Category Archives: Books

Where the Hobbit Came From

Who cannot be charmed by Bilbo Baggins and his gaggle of dwarf companions?  In fact, I have met a few who said that they did not care for the story. But after some questioning, I inevitably discover that in fact, they have not read it. I have read the story through numerous times, and I make the bold claim that it is one of the most charming tales every conjured up by a mere mortal.

But dare we ask where did this charming story from? Tolkein might have frowned at the question. He wrote

We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us. and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.

The soup, of course, is the story itself. The bones – the sources that the author used to give shape to that story. Fair enough. But dare we ask about the process? How did the story emerge from Tolkein’s imagination? Tolken has told this story many times

One hot summer day he was sitting at his desk, correcting students’ examination papers … on English literature. He told an interviewer, “One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it, which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner, and I wrote on it ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Names always generate a story in my mind: eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.” Elsewhere he added, “Later on, some months later, I thought that was too good to leave  just on the back of an examination (paper) … I wrote the first chapter first — then I forgot about it, then I wrote another part. I myself can still see the gaps. …”

You can see Tolkien’s genius in this short recapitulation. He did a small thing. Considered it, and allowed his imagination to buld on it. He himself got pulled into the thing. And what emerges is an amazing tapestry  of customs, languages, traditions, ambitions and the rest.

One of the more beautiful editions of The Hobbit was produced by The Folio Society. Illustrations are by Eric Fraser. Here is an example

Image result for Eric Fraser The Hobbit

I  just ordered this for my library and can’t wait until it arrives! BTW, the above quotes come from “The Annotated Hobbit” with an introduction and notes by Douglas A. Anderson. It is a lovely book, full of illustrations from various translations of the great book.


Remembering the Hound of the Baskervilles

Julian Symons was once an English Trotskyite wannabe, then war combattant, and then prolific crime story writer.  He also wrote a definitive criticque of the crime novel

Symons’s 1972 book Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (published as Mortal Consequences in the US) is one of the best-known critical works in the field of crime fiction. Revised editions were published in 1985 and 1992. Symons highlighted the distinction between the classic puzzler mystery, associated with such writers as Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, and the more modern “crime novel,” which puts emphasis on psychology and motivation.

He also wrote the introduction for the Folio Edition of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” that came out in 1987. His introduction starts off this way

It was in December1893 that readers of The Strand Magazine read with delight but dismay, “The Adventure of the Final Problem”, the dismay springing from the fact that the story saw the apparent death of Sherlock Holmes. The sound of public protest was loud and did not, as Doylke had expected, fade away, but instead became of Wagnerian power. Newspapers, editorials, pleas from Conan Doyle’s mother and from friends, were joined to thousands of letters like one from ‘three ardent admirers’ in Baltimore urging the author ro ‘favour us with another one of your works on the famous detective Sherlock Holmes’. After several years Conan Doyle gave way and wrote “The Hound of the Baskervilles“, although he made it clear that this was an early adventure. Later, he accepted Holmes’s immortality , brought him back from the Reichenbach Falls, and published another novel and three collections of short stories.

Doyle apparently heard of the legend of a spectral hound from his friend, Fletcher Robinson. The two had met in South Africa during the Boer War.  According to Symons, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most successful the Holmes novels. It is also my favorite. Why?  I think it is because of the hero – Sir Henry Baskerville.  A brave young man wanting to do the right thing with his inheritance.

The story starts off this way

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he stayed up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.  I stood upon the hearthrug and picked up the stick that our visiitor had left behind him the neight before.

And so the adventure begins.

BTW, this particular edition includes illustrations by Edward Bawden.

Here is a sample from Dawdwn

Image result for Edward Bawden Hound

I rather like it!

Bawden was much admired by Edward Gorey, whose work you may have seen on TV. Gorey’s work looks like this

Image result for Edward Gorey

The charming creepiness of it all!

Better Not Call Saul …

Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul offer more of a storyline that is persistently popular in America – the deep exploration of guys gone bad. Let’s face it – America loves its fictional criminals.

