Thursday, August 01, 2013

`We Expand to Its Bulk'

The reader in Dallas who recently emailed a nice passage from Edward Seidensticker’s Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (1983) has followed up by sending me a copy of the book, which I’m now reading. In a subsequent email he writes: 

“I find I can become interested in almost anything -- Liebling on boxing comes to mind -- if it’s the subject of a well-written book or essay. Not to suggest that Japan wouldn’t otherwise be interesting, but presentation is always important.  I hope you find it enjoyable.” 

I do, and I enthusiastically agree with my friend’s judgment of what makes a book readable. Some subjects are irresistible. I would read almost anything written about, say, Louis Armstrong, ferns, etymology and Samuel Johnson. On the other hand, almost the only subjects I can’t imagine reading about, regardless of how well written the article or book, are economics, finance, monetary policy and banking – brittle, lifeless, soul-sucking matters. I read a lot of Marx when young, disproving my point, but I still haven’t read Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek. 

The Liebling volume is a perfect example of great writing about an unpromising subject. Likewise, I have no interest in gambling but occasionally reread A. Alvarez’s wonderful The Biggest Game in Town (1983). I knew little about César Franck and his music but I’m enjoying César Franck: His Life and Times (2012) by R.J. Stove. Uruguay is a vast emptiness in my knowledge of the world, but I wish more novels by Juan Carlos Onetti would be translated into English (find La vida breve, 1950; trans. as A Brief Life, 1976).

Which brings to mind Herman Melville, born on this date, Aug. 1, in 1819. What subject could be less attractive than whaling, a savage business? In Chapter CIV of Moby-Dick (1851), “The Fossil-Whale,” Melville writes: 

“Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” 

Ishmael was born too soon to read Brendan Lehane’s The Compleat Flea (1969).

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