Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Livingston Lowes

The Road to Foundation

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As I’ve recounted here before, on August 1, 1941, Isaac Asimov was riding the subway to John W. Campbell’s office in New York when the history of science fiction changed forever. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, recalls the moment at which he first conceived of what became the Foundation series:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

For reasons that I’ll discuss below, I’m reasonably sure that the illustration that Asimov describes is the one reproduced above, which was drawn by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert himself. And what strikes me the most about this anecdote now is the fact that Asimov looked at this particular picture, ignored the Fairy Queen entirely, and turned it into a series in which no women of any consequence would appear for years. To make a slightly facetious comparison, if I were a therapist giving Asimov the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is asked to look at a picture and make up a story about it, this is the point at which I would sit up slightly in my chair.

Recently, it occurred to me to try to figure out which book Asimov was carrying on the train that day, if only because it’s interesting to dig into what a writer might have been reading at a given moment. The great model here is John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, which obsessively connects the imagery of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the travel narratives that Samuel Coleridge was studying at the time. Asimov, it’s worth noting, was skeptical of Lowes’s approach:

I tried reading the book in my youth, but gave up. It could only interest another Coleridge scholar. Besides, I saw no point to it. Granted that the phrases already existed scattered through a dozen books, they existed for everybody. It was only Coleridge who thought of putting them together, with the necessary modifications, to form one of the great poems of the English language. Coleridge might not have been a hundred percent original but he was original enough to make the poem a work of genius.

But this kind of search can be diverting in itself, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that Asimov’s book was likely to have been Plays and Poems of W.S. Gilbert, which was published by Random House in 1932. As far as I can tell, it’s one of only two books available at the time that included both the lyrics to Iolanthe and the illustrations by Gilbert, and it would have been easy to find. (The other is a book titled Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, which was published a few years later to coincide with a tour by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it doesn’t look like something that Asimov would have brought on the subway.)

The edition, as it happens, is available online for free, and it can be amusing to left through it while keeping the young Asimov in mind. This isn’t literary criticism, exactly, but a kind of scholarly reverie, and it’s valuable primarily for the chain of associations that it evokes. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Deems Taylor, a music critic and occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table, and I’d like to think that Asimov would have seen aspects of himself in it. For example, here’s Taylor on Gilbert’s early years as a writer:

For a time, his writings, although voluminous, attracted no attention whatsoever. He tried everything—reporting, dramatic criticism, editorials, weekly news letters to provincial papers, political polemics, essays—all the forms of quotidian literature that flow from the pen of any young person who vaguely “wants to write” (a sentence that, appropriately, has no object). The results were financially negligible. Nor did he have the meagre satisfaction of knowing that there were those who were watching him, believing in him. Nobody was watching a young journalistic hack who was no different from scores of his fellows except that he combined a gift for saying cutting things with a complete inability to refrain from saying them.

This sounds a lot like Asimov in the days when he was trying to break into Astounding, and as I thought more about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, who brought out the best in each other, I saw them for the first time as shadows of Asimov and Campbell in the thirties, of whose partnership the former once wrote: “Campbell and I, in those first three years of my writing career—the crucial and formative ones—were a symbiotic organism.”

But the section that intrigues me the most comes near the end of the introduction. Speaking fondly of the characters of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and all the rest, Taylor writes:

As this gay, silly, endearing crew skip upon the stage, the sum of all that they say is always the same thing; and it is a romantic thing: That the light of pure reason casts grotesque shadows; that a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct, is, in the last account, a ridiculous one. Looking at their world, in which there is everything but the truth that lies beyond logic, we perceive that it is, in more ways than one, an impossible world.

It’s hard for me to read this now without reflecting that Asimov was just moments away, as he rode the train to Campbell’s office, from conceiving nothing less than “a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct,” which would end up dominating much of the rest of his life. And while I’m no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan, viewing the Foundation series through that lens seems like a promising approach. Asimov, as I’ve noted elsewhere, never seems to have been particularly interested in psychohistory, which was mostly Campbell’s invention, and he was more conscious of its limitations than many of its fans are. (In The End of Eternity, Asimov describes a similar group of scientists as a collection of “psychopaths.”) And what Taylor writes of these operettas applies just as well to many of the stories that they inspired: “The sky has cleared, the problems solve themselves, and everything has suddenly turned out all right. Every fundamental axiom of human motive and conduct has been outraged, and we are delighted.”

