Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Sypeck’

“Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before,” says medievalist. “We take solace in looking ahead.”

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

From the Consul-General of France in San Francisco…


The Notre Dame has been saved, though the repair work is predicted to take decades.

President Emmanuel Macron apparently wants it tout de suite, in time for the Paris Olympic in 2024. Guess he has a learning curve ahead of him. French officials quickly declared it was a renovation mishap – even while the flames were still leaping over Paris. They all but ruled out arson completely. This is strange, because attacks on French churches (as well as Jewish and Muslim sites, to a lesser extent) have been rampant of late – hundreds vandalized or desecrated in the last year alone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a disgruntled teenager with a box of matches or a vast terrorist conspiracy, the millions for restoration will be money wasted if there’s no attempt to confront the causes. Let’s hope the officials know something we don’t – for example, other issues with lax precautions during the renovations. Let’s also hope they’re not looking for a scapegoat.


To some extent, the Notre Dame is a fiction of antiquity – we addressed that yesterday with Sara Uckelman’s heartening comments. Book Haven friend and medievalist Jeff Sypeck wrote on the same topic yesterday in his blog Quid Plura yesterday: “Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before.” The spire that fell, for example, is not medieval. It was added in the 19th century. The cathedral been in dilapidated shape before: a 1840 daguerrotype shows “the great cathedral appears as a disintegrating patchwork pile,” according to author Michael Camille.

“The best known 19th-century additions to Notre-Dame are probably the 54 gargoyle-like creatures known as ‘chimeras,’ the most famous being ‘le Stryge,’ the bitter critter on the cover of Camille’s book. Within a few years, artists, photographers, and postcard-sellers were treating these new grotesques not as recent decorations meant to ‘look medieval,’ but as ancient survivors, timeless objects of melancholic contemplation, as if Notre-Dame had witnessed the centuries but had, through some miracle, remained untouched by them,” Sypeck writes.

Later additions … much later …

“When tourists at Notre-Dame in 2100 hear about the devastating fire of 2019, they won’t comprehend it. Even if docents point out a scorched pillar or emphasize the relative newness of the roof, visitors will know in their bones that they’re standing in a sacred place that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, as most tourists felt before yesterday’s fire. They’ll rightly look backwards, blind to the fire and smoke; so we now take solace in looking ahead.”

A Google search turned up Dwight Longenecker, who offered some orientation for those among us who were confused by exactly what happened:  “This is down to the way the church is designed. The whole building, except for the roof is constructed from stone. The ceiling of the nave is a vault designed by interlocking arches all built from stone. This acts like a cap covering the nave. To protect the vaulting, on top of that is the comparatively lightweight wooden roof structure which is invisible to anyone in the interior. It is this wooden roof which went up in flames, and the fire apparently started there in what is essentially attic space.

“If a fire started at floor level it could have gutted the interior, but it would have been almost impossible for the flames to reach the height of the roof beams, and even if the fire went that high it would have to burn through the stone vault to reach the roof beams.

“This design element explains why most of the interior was spared and why the restoration will not be that long or that expensive. They will have to repair the damage to the vault where, I believe the central spire crashed through the stone vaulting, and they will have to design and build a new roof, at least that’s how it looks this morning.”

In 1840: “a disintegrating patchwork pile”

Rolling Stone quoted Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of art history at Harvard University whose research focuses on the art of the High and later Middle Ages: “The fact that the building did not collapse — a concern in the hours immediately following the blaze — serves as a ‘powerful testimony to the skill of medieval builders,’ Hamburger says. He credits the survival of the structure to the building’s iconic rib vaulting and flying buttresses, which prevented collapse. ‘It’s worth remembering why they went through the trouble building it this way — it wasn’t for aesthetic reasons, it was for fire-proofing,’ Hamburger says. ‘In a way, what we have here is proof of concept.’”

Other observations from around the web:

Douglas Murray writing “The Notre Dame’s Loss is Too Much to Bear” in The Spectator: “There will be recriminations, of course. There will be disputes about budgets, and overtime and safety standards and much more. It is worth reading this piece from two years ago about the funding problems that existed around the cathedral’s restoration. But if Notre Dame can burn then all this is as nothing, because it tells us something too deep to bear. As I said a couple of years ago in a book, in some ways the future of civilisation in Europe will be decided by our attitude towards the great churches and other cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst. Do we contend with them, ignore them, engage with them or continue to revere them? Do we preserve them?

