Archive for January, 2020

Author Mary Pope Osborne talks about first books: “In high school, I wouldn’t have survived without reading.”

Wednesday, January 29th, 2020
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A new video from a powerful advocate for reading. We’ve written about the children’s author, Mary Pope Osborne, before here. She is the author of the Magic Tree House series, which has sold more than 100 million copies and been translated into 30 languages – success by any standards. The series has been awarded by the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Booksellers Association, and she also received the Ludington Memorial Award from the Educational Paperback Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Random House Sales Force.

In the video, she’s discusses the first books that form a bridge into the rest of your life. “I feel like the first books are some of the most important things that fall into your lap in your life. And you have to treasure them for what they did for you. …They were eye-opening and stayed with me. To this day, I can recreate the thrill I had when I first heard them, when I was just three or four years old. In high school, I wouldn’t have survived without reading.”

Full video below. It’s short. Three minutes. (Hat tip to Paul Caringella)

The wild parrots Telegraph Hill are famous – but have you seen the parrots of Palo Alto?

Monday, January 27th, 2020
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At Waverley and Forest: “We were simply amazed to see so many parrots on one true, and more flying in the sky. The tree was full of them and they were eating berries,” says Melonie Chang Brophy, who took the photo.

One of my favorite memories in São Paulo was how the trees in the neighborhood were filled with brilliantly colored chattering parakeets. I didn’t think I’d see them this in North America, even on the warmer side of the continent. But here we are. You’ve heard of San Francisco’s The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill? Welcome to the parrots of Palo Alto!

There were several sightings this month. From NextDoor:

•  “They were on a tree on Middlefield and Channing this past Wednesday. My daughter was in awe in her walk to school! So fun to see!”

•  “They must have a thing about Waverley Street. I’ve seen (but mostly heard) them in Johnson Park, in a tree at the corner of Waverley and Everett. Persimmon tree.”

•  “We saw a flock of them in midtown a couple of weeks ago. They used to hang around the church on Colorado. It was great to see them back!”

San Francisco species (Photo: Dan_H/Flickr)

•  “I just saw a bunch at 4 p.m. today the corner of Lytton and Middlefield. It was pretty awesome to see it in person.”

• “I see (and hear) them on Cowper between Lytton and Everett at least once a week. They showed up around here about 2 years ago. They are so beautiful!”

•  “Thank you for the parrot report! For many years, up until maybe 2016, we had a huge green parrot flock living in the trees next to the Church at Colorado and Cowper. And then they disappeared. So glad to learn they have migrated.”

• “That’s so beautiful. I wish I had my phone with me last year when I saw them at El dorado and Waverley going from tree to tree a whole flock. It was so beautiful!!! I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen a wild parrot before, I thought maybe I was wrong about it. But I guess I was right about what I saw.”

• “They come to my backyard all the time. I have not paid attention this year though. They are really noisy (but so pretty) and they like the plum tree in my backyard.”

(Photo: Melonie Chang Brophy)

Sunnyvale apparently has some birds just like these, too. … But parrots? Not so fast. According to one comment, “These are mitred parakeets [i.e., Psittacara mitratus – ED] a different species from the ones in San Francisco. Probably spread up the peninsula from Sunnyvale. Very cool!”

But … but… but… the mitred parakeets look just like the mitred conures to me. And both, apparently, are famous for screeching. Could these birds be both? Could we be developing whole North American subspecies?

Here’s what KQED has to say about San Francisco’s birds: “The wild parrots in and around San Francisco are called cherry-headed conures. At one point, a mitred conure joined the flock and bred with the cherry heads. Now the flock is dotted with hybrids.  There are a couple ways to differentiate the breeds. Cherry heads have slightly smaller bodies and a red helmet pattern on their heads, whereas mitred conures have a more blotchy pattern of red and feet that are a slightly darker hue.”

More from KQED:

Where Are They From?
The cherry-headed conures come from a small territory spanning Ecuador and Peru. The mitred conures originated from a large territory ranging from Peru through Bolivia down to northern Argentina.

Wild for Palo Alto persimmons. (Photo: Maureen Bard)

How Did They Get Here?
They were brought here to be sold as pets in the exotic pet trade. The U.S. was the largest importer of birds in the world before the government banned the trade of wild exotic birds in 1992.

How Did They Get Out?
The founders of the wild flock of conures either escaped or were released.

