Very frequently the writer’s aim is to take apart the world where you have very little control, and replace it with language over which you can have some control. Destroy and then repair. I once wrote a passage in which I had the narrator say, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But there are many motives for writing. Writing a book is such a complicated, long-term, difficult process that all of the possible motives that can funnel in will, and a great many of those motives will be base. If you can transform your particular baseness into something beautiful, that’s about the best you can make of your own obnoxious nature.
A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy—other characters—which the words in a book flow toward and come out of. A white whale is a character; mountains in Under the Volcano are characters. Ideas can become characters. Some of the most famous characters in the history of fiction are in that great novel called philosophy. There’s free will and determinism. There’s substance and accident. They have been characters in the history of philosophy from the beginning, and I find them fascinating. Substance is more interesting than most of my friends.
Now why would one adopt such awkward language—why not just talk about character in the traditional sense? The advantage is that you avoid the tendency as a reader to psychologize and fill the work with things that aren’t there. The work is filled with only one thing—words and how they work and how they connect. That, of course, includes the meanings, the sounds, and all the rest. When people ask, “How are you building character?” they sometimes think you’re going around peering at people to decide how you’re going to render something. That isn’t a literary activity. It may be interesting, but the literary activity is constructing a linguistic source on the page
I want to plant some object in the world. Now it happens to be made of signs, which may lead people to think, because it’s made of signs, that it’s pointing somewhere. But actually I’ve gone down the road and collected all sorts of highway signs, made a piece of sculpture out of these things that says Chicago, 35,000 miles. What I hope, of course, is that people will come along, gather in front of the sculpture and take a look at it—consequently, forgetting Chicago. I want to add something to the world. Now, what kind of object? Old romantic that I am, I would like to add objects to the world worthy of love. I think that the things one loves, most particularly in other people, are quite beyond anything they communicate or merely “mean.” Planting those objects is a moral activity, I suppose. You certainly don’t want to add objects to the world that everybody will detest: “Another slug made by Bill Gass.” That’s likely to be their attitude, but you don’t hope for it. The next question is, why is it that one wants this thing loved? My particular aim is that it be loved because it is so beautiful in itself, something that exists simply to be experienced. So the beauty has to come first.
They will not do us any good—the good books—no—if by good we mean good looks, good times, good shoes; yet they still offer us salvation, for salvation does not wait for the next life, which is anyhow a vain and incautious delusion, but is to be had, if at all, only here—in this one. It is we who must do them honor by searching for our truth there, by taking their heart as our heart, by refusing to let our mind flag so that we close their covers forever, and spend our future forgetting them, denying the mind’s best moments. They extend the hand; we must grip it. Spinach never made Popeye strong sitting in the can. And the finest cookbook ever compiled put not one pot upon the stove or dish upon the table. Here, in the library that has rendered you suspect, you have made their acquaintance—some of the good books. So now that you’ve been nabbed for it, you must become their lover, their friend, their loyal ally. But that is what the rest of your life is for. Go now, break jail, and get about it.
From William H. Gass’s essay “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.
In the ideal logotopia, every person would possess his own library and add at least weekly if not daily to it. The walls of each home would seem made of books; wherever one looked one would only see spines; because every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs, and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they compose a civilization, or even several. Utopias, however, have the bad habit of hiding in their hearts those schemes for success, those requirements of power, rules concerning conduct, which someone will one day have to carry forward, employ and enforce, in order to achieve them, and afterward, to maintain the continued purity of their Being. Books have taught me what true dominion, what right rule, is: It is like the freely given assent and labor of the reader who will dream the dreams of the deserving page and expect no more fee than the reward of its words.
Yet I should like to suggest (despite the undeniable sappiness of it) that the center of the self is this secret, obsessive, often silly, nearly continuous voice – the voice that is the surest sign that we are alive; and that one fundamental function of language is the communication with this self which makes it feasible; that, in fact, without someone speaking, someone hearing, someone overhearing both, no full self can exist; that if society – its families and factories and congresses and schools – has done its work, then every day every one of us is a bit nearer than we were before to being one of the fortunates who have made rich and beautiful the great conversation which constitutes our life.
From William H. Gass’s essay “On Talking to Oneself” (collected in Habitations of the Word).
Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:
[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]
The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph.
July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.
July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.
Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.
The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:
30th March 2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.
This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this?
Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.
I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:
The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:
Friday June 18, 1999
Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..