“Though politicians may imagine that ages are judged on the minutiae of government policy, they are not. They are judged on what they leave behind: most of all on how they treat what the past has handed into their care. Even if today’s disaster was simply the most freakish of accidents, ours would still be the era that lost Notre Dame.”

Pamela Druckerman in “Were the Caretakers of Notre Dame. We Failed.” in the New York Times: “Though most Parisians don’t visit often — and some never do — Notre-Dame is more than just a tourist attraction or a historic monument. It sits in the middle of the city, walking distance from practically everywhere, on the bank of the river that divides the city. Residents might not have fully realized it until Monday, but I think it reassured them to know that at the heart of their highly planned city was someplace entirely non-rational and non-Cartesian. Notre-Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence has long suggested that there is something mysterious and unknowable at the center of it all … In his address to the nation, Mr. Macron described what Parisians are feeling as a ‘tremblement intérieur’ — an internal trembling. That’s an accurate description of our sense of emptiness and loss. There’s also a shared sadness and disappointment that, with the extensive damage, we’ve failed, as a civilization, to be the caretakers of something priceless. A hundred years from now, people will still be talking about the fire of 2019.”

She was taken to task by the inevitable combox harpies. Philistines and utilitarians grumbled about the money. But one woman named “Diane” had a reasonable bone to pick: “‘Notre Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence’? Some buildings hulk, but Notre Dame looks like it’s about to take wing.”

Over at Spinditty, a blogpost about the school of early music that started at Notre Dame.

Perhaps the most witless remarks were those quoted in The Rolling Stone. Take this paragraph: “’The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of ‘the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,’” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.”

Some folks get their joie de vivre in some places, some of us elsewhere. And some of us thought it had plenty of joie de vivre already. I guess it’s what you bring to it. Hey, Notre Dame! Lighten up! (Some ideas below.)

E.J. Dickson continues: “Now that the world has rallied in support of the rebuilding of the cathedral, however, and donations have started pouring in from all over the world, there’s likely to be renewed interest around the cathedral as an emblem of French history and culture.” And, of course, religion.

The Associated Press article except is here. Said Titus Tichera on Facebook: “So if French Catholics want to not be the laughingstock of whoever the hell even cares anymore, they should take a long hard look at this, reported by AP, think things through, and start organizing: ‘The cultural heritage envoy for French President Emmanuel Macron says it is realistic to reopen Notre Dame Cathedral to the public in five years. Following a meeting at the presidential palace about the cathedral’s reconstruction: Macron’s goal is to allow visitors coming for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris to visit Notre Dame. Macron told the meeting that the new spire will hinge on the results of an international architecture competition.’ This is Philistinism of a very high order–I would rate it as high as desecration. One has to admire the drugged air of death on their breath.”

Who wore it better?

Tuesday, May 9th, 2017


Nearly four years ago, we planted some columbine seeds, thanks to Nora Munro over at The Belfry.  The occasion was memorable, for the Book Haven hardly ever goes outdoors into the sunshine, let alone in the dirt. We commemorated the occasion with a blogpost, “Digging History,” on July 6, 2013:



“I met Nora through one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, over at Quid Plura.  His link to “où dort la mélancolie” enchanted and intrigued me. Nora is trying to grow as many authentically medieval plants as she can – but the mid-Atlantic weather isn’t helping.  “I still love the flowery fields in mediaeval paintings, and it pleases more than is probably reasonable that this columbine is exactly the same as the ones in Hugo van der Goes‘ Portinari altarpiece of 1476,” she wrote.  Yes, it’s that Portinari family.  The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an agent for the Medici bank in Bruges, and he’s somehow related to Dante‘s beloved Beatrice.