***

So what about the Palo Alto birds? They are said to be escapees from Monette’s Pet Shop on California Avenue. I remember it well from years ago. According to one post, a few took shelter in trees just on the south side of Oregon Expressway. Could these be these rugged birds?

Beware! Beware! They are not as innocuous as they might seem:

“Years ago there was a flock of about a dozen who were all over the place in our city. Two local churches had to have work done on their roofs to evict the parrot flock from carving out little caves in the eaves.”

And this: “Many years ago we heard the sound of ripping wood in our attic. I thought it was some aggressive rodent, but when I took a look a saw… a conure I guess making a nest !?!?”

Alfred Hayes’s “My Face for the World to See” at Stanford – a tough look at Hollywood, with a surprise guest, too.

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020
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On October 30, Stanford’s Another Look book club took on Alfred Hayes‘s My Face for the World to See, a tough look at Hollywood by a film industry insider.

Author Alfred Hayes with friend

Photographer David Schwartz preserved the a terrific night for us – with four panelists, including David Thomson, the film critic and author who wrote the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition we were reading.

We had another surprise guest that evening, the author’s daughter, Josephine Hayes Dean, flew out to join us for the evening. David took a photo of that, too.

From left to right above: Another Look director Robert Harrison; the author’s daughter, Josephine Dean; novelist Terry Gamble; National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, and film critic David Thomson.

If you missed the stellar event, you can join us after-the-fact with the podcast here. It really was a lively and incisive discussion about a world where talent is chewed up and discarded, where thousands come to follow a dream that so rarely and randomly gets fulfilled.

Panelists in discussion below, from left to right: Robert Harrison, Tobias Wolff, Terry Gamble, and David Thomson.




Novelist Tobias Wolff’s school of hard knocks

Monday, January 20th, 2020
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Toby @Stanford

Tobias Wolff is one of Stanford’s treasures. The National Medal of Arts winner and professor emeritus of English is one of the nation’s leading writers. He didn’t have it easy, though, and recounts the story in This Boy’s Life. His mother was was the daughter of a naval officer who lost all of his money in the 1929 crash when she was 13. When Wolff was 4, she left her husband and drove with her two sons to Sarasota, Florida. After the divorce, his father married money and took his older brother Geoffrey, while Tobias stayed with his mom. “He sent my mother nothing, not even the small amount a judge had ordered,” he recalls.

He also tells the story in “Tobias Wolff’s Rough Ride,” in the Wall Street Journal here. (And thanks to Liddie Conquest for the heads-up!) Two excerpts:

My mother didn’t scare easily. She had been through a lot after we left my father in 1950. When she remarried in 1957, we lived in Newhalem, Wash., a hamlet of 200.

My stepfather was a drinker. He liked to stop at a tavern 15 miles downriver. He often returned to the car drunk and sped home with my mother, stepsister and me. He took pleasure in frightening us.

The road to Newhalem climbed high above the river on the right. Despite Mom’s pleas to slow down, he took hairpin turns too fast, nearly sending us tumbling down to the river.

My mother’s face would be frozen in terror, but she never said another word. She probably just added the near-death experiences to a long list of reasons to leave him, which eventually she did.

Mother, son, and dog, Sheppy, in Florida, 1950. (Wolff family)

I was born in Birmingham, Ala., where my father, Arthur, was a project manager at Bechtel Corp. He converted civilian planes into military aircraft. My family moved to Atlanta and then to Old Lyme, Conn. My father didn’t belittle my mother, Rosemary, or lay a hand on her. His abuse was extreme irresponsibility and infidelity.

***

In Sarasota, my mother met a man, and we lived with him for a couple of years. He was a good-looking guy, a former cop, who had been living in a trailer off his disability checks. He was physically abusive.

When she left him, my mother drove us to Utah. She was convinced we could become rich by prospecting for uranium deposits there. I was going into the fifth grade.

I loved the drive, staying in motels and crossing the Rockies. I imagined myself a character in a Western. In Salt Lake City, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a Victorian house.

Then the man we’d left in Sarasota tracked us down. We took a bus to Seattle in the middle of the night. We lived in a boardinghouse in West Seattle for a year.

Read the rest here.

Remembering Roger Scruton: “how malleable human nature is, and how unlikely it is that truth will prevail.”

