At Sea in 1949

Boats and Fish Seen By Me at the Age of Four

It’s in execrable shape—but then, so am I—but here is a pencil drawing I made at the age of four. It is inscribed by my mother in Hungarian “Jimmy drew this in March 1949.” It displays an attention to detail surprising for a little boy who did not have access to television and who did not know a word of English. All I had were the stories my mother told me. Interestingly, she made them up herself most of the time. A lot of them involved fairy princesses and dark forests.

Then, too, there were the stories she read to me from library books. We would go together to the public library near Harvey Rice School (where I would go for kindergarten and half of first grade) and pick them out, mostly based on the pictures in them. My mother knew English: she was born in Cleveland, but taken back to Hungary to be raised. She would meticulously translate the selected stories from English to my little-boy Magyar tongue. (Magyar means Hungarian in the Hungarian language.)

At the time, we were living at 2814 East 120th Street in the Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland. For several blocks around, one could be born, live, and die without knowing a word of English. Not any more, of course. Eventually all the Hungarians moved out and it became a black ghetto. We moved out, too, in 1951, shortly after my brother was born.

Lament of the Blind Librarian

Though he lost the use of his eyes in the 1950s, Jorge Luis Borges was appointed to head the National Library of Argentina. He was the second blind librarian there, the first being Paul Groussac. Borges works on the theme of his blindness and Groussac’s in the following poem:

Poem of the Gifts

No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.

Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver

to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on these same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.

From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),
a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.
Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,
high and profound, of this blind library.

Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,
encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,
symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies
are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.

In shadow, with a tentative stick, I try
the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—
I, who had always thought of Paradise
in form and image as a library.

Something, which certainly is not defined
by the word fate, arranges all these things;
another man was given, on other evenings
now gone, these many books. He too was blind.

Wandering through the gradual galleries,
I often feel with vague and holy dread
I am that other dead one, who attempted
the same uncertain steps on similar days.

Which of the two is setting down this poem—
a single sightless self, a plural I?
What can it matter, then, the name that names me,
given our curse is common and the same?

Groussac or Borges, now I look upon
this dear world losing shape, fading away
into a pale uncertain ashy-gray
that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.

10 Years Ago…

Sarah Silverman at the L.A. Festival of Books April 2010

One of the events I miss the most during this grey endless quarantine is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, particularly when it was held at the nearby UCLA Campus. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind going again to the USC Campus, where it’s always considerably warmer than Westwood.

I always liked Sarah Silverman’s comedy. I even thought she was pretty sexy—as well as uproariously funny.

Of course, now we all have to stay away from one another because of this ghastly coronavirus outbreak, which seems to be getting worse all the time. With luck, I will survive a couple of years of a monastic existence; but in going back over old photographs, I deeply miss events like the Festival of Books.

I even miss going to the library and walking through the stacks looking for books to read.

Eventually, the world will open up again. But I will have wasted two whole years in disgruntled loneliness.

Fanatical About Libraries

The LA Central Library Flower Street Entrance

I have always depended on public libraries for much of my reading material. When I lived on the East Side of Cleveland, I went to the Cleveland Public Library branch on Lee Road, where a fellow Hungarian, Mr. Matyi, was the librarian. He also played the oboe for the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra.

They had a summer reading program in which I participated for so many years that they had to invent a participation certificate at my advanced level. (I wish I still had them.)

Even then, I also visited the main library on Superior Avenue in downtown Cleveland:

It was really quite beautiful, being funded by Andrew Carnegie’s vast fortune. (Can you imagine a modern billionaire doing something like that?)

When I came out West, I started by going to the main library in Santa Monica at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 6th Street:

Although it was fairly large with two stories full of books, I actually outgrew it. I found that they got rid of too many of their classical titles, replacing them with more recent … well … dreck.

I was elated with the Expo Line connecting Santa Monica to Downtown LA opened in May 2016. At once, I signed up for a senior pass which enabled me to go from the Bundy Station (about a mile south of I lived) to the 7th Street Metro Center, which was three blocks south of the Los Angeles Central Library—for a mere 50¢.

Even with the library building being closed due to the coronavirus, the LA Library has started a “Library to Go” program which enabled me to put a hold on the books I want to read. Within a few days, I get an e-mail saying they are holding them for me, and I just take the train downtown to pick them up.

Over the last week I have been busy reading these three books:

  • Kōbō Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4, a 1958 sci-fi novel about global warming
  • Ivan Klíma’s Waiting for the Darkness, Waiting for the Light, about Czechoslovakia’s rocky path from Communism to Capitalism
  • Tim Butcher’s Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, about an English writer who re-traces Henry M. Stanley’s journey along the length of the Congo River in the 1870s.

The Digital Divide

With Every New Technology, There Is a Die-Off

With Every New Technology, There Is a Massive Die-Off

Little by little, I am becoming aware of a tendency in our culture to downplay everything that is before the Internet. Wikipedia and Google are so convenient that we tend to ignore older sources of knowledge. And now that libraries are trashing many of their old books and periodicals and replacing them with computers, there is a real danger that many of the old sources that used to pass for knowledge are slowly disappearing.

For example, I have many books that pre-date the ISBN code. When I read one of them, I have some difficulty describing the book to GoodReads.Com because the likelihood is that there is no reference to the edition I have. And when I try to sell the books on Half.Com (which is owned by eBay), I can’t enter the book because it lacks the ISBN code used to identify the edition. It’s actually keeping me from reading my essays by Sainte-Beuve or many of the hundreds of Oxford World Classics I own in hardbound. Ever since I got in the habit of reviewing everything I read, I tend to hesitate with some of my older editions. Just in front of me, for example,  is a 1926 Alfred A. Knopf edition of Arthur Machen’s The Canning Wonder. I could review the book on Goodreads only if I answer a questionnaire about the edition. If I wanted to sell it on Half.Com, I’d be out of luck.

Most at risk is the history of our civilization based on original archival materials that date back to the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the Europeans are willing to spend the money (in most cases) to protect their history. But what about the Americans? All it would take is for some idiot like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul to sniff at supporting libraries, and millions of words of our country’s history would go by the wayside.

But what about Google Books, you might ask? It is a noble effort, but only a small percentage of old books have been scanned. I collect the works of Sir Richard F. Burton (no relation to the actor). He’s not exactly a popular item, but he is one of the most exciting explorers and travelers of the Nineteenth Century. I can find Burton’s Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, but only Volume I has been scanned. The same is true for his Exploration of the Highlands of Brazil. Oh, the books will still be around, but they will be fabulously expensive. (On the other hand, I have been able to find some Burton titles on Gutenberg.Com that I could never afford to buy in print—so the argument cuts both ways.)