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April 16, 2015

Culling the Library

      You might think that I am a bibliomaniac, but that is far from the truth. I am not manic about books. I buy them, sell them, trade them and lend them. I certainly will admit to being a bibliophile, a lover of books. I have always been a voracious reader, ready to be immersed in the new worlds or alternate visions that books provide. As a writer, I understand that words are a form of power that can be used and abused. So when I find a book that I like, I feel that it imparts some of its power to me. My shelves of books are like my armor, Quixotic armor, rusty and dented, but protective nonetheless.

     So disposing of a large part of my library is like stripping away a protective shell, laying myself bare to a world that is not as neatly ordered as my volumes. Like a hermit crab abandoning its shell and trailing its soft abdomen as it searches for another, I feel vulnerable. Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, I don't particularly want to be a pair of ragged claws, Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

     I will also admit to being a collector. The books that I collect are old, but not necessarily expensive. The most I have ever paid for the books that I collect is about $50, and that one was special since it had the bookplate of its previous owner in it; the previous owner being Harpo Marx. Which reminds me that his brother Groucho once said that, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark too read." Some that I own I bought for a few dollars at second-hand bookshops only to find later that they were worth hundreds of dollars. Many of these, although dear to me, will be finding new homes.

     The core of my collection consists of quarto-sized books primarily published by The Bodley Head at Oxford, England or Dodd Meade in the US. They are beautifully illustrated fantasies by Cabell, Anatole France and others. They are staying with me, as are the complete sets of Sir Richard Burton's translation of "A Thousand Nights and A Night" and Fraser's "The Golden Bough".

What, then, shall go?
  • Most of the poetry. 
  • All of the books on technical writing, semiotics, linguistics,
  • Most of the math, except for puzzles and Euclid. (I love my wife but oh Euclid.)
  • A lot of the science, excluding the natural history.
  • Most of the novels except for those that would be nearly impossible to replace. 
  • Probably half the books on design.
These will descend into the cardboard purgatory with most of the religion and philosophy.

     Ah me ... I know that I am doing the logical thing, but my heart disagrees with my head. Logic is like the the curate and the barber in Don Quixote, sorting and consigning the mad knight's books to the fire as he lies sleeping.

    That night the housekeeper burned to ashes all the books that were in the yard and in the whole house; and some must have been consumed that deserved preservation in everlasting archives, but their fate and the laziness of the examiner did not permit it, and so in them was verified the proverb that the innocent suffer for the guilty.

    One of the remedies which the curate and the barber immediately applied to their friend's disorder was to wall up and plaster the room where the books were, so that when he got up he should not find them (possibly the cause being removed the effect might cease), and they might say that a magician had carried them off, room and all; and this was done with all despatch. 
     Two days later Don Quixote got up, and the first thing he did was to go and look at his books, and not finding the room where he had left it, he wandered from side to side looking for it. He came to the place where the door used to be, and tried it with his hands, and turned and twisted his eyes in every direction without saying a word; but after a good while he asked his housekeeper whereabouts was the room that held his books.
    The housekeeper, who had been already well instructed in what she was to answer, said, "What room or what nothing is it that your worship is looking for? There are neither room nor books in this house now, for the devil himself has carried all away."

     The reference books stay. So what if I have three rhyming dictionaries ... they stay. The books on colonial history, agriculture and architecture stay.

     Sadly, the easiest to dispose of and the first to be packed will be the collection of books that I have written. It's not as horrifying as it sounds. I spent many years as a technical writer and wrote hundreds of software manuals, marketing guides, reference books, and contributed papers to many periodicals and proceedings. All of them are outdated and although I am proud of the work, they are now meaningless. This will be my responsibility. My housekeeper has no kindling at hand. There will be no garden conflagration. If some of my work must be destroyed, it will be by my hand. I will not make a Lady Burton out of my wife; putting her husband's manuscripts to the torch.

And the orphan books, crammed into their shipping containers, shall immigrate to good homes to be adopted by bibliophiles more settled and secure than I. 

I bid them farewell with a quote from Richard LeGallienne:

    "Thus shall you live upon warm shelves again,
    And 'neath an evening lamp your pages glow."