Why? Could it be that America struggles with an overly aggressive moral code that makes rebellion stories so seductive? Is Better Call Saul the grown up version of the 50’s teen rebellion flick? Is Breaking Bad a riff on the doomed rebellion that Paul Newman played so well in Cool Hand Luke? Or are they Easy Rider without the hippie attire and acid? Or could it be that the amoral criminal better reflects a deep interest in winning at all costs? The dark side of James bond?  Thomas Crown removed from Wall Street? I am not sure. Perhaps it is both.

Perhaps Gatsby distills this brew to its most inebriating level. We don’t really care how Gatsby got his enormous fortune. He has it and uses it to play for the highest stakes possible – true love. That game is played out on the individual level. Societal norms are secondary.  And Gatsby takes us for one hell of a ride as he chases madly after Daisy. Not the real Daisy, but his dream of her. Or is it his dream of himself?

So perhaps in the end,  these stories are really just about adrenilin and motivation. They are as related to Tony Robbins events as they are to Tom Sawyer trickery. What motivates doesn’t matter. But we love seeing what happens after the hero sips some firewater and gets everyone all worked up!

Here is the Guardian’s take on how Better Call Saul is developing.


Are You Part of the Confederacy of Dunces?

If you are, you would be the last to know.

And perhaps being part of a confederacy of this sort is not such a bad thing. If that confederacy is joined by reading John Kennedy Tool’s brilliant novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces”.

Sam Jordison of The Guardian has selected this book for his June “reading group”. So join in! Not just because Sam wants you to, but because this is indeed one of the most entertaining books around.


Margaret Atwood on Plastics

Dame Margaret wrote the Handmaiden’s Tale back in 1985. She wsa already well established as a novelist, poet and activist.

And she has something to say to you about a subject that you probably don’t think about very much – plastics.  We rely on plastics to an astounding degree. So much so that we dump 8 million tons of plastic into the oceans each year. Thta might be ok if plastic was inert. But it is not.

Dame Margaret has a suggestion and it is worth reading.

Gambling and Life

Edward O., Thorp knows a lot about math. You would expect that from a math professor.

Image result for Edward thorp

You might not expect that he would use his knowledge of math to develop systems for gambling. He did that too and he became famous for it. His autobiography is “A Man for all Markets”, and Fred Wilson endorses that book.

The book is about using math to better understand and quantify the risks of taking various actions. That might sound boring. But consider this

  • For most of our history as a species, we have doggedly tried to reduce risk through the pursuit of certainty. Our fascination with religion is jus tone piece of evidence relating to this pursuit.
  • The infatuation with certainty as an ultimate value led to the 20th-century infatuation with ideology and science and quests for the ultimate meaning of everything.
  • We are just starting to realize that humans are not capable of producing certainty on demand. We have to accept uncertainty and risk as part of our systems.

In other words, looking at things from a meta perspective, we are likely to see more and more attention paid to managing risks as part of the value creation process. Less insistence on certainty. More awareness of risk linked to reward.

So are “salaries” a social good? A “tenured positions”? A “job”? All provide a modicum of security – certainty. But compared to what? If this interests you, you might do well by checking out Edward Thorp’s autobiography as part of your summer reading.

From Tanizaki, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi

Junichirõ Tanizaki is an admired master of modern Japanese story telling. Of course, I can only read his works in translation. And this deprives me of getting very close to the author. Still, even in translation, you get a sense of Tanizaki’s great lucidity. He takes you clear-eyed into realms of deep passions.

His story “The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi” starts off this way

There is no way of knowing exactly who the nun Myõkaku was or when she wrote “The Dream of a Night,” but it is clear from the text that she was once in the service of the Lord of Musashi. After the fall of the Lord’s clan, she shaved her head and retired “to a thatched hut deep in the mountains where there was nothing to do but pray to the Buddha day and night.”  Thus it would seem that she recorded her memoirs of the past in the idleness of old age. But why would a nun with “nothing to do but pray to the Buddha” want to compose such a memoir?  She gives this explanation …

We need not read the explanation. We already see by the question that her memoirs are not of the ordinary kind. Something strange lurks in the story. Very strange indeed. We do no thave to read much further to learn of the Lord’s strange sexual appetites.