“Can you see the flowers in the altarpiece above?  I thought you wouldn’t.  Try looking at the photograph from Nora’s garden right.  Then compare with the enlargement from the Portinari altarpiece at left.  Pretty cool.  So I was thrilled when the envelope arrived from Annapolis a few hours ago with … my own seeds.

The Enclopedia Britannica has yet another version: “The scattered violets indicate Christ’s humility; the columbine flowers represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit with which Christ was endowed at birth. The flowers in the albarello (pottery jar) are in royal colours, for Christ was of the royal line of the Israelite King David.”

“But the big queston is: will they grow?  I’ll let you know how it goes…”

Now the Book Haven is faithfully reporting back to you. They grew. The distinctive columbine leaves have been evident for years. But until this spring – no flowers.

Then… surprise! But perhaps the bigger surprise was that they appear more purple than the navy-blue ones in the painting – or in Nora’s garden.



Could it be from the sunshine, bleaching my delicate flowers to a rich purple hue? (As well as bleaching the leaves to a much paler green?) The Book Haven hopes that our readers can answer this mystery.

Meanwhile, here’s a bit of columbine trivia I culled from the world wide web: Obviously, the name “columbine” comes from the Latin word columba, which means dove. But why, why, why are these little blossoms associated with doves? The answer: when the blossom is flipped over, some imaginative people see a ring of doves drinking in a fountain. That’s why they have often been used in art to represent the dove of peace, the Holy Spirit, or anything else that involves a dove.

Why, then, the formal botanical name “Aquilegia,” which is Latin for eagle? Again the imaginative, perhaps drug-addled, note that the spurs of the blossom resemble an eagle’s talons. The eagle is also cited as a reference to the wing-like petals or the closed bud of the flowers which looks like an eagle’s head.

Same flower. Different bird. Go figure.



Wigilia, Part II: Small favors yield big payoffs

Friday, December 19th, 2014


Several days ago, I received word that a big package was waiting for me at the Stanford English Department, Priority Mail. I couldn’t imagine what it was, except more unrequested books from publishers when I can’t even get to the requested ones. I didn’t get back to campus to collect the package till today.

Imagine my surprise when it contained the second installment of the Wigilia season! I had done a small research errand at the Stanford Libraries for one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, blogger at Quid Plura – something to do with a big, obscure tome in German.

becoming-charlemagne-coverThis was his small seasonal way of saying “Danke!” To which I return with a “Dziękuję”! Jeff had apparently read my Wigilia post (it’s here), and headed for his neighborhood Polish shop in Washington, D.C., I can’t help but think this is destiny calling me to do another book about Polish literature. (My most recent one, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, I’ve written about here and here and here and here – endlessly, really.)

Jeff will be familiar to Book Haven readers as an occasional correspondent, and also the author of a book on Charlemagne, and another book, a short collection of witty poems on the unusual subject of gargoyles, to benefit the restoration of National Cathedral in D.C., where he strolls through the gardens on his walks (more about that here). The book is available on Amazon here (a great holiday gift!) – or pick one up in the National Cathedral gift shop, if you’re in D.C.

lookingup-coverI put my Polish cache on my Warsaw tablecloth above. The thing about Polish, is that it’s not too hard to figure out if you have a few pronunciation keys: “czekoladki marcepanowe” is chocolate marzipan. “Jabłko z cynamonem” is cinnamon tea. All but the heavily initiated will be lost with “borowików,” which is a porcini mushroom, but the “koncentrat” with the photo shows that this may be a good addition to a mushroom lasagna. Meanwhile, I have a zillion Christmas cookies to make tonight, so…

The packages will wait long past Wigilia, for the annual family Twelfth Night gathering at my house – though I did cheat with the marzipan, for which I have a pronounced weakness. No Shakespeare this year, but perhaps we could read a poem or two. We might start with the lines on the card from Jeff, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s “Christmas Bells”:

The world revolved from night to day,
.   A voice, a chime,
.   A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!