Saturday, January 18th, 2020
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Timothy Garton Ash  (Photo:Christine Baker-Parrish)

Over at The Spectatora lifelong liberal mourns a cheerfully pessimistic conservative. (We’ve written about Stanford’s (and Oxford’s) Timothy Garton Ash here and here and here.)  His remarks are one of a dozen recollections of the late Roger Scruton, who died last week:

“There’s this very interesting Hungarian called, er, I think, Soros,” said Roger, sitting in the bohemian book- and music-strewn thicket of his Notting Hill flat. This was sometime in the mid-1980s, and our shared desire to support dissidents in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary had brought us together. Incredible though it may sound, no one had then heard of George Soros.

Cheerful pessimist

Our conspiratorial missions behind the Iron Curtain were, let’s be honest, also huge fun, but what needs to be remembered is the amount of hard, thankless charitable administration that Roger undertook, between writing his 50 or so books. Yet the boring agenda of those charitable trusts would be enlivened by Roger’s outrageous overstatements about the western intellectual and political establishment, slipping from his lips with a kind of silent chuckle.

The last time we sat down together at any length was when he invited me to talk about free speech at the Inner Temple, an ur-Burkean institution he visibly adored. Afterwards he wrote an email commenting on how one rather forceful, blind Iraqi refugee questioner “had mastered the snobbery of disadvantage so effectively and so much to his own advantage” — characteristically provocative, probably unfair, and yet what a thought-provoking phrase “the snobbery of disadvantage” is. He went on “we are beginning to learn, what of course we should have known from our experience with totalitarian communism, just how malleable human nature is, and how unlikely it is that truth will prevail. But after discussions such as yesterday’s one always feels a little more cheerful.” As a lifelong liberal I shall miss this cheerfully pessimistic conservative.

Read the rest of the recollections here.

Robert Hass’s new poems: “part haiku, part road trip” – and a chance to meet him in Berkeley next Wednesday, Jan. 22!

Thursday, January 16th, 2020
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Keep your eye on him–you’ll get a chance on Wednesday

Robert Hass has a new collection out, a rare cause for celebration (his last was in 2010). “Hass personalizes everything, warms everything up. He’s an open book; but he’s also someone whom readers should, in every sense of the phrase, keep their eye on,” writes Dan Chiasson in “Robert Hass’s Inner History of the Decade,” in the current issue of The New Yorker

He writes:

Hass’s work is a fifty-year standoff between concentration and dispersal: part haiku, part road trip. Hass, who served as the U.S. Poet Laureate in the nineties, and for decades has taught English at the University of California, Berkeley, has published his volumes rather slowly, beginning in 1973. When his new poems turn up, they often embed, almost as an alibi, behind-the-scenes footage of how and where they were written, including outtakes and bloopers. They are shapes made in time, over time, like the mellow hikes and meandering conversations that they sometimes describe. Summer Snow, with its patient count of tanagers, warblers, aspens, and gentian, its year-after-year audit of the dead, its tallies of everything from our country’s drone strikes to his friends’ strokes, is Hass’s inner history of the decade. It arrives right on time.

“Nature Notes in the Morning,” an early poem in “Summer Snow,” distills Hass’s method: first, some short, almost neutral captions (“East sides of the trees / Are limned with light”), followed by jotted ideas and judgments (“Just distribution theory: / Light”), along with memories and associations (“What do I know from yesterday?”). The effort is precise, not random, like a chef adjusting his seasonings. The word “notes” has a double meaning, and, as often happens in a Hass poem, a tune starts to form out of scattered impressions. To render “the way light looked on plums,” Hass tells us, the eighteenth-century Japanese artist Itō Jakuchū “smuggled Prussian blues from Europe.” The poem starts to conflate its own colors with the names of painters’ dyes (“Last streaks of sunset: alizarin”) and crests with an anecdote about “the old art historian” who told Hass to pick up a brush and paint “small rectangular daubs so that they shimmer”—or else to “shut up about Cézanne.” Accuracy in painting, which may depend on whether your country has an embargo on the source of the perfect blue, seems to chasten Hass’s comparatively too easy art.

Read the rest of the article here.

Now here’s a cool thing: You have a chance to meet and talk with the poet himself, should you happen to be, by chance or design, in Berkeley next Wednesday for a lunchtime talk at Heyday Books. The talk begins at noon, and, like all Heyday talks, takes place at 1808 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. The catch: you must RSVP by Monday, Jan. 20 – drop a note to:  “emmerich (at) heydaybooks (dot) com.”  Tell him I sent you. (Bonus prize: you get to meet my humble self! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.)