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Ten Random Things About Me 01

I was once challenged to provide a list of things that people might find unusual or amusing about me.
  1. My study contains shelves and boxes containing more than 750 books, in spite of the fact that I have reduced my personal library by more than 80%.
  2. I have visited Diego Garcia, a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
  3. I am currently ghost-writing the autobiography of a nasty (and dead) man (it's complicated).
  4. My first reaction to being told that I was going to climb Bald Mountain, near Boulder CO, was to ask if it would be at night.
  5. I've had my entire paycheck stolen by a beautiful gypsy girl.
  6. No matter how diligently I try, I cannot get further than page 20 of Finnegan's Wake.
  7. Although I'm vegan now, I used to pride myself that there were very few foods that I could not or would not eat. The most prominent of these are brains, boiled okra, and baluts (look it up if you must, but be warned.) Yes, I have had snake, alligator, thousand-year eggs, ant eggs, cobra blood wine, goat head, etc. etc.
  8. In a similar vein, I used to be much fatter than I am now.
  9. In Israel, I was once kidnapped by a yeshiva looking for fresh students and spent three hours discussing the ways that ice cream could fail the test for kosher.
  10. I can sing some of Donald Swann's musical setting for the songs in The Hobbit. 
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April 14, 2015

Origin Story

Things started to go sour shortly after I was born. 

I guess that I was a cute enough baby, but the burden of being the first born weighed heavily. My mother pretends that she's joking as she cheerfully tells anyone that when I was born "Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given." from Handel's Messiah resounded in her head. Essentially, I was set up ... given an impossible goal, so it's not that unusual that I constantly felt that I was falling short of expectations. Other kids just had to deal with criticism like, "why can't you be more like your brother/sister/cousin." The criteria for my success seemed, at least to me, a tad more stringent. I had a higher point to aim for and many more opportunities to fail the entrance requirements for deity. 

In fact, the closest I ever got to performing a miracle was helping to deliver our kids (unless you count the time I shared some crackers and a can of sardines with a friend).

I was born in 1948. My father came from an orthodox Jewish family and mother had been raised Quaker. I'll go into that in more detail some other time. 

My father's family came from near Kiev in Ukraine and settled, for the most part, in Illinois and Michigan. The only members of his family that I really had contact with were my uncle Theodore, a fantastic concert pianist and extraordinarily gifted teacher of the instrument, his family, and on rare occasions my grandparents, Sol and Fanny. Occasionally cousins would make brief appearances but, without context, they were a source of confusion that had little to do with me. I know that I met my father's brother Norman and his family once, I'm not sure if I met his sister Miriam. 

I don't know why my parents chose to keep their kids so distant from our paternal relatives, but I was in my late middle age before I realized that there were other Lettvins out there. All of my father's family stories were of dead people and I had incorrectly assumed that we were the only ones left.

My mother's side was almost as much of a mystery. My grandmother Katherine's maiden name was Dietrich and she had been born in London and married Israel? Brady, a soldier from the U.S. who had joined a Canadian regiment notorious for toughness and wearing kilts known as "the ladies from hell." 

That sounds fairly simple, but wait. Brady wasn't his original last name. During immigration at Ellis Island, the agent had apparently rechristened my grandfather in order to avoid writing out the name Warshavsky on the paperwork. And where was my grandfather from? According to my usual sources (who are unclear if not downright fibbers) he was from a small town just outside Kiev. My father told me not to talk about this since, "the Warshavskys were well known to be supporters of the Czar." It was bad enough that he had married someone thought to be a shiksa, but all hell would break loose if they discovered that she was a Warshavsky.

With two exceptions, I didn't know my mother's family very well either. We seemed as remote from them as from my father's family. Leonard and Bernard lived in the mid-west, and Doris lived in California. The only exception to this separation were my grandmother and Aunt Ruth. My grandfather had deserted the family before I was born and (really ... I'm not making this up) run away with the circus. I met him only once. He showed me some magic tricks, I told him how he did them, and I was of no further interest.

My father's orthodox upbringing did not survive his education as a doctor, psychiatrist, and scientist. So I had no Hebrew school in my childhood. For a long time my concept of Judaism was a subset of people who were smart and told funny stories. It wasn't until my mid 30s that I went through any form of Jewish education, but that's a story for later.

My grandmother Katherine (who I will call Grandma from now on since Fanny wasn't really a factor in my life) was Quaker. My mother considered herself Quaker but, so far as I know, never went to meeting. Grandma was the only person who seemed to be interested in my spiritual upbringing and she took charge. I joined the Cambridge Society of Friends and learned about religion from them.

I now wobble between agnostic and atheist.

This is just an overview. Details and stories will follow. Always keep in mind that these are memories. Some are accurate some are faulty, and I have no way of telling the difference. Some are hearsay, some are hearsay of hearsay, some are misrepresentations, some are lies. Where I feel that it is best to protect identities, I'll use pseudonyms so old friends can breathe a sigh of relief. 

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