The art of the index

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Index of Le Ton Beau de Marot

Earlier this week, as planned, I finished the bulk of the background reading for my book Astounding. I’m far from done with the research process: there are still unanswered questions, gaps that need to be filled, and mysteries that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to solve. But I have a sense of the territory. I knew going in that I had to cover an immense amount of raw material in a limited amount of time, and from the beginning, I was forced to prioritize and triage based on what I thought would actually end up in the book—which doesn’t mean that there wasn’t still a lot of it. It included all of John W. Campbell’s published novels and stories; something like fifteen thousand pages of unedited correspondence; forty years of back issues of Astounding, Unknown, and Analog; and numerous secondary sources, including interviews, memoirs, and critical studies. I had to do much the same thing with Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, too, but with an important difference: I’m not the first biographer to tackle their lives, so a lot of the structural work had already been done, and I could make educated guesses about what parts would be the most relevant. When it comes to Campbell, however, enormous swaths of his life have never been explored, so I had no choice but to read everything. In the words of editor Alan Hathaway, which I never tire of quoting, I’ve tried to turn every goddamn page. Whenever I see something that might be useful, I make a note of it, trusting that I’ll be able to find it again when I go back to review that section at greater length. Then I have no choice but to move on.

And it’s only recently that I realized that what I’ve been doing, in essence, is preparing an index. We tend to think of indexes as standard features of nonfiction books, and we get annoyed when they aren’t there. (I note with interest that a different John Campbell—a British politician of the nineteenth century, and apparently no relation to mine—proposed that authors who failed to provide an index would be fined and deprived of their copyrights.) In fact, indexes originated as working tools that scholars prepared for themselves, and they tailored them for their individual needs. What I find useful in a book may not interest anybody else, especially if I’m reading with a specific problem in mind, which is why it makes sense for readers to maintain indexes of their own. As Harold Nicholson, another British politician, once said in a commencement speech:

My advice is to go to France, direct from New York to Cherbourg, and to remain there for at least three months, if possible living in a French family. My second piece of advice is always to mark your books and write a personal index for yourself on the flyleaf.

He’s right, of course, and I’ve been doing this for years without thinking about it. Now I’ve started to do it more deliberately, and I’ve gotten into the habit of transcribing those notes into a searchable text file, as an index of indexes that I can use to consolidate my entries and keep the whole mess under control.

Index for The Arabian Nights

It’s hard to write about indexes without thinking of a famous chapter in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which is titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” As a professional indexer says to the narrator, evaluating another writer’s index:

“Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader,” she said. “In a hyphenated word,” she observed, with the shrewd amiability of an expert, “‘self-indulgent.’ I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work…It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work…It’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye.”

I read this passage again recently with greater attention than usual, because the odds are pretty good that I’m going to end up indexing Astounding myself. (Here’s a tidbit that you might not know: if a publisher wants an index, the author has the right to prepare it, but if he declines—or does an unsatisfactory job—the publisher can hire someone else. The cost is deducted from the author’s advance, which means that there’s a decent financial incentive for writers to do the job themselves.) I’m also uncomfortably aware that Vonnegut is correct in saying that you can tell a lot about an author from his index. For an example that’s very close to home, I don’t need to look any further than William H. Patterson’s two-volume biography of Heinlein. Its index tells you a lot about Patterson himself, or at least about how he saw his subject, and I don’t have any doubt that my index will reflect on me.

But I also don’t think that anyone but the author has any business preparing the index. I’ve spent the last eight months compiling an index for a book that doesn’t exist: the unimaginable book that would include all the known details of Campbell’s life in their original form. (If you want to get really deep, you could say that a biography is the index of the man.) It bears the same relation to its sources that a graphical projection does to the original object: it translates it to a two-dimensional surface, losing some of its properties, but becoming considerably more manageable. The reason I’ve put it together, aside from reminding me of where various facts can be found, is to produce a rough sketch of the whole that I can review in its entirety. It condenses the available material into a form that I can reread over a relatively short period of time, which allows for the iterative review process that tells you what a book is really about. As John McPhee said of his notes to The Paris Review: “I read them until they’re coming out my ears.” And this is only possible if you’ve boiled them down to a set of labels. The author is the only one who can decipher it: it’s a coded message he writes to his future self. But when the time comes to prepare an index for the general reader, it invisibly reflects that ideal index that nobody else will ever see. Only the author, who knows both the words on the page and the unseen words that made them possible, can make it. You can sense this in the indexes for books as different as Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights or Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot. These indexes live. They tell you a lot—maybe too much—about the author. But that’s exactly as it should be. 

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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