Digging history

Saturday, July 6th, 2013



The problem with most of my gardening efforts is that when I get excited about growing flowers or herbs, I go out and buy some books about the subject, and that satisfies the impulse entirely, and soon it goes away. I rarely get to the messy business of actually digging around in the dirt with my fingernails, what with worms and bugs and all.

belfryThis time I’ve gone so far as to actually get some seeds, thanks to Nora Munro over at The Belfry.  I met Nora through one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, over at Quid Plura.  His link to “où dort la mélancolie” enchanted and intrigued me. Nora is trying to grow as many authentically medieval plants as she can – but the mid-Atlantic weather isn’t helping.  “I still love the flowery fields in mediaeval paintings, and it pleases more than is probably reasonable that this columbine is exactly the same as the ones in Hugo van der Goes‘ Portinari altarpiece of 1476,” she wrote.  Yes, it’s that Portinari family.  The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an agent for the Medici bank in Bruges, and he’s somehow related to Dante‘s beloved Beatrice.

Can you see the flowers in the altarpiece above?  I thought you wouldn’t.  Try looking at the photograph from Nora’s garden left.  Then compare with the enlargement from the Portinari altarpiece at right.  Pretty cool.  So I was thrilled when the envelope arrived from Annapolis a few hours ago with … my own seeds.

columbinesNow, I had thought columbines are supposed to symbolize folly, as in the “Columbine” character in commedia dell’arte.  But Nora corrects me: “During the Middle Ages, the flower was associated with the Holy Spirit (columbine < L. columba, dove).  In the Portinari Altarpiece, the detail I linked above with the columbines is in the central panel, as part of a depiction of the nativity, with lilies and irises, both of which were associated with the Virgin.”

The Enclopedia Britannica has yet another version: “The scattered violets indicate Christ’s humility; the columbine flowers represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit with which Christ was endowed at birth. The flowers in the albarello (pottery jar) are in royal colours, for Christ was of the royal line of the Israelite King David.”

But the big queston is: will they grow?  I’ll let you know how it goes…

Happy Halloween – here’s the best pumpkin evah.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah.  This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria.  I wonder how long it took to make.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of the day, you might want to revisit Dana Gioia’s ghost story, or more recently the Jeff Sypeck’s take on the spooks from the rooftops of Washington’s National Cathedral.  Or how about George Orwell on love, sex, religion, and ghosts. Or… or… or… Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween.

Enjoy the day, and take it easy on the candy.  Read a book instead.

Postscript:  From high art to pop art in a few quick hours.  Here’s another pumpkin to celebrate the day.  Sculptor Andy Bergholtz created the jack-o-lantern Joker in one manic 8-hour stretch:

“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted.  Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.'”

Want to know how the artist did it?  See video below.

Goyle of my dreams: Things are Looking Up for Jeff Sypeck

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Our Washington-based medievalist and occasional correspondent Jeff Sypeck, author of Becoming Charlemagne, walked past these stones every day.  At last, he succumbed  to the impulse to write formal poems in honor of the gargoyles at the National Cathedral.  As he wrote on his blog Quid Plura: “Some books you plan to write; others simply happen. Looking Up definitely falls into the latter category. It’s a great surprise to me that it even exists; I hope you’ll find something pleasantly surprising in it as well.”

The result is Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles.  Just in time for Halloween,  Jeff’s book offers us “monsters both malevolent and benign.”

According to the book jacket:  “Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles gives voice to the National Cathedral’s famous gargoyles and grotesques. From light verse and straightforward sonnets to strange soliloquies and songs, the 53 poems in this book draw on medieval myth and legend, local lore, and the weirder side of Washington. Across 138 pages, you’ll find a tragic octopus-lobster love story, a broken angel, a fish with a cryptic riddle, a Cajun alligator, an agnostic hamster, quarreling rabbits, wistful cavemen, a knife-wielding goblin, mother-son monsters, and dragons galore.”

Looking Up exists “through the kindness of the folks at the National Cathedral, who graciously let their publication-shy gargoyles appear on its pages.”

Jeff is offering a little kindness of his own:  since much of the cathedral is still in desperate need of repair after last year’s earthquake, he’s donating 75 percent of the net profits from this book to the cathedral’s fund for reconstruction.  Says Jeff: “It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds.”

Jeff, who taught medieval literature for a decade at the University of Maryland, has been pleased by the response so far to his “unfashionable folly.” He wrote me: “This book has everything working against it: it’s local, formal, print-only, and medieval-inspired – but people seem to be getting a kick out of it, which is gratifying.”

