Doug Bruns

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Writers on Reading

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers, Writing on February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

It strikes me as cheap and lazy to happen across a page of quotes, a quote being the fastest exit on the highway such that you don’t have to drive any longer. Despite my distrust of the quote, I enjoy reading them. And, yes, I plug them in with abandon, being if nothing else, too often cheap and lazy. Montaigne said somewhere that he includes a quote in his work because someone said previously better what he stuggles to say now. Or something like that, I should look up it.

So, given reading as a subject, a worthy subject we often consider here at “…the house…“, I have transcribed below quotes on the subject from those who know it best, writers. I hope you enjoy.

Truman Capote:

I have a passion for newspapers…read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions of several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at the newstands. I average about five books a week…the normal length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.

John Barth:

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins Library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Schederazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature–just what a kid from the sticks, from the swamp, in my case, needed.

John Dos Passos:

[Hemingway] and I used to read the Bible to each other. He began it. We read separate little scenes. From Kings, Chronicles. We didn’t make anything out of it–the reading–but Ernest at that time talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane’s The Blue HotelIt affected him very much. I was very much taken with him. He took me around to Gertrude Stein’s. I wasn’t quite at home there. A Buddha sitting up there, surveying us. Ernest was much less noisy then than he was in later life. He felt such people were instructive.

Gabriel García Márquez:

One night [at college] a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went bck to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect….” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.

Susan Sontag:

Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

Katherine Anne Porter:

All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read. I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I every read….We had a very good library of–well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

E.B. White:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read….It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

Don DeLillo:

When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a play-ground attendant–a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck–which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wrote blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my picket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulker, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I’d look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway–maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artistbut certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx.

Thanks for reading.

d

Thursday is Theme Day: Hemingway

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Papa Hemingway

The (new) plan is to program Thursdays around a person, a thinker, writer, philosopher, a creative genius, a traveler–a person whose life was (or perhaps is) about the stuff that matters*–share some quotes,  lift a few words from a speech or lecture, perhaps recommend a few books by or about. In other words, on Thursdays, we’ll turn the podium over to an individual “the house” members might be interested in. That way you’ll get a break from my incessant navel gazing and auto-biographical-slash-memoir ramblings. (I hate the ungrammatical “/”.) Okay? I’ll try to bring you something fresh, and avoid the tired cut-and-paste lame Wikipedia entry.

Today we will begin the series with Mr. Hemingway (1899-1961).

To weigh in just a moment here (so difficult keeping my mouth shut!): I am, like so many others, more a fan of the man’s life than I am ofimgres his work. Of course Hemingway left us great writing. I am particularly fond, as I’ve mentioned before, of A Movable Feast. And of course the stories. The great short stories–marvelous stuff, indeed. But it is the life that has the grip on my imagination. (He was life outsized,  the Lady Gaga of his era.) He was no Montaigne; he did not talk about how to live outright, he showed us–at least his painful, dangerous, depressed-manic, genius version of life. So here are a few of Ernest Hemingway’s thoughts.

Oh hell…when I get excited it is difficult to stay with the program. Let’s first set this up with a quote from Joan Didion. We did just talk about her last week. When asked who most influenced her, Ms. Didion said:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time….I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

Now on to Papa and his work habits:

imgres-4When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but fulling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Once, when asked about his style (of writing), Papa replied:

That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.

When talking about what writers he read, Hemingway launched into a who’s-who of influences:imgres-3

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Vergil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus, Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora–it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Hemingway & Gellhorn--the movie.

Hemingway & Gellhorn–the movie.

I’ve read a lot of Hemingway, but it is likely true that I have read more about him than by him. The great biography by Hemingway associate, Carlos Baker, is definitive. (Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, called it “the King James Version” of Hemingway’s life. Not everyone thought so highly of the book. Truman Capote said, “The Baker book was bad all the way through. It was dull, it was uninteresting, it was badly put together.” ) There are many others–at last count over 500!–more or less of value.  For me, however, one of the most interesting books about Hemingway is Denis Brian’s, The True Gen. It’s a collection of memories and reminiscences from friends, lovers, enemies, and wives. It’s heavy on gossip, but rounded out the man in a way I found compelling and brimming with insight.

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*If there was a tag line to “…the house…” it would be, We think about the stuff that matters. But wait!– whether you know it or not, we have a tag line, A Journal of Life Pursued. Can one have too many tag lines? Too many interests?

Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.

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I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.

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Lastly:

Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,

d

We, the readers.

In Books, Creativity, Reading, Writing on January 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

A lot of us at the community of …the house… are readers. Consider, for instance, Susan, a faithful and communicative fellow “house” member. She posted a comment (two actually) after my reading list 2012 post sharing her list for 2012. It’s very impressive, and from her brief and concise notes you can tell she is a close reader. Then there is Pete Denton. Pete is a …house… reader who keeps pace with his own blog, Pete Denton. Pete caught my reading list a couple of years ago (2011 here, and 2010 here–you get the idea.) and this year challenged himself to reading a book in every genre. He called it The Eclectic Reading Challenge. His list for 2012 is here. I applaud his discipline.

