Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Idries Shah

Quote of the Day

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Idries Shah

A disciple had asked permission to take part in the “dance” of the Sufis. The Sheikh said, “Fast completely for three days. Then have luscious dishes cooked. If you then prefer the ‘dance,’ you may take part in it.”

Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2014 at 7:30 am

In the dozy hours: the joys of the bedside book

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People have been reading in bed ever since there were books, if not beds, but the essential idea of the bedside book was perhaps first articulated by Thackeray, who wrote in his essay “On Two Children in Black”:

Montaigne and Howell’s Letters are my bedside books. If I wake at night, I have one or other of them to prattle me to sleep again. They talk about themselves forever, and don’t weary me. I like to hear them tell their old stories over and over again. I read them in the dozy hours, and only half remember them.

Despite its informal tone, this strikes me as an important moment in the history of literary criticism, because it describes a kind of reading that we all intuitively recognize. Our libraries are filled with one kind of book, our nightstands another, and although most bedside books have certain things in common, above all else, they’re a reflection of the reader’s personality. In some ways, what we read just before going to bed, or in the middle of the night, expresses more about who we are than the books we display for others—or ourselves—during the day.

So what makes a good bedside book? Ideally, given its specialized role, it should be a book that you can pick up casually and put down after a couple of minutes. As such, bedside books tend to have a miscellaneous quality: they’re often collections of short pieces, anthologies, or essays, rather than sustained arguments or narratives. They’re also books that you can open at random in hopes of finding something interesting. As a result, they might be books that you’ve read before and enjoy revisiting, or reference books with entries that don’t need to be read in any particular order. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the bedside book and the bathroom book—although you may want to keep them in two separate stacks.

Apart from these considerations, the ideal bedside book tends to be whatever else you’re reading at the time, so there are often two levels of books on the nightstand. The pictures shown here, of my own bedside table, are uncharacteristically tidy: usually, along with the more or less permanent occupants, there’s another pile of books I’m currently reading. Since my move, though, I’ve had to reconstruct my own bedside library from scratch, so what you see here is something of an idealized version of my nightstand. Note, too, that these pictures are missing the best bedside book in the world, William S. Baring-Gould’s original Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which has been promoted, or apotheosized, to a permanent position on my desk.

Instead, we have Leslie Klinger’s more recent New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is a charmer in its own right, along with Baring-Gould’s Annotated Mother Goose. We also have books on film, including David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary and Have You Seen? and Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies; anthologies, including The Limits of Art and the incomparable Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics; and, of course, books specifically designed to be read in bed, notably J. Bryan III’s Hodgepodge, Frank Muir’s Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything, and The People’s Almanac. These last three are resolutely old-school, but if you want something more contemporary and twee, Schott’s Original Miscellany will probably do.

The rest of the books reflect my own interests and tastes: A Pattern Language, one of the great books in the world, which I’m reading again as I settle into my new house; World Tales by Idries Shah; Dilys Winn’s classic Murder Ink; Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, which I’m going to finish one of these days; Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball, which is great bedside reading even if you aren’t a sports fan; The Essential Jesus by John Dominic Crossan; and the two volumes of Isaac Asimov’s original autobiography. (There should also be a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog here somewhere, along with The PreHistory of the Far Side, but these are still packed away.) And, of course, the iPad. You might think that the latter would make the rest obsolete, but that isn’t the case. Even after all this time, there’s something about reading a book in bed that technology can’t match, especially late at night, in Thackeray’s dozy hours.

Books for Christmas?

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First off, I don’t see how anybody can fail to love this kid, although apparently this video has generated more than a few negative comments on YouTube:

Personally, I love getting books for Christmas. And while yesterday’s post was about potential gifts for the writer in your life, today I’m going to be talking about a few personal favorites—a handful of rare or out of print books that might make a more unusual present for a discerning writer (or reader). Some are a bit hard to find these days, but I can’t imagine my own library without them:

1. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is a fine piece of work, but for sheer reading bliss, it doesn’t hold a candle to Baring-Gould’s original version, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best book in the world. While Klinger tries to be objective, Baring-Gould cheerfully favors his own theories about the identity of Watson’s wives, the location of Watson’s mysterious wound, and what, exactly, Holmes was doing during the Great Hiatus. The result is a monumental work that has probably given me more pleasure, over the years, than any other single book.

2. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. If I could own only five books, this strange but wonderful little volume would be among them. It’s ridiculously hard to find—there’s one used paperback copy available on Amazon for $25, which is the lowest price that I’ve seen in a while, and hardcover copies tend to run much more than that—but if you can track it down, it’s more than worth it. As well as a highly opinionated introduction to Zen, it’s one of the most idiosyncratic multicultural anthologies around, with much valuable poetry, both Eastern and Western, that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I don’t agree with everything that Blyth says—notably his low opinion of Coleridge—but this is still the closest thing that I’ve ever found, between book covers, to my own personal philosophy.

3. The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. Speaking of Coleridge, this obsessive look at the composition of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an unparalleled look at a writer’s creative process, as well as a compellingly odd book in its own right. Lowes begins by studying the scribbled quotations in Coleridge’s notebooks, and by tracing the quotes back to their original sources, he attempts to reconstruct the process by which the two great poems took shape, idea by idea, with one image leading to another. It’s speculative, eccentric, and probably unacceptable by current scholarly standards, but also riveting, with a lot of fascinating incidental material along the way. The footnotes alone are worth the price of a good used copy. (The novelist Toby Litt is particularly eloquent in his praise of this book, which you can read in an article here.)

4. World Tales by Idries Shah. Arguably the best book of folklore and fairy tales ever published, with a consistently entertaining and surprising selection of stories from throughout the world, complemented by Shah’s insightful thoughts on their origins and variants. You can buy a no-frills paperback on Amazon, but for the full experience, you’re better off tracking down a used hardcover copy of the illustrated edition, which features fantastic artwork by Brian Froud, Alan Lee, and other legendary artists. (Some of the illustrations might be a little scary, or smutty, for kids, but that’s part of the fun.)

5. The Limits of Art by Huntington Cairns. The fact that this remarkable anthology is out of print is a crime: it should be in every school and home library in the world. The concept is a simple one: it’s a collection consisting solely of works of prose and poetry that have been deemed, by one major critic or another, the best of their kind. Cairns reproduces the critic’s evaluation along with each passage—in translation and in its original language—and the result is like browsing through a compendium of the best that the human race can offer: the most famous passages of Shakespeare, Dante, and the rest, of course, but also a lot of welcome surprises. It’s hard to read even a few pages without being immediately humbled, and inspired.

One last thing: if Google would make copies of these books, especially 3 and 4, readily available online, it would single-handedly justify its digital bookstore’s existence. Google eBooks has already made it possible for me to read the books of George Saintsbury, most of which are out of print, and it needs to do the same for Blyth and Lowe. Is anyone in Mountain View listening?

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