The book is available on Amazon (I’ve ordered mine already) – or pick one up in the National Cathedral gift shop, if you’re in D.C.

Meanwhile, to tide you over, here’s one of the small volume’s more popular poems, with photo of the lobster and octopus in question.

An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster

I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love.
The trees wilt below us; there’s nothing above.
You snore and I shudder, for sleepless I know
The oath of adventure we swore long ago:

“Between us, our limbs number eighteen in all;
Let’s creep from this tank and slip over the wall
And forever be free! Let’s aspire to perch
On a spire of our own on the loftiest church.”

You clawed at my tentacle, tender and green,
Like the first awkward kiss of a king and his queen.
You scuttled, I swam; through the garden we went.
Where grass gripped the stones, we began our ascent.

A lobster lives long, as no octopus can,
But a lobster has in him but one perfect plan.
I longed for longevity. No girl expects
To ask of her lobster, “So what happens next?”

You curl up contentedly, dreaming of me;
I cling to my cornice and scarcely feel free.
“I won’t let you down,” you once vowed, and I sighed.
I love that you’re honest. I wish you had lied.

Who’s next? One by one, we fall off the “free speech” bandwagon…

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Many nonsensical things have been written about First Amendment rights since a completely obscure schleppe made an anti-Islam  Youtube video that sparked riots across the Islam world.

Salman Rushdie has come out on cue with a disappointing statement, and in “Does ‘Innocence of Muslims’ meet the free-speech test?Sarah Chayes at the Los Angeles Times discusses actions that might fall outside protected speech, arguing that First Amendment freedoms distinguish between speech that is simply offensive and speech that deliberately aims to put lives at immediate risk. She concludes:


“Finally, much 1st Amendment jurisprudence concerns speech explicitly advocating violence, such as calls to resist arrest, or videos explaining bomb-making techniques. But words don’t have to urge people to commit violence in order to be subject to limits, says [First Amendment authority Anthony] Lewis. ‘If the result is violence, and that violence was intended, then it meets the standard.’

“Indeed, Justice Holmes’ original example, shouting ‘fire’ in a theater, is not a call to arms. Steve Klein, an outspoken anti-Islamic activist who said he helped with the film, told Al Jazeera television that it was ‘supposed to be provocative.’ The egregiousness of its smears, the apparent deception of cast and crew as to its contents and the deliberate effort to raise its profile in the Arab world a week before 9/11 all suggest intentionality.

You can read the rest here – but don’t skip the comments.  Problem is, the vague wish to be  “provocative” doesn’t necessarily anticipate torched embassies, murdered people, and riots in 20-or-so nations.

For myself, I wish we were called upon more often to defend heroic, brilliant, artistically accomplished efforts at free speech, and less often called to defend idiotic, immature, and deliberately offensive expressions of free speech. But on the other hand, someone may find my statements fit into exactly that category.  In fact, I believe someone said so just the other day.

Hence, the most eminently sane comment came, as it often does, from my colleague medievalist Jeff Sypeck over at Quid Plura?  An excerpt:

… I wrote a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion—so even when the spotlight is on some inept, ne’er-do-well “filmmaker” and a loony pastor, I don’t find it hard to imagine myself in their shoes. As I wrote in 2010:“If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?”

Should that happen, I hope I won’t be condemned by diplomats, denounced by the Secretary of State, investigated by the Department of Justice, or blamed by the White House. I hope the government won’t ask publishers and distributors of my work to consider shutting me down. I hope my supporters won’t get phone calls from generals. I hope I won’t be encouraged to hide. I hope artists, writers, and scholars will realize it could be them next.

Read the whole thing here.  It’s short, readable, and to-the-point.

So who’s next?  Tom Lehrer’s tune from the 1960s was running through my head as I wrote… I checked it out on Youtube, and though it’s on a different subject entirely, what the hey…I include it for the fun of it…

Newspapers, advertisers, and book reviews – cont.

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

A few days ago, I posted about “The future of book reviewing and one cranky man.”