My reading isn’t so organized as Pete’s. I’m not good at forcing myself to read a book. I used to be good at it. My shelves are full of books I read because I believed a well-read individual should read that book, or this one, or perhaps the one this one refers to, and so on. I still believe that, and I’m glad I plowed through those books. But, as a more mature reader, most of my reading follows the notion that it is best to read the right book at the right time. That is, read the book that finds you, not necessarily the other way around.

Many years ago while browsing a bookstore in London I picked up Christopher Hitchen‘s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I started it and despite its brevity and marvelous writing, I set it aside. l8agyardok205260521I usually know within fifty pages if the book is going to work for me. Last week, maybe ten years after putting it back on the shelf, I plowed through it in two days. I can’t explain where I am as a reader this year verses ten years past, but the book “worked” for me this time.

Over at The New Psalmanazar, another blog I follow, “bibliophile and scribbler [writing] under the alias Ian Wolcott,” claims to have read over seventy books last year. From following his blog, I do not doubt it. He says “If I read a little less this year I might have time to think a little more.” Obviously a lot of books found Ian last year. Let’s hope he can get to more thinking this year, if that’s what he wishes.

File:ReadinglikeawriterFrancine Prose, in her wonderful book, Reading like a Writer, writes that:

“The more we read, the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been  combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.”

If for no other reason, you must pick up Prose’s book to see her reading list of “Books to Read Immediately” (page 269).

So that settles it. We will read in 2013 and at the end of the year we get together and share notes. Right now, the next book is Why Does The World Exist? an Existential Dectecitive Story by Jim Holt. I think it is interesting that The New York Review of Books titles their essay about this book, What Can You Really Know?Untitled-5

And if you are not a reader? Change that right now. There is nothing you do, lose weight, be a better spouse, drive a hybrid, stop drinking, start drinking, that will be more important and significant. What to read? There are plenty of lists floating around. I’ve given you a couple. Prose’s list is a great one if fiction is your thing. Drop me a note and I’ll do what I can to steer you in the right direction. But most importantly, get a book on your lap. It makes your brain better and that makes existence better in a fashion faster, and more satisfyingly, than another other method.

By the way, side note, the cover to Why Does the World Exist, sports a most excellent photo by Magnum photographer, Dennis Stock. We love those Magnum folks.

Thanks for reading,

D

A Father’s Toast.

In Family, Happiness, Life, Memoir on October 13, 2012 at 6:00 am

To the marriage of Allie and Geo.

Daughter Allison got married last weekend. She was beautiful. The groom was handsome. The venue perfect. It was a good day to be a father.

I gave a toast, preluded with a story, a father’s reminiscence, a bit of advice, and only then a raising of the glass.

A few in attendance have asked for a transcript. I didn’t write it out, and though I’d practiced the outline of what I wanted to say, it wasn’t until I began speaking that I knew what was going to come of out of my mouth. My toast was made immediately following the ceremony, while the audience was still in their chairs. I watched a video of the ceremony (to glean the toast) and share the (slightly edited) transcript below.

October 6, 2012

On behalf of the long-suffering Mrs. Bruns, my bride of thirty-four years, and myself I’d like to thank you all for being here.

As the champagne is going around, we’re going to break from tradition a bit. I’m going to offer a toast, but before I do, I’m going to make you listen to a story.

As Allie and I walked down the stairs just now, I turned to her and said, ‘On belay.’ She breathed deeply and responded, ‘belay on.’

Not too many years ago, Allie and I started rock climbing together. In typical Bruns fashion, we became obsessive about the sport; such that every night after dinner, we’d gather our gear and rush to the climbing gym. We climbed three or four nights a week. We did it for years and we thought we got pretty good at it. Eventually, we decided to see how good we were and went to Joshua Tree, California, a national park, a mecca for rock climbers, to test ourselves.

First morning of the first day, as Allie and I hiked into the park, we experienced butterflies and nerves, all the things you would anticipate. I knew at that moment, standing at the base of the first route, that she was filled with trepidation and nerves. And I turned to you [pointing to Allie] and said, ‘you’re going to climb first.’ She had a wild-eyed expression. I continued. ‘You’re going to be nervous and your palms are going to sweat. You’re going to get halfway up this crag and you’re going to wonder, What the hell am I doing?’ But, I said, ‘You can climb this. And when you get to the top, look over your shoulder and enjoy that view–we climb for lots of reasons, you know, not the least of which is the view.’

Allie, you climbed the first route that first morning and experienced all of the symptoms I’d anticipated. But you climbed through them and afterward you said that, indeed, the view from the top was beautiful.