I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).
Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine):
We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.
“Mankind [unintelligible]!” Ha! Read More
My photographs, I used a lot, but I used them as a teaching tool, and they really worked wonderfully,in a sense. Let’s suppose you’re trying to get the students to understand what [Immanuel] Kant meant when he said that the aesthetic experience is not mediated by concepts. Okay, show them a photograph of a floor of an abandoned building—I used to go into all of these abandoned buildings—that’s been sitting abandoned for years, and there are all these pigeons flying around, and they’ve layered the floor with guano, pigeon shit. Huge warehouses, light coming in shining off this, and it’s gorgeous. So you take a picture, which looks like—you know how with aluminum foil, when you crumple it up and then smooth it out again you have all these little lines and it shines and stuff? That’s what it looks like. So you show them a slide. “Oh, boy,” they say. Then you say, “It’s pigeon shit.” Concept. Bing! And I used to take pictures of dog deposits and bird shit, especially during the season when there was lots of huckleberries, some berries that would stain it, and sometimes it would be quite nice, and I’d use things like this, so they’d see it right away, they’d understand that there are names for things, forbidden them to see, and to get them used to seeing, because they’ll never have an aesthetic experience until they can do that. So I used a lot of it, and some of it would have been okay to put in along with an essay as an illustration, but not as “Look at this as a photograph.”
William H. Gass, in a 2013 interview with Rain Taxi.
I was a slow reader. That is, I was slow getting to be fast. I remember having a hell of a lot of trouble reading in the third grade. I learned how to read in the fifth grade, I think it was. But that’s puzzling, because, although I remember having a lot of trouble when I was in school because I couldn’t read, I also remember that I was reading Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with love and astonishment then. It was the first book I read that I remember with absolute clarity. Yet that was before I officially “learned to read.” By the time I was in the seventh grade I was a speed-reader. I became a member of a speed-reading team. Speed-reading teams were at that time fairly common. Our high school had a team of readers, and you went out and read against other schools, and then did these comprehension tests. One year I was the speed-reading champ of the state of Ohio. I read slowly now. I learned to slow down, and read properly, when I started reading philosophy seriously, and, as a consequence, finally learned to read poetry properly too. Now I’m practically a lip reader again, although I can still go like hell if I have to.
My dad wouldn’t let me have a dog. A dog? A dog we don’t need. My mom made the neighbor’s spitz her pal by poisoning it with the gin she sprinkled on the table scraps. Feed it somewhere else, my dad said. A dog we don’t need. My dad wouldn’t let me have a dog. Our neighbor’s spitz–that mutt–he shits in the flower beds. Dog doo we don’t need. At least feed it somewhere else, my dad said. My mom made the table scraps tasty for her pal, the neighbor’s spitz– that mutt–by sprinkling them with gin. You’re poisoning Pal, my dad said, but never mind, we don’t need that mutt. My mom thought anything tasted better with a little gin to salt it up. That way my mom made the neighbor’s spitz her pal, and maddened dad who wouldn’t let me have a dog. He always said we didn’t need one, they crapped on the carpet and put dirty paws on the pant’s leg of guests and yapped at cats or anyone who came to the door. A dog? A dog we don’t need. We don’t need chewed shoes and dog hairs on the sofa, fleas in the rug, dirty bowls in every corner of the kitchen, dog stink on our clothes. But my mom made the neighbor’s spitz her pal anyway by poisoning it with the gin she sprinkled on the table scraps like she was baptising bones. At least feed it somewhere else, my dad said. My dad wouldn’t let me have a pal. Who will have to walk that pal, he said. I will. And it’s going to be snowing or it’s going to be raining and who will be waiting by the vacant lot at the corner in the cold wet wind, waiting for the damn dog to do his business? Not you, Billy boy Christ, you can’t even be counted on to bring in the garbage cans or mow the lawn. So no dog. A mutt we don’t need, we don’t need dog doo in the flower beds, chewed shoes, fleas; what we need is the yard raked, like I said this morning. No damn dog. No mutt for your mother either even if she tries to get around me by feeding it when my back is turned, when I’m away at work earning her gin money so the sick thing can shit in a stream on the flower seeds; at least she should feed it somewhere else; it’s always hanging around; is it a light string in the hall or a cloth on the table to be always hanging around? No. Chewed shoes, fleas, muddy paws and yappy daddle, bowser odor: a dog we don’t need. Suppose it bites the postman: do you get sued? No. I am the one waiting at the corner vacant lot in the rain, the snow, the cold wet wind, waiting for the dog to do his damn business, and I get sued. You don’t. Christ, you can’t even be counted on to clip the hedge. You know: snicksnack. So no dog, my dad said. Though we had a dog nevertheless. That is, my mom made the neighbor’s pal her mutt, and didn’t let me have him for mine, either, because it just followed her around–yip nip–wanting to lap gin and nose its grease-sogged bread. So we did have a dog in the house, even though it just visited, and it would rest its white head in my mother’s lap and whimper and my father would throw down his paper and say shit! and I would walk out of the house and neglect to mow or rake the yard, or snicksnack the hedge or bring the garbage cans around. My dad wouldn’t let me have a dog. A dog? A dog we don’t need, he said. So I was damned if I would fetch.