I wrote about the absurdity of newspapers expecting book review sections to be supported by advertising from the strapped book industry:  “Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.”

In the comments section, medievalist Jeff Sypeck asked:

Is there a reason newspaper executives have behaved as if the ads in a book-review section could only be for books and publishers and similar literary/cultural products? Is it a lack of demographic info about book buyers for the ad sales people to tout? The unwillingness of, say, tire manufacturers to advertise alongside reviews of novels? A belief that the book section ought to be free of commercialism? Mere tradition or habit?

Good question.

Frank Wilson at Books Inq. explained the simple demographics of newspaper advertising succinctly: “the point is that a book section would attract more readers to a newspaper – even a lot of people who watch baseball read – and the more readers you have, the more advertisers you get.”

Not a reader anyway

Literary people read lots of things besides great literature and book reviews – they’re more likely to read newspapers in general.  As Jeff has pointed out before, that’s a much better bet than trying to get stoners to read.  Said Frank:

Newspapers flap their wings hoping to attract young readers by reviewing pop music, but those (theoretical) young reader don’t care what newspapers think about what they’re listening to. I certainly didn’t care that the local pop music reviewers thought little of Elvis when I was in high school. I also wouldn’t have cared if they’d thought the world of him.

But the experience of listening to music is fundamentally different from the experience of reading. Readers want to know what others have to say about what they have read. It’s an extension of the reading experience. Reading about the music you have heard is not an extension of the listening experience.

Maybe if more newspaper executives did some reading of their own, they would understand.

More comments followed. Jeff again:

Your last point reminds me of how for more than 15 years, the Washington Post has been trying to lure young people with reviews of video games and hip-hop concerts, apparently misunderstanding how many outlets are already devoted to discussing those subjects with greater affection and thoroughness. Time has shown them to be unlikely and unsuccessful ways to lure new readers to old media.

More comments at Books, Inq. here.

The future of book reviewing and one cranky man…

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

By "Drew" at "Toothpaste for Dinner" blog

More lamentations on the demise of the book review industry – if it was ever an industry – and the elimination of free-lancers and staff at the once-great Los Angeles Times Book Review (I wrote about that here, and I wrote about the demise of the Washington Post Book World here).

Richard Rayner and Susan Salter Reynolds, evacuees from the L.A. Times Book Review debacle, have been absorbed by the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Once you step past the rubble, the smoking ruins,” Reynolds says, “you see that there are still places for book reviews that care more about readers and writers than bottom lines and bean counters, more about the future than fashion, more about the thrill of reading than the so-called death of the book. The Los Angeles Review of Books is such a place and I am delighted to be a part of it.”  One problem:  It doesn’t pay its contributors. Just like other online sites.

Their editor-in-chief Tom Lutz writes:

Book review supplements have been shuttered at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere, all for the same reason: the sections were not (and never had been) profit centers. Traditionally, of course, the editorial side of the paper dictated what to cover and the business side figured out how to pay for it. This allowed decisions about what was “fit to print” to operate independently from the courting of advertisers. Zell came to the Times vowing to break down what he called this “artificial wall” between editorial content and advertising sales, a misunderstanding of the most basic precept of ethical journalism. Worse yet, each section of the paper, it was decided, needed to make its own profit or die, like subsidiaries of a company. Since book advertising had never fully supported the Sunday supplements, they were preordained casualties.

Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.  It’s a shortsighted policy in any case.  As the ever-wise Jeff Sypeck commented on my earlier post about the L.A. Times:

“As I see it, one of the ironies here is that the paper is gutting the section that attracts obsessive readers–not just of book reviews, or books, but potentially the entire rest of the paper. (I’m reminded of your post from earlier this year about how one Washington Post blogger made fun of Donald Hall while the newspaper devoted virtually no coverage to the artists and writers who received the National Arts and Humanities Medals.) I often think that the final obituary for the newspaper business will conclude that, among other causes of death, they chased imaginary audiences of people who otherwise don’t really read instead of catering to the inquisitive, hard-core readers they already had.”