[To the audience.] So why am I telling you this story? Because I cannot resist the metaphor of climbing and marriage.

For example, at the beginning of every climb, the two climbers start a communication and it’s very important that it continue through the entire climb. It starts with a request: ‘On belay.’ And the response is, ‘Belay on.’ The job of the belayer is to keep the climber safe. In my case, to keep my eye on her. Allie and I exchanged this command, then she turned to the rock and said to me, ‘Climbing.’ And my response was, ‘Climb on.’ And so it began.

As you climbed [gesturing to Allie], you got to the crux of that climb. Every route has its most difficult section. Using the metaphor, life will deliver us a challenge. As you got to the crux, Allie, you shouted down that you needed rope slack. I gave you slack, and responded with encouragement. ‘Allie you can do this. You look strong.’ And you climbed through the crux.

Before you started your climb, Allie, we put on our harnesses and we roped in. The climber puts on her equipment and her partner checks it. Are the buckles properly cinched? Did I put on my harness correctly? Another set of eyes to look over the other, to protect, to keep safe. It’s a duel responsibility, a team effort. Then you run the rope. You take the rope and ensure there are no knots in it, that it’s not frayed. Allie, you tied in, I tied in. Then I checked your knot and you checked mine.

[To the newlyweds.] To use a cliché, today you guys tied the knot. [The audience chuckles.] And today you guys start your climb. Your job is to communicate, to keep each other safe, to send words of encouragement, to protect, to ensure that if one comes off the rock, the fall is arrested.

Most importantly, when you get to the top, you wait for the other. The view from the top is best shared with your partner.

So Allie, you’ve got a new climbing partner. [I sigh.] And I have observed him closely. In Geo you have a man diligent and hard-working. He’s got great attention to detail–which, Allie, is going to be helpful for you. [Laughs from the audience.] He’s prudent and he’s thoughtful, both in the sense that he is thinking about you and others, but also that he’s thoughtful about the process he’s in. He thinks through things. He’s a man with a lot of ideas.

And, Geo, in Allie you’ve got a young lady. [Long pause] Let me edit that. [Sigh] You’ve got a wife. [At this point, Allie, standing at the back of the venue, starts to unravel. I point to her and command, ‘Stop it, Allison.’ The crowd laughs. My voice begins to break. ‘I was doing so well,’ I say. I collect myself.] Geo, you’ve got a wife with a heart which knows no horizon and a sense of adventure that knows no bounds. As she’s matured, I’ve observed that her capacity for risk has been tempered and that comes with wisdom.

[To them both.] Together, in front of me, I see a great team.

I would like to now propose a toast. If everyone could please stand, raise your glass, and repeat after me. The four commands climbers use when they begin their adventure:

On belay. ‘ON BELAY.’

Belay on. ‘BELAY ON.’

Climbing. ‘CLIMBING.’

Climb on. ‘CLIMB ON.’

North of “Not Many”

In Adventure, Creativity, Nature, Writers on August 2, 2012 at 6:00 am

Art in a land of giants.

The North Woods. We capitalize the words. Sometimes its the Great North Woods. It’s been reported that Maine’s Great North Woods comprises the largest contiguous undeveloped landmass in the lower forty-eight. I don’t know if that is factually correct, but I hold it true because it comforts me, knowing it’s up there, the vastness of it. Approximately four million acres of pine and moose and bear and lakes and ponds, a few modest mountains, and a lace-work of lumber roads.

A person can get seriously lost in such a place, and frequently I go north and attempt to do precisely that. It was during such an effort last week that I stumbled upon the cache of “drawing pencils” in the photograph above. I was north of the little village of Kokadjo. The welcome sign to Kokadjo states the population as “Not Many.” It is good to have a sense of humor in such a place. Passing through Kokadjo, I left the tarmac and rumbled along a lumber road for untold miles, then turned off onto an unused road. It was pitted and grown-over and I followed it until it began to bog out. I noticed a patch of St. John’s Wart and stopped. I let Lucy out, after attaching a bear-bell to her collar, and began to pick the St. John’s Wart. Harvest the flowers, dry them, crumble them, and you’ve got a winter tea to drive away the doldrums.

I stretched my legs, walking down a path, when I found them, the giant pencils, stacked neatly as you see them in the photograph. I looked around. No cabin. No evidence of life. No recent tire tracks, foot prints, nothing. Yet, here was art.

Joyce said that “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” I thought of this quote and wondered who this God of creation was. I was struck by the obvious purity of the endeavor, as well as the humor. She–for there was something beautifully feminine about this exhibit–she, this goddess of creation, was beyond the work and the work was purer for that. It is possible to create for the purpose of creation only, not needing the prism of “the other.” It was an exhibit of voided ego precisely executed.

I do not know where I was. I did not check coordinates. That seemed contrary to the experience. It was quite simply my reward for giving myself up to the woods.