From William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel.
Books whose blueness penetrates the pages between their covers are books which, without depriving us of the comfort of our own commode or the sight of our liberal selves, place us inside a manufactured privacy. This privacy is really not that of someone else. It must be artificial because the real world plainly bores us. Impatient, we can’t wait for nature to take its course.
When we take our textual tour through the slums, we want crime, violence, starvation, disease, not hours of just sitting around. We want the world to be the world we read about in the papers; all news. What good is my ring if the couple I am using it to spy on make love in darkness once a month, and then are quick, inept, and silent? Better rob banks. The money is always there. What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her ramp, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s-end muff? I’ve that at home. No. Vishnu is blue in all his depictions. Lord Krishna too. Yes. The blue we bathe in is the blue we breathe. The blue we breathe, I fear, is what we want from life and only find in fiction. For the voyeur, fiction is what’s called going all the way.
The privacy which a book makes public is nevertheless made public very privately—not like the billboard which shouts at the street, or the movie whose image is so open we need darkness to cover the clad-ass and naked face that’s settled in our seat. A fictional text enters consciousness so discreetly it is never seen outdoors . . . from house to house it travels like a whore . . . so even on a common carrier I can quite safely fill my thoughts with obscene adjectives and dirty verbs although the place I occupy is thigh-sided by a parson.
We like that.
Thus between the aesthetically irrelevant demands of the reader and the aesthetically crippling personal worries of the writer, sexuality reaches literature as an idee fixe, an artifically sweetened distortion or an outright lie, while the literature itself leaks quality like a ruptured pipe.
From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry.
The worship of the word must be pagan and polytheistic. It cannot endure one god. The Scots use blue brilliantly, for instance, and have their own term, blae, for gray blue, lead blue, and livid. The hedge-chanter is better known to them as the blue hafit, and if we pursue their names for the lumpsucker or sea owl, a fish of uncouth appearance, we come upon bluepaidle, or the even more common cockpaidle. The dictionary is as disturbing as the world, full of teasing parallels and misleading coincidence. The same fish is called a paddlecock on account of the tubercular skin which envelopes its dorsal ridge and which resembles the comb of that barnyard lord.
From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue.
So I shall, keeping one in each of my four pockets while one is in my mouth, describe five common methods by which sex gains an entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows thieves break in upon our dreams to rape our women, steal our power tools, and vandalize our dreams. The commonest, of course, is the most brazen: the direct depiction of sexual material— thoughts, acts, wishes; the second involves the use of sexual words of various sorts, and I shall pour one of each vile kind into the appropriate porches of your ears , for pronounc-ing and praising print to the ear is what the decently encouraged eye does happily. The third can be considered, in a sense, the very heart of indirection, and thus the essence of the artist’s art— displacement: the passage of the mind with all its blue elastic ditty bags and airline luggage f r o m steamy sexual scenes and sweaty bodies to bedrooms with their bedsteads, nightstands, water-glasses, manuals of instruction, thence to sheets and pillowcases, hence to dents in these, and creases, stains and other cries of passion which have left their prints , and finally to the painted chalk-white oriental face of amorously handled air and mountains,, lewdly entered lakes. The fourth I shall simply refer to now as the skyblue eye (somewhere, it seems to me, there should be a brief pinch of suspense), and the fifth, well, it’s really what I’m running into all my inks about, so I had better mention it: the use of language like a lover . . . not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.
From William H. Gass’s essay-novel On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry.