Much is made of how difficult it is to support oneself as a book reviewer.  Heavens,  I’m surprised that they even tried.  During my free-lance days, my book reviewing was my high-profile prestige work, a habit supported by magazine features that paid better.  As Edward Champion puts it so pointedly on the website Reluctant Habits:

"We'll be living in small ghettos..."

The dirty little secret is that freelancers get paid hardly anything. A fortuitous freelancer can count on a sum just under $200 if a review is commissioned by the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Philly Inquirer. But shouldn’t one expect more from three of the top 50 United States newspapers? If we translate that $200 into labor — let’s say that it takes about fifteen hours to read a book and five hours to write the review — the freelancer basically earns around $10/hour before paying taxes. You could probably make more money working at a touchless car wash. Small wonder that so many, including yours truly, have dropped out of this dubious racket, leaving it to increasingly sour practitioners. Book reviewing has reached a point where those who are left practically have to beg editors to get into a slot. And if book reviewing has become a vocation in which veteran and novice alike must debase themselves for scraps, one must legitimately ask if there’s any real point in such an uncivilized and undercompensated trade carrying on.

A few years ago I asked Adam Zagajewski about the future of poetry poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites – but his words might apply to book lovers as well:

“We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

On a less cerebral note, Harlan Ellison rants on youtube about the about the unpaid labors of writers.  It’s been viewed more than half a million times:

The most beautiful words in the English language. And the nominations are…

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

For Frank in Philly.

“I’ve always been fond of lavender,” said Frank Wilson of Books Inq.  That was his nomination for the most beautiful word in the English language.  (Earlier nominations here.)

Others chimed in on my Facebook page:

Agustín Maes voted for murmur, also, florid.

Artur Sebastian Rosman was full of ideas:  noctilucent, donut, iris.  Donut? Doesn’t he mean doughnuts, at least?  (Artur, get something to eat.)  He also favored  “TSE words like chthonic.”  TSE is T.S. Eliot – of haruspicate fame (which always sounds like a man clearing his throat, not prophesying). “Filiation is also a lovely word,” Artur added.

“My favorite word of all time and by far the liveliest in any language is…. vivificantem.”  Well, as he noticed, that’s not really English; it’s Latin.  So it shouldn’t count.

Marianne Bacon quarreled with Deshoda, the blog that started the contest:  “I think that list on Deshoda (whatever that is) is a bit silly. How about Chestertonian words, or Jack Lewis words- like woodsmoke, or pipe, or fireplace, or snow, or Christmas, or pudding, or child. Or elf, or lamppost, or courage.”  But the contest isn’t for words with pleasant context or associations, but beautiful sounds.   “OK, inglenook.”  I thought, at first she meant the wine – but no, inglenook is “a chimney corner, is a small recess that adjoins a fireplace.”

Jim Erwin wrote: “prestidigitation and Terpsichore are good examples of fingerpoia and feetpoia.”  Wait a minute, he made those last two up.

Daniel Rifenburgh made half a nomination – Sussurus

From Edward Haven yielded to my entreaties: “I’ve started to like Giraffe, but I have to agree nothing compares to authenticity.”  A son after my own heart.


Erën Goknar is “SO glad you mentioned the much-maligned [Edgar Allan] Poe and his bells!”

Finally, Sarang in my comments section offered “a little stream-of-consciousness: myrtle [in my fancy a portmanteau of myrrh, squirt, and turtle], scavenger, flounder, interred, fever, recalcitrant, splay, stray, splatter, vespers, pageant, expunge, effulgent, excrescence, gun, cleave, hew.”

Jeff Sypeck favored shorter-is-better:

My first impulse is to go with big, fun-to-say words like tatterdemalion, but I don’t think many of our little Anglo-Saxon words get enough credit for euphony: Read. Comb. Sleep. Yore. Soft little words can be beautiful, too!

Postscript on 7/15: A few more suggestions –

Joe Loya: Efficacious; ventriloquy; or supple. I love the way they look, sound, and their flexibility in application.

Another one from Artur Sebastian Rosman: Reconciliation is overused and under-practiced, but what a beautiful word.

And a few late nominees from Patrick Kurp incarnadine, philtrum, wan, atrorubent, flange .