Wednesday, December 21, 2011


By all accounts (or most accounts), he was a bastard. An intellectual assailant; a pompous, backstabbing, turncoat with a tremendous vocabulary and a dogged allegiance to writing. That last aspect, the commitment to language and the written word, redeems him partly, in some eyes.

Listening to him read his memoir, Hitch-22, is a pleasure. Listening to his various debates with fundamentalist Christians and other religious charlatans is always amusing, even if he's taken to task by Chris Hedges for his louche behavior when the two met to debate religion. Hedges' critiques and grudging praise seem worthy and apt.

There is no love lost, nor respect either, between Alexander Cockburn and Hitchens. Once fellow columnists at The Nation during the 1980s, Cockburn's  piece at Counterpunch  rings with disdain. Even the title of the piece is dismissive, failing, as it does, to accord the man his name:  Farewell to H.C. No grudging praise to be found there.

Yet still. Hitchens was a lion of sorts, a public intellectual who was often brazenly and refreshingly candid. Even when misguided or, as with his support of George H. Bush and the invasion of Iraq, inexcusable. Mavericks are rarely likable through and through.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Adieu, Mr. Whitman

George Whitman, bookseller extraordinaire, friend of writers and travelers, mischievous raconteur, proprietor of the iconic Shakespeare & Co. in Paris (so named in honor of Sylvia Beach's original Parisian bookshop), has passed on.

Many Parisian travelers, writers, artists, wayfarers have personal anecdotes of their encounters with George Whitman. As do I.

In 1990, my traveling companion and I found ourselves in a Paris we couldn't afford and were on the cusp of having to abandon the city. A friend of mine had told us before going that sometimes the Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore put people up for free. Being a bookseller myself at the time, we thought it was worth a shot.

                                                       Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

The unmistakable George Whitman sat behind a cluttered desk in an entire room of cluttered bookshelves. I approached him.

"Hello," I said, "I was told that sometimes travelers could stay here and I was wondering ...."

"NO!" he shouted before I could even finish my sentence. "That's a lie! You can't stay here!"

I was so taken aback, I didn't argue and instead just turned away. So much for that idea, I thought.

But being in such a jumbled, ramshackle bookshop had its charm and my companion and I stayed and browsed, fading into the background chaos of the towering stacks, the stacked pillars of books, the jumbled variety of printed matter. This was a serious bookstore, there were no postcards or souvenir Eiffel Towers or T shirts for sale.

I've been a collector of Beat Generation literature since I was a young man and so always look for works by the Beat writers, the famous - Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Burroughs; the not as famous - John Wieners, Lew Welch, Philip Lamantia; and those on the periphery of Beat - Brautigan, Rexroth, Kesey, etc. That day, in Shakespeare & Co., in a box of broadsides and various pamphlets and small press publications, I came upon a stapled edition of poems by Jack Hirschman, one of those peripheral Beats whose actual work I didn't much know but whose name I did. I've forgotten what small edition it was, some chapbook, but it did not have a price in it and I knew that I didn't already own it so I thought if they didn't want too much for it, I'd buy it.

I took it over the George Whitman. "How much do you want for this?" I asked, and handed it to him.

He looked at it. "Hirschman?" he said, "you know Hirschman?"

Without another word, he opened the top drawer of the desk, took out a key on a brass key chain, and handed it to me.

"The key is to the small library, top of the stairs, 1st floor, to the right. You can stay there. See me after you get settled, you'll have to cover the desk while I go out later."

Just like that.

For three days, my companion and I slept in a tiny narrow bed in the "library," a room packed floor to ceiling with not-for-sale books, mostly first editions of the greats - Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, Baldwin, Burroughs, Miller, Nin, Stein. It was like sleeping in a rare book vault. And it was free - excepting the few hours I sat behind the desk and did what came naturally at the time, selling books.

For George Whitman's generosity and his tireless encouragement of literature and the avant-garde (even in the smallest gestures such as rewarding my interest in a writer he, George, deemed worthy, by helping me and my friend), I will always be grateful.

Out the small window of our room we could look down on the sidewalk in front of the shop and the Seine and, to the right, the weighty face of Notre Dame. I will never know Paris again as I knew it then, in 1990, sheltered under the creaking eaves of George Whitman's book palace and writers' refuge, the magnificent Shakespeare & Co.

