Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Finding topics for weekly blog posts should not be much of a problem in a country in which political folly is continuous, public turpitude habitual, and really sensational gun slaughter reliably occasional. The trick is to find a topic that one would actually enjoy writing about. Such a topic has occurred to me, but I am not sure it has reader appeal, also known as “legs”. So I turned to my son Richard for advice. Some of you will perhaps remember that Richard’s blog “A Brooklynite on the Ice”, or “Antarcticiana,” inspired me to begin in the first place, a hundred and fifty-seven essays ago. In recent weeks “Antarcticiana” has been a little thin—a circumstance explained by the fact that its bloguiste is quite busy preparing to get married. But he was able to find a little time to give me some advice.
His encouragement to proceed with my proposed topic was emphatic though oblique. He actually didn’t have much interest in the topic one way or the other. But that was his point. In the kindest possible way he explained to me the vulgar error of thinking that any blog could actually be written for an audience. Clearly, it is written for the bloguiste.
In the last decades of my active career I spun various fantasies about how I would spend my time in retirement. I have spent it in fact writing books, hanging out with my grandkids, travelling to pleasant places, and watching several seasons’ episodes of “Breaking Bad”; but I had various other schemes in imagination. One of them was that I could return with a focused application to some amateur interests in the graphic arts—letterpress printing and book-binding in particular. With this vague goal in mind I bought up over the years on eBay, in the good old days when it was still interesting, a certain number of noble but humiliated old books, volumes rendered cheap because of their sad physical condition. I would set up a retirement book hospital in which I might nurse them back to health. I carefully stored them in crates, put them into the deep storage of the press’s lumber room, and generally forgot about them.
Well, this summer, as regular readers will know, I set out on some deep cleaning of the pressroom—an initiative that remains “in progress” as I write. Part of the progress was to get down to a fairly early archaeological level in the lumber room. There I re-discovered some of the crates of old books alluded to above. An impulse stirred within my breast; I feel moved to try to rescue at least a few of them. It then occurred to me that I might write a little about it as I did it, since the unusually cultivated readers of “Gladly Lerne” were bound to be fascinated by the project. It was this irrelevance that was gently exposed by my son Rich. All that matters is that I am fascinated by it.
The first volumes I encountered—abusively misplaced among a crate of reglet—are a once famous edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Specifically they are the two volumes of the seventh edition (1770) of the great “Thomas Newton’s Milton”, the first edition of which appeared in 1749. Like most editions of Newton’s work, this one is beautifully printed. The text of the poem is generously leaded for easy reading, though it generally takes up only about a third of the lavishly and learnedly annotated pages. The beautiful old full calf binding is ruinous. Each volume has a detached front board and a dangling back one. The boards look pretty good, but the backs of both volumes are seriously decayed, particularly that of the second. The text block of the second volume is broken through about midway (between pages 306 and 307, near the end of Book Ten). I am now proposing to dismantle the books, separate and repair the signatures, resew them on tapes (they are now on cords), and rebind them in leather. The backs must be scrapped entirely. It is just possible that I can save and reuse the original calf boards. We’ll have to see. Not everybody knows how books were made, and the old techniques are intrinsically interesting. So I plan now and again to post an illustrated essay showing the evolving process which, with luck, I might complete in a leisurely fashion over a year.
There are plenty of rich incidental topics here: Milton, Paradise Lost, the learned editor Thomas Newton, George Vertue (the engraver of the portrait in the first volume), Hayman and Müller (the painter and engraver, respectively, of the splendid illustrations), Sir John Ingilby (the original owner of the books). Occasional posts concerning them are sure to fascinate
you me. I can express the same hope that Milton had for his epic:
that I fit audience find, though few.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
I stepped out into the early Sunday morning gloom, already ominous with the threat of the impending humid heat that I could feel coming up from the blacktop driveway, to pick up the paper, and immediately retreated to the cool of the kitchen. I made myself a mug of tea and sat at the kitchen table with the front page spread before me. The large article that caught my eye was “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’.” The article is about two mothers of young children in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The women are work colleagues and friends. The author, Jason de Parle, has written very ably about issues of poverty in this country. In this article he uses the two women to exemplify some general patterns of contemporary society.
