A case for leisurely literature

Immediately after finishing the Tale of Genji, I read Egil’s Saga. Both take place at roughly the same time (circa 1000 C.E.), and were composed not much later (about a century) and in similar forms (verses embedded in prose narrative); both feature large casts roaming about unfamiliar and long-vanished cultures and landscapes; both stories span multiple generations (in neither is anyone alive at the beginning still around by the end); and both are classics in their respective traditions — still read today after the lapse of a millennium.

Why then did reading Egil, of fewer than 200 pages, seem like so much more work than reading Genji, weighing in at 1120 pages in the Royall Tyler translation?

(Please don’t misunderstood: I strongly recommend both. But reading Egil did seem so effortful.)

I think it might be partly a limitation of the capacity to process narrative. Egil is so compressed it is terse. Decades fall by in sentences, and although there are also more extended sequences, such as the expedition to the north or the court case at the end, the overall impression is of a headlong rush into oblivion. And it is such a strange world! The men are, as a rule, at the same time childish and murderous, prone to bursting into a frenzied rage for no particular reason. And the women — well! The women! And everyone is thoroughly drunk much of the time.

On the other hand, Genji is capacious, it enfolds everything, it takes its time, years slip languorously by like moving from one stage to the next of a casual love affair, perhaps even one never to be consummated. Fifty pages might be devoted to a boating party, then a hundred to how to deal with a willful princess. Nothing ever happens, really, yet it is never dull. And it is such a strange world! Manliness is best expressed by the tendency to burst into tears for no particular reason. The women blacken their teeth and shave their eyebrows, only to paint them on again in green — not that anyone can even see the women most of time (not even each other), so dim and hemmed about with barriers are the spaces they inhabit. And everyone is quite drunk a significant fraction of the time.

What do they have in common? Eruptions of the supernatural, snatches of poetry, intrigue (romantic or political), the melancholy of exile and of frustrated love.

And how do they differ? O worlds unknown and apart! No overlap at all, truly —

Viking Iceland.

Heian Japan.

Sometimes a book is like a desk drawer crammed so full of index cards that it won’t shut, all of them covered all over with tiny, precise handwriting. This is Egil.

Sometimes a book is like a house, a large one, where one might spend the mornings sipping milky coffee on the terrace, in a chair under the leaf-shattered sunlight; the afternoons in the library, shadowy and cool, remote from the doings of the rest of the household; the evenings, after dinner, aloof in a corner of the drawing room, someone at the piano over there plinking away at something resembling Chopin, at one’s elbow a goblet, discreetly renewed, of excellent claret; and at night, in the cool moonlight falling through the windowpanes, in bed, crisp linen sheets pulled up to the chin, one arm thrust out, asleep, athwart, enwrapped in dreams that one has no need to recall. This is Genji.

Is one better than the other? No. Of course not. But one is more leisurely than the other. And in leisure there is pleasure.

Rhetorical questions and rhetorical answers

History is only a catalog of the forgotten.
(Henry Adams)

I’m still a slow learner. But let’s talk about witches.

James Wakelee’s first appearance in the documentary record is 18 February 1640/41 O.S., when he is noted as owning four acres of land at Hartford, Connecticut (1) [Love, p. 127]. The last record, a court order of May 1691, part of his long struggle to free his assets from legal difficulties, mentions, off-hand, that he has died [Hoadly, p. 35].

Everyone knows about the witch craze of 1692–93 in and around Salem, Massachusetts, but few remember the earlier prosecutions. Towards the end of 1662, in Wethersfield, Connecticut, James was indicted for a capital crime; recognizing his peril, he abandoned his family and property and fled to Rhode Island [Adams, pp. 260-261]. That indictment has not survived, but a deposition from the later trial of Katherine Harrison for witchcraft mentions him:

Thomas Bracy aged about 31 years testifieth as follows that formerly James Wakeley would haue borrowed a saddle of the saide Thomas Bracy, which Thomas Bracy denyed to lend to him, he threatened Thomas and saide, it had bene better he had lent it to him. Allsoe Thomas Bracy beinge at worke the same day making a jacket & a paire of breeches, he labored to his best understanding to set on the sleeues aright on the jacket and seauen tymes he placed the sleues wronge,… and soe was forced to leaue workinge that daie.

. . . . .

