Books

The pen has been in their hands

“Men have had every advantage of us [women] in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

“But how shall we prove any thing?”

“We never shall. We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle…”

—Jane Austen, Persuasion

But aren’t all great quests folly?

“But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos—we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us. Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple short car rides and regional jet lags—four states and twelve hundred miles traversed in an afternoon—but true quests aren’t measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant—sail for Asia and stumble on America—and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.”

—Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Just the contrary to human beings

“The truth is that he wanted to draw a little comfort from gazing at the stars. There were still one or two up there, at the zenith. As always, seeing them revived him; they were distant, they were omnipotent, and at the same time they were docile to his calculations; just the contrary to human beings, always too near, so weak and yet so quarrelsome.”

—Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Our stories go in every direction

“Imagine truth as a chain of great mountains, their tops way up in the clouds. Writers explore these truths, always looking out for new paths up these peaks.”

“So the stories are paths?” Pasquale asked.

“No,” Alvis said. “Stories are bulls. Writers come of age full of vigor, and they feel the need to drive the old stories from the herd. One bull rules the herd awhile but then loses his vigor and the young bulls take over.”

“Stories are bulls?”

“Nope.” Alvis Bender took a drink. “Stories are nations, empires. They can last as long as ancient Rome or as short as the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. Governments change, trends rise, and they go on conquering their neighbors. Like the Roman Empire, the epic poem stretched for centuries, as far as the world. The novel rose with the British Empire, but wait… what is that rising in America? Film?”

Pasquale grinned. “And if I ask if stories are empires, you’ll say—”

“Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story… your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.”

—Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

The journalist’s vice

“I looked for the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths passed by, I hope some significant small ones got caught. If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger. It is, I think, the journalist’s vice to believe that all history can instantly be reduced to experience: (‘Pierre, an out-of-work pipe fitter in the suburb of Boulougne, is typical of the new class of chômeurs…’) just as it is the scholar’s vice to believe that all experience can be reduced to history (‘The new world capitalist order produced a new class of chômeurs, of whom Pierre, a pipe fitter, was a typical case…’). … The essayist dreams of being a prism, through which other light passes, and fears ending up merely as a mirror, showing the same old face. He has only his Self to show and only himself to blame if it doesn’t show up well.”

—Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon

Great discoveries

“According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 2640 B.C., Princess Si Ling-chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup. When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid. She handed the loose end to her maidservant and told her to walk. The servant went out of the princess’s chamber, and into the palace courtyard, and through the palace gates, and out of the Forbidden City, and into the countryside a half mile away before the cocoon ran out. (In the West, this legend would slowly mutate over three millennia, until it became the story of a physicist and an apple. Either way, the meanings are the same: great discoveries, whether of silk or of gravity, are always windfalls. They happen to people loafing under trees.)”

—Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Or so we are told

“The dog was hoping to induct the man into a taste for superfluous activity, to inculcate in him some part of his own energy; the man could have wished that the animal, by virtue of being loved, might appreciate if not abstract speculation, at least the pleasure of tasteful, gentlemanly idleness; neither of them, of course, achieved anything, but they were content nonetheless because happiness consists in seeking for an end in view rather than in attaining it; or so we are told.”

—Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Beween the real and the pretended

“The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy’s first aim was to defeat herself… The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul. In a few moments, Lucy was equipped for battle.”

—E.M. Forster, A Room With a View