The gist of the piece is easily summarized in the following two points: (1) stably married mothers of young children tend to enjoy marked financial and social advantages over unmarried mothers of young children, and (2) the children of stably married parents have many advantages that the children of single mothers often lack. Now as a “news” story this one strikes me as ranking somewhere between the revelations that the Pope is Catholic and that bears have hair. Nonetheless, the Times seems to present it as a kind of discovery that parallels, on the sociological level, the isolation of the Higgs boson particle. Its central claims are attested to by “studies”, and blessed with the confirming opinion of a credentialed academic—a colleague in the Princeton Sociology Department, as it happens.
There is very little that is amusing about the crisis of the contemporary American family or in the hardships inflicted on so many of our children and no small number of our women. And certainly there is nothing amusing about the difficulties faced by the unmarried mother in this story. But I do find it a little funny, or at least quirkily odd, that the most obvious kind of moral and economic common sense should be treated as a sociological “discovery”.
Modern society is complex, and many of the grave problems we face in this country are interrelated in complicated and sometimes subtle ways. Blanket suggestions for their remedy are often justly criticized for their simplism. But there is another kind of simplism practiced by many of our policy gurus and academic intellectuals when they refuse to recognize home truths that have been the common wisdom of generations. The old home truth that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage has not been abrogated by the disappearance of equine transportation.
According to Mr. DeParle the illegitimacy rate in this country is now 41%. He does not use the word “illegitimacy,” of course, which has been banned from the vocabulary as politically incorrect and “judgmental”. In fact, it is simply an old legal term reflecting the fact that marriage has traditionally been one of society’s most fundamental legal contracts. If you prefer “out-of-wedlock”, that’s fine. The rate of out-of-wedlock births for black Americans in 2010 was 71%! That is staggering, but according to the article the white lower middle class is rapidly catching up. The unmarried (white) woman in the Times story had three children with her unmarried partner before they split. The author laconically reports that she “has trouble explaining, even to herself, why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned little, berated her often and did no parenting”. Well, the question does occur to one.
To judge and to criticize are actually cognate terms, as we see in the phrase “literary criticism”. A very great deal of our moral and mental lives consists in judging one thing to be better or worse than another. Whatever reluctance there may be to discuss unwed motherhood and deadbeat paternity in a moral context, let alone in a context illuminated by traditional religious values—that is, to be (dreaded word!) judgmental--certain other judgments are inevitably being made. The one chiefly advanced by the Times article is economic. Single mothers and their offspring are often comparatively, or even absolutely, poor. We say that two heads are better than one; two incomes certainly are. So the widening national “income gap,” already extremely troubling, is closely related to the phenomenon of single motherhood.
What is frequently called “cultural capital” is scarcely less important for a young child’s nurture than is material sufficiency. The huge advantage that comes from spending one’s early years in a stable family, with two parents cooperatively engaged in the parenting enterprise, is almost impossible to exaggerate. Such parents read to and with their children, eat with them, take them on cultural expeditions small and grand. Comparatively few of us have trust funds. Most people face financial necessity to greater or lesser degree, but a stable married couple has the option of dividing the labors of breadwinning and of homemaking in the ways most effective for their personal circumstances. All of this takes time, imagination, and a sacrificial effort motivated by love. The challenge of addressing the ravages of what amounts to early cultural bankruptcy is one that has so far been hardly recognized, let alone engaged. A serious national discussion of such topics as the moral and social responsibilities of having children is so inimical to our reigning me-firstism that it is difficult to imagine how it might so much as be set in motion. But I regard it as one of the great social follies or delusions of our time to think that any government program or any public school curricular innovation can provide an effective solution.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Some friends wrote this week to suggest—in the nicest possible way, of course-- that fascinating though my political ideas might be, they would prefer to hear a little more about the trip to Turkey. Well, I can take a hint, especially when offered with all the subtlety of the bubonic plague. It gives me an opportunity to display a few of Joan's gorgeous photographs.