Adieu, Mr. Whitman, and merci beaucoup.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rare Howl Discovered

It's not often that a rare howl is heard or a rare Howl discovered, but ... so one has been. An extraordinary surfacing at the Rauner Library of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire - a copy of the mimeographed true first edition (of 25 purportedly produced) that Ginsberg sent to Richard Eberhart, fellow poet (and, at the time, soon to be chronicler of the San Francisco Poetry scene 1956).

Read this extraordinary account of its discovery at the Rauner Library Blog.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Infinite Vocab 101

There are a lot of amazing and interesting words in Infinite Jest. I wrote down a bunch of the ones I didn't know. Not every one, of course. I skipped all of the anatomical & pharmaceutical terms and there were times when I just didn't bother. IJ is big enough for that: for weeks you can read through thickets of pages and not write a word down, and then more weeks come and more huge chunks of pages and you find yourself jotting down every wild word you've never before seen and underlining sentences and whole chunks of prose that surge like tides and resonate and enthrall like 4th of July sparklers and meat on a grill.

enfilade – 13                   fitviavi - footnote 56, 996     
magisculed – 24                 ephebic - 170                  
anfractuous – 39                fricatives - 174
phylacteryish – 47              formication - 177
pargeted – 51                   sephenoid - 182
nystagmus – footnote 5A, 983    callosum - 182      
apocopes – 57                   laryngeally - 182
synclinal – 75                  treillage - 185
leptosomatic – 79               rostral - 185
calliopsis – 80                 lamina - 185
quincunx – 80                   piameter - 186
aleatory – 82                   sulci - 186
candidiatic – 87                chiasmae - 186
pedentive – 91                  oblongata - 186
pedalferrous – 93               meatus - 186
gibbous – 109                   triviumoid - 188
guilloche – 120                 papuled - 190
apercu – 121                    aminating - 195
osseously – 122                 gonfalonish - 208
eidetic – 127                   mucronate - 208
amines – 142                    tumbrel - 225
putative – 142                  wopsed-up - 234
erumpent – 155                  afflated - 235
parping – 159                   squunches - 236
rutilant – 159                  strettoing - 240
narcelle – 170                  acclivated – 241
apotropiac – 243                     ascapartic – footnote 110, 1016
lacuna – 245                    falcate - footnote 110, 1019
coccyges – 257                  bradyauxetic - 313
egregulous – 272                     ablated - 316
mokus – 273                     venulated - 362
Spont-Dissem – 274              cunctations - 368
nystagmic – 281                 arachnodactylic - 376
deafflatusized – 284            mucronate - 376
lordotic – footnote 98, 1003       chyme - 379
felo de se – 286                     aigrette - 380
strabismic – 289                     agnation - 382
ascapartic – 290                     adipose - 383
elisions – 290                  fulgurant - 387
apical – 290                    glabrous - 388
attar – 290                     carie - 410
auracopia – 298                 mafficking - 429
habiliments – 301               cuirass - 431
formicating – 304               dewimpled - 437
bilirubin – 304                 cognomen - 448
candent – 306                   nacreous - 455
quadrivial – 306                misprision - 465
wimples – 310                   ablative - 470
convolved – 310                 mysticetously - 476
xerophagy – footnote 110, 1006  propinquous – 479
anechoic – 503                  phocomelic – 901
coprolaliac – 621               achondroplastic - 901
mobiusizing – 622               entr’actes - 933
saltire – 632                   sinciput - 950
anaclitic – footnote 269, 1048       finial - 950
furcated - footnote 269, 1051        guilloche - 952
deuteragonist – 688                  kyphotic - 953
restenotic – 752                     ciquatoxic - 967
gonions - footnote 324, 1067         fuliginous - 971
colposcope - footnote 324, 1070      
lalating – 788
malcathected – 791
Hal Brushed
actaeonizing – 793
nictitater - footnote 332, 1074
shunpike – 796
quoins – 797
diglobular – 801
inguinal – 803
strigil – 832
anhedonia – 839
skirling – 866
parotitic – 871
ebubblient – 893