Roger Scruton: “You are accused by the mob, examined by the mob, and condemned by the mob.”

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020
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“By joining the mob, you make yourself safe.” (Photo: Pete Helme)

Sir Roger Vernon Scruton died on Sunday. I knew nothing, really, about the British philosopher of politics and culture, but on his death, his name began appearing in my Facebook newsfeed.

The most intriguing reference was from my friend George Dunn, who posted Scruton’s review of Douglas Murray’s recent book  called The Madness of Crowds, “which addresses scapegoating and crowd derangement within our current political environment. As one might expect, Murray invokes René Girard along the way. Scruton summarizes the unseemly state of affairs to which Murray’s book is a response in language redolent of Girardian insights.”

He cites this passage from Scruton’s essay: “You are accused by the mob, examined by the mob and condemned by the mob, and if you have brought this on yourself, then you have only yourself to blame. For the mob is by nature innocent: it washes its own conscience in a flow of collective indignation, and by joining it you make yourself safe.”

George continues: “Murray’s proposed antidote to this madness is also quite Girardian—a rediscovery of the power of forgiveness. But Scruton wonders whether we are still capable of this gesture in an era when religious faith has receded into the cultural twilight: ‘Can we adopt the posture of forgiveness that Murray is so keen to advocate, without turning to the supreme example that was once given to us?'”

“We might be reminded of what Girard has said about political correctness as a faux super-Christianity, which mimics the Christian concern for victims, while turning it into an instrument for gaining political, social, or spiritual power. When the concern for victims becomes an ideology of ‘victimism’ divorced from such traditional virtues as charity, forgiveness, and humility, Girard believes it becomes something diabolical.”

René Girard on “victimism” divorced from charity

In the article, Scruton writes, “The archive of your crimes is stored in cyberspace, and however much you may have confessed to them and sworn to change, they will pursue you for the rest of your life, just as long as someone has an interest in drawing attention to them. And when the mob turns on you, it is with a pitiless intensity that bears no relation to the objective seriousness of your fault. A word out of place, a hasty judgment, a slip of the tongue — whatever the fault might be, it is sufficient, once picked upon, to put you beyond the pale of human sympathy.”

Another passage:

The crimes for which we are judged are existential crimes: through speaking in the wrong way you display one of the phobias or isms that show you to be beyond acceptable humanity. You are a homophobe, an Islamophobe, a white supremacist or a racist, and no argument can refute these accusations once they have been made.

Book under review

You might, in your private life, have worked for the integration and acceptance of your local Muslim community, or for a wider understanding of the roots of Islamic philosophy. This will be irrelevant when it comes to rebutting a charge of Islamophobia, just as your record in promoting minorities in the workplace will do nothing to clear you of the charge of racism, once the crucial words are out.

For your accusers are not interested in your deeds; they are interested in you, and in the crucial fact about you, which is whether or not you are “one of us”. Your faults cannot be overcome by voluntary action, since they adhere to the kind of thing that you are. And you reveal what you are in the words that define you.

Read the entire article here. Scruton concludes: “My own solution — which is to ignore social media and to address, in my writings, only the interest in the true and the false, rather than in the permitted and the offensive — confines me within a circle that is considerably narrower than the Twittersphere. But here and there in this circle, there are people who do not merely see the point of truthful discourse, but who are also eager to engage with it. And I cling to the view that that is enough, as it was for the Irish monks who kept the lamp of learning alight during the Dark Ages. They may have thought they were losing, but they won in the end.”

“There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want.” A reflection on conspicuous consumption.

Thursday, January 9th, 2020
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Preach it, Mr. Monbiot! (Photo: Creative Commons)

It’s always bugged me: the recycling fascists among my friends are the very people who go to the Bali for their winter break, posting photos on Facebook of what they’ve consumed in restaurants, hotels, and bars along the way.

Well, it’s always fun to tell other people what to do. But it shouldn’t be confused with virtue. Environmental activist George Monbiot published a variation of the theme over the holiday season, when the memory of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s was still fresh. His article, Pathological consumption has become so normalised that we scarcely notice it,”  is on his website (it was earlier in The Guardian) is hilarious and true.