I believe I left off the travelogue suspended in a balloon over some weird geological formations in Cappadocia. But life is not all beer and skittles, and we had to work in some hard-core lotus-eating at Antalya, the seaside resort on the southwest coast where we spent a few days between Cappadocia and Istanbul. From most points of view Antalya seems a very conventional fun-in-the-sun sort of “tourist destination,” the Turkish Riviera. From the architectural point of view it bears the burden of any town of 30,000 transformed over a few decades to a city of a million. In Turkey that seems to mean an artificially preserved old town surrounded by many acres of high rise apartments--buildings ranging in architectural appeal from the merely unprepossessing to the positively hideous--and absolutely God-awful traffic. It is anything but off the beaten track. Last year, apparently, it had more international arrivals than New York City. But they keep the barbarians out of the old town with traffic gates, and there are many nifty old streets to wander about and get lost in. Antalya’s seafront is gorgeous, and the collections in its archaeological museum, housing numerous treasures from such stunning nearby sites as Perge and Aspendos, are stunning.
In the Antalya Museum
We had intentionally saved Istanbul for last. What a magnificent city! Whether viewed from the point of view of sacred architecture, of walkability, of commercial vitality, or of gastronomy, it claims a place in the very highest category. We aren’t the only people who think so. There is in operation in many places in Turkey a kind of tourist’s version of the Heisenberg Principle. An intense desire to see something is so widely shared as to guarantee that it cannot precisely be seen through the swarms of other would-be seers. The National Parks Syndrome threatens a number of the most prominent sites, especially Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace, which at peak hours are simply saturated with visitors. Even at our own favorite monument, the Chora Museum, once a church, it was a near thing. But there one is mainly looking up at the fantastic and splendidly preserved mosaics and wall paintings, which include a copious cycle on the life of the Virgin based in some Byzantine text I had never before encountered in Western form.
At the Chora Museum
But there are literally dozens of old mosques from the classic period in the city, many of them exquisite and sparsely visited. To set off in search of them on foot guaranteed a certain amount of adventure. It was moreover very valuable for me personally to see them, and to be able to contemplate their spiritual grandeur in relative solitude; for they are a rebuke to any confidently negative response to Islam possibly invited by recent world events.
Looking through the grille into the old cemetery, Mehmet Pasha mosque
Our son Rich and his fiancée Katie were in the city to greet us when we arrived. Quite apart from the pleasure of hanging out together, their expertise was of great practical value. Rich is a really savvy, intrepid, can-do kind of world traveler and international gourmet. He had scouted out a good deal of terrain by the time we got there, including numerous places we never would have so much as thought of. He saved me from numerous indiscretions. I really needed a guardian given the fact that I was rube enough to fall for the old dropped-shoe-cleaning-bush-scam.
recorded for posterity
The “old town” of Istanbul, and its touristic center, is Sultanahmet: a thousand hotels, two thousand restaurants, and 28,439 carpet-salesmen loose on the streets. (Well, I’m just estimating the numbers; but you get the idea.) We stayed there, of course, and you probably should too when you go. But just as Greenwich Village is not New York, Sultanahmet is not Istanbul. Rich and Katie are Brooklynites who know that Manhattan is so yesteryear. So one of our richest cultural and gastronomic forays was across the water to happening Kadikoy. There we wandered about a bit before lunching at Çiya Sofrasi, not long ago declared by the New Yorker to be practically a foretaste of Heaven—if they believed in Heaven at the New Yorker, that is. The restaurant's speciality is the profusion of little dishes known as meze, the Anatolian answer to Iberian tapas. Don John of Austria may have won the battle of Lepanto, but in my opinion the Turks come out on top this time.
All this New York stuff, incidentally, is inevitable. Anyone familiar with the two metropolitan areas can hardly escape making certain comparisons. Both cities are all about large numbers of people and lots of water. There are three practical ways to move large numbers of people across water: bridges, tunnels, and boats.
New York does amazingly well with its overtaxed bridges and tunnels, but the only ferry you’ve ever heard of, to and from Staten Island, moves a measly 60,000 people a day. Imagine ten or twenty big passenger ferries in continuous movement across the East River, and another dozen or so in non-stop service from the West side across the Hudson into New Jersey. That was my impression of the water traffic in Istanbul.