Remember how the desperate Molloy proceeds:
I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones I distrutibed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pockct of my greatcoat, and putting it in mv mouth , I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat bv a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had fin-ished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets , but not quite the same stones…. But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.
Beckett is a very blue man, and this is a very blue passage.
From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (and of course, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy).
1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.
2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.
3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).
4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.
6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.
7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).
8. These books are:
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
Middle C by William H. Gass
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish
Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark
The majority of Donald Barthelme.
9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).
10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.
The world was at war, sillies. Everywhere. It was a very large war, deserving the name of “World.” It contained countless smaller ones, and the smaller ones were made of campaigns and battles, deadly encounters and single shootings, calamities on all fronts. But history can hold up for our inspection many different sorts of wars, and World War Two was made of nearly all of them: trade wars—tribal wars—civil wars—wars by peaceful means—wars of ideas—wars over oil—over opium—over living space—over access to the sea—whoopee, the war in the air—among feudal houses—raw raw siss-boom-bah—so many to choose from—holy wars—battles on ice floes between opposing ski patrols—by convoys under sub pack attacks—in the desert there might be a dry granular war fought between contesting tents, dump trucks, and tanks—or—one can always count on the perpetual war between social classes—such as—whom do you suppose? the Rich, the Well Off, the Sort Of, the So-So, and the Starving—or—the Smart, the Ordinary, and the Industriously Ignorant—or—the Reactionary and the Radical—not just the warmongers for war but those conflicts by pacifists who use war to reach peace—the many sorts of wars that old folks arrange, the middle-aged manage, and the young fight—oh, all of these, and sometimes simultaneously—not to neglect the wars of pigmentation: color against color, skin against skin, slant versus straight, the indigenous against immigrants, city slickers set at odds with village bumpkins, or in another formulation: factory workers taught to shake their fists at field hands (that’s hammer at sickle)—ah, yes—the relevant formula, familiar to you, I’m sure, is that scissors cut paper, sprawl eats space—Raum!—then in simpler eras, wars of succession—that is, wars to restore some king to his john or kill some kid in his cradle—wars between tribes kept going out of habit—wars to keep captured countries and people you have previously caged, caged—wars in search of the right death, often requiring suicide corps and much costly practice—wars, it seems, just for the fun of it, wars about symbols, wars of words—uns so weiter—wars to sustain the manufacture of munitions—bombs, ships, planes, rifles, cannons, pistols, gases, rockets, mines—wars against scapegoats to disguise the inadequacies of some ruling party—a few more wars—always a few more, wars fought to shorten the suffering, unfairness, and boredom of life.
From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.
416 b.c. Athens besieges the island colony of Melos, an ally of Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War. Melos is chosen for its particular weakness and to prove to others the power of Athens. The Melians refuse to surrender because it would look bad on their résumé (they were a shame society) and result in slavery for their citizens. The Athenians decimate the population by killing the men and boys, taking the women into service, and later repopulate the place with their own kind.
149–146 b.c. Weakened by its victory at Cannae during the Second Punic War, the Romans, who simply outlasted their foe, burned Carthaginian ships, the pride of the sea, in their own harbor, then murdered the men, raped the women, and rampaged each street. Fifty thousand were sold into slavery, although, with such a plentiful harvest, prices could not have been advantageous. Emptied of all contents, the city was razed and left in shards and shatters, but scholars (the pen exceeding the sword once again) waited until the nineteenth century to salt the very earth the city once stood on. It made for a better story. I can only agree.
339. Because, among the Jews and the Magi, the number of Assyrians was, in clear evidence, multiplying, a firman was issued (possibly called a fatwa now) that doubled their taxes. Mar Shimun, head of the Assyrian cities of Seleusa and Ctesiphon, refused to enforce this levy, so it was carried out by collectors of particular violence and brutality in the hope that the Christians would abjure their religion in order to escape taxation and mistreatment. Just in case they did not, on the morning of Good Friday, 339, he had Shimun arrested for treason, all Assyrian vessels seized by the government, priests and ministers put to the sword, and churches torn from their moorings in the earth.
1200 et passim. Genghis Khan carried out mass murders in many of the cities he conquered, Baghdad, Samarkand, Urgench, Vladimir, and Kiev among them. Afterward, he appeared in several inferior films I have been forced by my mother to see.
