks with no facilities for the disposal of human waste, you are going to confront a disgusting problem. We were fighting and sleeping in one vast cesspool. Mingled with that stench was another—the current and corrupting odor of rotting human flesh.”

“It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima…. I went to see it with another ex-marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because wee couldn’t stop laughing.”

“After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there. The hospital was packed, the halls lined with beds. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Marine Corps was being bled white."

“Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litter down to the hospital theater so that me could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film, the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit—ten-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, boots and spurs. He grinned his Aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ‘Hi ya guys!’ He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly every one was booing."

“This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left. If you liked Sands of Iwo Jima, I suggest you be careful. Don’t tell it to the Marines.”

“I set this down in neither pride nor shame. The fact is that some wounds never heal.”

Comment: I think the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King and this essay on the battle of Okinawa are two of the most memorable essays in this book. Everyone should read them. And this latter essay should be read every Memorial Day at every Memorial Day service. This essay and the book Wings of Morning, the story of the last American bomber shot down over Germany, will help every American, who looks at war in the abstract, to understand its nature and its reality. RayS.

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Essay: "A Drugstore in Winter." Cynthia Ozick. 1982.

10-second review: The author tells how she became a writer--through reading. Beginning with a lending library in her father's drug store, she read books given or loaned to her by all kinds of people and she consumed all of those books.


“A writer is buffeted into being by school hurts—Orwell, Forster, Mann!—but after a while other ambushes begin: sorrows, deaths, disappointments, subtle diseases, delays, guilts, the spite of the private haters of the poetry side of life, the snobs of the glamorous, the bitterness of those for whom resentments are a daily gruel….”

“Your hair is whitening, you are a well of tears, what you meant to do (beauty and justice) you have not done, papa and mama are under the earth, you live in panic and dread, the future shrinks and darkens, stories are only vapor, your inmost craving is for nothing but an old scarred pen, and what, God knows, is that?”

Comment: The pleasant (books) and the dark side of the writing life. RayS.

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Essay: "Total Eclipse." Annie Dillard. 1982.

10-second review: Impressions of the world as it looks during a total eclipse of the sun. The world no longer looks ordinary, setting off reflections on that changed world. A dead world. The world when the sun burns out. But then the eclipse is over and people hurry back to the now familiar world of their daily lives.


“People were climbing the nearby hills and setting up shop in clumps among the dead grasses. It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day.”

“Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away.”

“I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong.”

“This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic…. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead.”

“Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud.”

“The world which lay under darkness and stillness following the closing of the lid was not the world we know.”

“The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience.”

“The sun was too small, and too cold, and too far away, to keep the world alive.”

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Essay: "The Solace of Open Spaces." Gretel Ehrlich. 1981.

One-minute review: Living in Wyoming required the author to adjust to the wide open spaces, the laconic conversations and the feeling of being sealed in by isolation. In general, space is a good thing, enabling people to welcome all kinds of ideas, whereas we in the East build obstructions against space by filling up our spaces with the things we can buy.


“It’s May and I’ve just awakened from a nap, curled against sagebrush the way my dog taught me to sleep—sheltered from the wind.”

“To live and work in this kind of open country, with its hundred-mile views, is to lose the distinction between background and foreground.”

“It’s all a bunch of nothing—wind and rattlesnakes—and so much of it you can’t tell where you’re going or where you’ve been and it don’t make much difference.”

“The arid country was a clean slate. Its absolute indifference steadied me.”

“In most parts of Wyoming, the human population is visibly outnumbered by the animal.”

“The solitude in which westerners live makes them quiet. They telegraph thoughts and feelings by the way they tilt their heads and listen.”

“Sentence structure is shortened to the skin and bones of a thought. Descriptive words are dropped, even verbs: ‘Which one needs rode?’ ”

“If anything is endemic to Wyoming, it is wind.”

“The individualism and optimism generated during those times have endured.”

“So the dark side to the grandeur of these spaces is the small-mindedness that seals people in. Men become hermits; women go mad. Cabin fever explodes into suicides or into grudges and lifelong family feuds.”

“One of our evening entertainments was to watch the night sky.”

“…being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy.”

Comment: Another model (“What Is Camp?”) of defining the indefinable. RayS.

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Essay: "Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood." Richard Rodriguez. 1980.

One-minute review: The author noticed that the sounds, not the words, of his native Spanish communicated intimacy with his family, that the public language, English, did not convey that intimacy. It's not the words, but the spirit behind the words that conveys intimacy among the family. It's not the language, per se, that communicates intimacy, but the sounds and the spirit communicated through those sounds that enclosed the world of his family.


“I was then a listening child, careful to hear the very different sounds of Spanish and English…. I’d listen to sounds more than to words.”

“I’d hear her hard English sounds. I’d wait to hear her voice turn to soft-sounding Spanish.”

“There was a new silence at home. As we children learned more and more English, we shared fewer and fewer words with our parents.”

“Once I learned the public language [English], it would never again be easy for me to hear intimate family voices [in Spanish].”

“This message of intimacy could never be translated because it did not lie in the actual words she had used but passed through them.”

“The mystery of intimate utterance remains. The communication of intimacy passes through the word and enlivens its sound, but it cannot be held by the word. It cannot be retained or even quoted because it is too fluid. It depends not on words but on persons.”

“Intimacy cannot be trapped within words.”

Comment: An interesting point of view. Heightens the importance of the native language to the native speaker. RayS.

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Essay: "The White Album." Joan Didion. 1979.

10-second review: The author tells about and reflects on her experiences in 1968, experiences with the Black Panthers and college takeovers. She summarizes by saying that another author had said he put his experiences in writing so he could find meaning in them, but she has put these experiences in writing and still finds no meaning in them. Reflects the mood of the times.


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson….”

“The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation.”

Huey Newton shows up at a hospital, shot and bleeding, and asks to see a doctor, but the admissions person would not take him to a doctor unless Newton signed an admission form and Newton said, “I don’t have to sign anything.”

“Playing it out in time for the six o’clock news.”

“It was another story without a narrative.”

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Essay: "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying." Adrienne Rich. 1977.

One-Minute Review: Using the technique of Pascal's Pensees and Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, the author jots down random thoughts on the phenomenon of women and lying, which most often occurs in order to survive in a male-dominated world.

Truth is complex. The effort to learn the truth means that we must delve into greater complexity. Relationship is founded on the desire to understand the truth of each other. We lie by projecting an image we want the other to believe. The possibilities of a truthful relationship.


“Lying is done with words, and also with silence.”

“The liar lives in fear of losing control.”

“The liar has many friends and leads an existence of great loneliness.”

“Truth…is an increasing complexity.”

“Lies are usually attempts to make everything simple—for the liar—than it really is or ought to be.”

“We [women] have been expected to lie with our bodies: to bleach, redden, unkink or curl our hair, pluck eye brows, shave armpits, wear padding in various places or lace ourselves, take little steps, glaze fingers and toenails, wear clothes that emphasized our helplessness.”

“The lie is the ‘happy marriage,’ of domesticity….”

“There is a danger run by all powerless people: that we forget we are lying….”

“…a culture which validates only male experience.”

“…lying…becomes an easy way to avoid conflict or complications….”

“We take so much of the universe on trust….”

“I also have faith…that you do not conceal facts from me in an effort to spare me, or yourself, pain.”

“Or, at the very least, that you will say, ‘There are things I am not telling you.”

“Truthfulness…has to be created between people.”

“Truthfulness …means heightened complexity.”

“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people…are the most interesting things in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of those possibilities.”

“That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.”

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.