An excerpt:

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map.

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

How about living a little more modestly? Not for the sake of being more politically correct, but for its own merits, recognizing we could live on a fraction of what we do and walk more lightly on the earth. I’m not a Marie Kondo fan – in the end, throwing out stuff is just another kind of conspicuous consumption. and things need not spark “joy” to be worth saving – some spark grief, contrition, conscience, remembrance. If I were to get rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy, I would have to trash my bills, my cellphone, buckets of legal records, the bathroom plunger, jumper cables, and a few people I know.

Monbiot continues:

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

He concludes: “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.” Read the whole thing here.

Werner Herzog: “Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading.”

Sunday, January 5th, 2020
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“I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.” (All photos by L.A. Cicero)

You’ve listened to the podcast, you’ve seen the movie. Now you can read all of Robert Pogue Harrison‘s landmark interview with Werner Herzog, on the subject of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrineover at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

A few excerpts:

ROBERT POGUE HARRISON: In your conversation with Paul Cronin in 2014, you say, “Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the internet or watch too much television lose it. […] Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.” Could you share with us some of your thoughts about your relationship to reading books and the value of the literary?

WERNER HERZOG: In a way, it has been something that is guiding me throughout my life. Beyond this auditorium, there are many more students at Stanford University, and many of them do not really read — including film students. They read a book about editing, but they haven’t read, let’s say, the dramas of Greek antiquity. And I keep saying to them you have to read. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will become a mediocre filmmaker at best, but you will never make a really good film. And almost everyone that I know who has made very strong, very good substantial films are people who are reading all the time. I see three, four films a year, maybe sometimes a little bit more during a festival, but I do read.

“No, I have no nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgic person.”

And of course, I’ve written prose and some poetry. I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.

Is that right?

It’s very, very clear. There’s no doubt whatsoever in me.

Why is that?

When you make a film, you have cameras and production money and actors, a lab or a post-production editing. Many, many layers of very vulnerable elements. When you write, you just write and there’s nothing else. It’s a completely direct form of expressing something.

***

There seems to be an interest, on your part, in people who have this nostalgia to reconnect with the earth. Is that correct?

No, I have no nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgic person.

I grew up in the very secluded in the mountains of Bavaria, with no real technology around. Of course, I was connected to the mountains. And then, more than anything else, traveling on foot. I would walk 1,000 kilometers for very existentially important reasons. I would travel on foot, not with a backpack — not with my household, a tent, and a sleeping bag on my back. I have understood, first, that it’s a solitude that is unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t done it. And second, a dictum: the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.

“That’s how a filmmaker should see things: in loneliness.”

You see a connection with the German poet Hölderlin, whom I really love more than anyone else. He traveled on foot and actually became insane. He traveled from Bordeaux to Tübingen or Frankfurt and arrived stark mad. He had a premonition of insanity coming at him, creeping up on him. He describes it in some of his poems in a very secretive form. Very, very tragic man. He understood the outer fringes of our language. He understood the essence of being solitary, of solitude.

I keep saying to the Rogue Film School students that The Peregrine is a book that is the absolute must-read piece of literature, because that’s how a filmmaker should see things: in loneliness. He or she or it should see the world with an incredible amount of human pathos and enthusiasm and rapture.

He sees with ecstasy. He has such rapture, such enthusiasm, such passion. That’s the way a filmmaker should see the real world and people and everything around us — with an enormous amount of passion. But that’s not all. Anyone can have this passion, but he writes in a language, with a caliber of prose, that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad’s short stories. That’s why I find this a very, very decisive book for anyone who wants to make films. By the way, for anyone who is becoming a writer, you will have to read it, learn it. Learn the whole book by heart.

***

Let me make a case for facts. A quote from Henry David Thoreau, in one passage from Walden where he says, “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”

I crave many other things beyond reality. It’s a very impoverished life if we go only for that. Even a good steak is a form of ecstasy sometimes. You shouldn’t dismiss that the primitive things of real, everyday life can acquire different quality.

And facts and ecstasy go together.

No, they do not marry.

They do not?

Truth gives you an illumination and transports you into a state where you step outside of your own existence in an ecstasy. You can, for example, find it in the writings of late medieval mystics — that kind of ecstasy. That’s the beauty of this book.

Read the whole thing here.

Happy New Year’s to all – from the Book Haven!

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
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