After that Thomas Bracy aforesaide, being well in his sences & health and perfectly awake, his brothers in bed with him, Thomas aforesaid saw the saide James Wakely and the saide Katherin Harrison stand by his bed side, consultinge to kill him the said Thomas, James Wakely said he would cut his throate, but Katherin counselled to strangle him, presently the said Katherin seised on Thomas striuinge to strangle him, and pulled or pinched him so as if his flesh had been pulled from his bones, theirefore Thomas groaned. [Taylor, pp. 49-50]

This deposition, sworn before magistrates, must, in some sense, be true; Thomas Bracy was not lying. (2)

Now, such historical events as these, however minor (or, rather, historical texts, since what we can receive of the past is almost entirely textual) — such events might seem to bear their sense plain on their surfaces. But that’s not true, I think. Most of us nowadays would say: This man quarreled with me so that I could not concentrate on my work. But this 17th-century tailor said: He bewitched me! And we might say: I had a bad dream and my neighbor was in it. And yet these people said: He’s a witch! (3)


Of course, there can be no other subject than what we might call the real world, simply because there is no other subject. What then (for example (4)) is science fiction about? The real world. What is fantasy about? The real world. And witchcraft? Again, the real world. But the means that they have, science fiction or fantasy or witchcraft, (5) of going about being about the real world differ — and are as different from each other as from any other rhetorical mode.

A rhetoric is only the tekhnē (6) of discovering and framing a discourse: a method for abstracting from the real world our experience of it, or a means of expressing that experience. Witchcraft has its own distinctive rhetoric, basically a Manichean one, with virtue and evil contending in opposition for men’s (for these deponents were mostly men) souls. This James Wakelee, accused but escaped witch, was possibly one of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers [Jacobus, p. 627].

Witchcraft is not merely rhetorical.

Nor is fantasy.

Nor science fiction.

Our own words pull our attention out of ourselves, away from what we know, or wish to know, for a while — a little while — to an imaginary world very like our own world (insofar as that world is not itself imaginary), only not, you know, not quite

Not quite the same.


1. He appears on the third list of the “Names of Such Inhabitance as were Granted lotts to haue onely at The Townes Courtesie wth liberty to fetch wood & keepe Swine or Cowes By proportion on the Common,” [Love, p. 125] probably as a result of efforts to attract useful trades to the settlement. James is recorded somewhere — I do not have the reference at hand — as having been a weaver.

2. That is to say, Thomas clearly harbors some animosity towards James, but he is not perjuring himself here. At this point, James has been living in Rhode Island for about seven years, interrupted by a year’s return to Wethersfield which ended with James again fleeing an indictment or the threat of one.

3. There’s more to it than that, of course. But the so-called witches of modern horror stories and movies have nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with it, nor do the antics of those who call themselves witches nowadays. The standardized indictment for witchcraft sums it all up succinctly: “Joane Carrington thou art Indited by the name of Joane Carrington the wif of John Carrington that not hauing the feare of God before thine eyes thou hast Interteined familliarity with Sathan the great Enemy of God and mankinde and by his helpe hast done workes aboue the Course of Nature for wch both according to the Lawes of God, and the Established Lawe of the Common wea thou deseruest to dye” [Adams, p. 93].

4. Genre is a marketing category: where to send the ad dollars, which shelf to plunk the product on. At my local library, books one and three of Paul Park’s Roumania sequence were shelved in the science fiction section, two and four in adult fiction. When I pointed this out, the librarian asked where I thought they should go; I told her it hardly mattered, genre is arbitrary, but keep them together; and she gave me one of those why-do-I-always-have-to-deal-with-the-lunatics looks.

5. It’s probably important to point out here that this is not a question of definitions. The question is how, exactly, words trick us into believing, or temporarily consenting to believe, things that we know are not true, cannot be true, can never be true. There’s more than one way to pull off this trick. The various tricks, or sets of tricks, I am calling a rhetoric. Thus the rhetoric of fantasy is not the same as the rhetoric of science fiction, however we might choose to define those categories.

6. Greek τεχνη = art, skill, craft, trade, science; artifice, cunning, trick; work of art. That’s a good phrase to end this little essay with: science fiction stories are works of art.


Adams, Arthur, editor. Records of the particular court of Connecticut 1639-1663 (Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society Volume XXII). Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1928.

Hoadly, Charles J., editor. The public records of the colony of Connecticut, from August, 1689, to May, 1706. Hartford: Case, Lockwood and Brainard, 1868.