1850–1890. Having infected the natives of America with smallpox, pushed them from their hunting grounds, thrashed them thoroughly in small engagements over many years, broken numerous treaties and agreements, the colonists resorted to death marches and emaciating dislocations over a period of nearly fifty years (the Trail of Tears that followed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 rid us of four thousand). Feeling a bit ashamed about collecting more scalps than the barbaric tribesmen, the white man made amends with bad booze, attic rugs, and baby rattles. The final indignity, in our present age, is permission we have given to the tribes to oversee and profit from tawdry gambling casinos erected on their reservations. Liquor and various drugs are available at cut rates, especially near borders. Speaking of borders, Dominican dictator Trujillo ordered all cattle-rustling Haitians, living close to the republic’s legal edges, be eliminated. Twenty to thirty thousand were—more than the number of cattle. Haitians speak a sort of French, Dominicans a pretty good Spanish, but the nationalities may otherwise be indistinguishable. The test chosen by their murderers was to require their suspect to identify a sprig of parsley: what is this? Instead of our present choice of curly or flat, Haitians would either say persil or pèsi instead of the Dominican perejil. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired to inspect their prey for circumcisions. Australians treated their indigenous populations rather as Americans did. They began with measles and smallpox, concluded with sabering, burning, and shooting. Tasmanian aborigines were nearly exterminated, but, like the buffalo, have since made a comeback, so all is well. Some claim our pacification program in the Philippines (1902–13), using cholera to do most of the damage, killed more than a million Filipinos, some of whom were actually dissidents. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired by these advances in germ warfare to encourage families of malarial mosquitoes to set up shop in the Pontine Marshes where they produced ninety-eight thousand cases in only two years. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired by their own example in German South-West Africa. They gave to history its first case, it is claimed, of state-organized genocide, led by a man perfectly named for it—General Lothar von Trotha. Two ethnic groups made up the colony’s population. The general removed 80 percent of one but scarcely 50 percent of the other. [Required two cards]
1639–1651. Cromwell’s army invaded Ireland to deny Royalists their farms and to put many of these properties in Protestant hands, at the same time preventing them from serving as a base for the return of the Crown to England. Colonization was indeed a British habit. When the French explored the New World they built outposts to facilitate trade; when the Spanish did so, after the initial slaughter, they settled in among the natives, often marrying them; but when the British arrived they drove the Indians away and built houses for themselves and handsome sideboards for their manners. This was not a new strategy but a successful one, except in Ireland’s case. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired to repopulate Poland, as the Israelis to enlarge Zion. The Irish were encouraged to remain bitter by British behavior during the potato famine of 1845–49. The Brits outpaid the Irish for their own crop, vesseled the potatoes away, and left the people to starve. Stupid, stubborn, slippery: the British do not own these qualities, but in England’s case, they built an empire with them. The Irish moved to big-city America where they became cops. In their spare time, some rioted with German immigrants over saloon hours.
1793–1796. A part of France called Vendée was a persistent arena of religious conflict. It is difficult to separate the killing and maiming that takes place during a war with the sort that qualifies for the Inhumanity Museum. They didn’t want to pay taxes. (I’ve heard that before.) This time the tax was to be paid by their church. Economics and religion will always set a place blazing. At first, supporters of the church and Crown prevailed, the insurgency seemed on the point of success; but the new bloodthirsty Republican state sent a huge army to “pacify” the region by killing most of the people in it. Until these ruffians arrived, there was not enough “inhumanity” to qualify it for membership. Women and children, houses and municipal buildings, flags and symbols, were all equally eradicated. Beliefs had sharp queries run through them, but beliefs, however stupid or foolish or bizarre, have no more material a body than God himself. They cannot be so easily destroyed, and always outlive their believers, if only in quaint volumes and old tomes. There they lie until some half-wit gives them animation.
From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.
A book, you would think, is not a pocket, a purse, or a wastebasket, but people dispose of their sniffle-filled Kleenex between unexposed pages, their toothpicks, too, dirty where they’ve gripped them while cleaning their teeth—such in-decency—matchbooks with things written on the underside of the flap, usually numbers, of telephones, I suppose; or they leave paper clips and big flat mother-of-pearl buttons—imagine—curls of hair and all sorts of receipts as well as other slips of paper they’ve used to mark the spot where they stopped; and they file correspondence between leaves as if a book were a slide drawer—do they do that to their own books?—or they tuck snapshots, postcards, unused stamps, into them, now and then a pressed bloom—they stain, I’ve seen leaf shadows—one- to five- to ten-dollar bills, you’d never guess, yes, rubber bands, a shoelace, candy and gum wrappers—even their chewed gum that I have to pry out with a putty knife—people—people—I dee-clare—and newspaper clippings, often the author’s reviews, that are among the worst intruders because in time they’ll sulfur the pages where they’ve been compressed the way people who fall asleep on the grass of a summer morning leave their prints for the use of sorcerers like me to make our magic.