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
....and the journey
“What dire Offence from am'rous Causes springs,” writes Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock; “What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things!” He could count on his classically educated audience to “get” the allusion to the opening of Virgil’s Æneid where we learn—if we take the old poet seriously—that practically everything that happened to Æneas, not to mention most of the rest of ancient history, came about because the queen of the gods was snubbed by an Arcadian shepherd in a beauty pageant.
Well, I myself have spent a week of unintended consequence laboring in the Augean stables of my back press room. I cannot call the genesis of this mighty Contest trivial, though it undoubtedly springs from am’rous Causes. You must understand that in my library-study there are, among other things, three printing presses, three type cabinets holding about seventy cases of metal type, two large composing tables, an industrial paper cutter, and various lesser accoutrements of the letterpress printer. In a small storage room behind that, mercifully kept out of sight behind a closed door, are eight more type cabinets, two galley cabinets, a large store of paper, and everything else that must find a “temporary” home on the rare occasions when I really clean up the study.
Returning to the am'rous Causes part: to our great delight our number-one son Richard recently declared matrimonial intention. I will save for a dedicated essay my praise of the delightful and accomplished daughter-in-law elect; but it's safe to say that Rich is marrying up.
But if you’re going to have a wedding you have to have wedding invitations; and if you want classy and distinctive invitations, you’d better apply at my study. So Rich, who is himself a typophile, came down from Red Hook. After a day of unintentional comedy—something like the Lower Two-Thirds of the Three Stooges—our collaboration emerged with a masterpiece of understated elegance. The stock is a high quality mellow yellowish cream, the ink appropriately named “Brick Dust”. But we—or rather I-- also emerged with a royal mess in the pressroom, which, I realized, I hadn’t properly cleaned up after the last wedding invitation. That was number-two son’s (Luke’s), two years ago.
Rich returned to New York, leaving me with a fatal thought, which was this: “You know, you could actually clean this mess up if you were really willing to work at it for half a day.” That was ten days ago. On none of those ten have I worked less than eight hours at my task, and on one of them I had the fully engaged help of my son Luke. The results of nearly a hundred work hours so far approach those of a controlled explosion in the demolition of an abandoned factory.
You know that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. It is, however, quite easy to break eggs without achieving an omelet. Letterpress is a technical term denoting the technology that defined printing for the first five centuries following Gutenberg. Its principal process involves pressing paper down against the inked surfaces of carefully arranged movable types, which are pieces of cast heavy metal of varying surface size but always just under ninety-two one- hudredths of an inch in height--.9186 of an inch, to be exact. In the second half of the twentieth century letterpress technology rapidly became obsolete. For commercial purposes it was almost completely replaced by other methods (usually called “offset”) based in photography and photo-lithography. More recently computer technology has effected a second revolution. The products of letterpress remain, however, the gold standard of the graphic arts. Happily, fine letterpress work continues among arty or eccentric amateurs. I am happy to see that the Boy Scouts of America still include what they call “relief printing,” if only as an afterthought, as a possible path to the “Graphic Arts” (formerly “Printing”) merit badge.
Some letterpress tools: Kinko's, eat your hearts out!
There are a few salient features of letterpress equipment, as viewed from the perspective of one who would set out to clean it up. (1) it tends to be very heavy; (2) it gets very dirty; (3) there are thousands of little pieces that need precisely accurate sorting and storing; (4) it is the easiest thing in the world to scramble these pieces. (5) When you are tired or in a hurry there is an invincible temptation to postpone sorting and storing. Hence (6) it is laughable to think you will get anywhere in half a day!
One way to make progress is simply to throw things away. I’ve used that technique to the extent of twelve wheel barrow loads. It is now possible, if I suck my gut in, to move (sideways) from one end of the storage room to the other. But Luke and I also spent one whole day simply sorting reglet—the thin, precisely cut pieces of maple wood used for line spacing. I’ve spent three days at the wire wheel of a bench grinder cleaning the rust off steel furniture—the larger and even more precisely cut spacing material needed to surround the blocks of composed type in the chase, the steel frame that holds the printing form. All the while I have to try to convince my spouse that beneath the mounting midden of eggshells, not yet quite visible, a scrumptious omelet is taking shape.
Let me wish my fellow patriots a most happy celebration of the anniversary of the publication, in letterpress, of the declaration of our national independence.