Jacobus, Donald Lines. History and genealogy of the families of Old Fairfield. Volume 1. Fairfield (Conn.): The Eunice Dennie Burr Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, 1930.

Love, William DeLoss. The colonial history of Hartford gathered from the original records. Hartford: Privately printed, 1914.

Taylor, John M. The witchcraft delusion of colonial Connecticut 1647–1697. New York: The Grafton Press, 1908.

Soundtrack I

Earphones are wonderful things, muffling the here-and-now of the acoustical world, and replacing it with some new distraction of one’s free choice. I don’t always work with earphones clamped to my head, but when I do, I need the new noise to be wordless, or in some language I can’t understand. Chamber music is best.

Some recent winners of the repeat-button endorsement (this list is alphabetical to avoid the appearance of a ranking):

Commonplace book I

But what have been thy answers, what but dark
Ambiguous and with double sense deluding
Which they who asked have seldom understood.


If one had studied the human spirit a little, one knows what power the marvelous has over it.


Since inquiry is the beginning of philosophy, and wonder and uncertainty the beginning of inquiry, it seems only natural that the greater part of what concerns the gods should be concealed in riddles.

My favorite libraries

Libraries, any library, have always been to me a species of paradise.

For example, my first visit to the Laurel branch of the Prince Georges County Memorial Library System. The slanted sidewalk up to the glass doors. The circulation desk to the left as you go in, with its mysterious hulking cameras and stacks of Hollerith cards. Children’s section to the right, adult to the far left, music straight ahead. Since this was the sixties, bomb shelter pictographs on a plaque by the door (and a bomb shelter in the basement, behind the bathrooms, the hallway painted that sea-sick dull green found only in public buildings of a certain vintage). And most of all, of course, my incredulity at being told—Mrs. Baxter had to repeat it to me—that I could read any of the books, I could take home as many books as I wanted. Well! Lives were changed, let me tell you.
Stanley Memorial Library

School libraries, elementary and middle and high. Small enough that you can read all of the books in certain sections, large enough to provide constant novelty. Not to mention a refuge from my beloved fellow students, charming and delightful persons, all of them.
Andrew White Library

At college, I spent a lot of time at Clark Libe, when I needed a grind, conveniently just across the gorge from north campus if you knew the basement route through the chemistry building, and almost all of the books there of approximately zero interest and thus no distraction. But my favorite by far was the Andrew White Library. Sundays, I’d wait outside for the doors to open and make a beeline for my favorite carrel on the second level, near the main stacks. And fantasize about having a library like this all my very own. It still figures frequently in dreams, not unpleasant ones—running down an endless iron staircase six steps at a time. It also makes an appearance towards the end of Pale Fire:

Along the open gallery that ran above the hall, parallel to its short side, a tall bearded man was crossing over at a military quick march from east to west. He vanished behind a bookcase but not before Gradus has recognized the great rugged frame, the erect carriage, the high-bridged nose, and the energetic arm swing, of Charles Xavier the Beloved.

Our pursuer made for the nearest stairs—and soon found himself among the bewitched hush of Rare Books. The room was beautiful and had no doors; in fact, some moments passed before he could discover the draped entrance he himself had just used. The awful perplexities of his quest blending with the renewal of impossible pangs in his belly, he dashed back–ran three steps down and nine steps up, and burst into a circular room where a bald-headed suntanned professor in a Hawaiian shirt sat at a round tabled reading with an ironic expression on his face a Russian book. He paid no attention to Gradus who traversed the room, stepped over a fat little white dog without awakening it, clattered down a helical staircase and found himself in Vault P. Here, a well-lit, pipe-lined, white-washed passage led him to the sudden paradise of a water closet for plumbers or lost scholars[…].


Nowadays, I do have a library of my own, a small one of little more than 2000 volumes, but just a short train ride away is one of the greatest research libraries in the world. I mean the Library of Congress, of course. And unlike other libraries of its stature, this one is openly available to any citizen, with or without academic credentials, free of charge: surely a great testament to the idealistic strain of American democracy. My only complaint is that the bathrooms (whether for plumbers or lost scholars) are so far away from the reading room. But what a reading room!

It’s always a thrill just to walk in. And I can read any book I want!
Jefferson Reading Room

Hello world!

The traditional greeting of first-run code. Hello, hello. Greetings, Earthling! The world is large and lost and late, and almost entirely void. Why, just look at all that whitespace.

Let’s fill it up.

With words, naturally, what else?