–From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.
I leave stuff in books all the time. In fact, I almost always leave something (a movie stub, a photo, a note, a picture my son or daughter drew, something) in each book I finished. (I even wrote about it a bit last year). So I guess Miss Moss, the old librarian in Gass’s Middle C, would be royally pissed with my habits. I read this passage a day or two after a visit to my favorite used bookstore, where, looking for books by Grace Paley, I came across an uncracked copy of Breece D’J. Pancake’s super sad super terrific collected stories. I own the book, but in a different edition (fox on the cover), so I grabbed it out. Lo and behold, a postcard!–and of a scene straight out of Pancake’s own semi-beloved West Virginia, no less! The note, a token of friendship, accompanied an inscription in the book itself—is there anything sadder than an inscribed book abandoned to a used bookstore?
I left the book, postcard in it, easily resisting the initial temptation to slide it into one of the Paley volumes. Destined for another reader.
We can’t frisk our customers—I wouldn’t want to put my hands on some—but in the reading room or anywhere—if you see someone taking notes with a pen, you must caution them. Highli—? Indeed. Highlighters—highlighters are evil, they must be immediately confiscated and their users given a talking-to, even if they are marking up their own books or some harmless paper copies. Oh … Marjorie raised her hands to heaven. How I hate highlighters—you don’t use them, do you? Joseph wagged his head. Good, she said, good sign. The dog-ear people do it, stupid students do it, and they will grow dog-ears in due time. You don’t do dogs, do you, Joseph? We never could afford a pet, Joseph said. Good sign. Good sign. Dogs are bad for books. Don’t ever do dogs. They chew. Cats are bad, too. They claw. They love to rub their chins on the corners of covers, leave sneezers of fur. Rub their chins and grin at you. Before they fade from view, Joseph said. Oh, you are a darling, I kiss the nearby air, Marjorie exclaimed.
But it would not be for the last time. The neighboring air got many a smooch. Marjorie’s approval made Joey happy. He was a success.
Do not lean with heavy hands or rest your elbows on a book, even closed, even at apparent peace. You know why, I suppose?
It compresses the covers against the spine and may crack the adhesive.
Do not use a book as a writing board. Points can make indentations, especially—you’d be surprised—on jackets, many of which are waxy, slick, easily marked, for example, with a fingernail. And never put your notepaper on an open book, even to write a word—a dozen crimes in one action there.
I wouldn’t do that. Open books are so uneven.
Never mark in a book not your own, but even then, unless you think you’re Aristotle, never make a marginal note or a clever remark you will surely regret, and always assume the author is smarter than you are—have you written a book on his subject? … well?—so put down your differences on a piece of paper made for the purpose, or keep the quarrel quietly in your head where it will bother only you and never fluster another, not even your future self who will have forgotten the dispute, you can be sure, and will not wish to be reminded.
Marjorie. Not Miss, Mizz, or Ma’am. Marjorie. Marjorie.
It was a nice name, he thought, well syllabled.
Don’t put your palms down on illustrations, reproductions, any page at all, really, because even the most fastidious sweat—men sweat the most, women have more discipline over their bodies—did you know that? except for their hands, their hands are public advertisements, they encounter a porcupine, a precipice, a proposal, and their palms get runny; oh yes, and in the old days, when men kissed a milady’s hand, it was the top of it they put their lips to, not the palm, you never know where the palm has been or what it’s been wrapped around. Well. Where was … Ah … Be wary. Inks may smear. Pigments flake. Thumb oils may seep into the paper, leave prints, and sweat attracts insects, did you know? also there may be a fungus in the neighborhood. Sweat is a magnet.
Gee, I didn’t know that.
Joseph. That is your last “gee.” Never even feel—“gee.” You are a grown-up.
Okay …“Okay” is also out? Gee … Okay.
Marjorie laughed like a wind chime. Good man, she said. Good man.
From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.